(Note 9/21: The Dixie Fire in the summer of 2021 devastated the area north of Chester. Expect areas of total vegetation loss on these rides. JR)
There are three similar roads that run due north from Chester. They’re all short—in each case after 6-13 miles the road turns to gravel. They’re all fairly easy steady ups, featuring mellow climbing through unspectacular generic regional conifer forest. They all have major road surface problems. These are definitely “best in the area” rides—not great, but worth doing if you’re at Lake Almanor and want to ride. I can’t honestly say any one of the three is the right one, so I’ll list their differences and let you decide:
Warner Valley Road is the longest, biggest, widest, busiest, and easiest, and it has the only vista—a nice shot of Mt. Lassen in the distance.
Juniper Lake Road is the steepest and curviest (and thus has the most thrilling descent).
Both WVR and JLR are plagued by paved-over tree roots and frost heaves that make the road surface often wavy. Both roads are pretty densely sprinkled with summer cabins.
Road 10 (that’s its only name) is the narrowest and the smoothest, and it has the longest, most extended descent. It’s by far the most undeveloped and isolated. Do this one if you like narrow roads and solitude.
WVR and JLR touch, so combining them into one ride is a natural. Combining either with Road 10 would require riding an easy 5 miles through some beautiful, interesting north Lake Almanor shoreline.
Warner Valley Road
Distance: 26 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 1100 ft
(To see an interactive version of the map/elevation profile, click on the ride name, upper left, wait for the new map to load, then click on the “full screen” icon, upper right.)
Ride out of Chester on Feather River Drive (toward the east end of town), which at first looks like an ordinary small-town residential street. In .7 miles you hit a Y, where the main road goes L to Drakesbad and the secondary road goes R to Juniper Lake. There are no road-name signs, here or anywhere on our route, but all intersections are clearly marked by destination signs. You’re going L, to Drakesbad, which is a resort at the end of Warner Valley Rd. Somewhere the road gets renamed Warner Valley Rd. (aka Chester Warner Valley Rd.), but since there are no road-name signs you don’t care.
The road stays big, smooth, and wide until you hit a second Y. Here you leave the smooth main road and take a distinctly smaller road to the R (again, signed “Drakesbad”). This road is less trafficked, more intimate, and rougher. Ride until the road turns to dirt, at which point you turn around.
Lots of riders turn around a bit before the dirt, at an unmissable spot where there are remnants of an old ranch, a large dirt turn-out, the ride’s one break in the trees, and a nice view of Lassen Peak, all on your left (see photo). It seems an appropriate turn-around spot, since it’s the scenic high point of the ride. The ride back is a gentle, unthreatening descent.
Juniper Lake Road
Distance: 13.5 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 1110 ft
Juniper Lake Road forks off Warner Valley Road .7 miles after you leave Chester. It’s much like WVR, but shorter and a touch steeper and a good bit more exhilarating on the descent. It shares WVR’s frost heaves and roots.
Distance: 36 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 1550 ft
Drive or ride 5 miles east out of Chester on Hwy 36. You’ll ride on a causeway crossing an inlet of Lake Almanor and its surrounding wetlands, a beautiful and ecologically interesting area. Look for grebes nesting in the lake waters on your R in the summer—the nests are prominent. Chester has a Grebe Festival to celebrate them. The last time I was there I also saw white pelicans, seagulls, curlews, Canada geese, blue herons, snowy egrets, kingfishers, and pintails.
Turn L on the first real road that goes L. It’s essentially nameless—a small sign reads “County Road 322,” but more visible is the sign reading “A13” on the road on the opposite side of 36. Park in the gigantic Chester-Lake Almanor Snowmobile Park parking lot on the immediate R of 322. There’s a good bathroom and a large map of the area at the parking lot.
Ride down 322 150 yards to a T. To the R is New Chester Dump Road, typically gated (and unsigned, though a sign does say “Green Waste Disposal”). Go L and then R at the first fork. This is Road 10, though you’ll have to ride a bit before it is so marked. Stay on it for 10 miles, at which point it turns to gravel; return.
There is nothing up this road except dirt roads leading to remote lakes and wilderness areas, so you should have the place to yourself. On a lovely summer Sunday morning I saw two vehicles in 20 miles. The silence was intense. I saw not a single house, cabin, farm, mailbox, or fence, but several deer. The only sign that anyone has been there are several small clear-cut logging operations set back from the road, a small damper on your visual tranquility.
The ride is a steady climb, at a pitch varying from easy to mild moderate, over pavement that is surprisingly good, for 8.3 miles. 1.7 miles from the turn-around, gravel sections start appearing, and the road becomes steadily more gravel and less pavement until finally the pavement ends. Turn around any time the gravel sections cease to be fun—it’s only going to get worse. By the end, you’re riding 50 ft of pavement, then 50 ft of gravel, over and over, but it’s all easily doable on 23 mm tires.
The ride back is a moderately fast, fairly straight, relaxing descent. You’ll end with a few miles of brisk, 25-30-mph straight-line descending—not breath-taking but lots of fun.
Adding miles: The loop around Lake Almanor is the default ride in the area, and it’s nice without being remarkable anywhere—I obviously prefer the rides in this post. If you do ride around the lake, be sure to include Almanor Drive West, a charming alternative to a deadly boring stretch of Hwy 89. Parallel to Almanor Drive West is a small, sweet, twisting bike path more suited to mountain bikes than drop handlebars. You’re a short car trip or a moderate ride from our Indian Valley ride. You’re 20-25 miles down the road from the Lassen National Park and Mill Creek Road rides.
When you’re at the second Y on Warner Valley Rd, the fork to the L (Old Red Bluff Road, unsigned), looks very inviting, but it turns to dirt soon after.
Afterthoughts: Chester is the home base of Bodfish, a legend in California riding. His bike shop is on Main Street on the lake side in the old part of town. He’s happy to advise about routes, paved and dirt, and he has a free map of road and MTB rides in the area.
If you’re staying in Chester, I recommend the Bidwell House, a friendly, charming B and B that is the beautiful old summer vacation home of California’s historical titan John Bidwell. And it’s a bargain, especially if you ask for one of the two small, quirky rooms.