Distance: 100-mile loop
Elevation gain: 10,570 ft (RWGPS)
(A Best of the Best ride)
This one is special. It’s almost unknown, so you feel privileged and in on something, and the isolation is nearly absolute. I found out about it in the best possible way: a friend told me about his favorite, secret ride. It starts and ends in Etna, a tiny town with vitality, charm, cheap lodging, and its own excellent brewery. The roads are mostly tiny and deserted—on the return leg of the loop, I rode for two hours before I saw a vehicle. Yet the road surface is very good. (I don’t know why—no car ever uses it.) The scenery is grand California mountain primeval. One of the 10 best rides in California, without a doubt. The logistics are tricky, because services are sparse—for more on that, see Route Options later.
(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.)
You can ride the loop in either direction—the only difference is that in one direction the big climb is relatively moderate in pitch (up to 10%) and in the other it’s much harder (up to 14%). I’ve mapped it counterclockwise, to avoid the killer hill.
Leave Etna on Sawyer’s Bar Rd. and ride to Forks of Salmon. You’ll do a pretty big climb on a pretty straight road, but past the summit the road gets smaller, prettier, and windier and stays that way. The drop down the back side touches 18%, so if you love steep climbs you’ll want to ride the loop in the other direction. At Forks of Salmon (just an intersection—no services), turn left and take Cecilville Rd. to Callahan.
The return ride repeats the profile of the ride out in reverse—gradual climbing on a winding, very narrow road through a dramatic river canyon, ending in a long, moderate climb to the top of the ridge, then a long fast descent to Scott Valley. You come out in Callahan, not quite a ghost town—it has a functioning mercantile for resupply (or did when I was there) and a hotel I don’t think is in operation.
Leaving Callahan, don’t take the big straight highway back to Etna—take the back road, East Callahan Rd., paralleling the highway north. Take the Horn Lane connector L to return to Etna. East Callahan Rd. is a moderately interesting, rolling road just up the sidehill from the flat valley, but it’s not in the same class as the rest of the ride, and I only include it because you have to get back to our car. it’s shadeless, so it can get brutally hot on summer afternoons. If someone can pick you up in Callahan, so much the better.
Route Options: This ride is a long, hard day—100 miles, 10,000 ft of climbing. There is no lodging on the route, and there is water/food only at Cecilville (where there’s a little store, with a wonderful cooler of soft drinks sold on the honor system even when the store is closed), Callahan (a very small town), and Etna. All of which means, if you ride the route you have to get from Etna to Cecilville self-supported. Even houses are very rare out here. One solution is to do the ride in two days—either ride loaded or talk someone into sagging the ride for you—and camping near Forks of Salmon. There are creekside campgrounds in the first miles of Cecilville Rd. The campground I prefer is oddly named Hotelling. It’s tiny and sits by a beautiful swimming hole if you’re late enough in the year for the water to be warm (well, warm enough). Another alternative is to do the Forks of Salmon Century, about which I know next to nothing, which is sagged but which seems to start in Forks of Salmon.
In an emergency, there’s a resort just off the route, a couple of miles northwest of Forks of Salmon on Salmon River Rd., the Otter Bar Lodge. It’s a kayak school, and officially it doesn’t cater to other guests, but I asked and they told me they put up cyclists occasionally, if they aren’t full up. The only sign from the road is a large mailbox reading “Otter Bar” and a dirt road, but you notice the buildings deep in the trees on the river side.
This ride might be the one that inspires you to invest in a water filter.
Paul, in the comments below, points out that these re-provisioning problems can be solved by starting the loop at the western end, at Forks of Salmon, which puts Callahan and Etna at the halfway point.
See Brian Green’s excellent summary of re-provisioning and watering options on the route in the comments below.
Adding miles: The region surrounding the Marble Mountains is one of the best road riding regions on the West Coast. This is only one of many excellent rides in the area. For a review of the possibilities, see the Adding Miles section of the Scott River Road ride.