Forks of Salmon

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.


Early morning, leaving Forks of Salmon

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.

CIMG9884Adding 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.

10 thoughts on “Forks of Salmon

  1. chicodavidrn

    Great description. Another nice ride in a remote area – somewhat south of there – is the road from Hayfork to Hyampom. I think it’s just called the Hyampom Rd. I don’t have precise data on it, but it’s around 20 miles one way and would have to be done as an out and back unless you were prepared to ride off pavement. At the west end of the town of Hayfork (various services available) Hwy 3 takes a fairly sharp turn and the road takes off right there. It would be easy to park nearby. Pretty sure it’s signed to Hyampom. There’s about a mile at the beginning through houses, then it comes out into countryside where it rolls gently for several miles. You’re following the north side of Hayfork Creek along here. Eventually it crosses the creek and shortly after that begins a sustained climb (maybe 2 miles?) followed by an equal descent and more rollers before Hyampom. Good surface, very light traffic. There has been an ongoing project to re-pave and improve the road over the last few years and that has sometimes resulted in closures of several hours – so it might be worth checking on that if you are going there just to ride it. The first time I rode it I saw a bear at the creek crossing. Once you get to Hyampom, the road forks and you can do a little riding around for short distances to explore the area. There is at least one small store and a couple of bar/restaurants. You won’t see this from the road, but folks who know tell me that marijuana is the main economic activity in Hyampom area – which seems highly plausible. There are also a couple of wineries – but not with open tasting that I know of. And, if the weather is warm, Hyampom is where Hayfork creek enters the South Fork of the Trinity. If you cross the bridge over the Trinity and take the first left it leads shortly to an informal parking area where swimming holes can be found.

  2. Rhonda

    I’m a local. Logging trucks also use this road sometimes, which seems almost unbelievable at spots but I can guarantee that they do.

  3. mark bloom

    The clockwise version, doing the Etna-Callahan part first and finishing with the epic Mt. Etna climb, is harder but much better than the other way. There is water at the ranger station in Sawyer’s Bar, and drinkable, delicious water in the spring/early summer from the cistern at the left side of the road just before you start the final big climb. Make sure to stop there, have a good drink, and say a prayer before you start the four miles of 12%+ climbing!

  4. Mark Edwards

    Hi Jay
    My wife and I rode the Forks of Salmon loop out of Fort Jones two days ago (6-16-2019). A couple of notes that will help anyone in the future riding this amazing ride. We left Fort Jones at 6.30am temps were cool. Two water bottles got us as far as Cecilville. Here you will find the Cecilville Saloon They are only open a few days a week but even if closed they have a cooler stocked with drinks on the patio, help yourself and leave cash (honor system) They were open when we passed through and welcomed us with ice cold water. For us that stop was at mile 69. Next stop was at mile 99 after the 17 mile climb and descent in to Callahan. When you hit Hwy3 turn right and you will find the Callahan Emporium they have a store and bar open 7 days a week. We filled our water bottles and finished our ride 22 miles back to Fort Jones. Total miles 122 ride time 8 hours The two stops make this amazing ride doable unsupported.

    Thanks for the great website.

  5. Brian Green

    I tackled this epic ride on 6/21/19 and it is the most beautiful and fun ride I have ever done. The remoteness only adds to its appeal. Below are a few notes for those researching this ride:

    1. I spent the night at Hotelling Campground (4 sites, pit toliet, free) and found it to be a great base camp for doing the ride in one day (I did the clockwise route). The easily accessible swimming hole is the perfect way to end the day.
    2. Leaving from Forks of Salmon allows you to line up water refills at the below spots:
    a. Forest Fire Station in Sawyers Bar — there is a faucet in the front yard behind the wooden fence (this is about 5 miles from the base of the Mt Etna climb)
    b. There is water coming from a spring part way up the Mt Etna climb (look for a water collection box) — it’s right before the 5000 ft signpost where the road officially becomes two lanes
    c. Multiple options in Etna, but the most convenient is the Shell gas station off Hwy 3 (there is a faucet next to the front door)
    d. Callahan Emporium offers a full convenience store (and bar if you’re so inclined) before the Cecilville climb
    e. Cecilville Bar/Store — The hours are unpredictable, but there is a well stocked refrigerated case on the front patio that is unlocked and uses the honor system (bring cash). Energy/candy bars are a part of the assortment as well.
    3. An employee at Otter Bar kayaking school mentioned that he frequently drinks from the small high mountain creeks and has never had any health problems. I never had to resort to that, but wouldn’t have hesitated to do so.
    4. My Garmin registered 10,500 feet of climbing over 102 miles — definitely a hard day, but very doable so long as you pace yourself.
    5. I strongly advise having both a front and rear light on your bike. Many of the roads are single lane and you will likely encounter a few cars/trucks on the route.
    6. The roads are in remarkably good shape though there are some areas where rock falls are inevitable — just be aware on the descents.
    7. East Callahan Road was more enjoyable than I expected. I think riding it southbound is easier (especially with the typical north wind helping). The views are great and it’s a nice respite from the climbing/descending.

    I warmed up the day before the ride by doing a ride leaving Forks of Salmon and riding Ishi Pishi Road in Orleans — it’s about a 50 mile loop and stunningly beautiful (especially the part along Salmon River Road). Ishi Pishi is a great climb and descent and well worth the effort.

  6. Brian Green

    This ride is amazing and I’d highly recommend it to anyone interested in an epic loop with a true feeling of remoteness. It does help to do a little planning ahead of time as resupply options are few and far between (but very doable). I started the ride at Forks of Salmon (stayed at the Hotelling Campground) and rode the clockwise loop. (1)There is an old fashioned faucet in the town of Sawyers Bar (next to the forest fire fighters resident building – look for a wooden fence right next to the road. The faucet stands alone in a well-kept grassy patch on the other side of the fence). (2)There is water coming from a spring part way up the climb – look for a water collection box on your left before you get to the 2-lane section of Mt Etna. (3) Next up is the gas station in Etna on Hwy 3 – there is a faucet on the outside wall if you don’t want to go inside. (4) The Callahan Emporium has a full convenience store at the intersection of Hwy 3 and Cecilville Rd. (5) Lastly, there is a gas station/bar in Cecilville that uses an honor system refrigerated case with a surprisingly wide selection of food/drinks.
    I think using Forks of Salmon as a base camp is ideal as it allows for a beautiful camping experience and opens up the option of another great ride that heads west along along Salmon River Road to the “town” of Somes Bar where one can ride Ishi Pishi Rd along the Klamath River.

  7. Connor Zabrocki

    Wow! Incredible ride. Beautiful mountain scenery with mostly river riding. The descent into Sawyer’s Bar might be my all time favorite. Fast, steep, and empty of cars (midweek came across just one car on the descent).

    Definitely take a lot of water/snacks as there is no resupply until Cecilville and Callahan. There’s plenty of turnouts and campsites throughout if one wanted to stay and explore the area more. The roads still have a good surface. The shop in Cecilville was temporarily closed but there is a honor system fridge on the porch with water, gatorade, energy drinks and light snacks. (Cash only). Callahan’s shop is fully open with plenty of porch seating to rest at. I ended up taking the highway from Callahan to Etna which was flat and lightly trafficked at the time.

  8. Paul Thompson

    I did this last summer and absolutely loved it. I rented a place in Etna and did this over two days. 100° plus temperature so I stashed water on the way to FOS. FOS to Etna the first day, with a stop in Callahan for a couple of beers. Overnight in Etna and back to pick up car In FOS the next day. Unbelievable views. Would like to do it in one day next year, as long as it is not 100° plus. The week before my ride a storm hit and the high was in the 50s. Thanks, Jay! The road is great and very few cars. I met the postman at FOS. He does this route 5-6 days a week. Best job ever, according to him.

    1. admin Post author

      Silly me, in years of thinking about this ride it never occurred to me that you could start at the west end and thus solve the overnighting problem. Brilliant, Paul!

  9. Patrick M

    Another winner from Jay’s Best of the Best list! The ride exceeded our group’s very high expectations, and we hope to return for a second go at it soon.

    – Still a lot of snow at the top of each climb, but the roads are fully clear and in excellent shape. As others mentioned, the roads are in surprisingly great shape for every mile of the ride.
    – The cistern mentioned on the Etna climb is in rough shape, and I wouldn’t count on it in the future.
    – The public restroom in Sawyers Bar is out of order, but the water spigot at the fire station is working. Just let it run for a few seconds for some brown water to run through.
    – The Salmon River Saloon in Cecilville is a gem and was open when we came through, but the cash/honor system cooler is also there and fully stocked with snacks and drink for days when it’s not staffed. The friendly proprietor is a local legend and has an arsenal of stories that he’s happy to share if you have the time.
    – We loved our stay in the town of Etna as well and highly recommend staying at the newly renovated Bluebird Inn: The distillery and brewery were both great as well.
    – Also agree with another review that East Callahan Road was an unexpected highlight at the end of the ride.

    Thanks again, Jay!


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