Distance: 100-mile loop
Elevation gain: 8680 ft
(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. (Why? No car ever uses it.) The scenery is grand California mountain primeval. One of the 2 or 3 best rides in California, without a doubt.
(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 one direction has a super-steep climb and the other doesn’t. If you ride counterclockwise, 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 (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, almost a ghost town, and take the back road, East Callahan Rd., paralleling the highway north. Take the Horn Lane connector L to return to Etna. East Callahan 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.
This ride is a long, hard day—100 miles, probably 10,000 ft of climbing despite what Mapmyride says. There is no lodging on the route, but you can make the ride easier by doing it 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). It doesn’t have water, but Matthews CG nearby does, or you can carry a filter.
Adding miles: I’ve heard that the roads to the north of Etna are also excellent. I’ve talked to riders I trust who love the three-day triangle from Etna to Happy Camp to Forks of Salmon and back on our Cecilville Rd., and the ride from Happy Camp to Cave Junction in Oregon comes recommended. They’re both on my to-do list. Any of the roads in Scott Valley are classically pretty, flat ranchland riding.
Afterthoughts: This one is real backwoods riding. You’re on your own, so come prepared. Without a sag vehicle, you’ll probably need a water filter. In an emergency, there’s a resort just off the route, a couple of miles northwest of Forks of Salmon on Salmon River Rd. Forks of Salmon is just an intersection. You will pass the occasional house but no communities until Callahan.