Highway 32 Canyons

Distance:  51-mile out and back
Elevation gain: 4920 ft 

(Update: as of 8/18, this ride has undergone some improvements and some diminishments.  On the up side, the entire descent and ascent through Chico Creek Canyon has been repaved and is glass.  On the down side, much of the leg along Deer Creek has been thinned for fire control.  It’s not ugly like clear-cutting, but much of the maple understory, which provided the light show, is gone.)

This ride has major pros and cons.  Pros: smooth, blissfully meandering two-lane road in and out of two pristine NorCal creek canyons, the highlight being 12 miles (one way) along Deer Creek, as pretty a little babbling stream as there is.  The cons: traffic, all of it in a hurry, some of it consisting of loaded logging trucks or heavy equipment haulers (because this is a working corridor), and only a small dirt shoulder or no shoulder at all.   This is the only ride I’ve ever done anywhere where I had to pull off the road onto dirt to let traffic pass.  Don’t do this ride if you aren’t willing to put up with that.  To minimize the problem, I wouldn’t do this ride during high-traffic periods: late Saturday morning through Sunday evening.

This route has no amenities or perks—no quaint inns, amazing rock formations, or giant redwoods—other than Deer Creek Falls (see below).

(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.)


Start at the intersection of Highway 32 and Humboldt Road (the road to Butte Meadows), 28 miles northeast of Chico on Hwy 32, an intersection called Lomo though there is nothing there.  Ride to the end of Hwy 32, where it T’s into Hwy 36; ride back.  The route profile is simple: you’ll drop down from the ridge into Chico Creek Canyon, cross Chico Creek (it’s a lovely spot, worth a stop and a walk along the water), climb out of the canyon and up to the summit ridge between Chico Creek and Deer Creek, drop down into Deer Creek Canyon, cross Deer Creek, and ride along the creek to the T.  This involves a lot of elevation gain, but it’s never steep—I don’t think there’s a foot steeper than 6%.  You’ll do three moderate, extended climbs in the 51 miles.

Looking down into Deer Creek Canyon—you're going to ride right up it

Looking down into Deer Creek Canyon—you’re going to ride right through its heart

Good as it is, there are other rides in Bestrides where the climbing and descending is as good as this.  The real draw here is the 24 miles (out and back) along Deer Creek.  You ride along its banks, then leave it to climb up over a little ridgelet, then return to the water, again and again, as if the stream is ever calling you back.  The road crosses the creek seven times in 12 miles.   Because you’re riding upstream, the progress on the ride out is steadily ascending, but pleasantly and with much variety of contour; then when you turn around you find the ride back is a surprisingly invigorating rolling descent.

Deer Creek Canyon floor

Deer Creek Canyon floor, with typically narrow shoulder

Because the suffering on this ride is all caused by the traffic, and because you want to see the forest with the light coming in low, this is a ride you want to do early in the day and in sunny weather.  Sunrise is the ideal starting time, keeping in mind that the sun “rises” later in a canyon that it does on the flats.  I wait until summer when the sun rises early, and then I start at 7 am.  The last time I did it, I encountered about 10 logging trucks or huge equipment haulers in the 50 miles, and maybe 50 vehicles all told.  As I say, the moments of high risk and terror are few.  Early evening is even prettier, but then the traffic is at its worst.

Deer Creek: than which there are no creeks prettier

Deer Creek, than which there are no creeks prettier

Shortening the ride: The Deer Creek Canyon riding is better in every respect than the Chico Creek Canyon riding, so drive about 8 miles past the Butte Meadows fork, park anywhere along the 2 miles of flattish summit, and ride to Hwy 36, thus cutting the mileage from 51 to about 37 and reducing the climbing by over a third.  If you want even less, drive to the first bridge over Deer Creek and start there.

Adding miles:  At the start of the ride you’re a short, challenging climb up Humboldt Rd. from the back door to our Paradise to Butte Meadows ride.  At the turn-around, on Hwy 36, you’re an unexciting but easy 15+ miles from our Mill Creek Road ride and our Lassen National Park ride. to the northwest.  In the other direction, to the southeast, you’re an unexciting but easy 13+ miles from our Chester Back Roads rides.

From your starting point, Hwy 32 in the other direction (back toward Chico) is seemingly endless miles of trafficky, long, straight, fast shoulder descending.  I hate it, but locals ride it all the time, usually riding to or returning from Butte Meadows.

Afterthoughts:  The only services on this ride are two primitive campgrounds, Potato Patch (about halfway out) and Elam (a few miles before the turn-around).  Both have pit toilets (Elam’s are always locked when I come through on an early weekday morning—I don’t know about Potato Patch), and both have water (Elam’s a charming old hand pump).  Elam was closed to camping by Covid, but the bathrooms were accessible.

Deer Creek and its canyon are natural wonders.  If you want to explore them off-road, stop at the first Deer Creek bridge crossing and hike the obvious trail on the northwest side heading downstream.  It’s a smaller version of Mexico’s Copper Canyon—grand, harsh, and solitary—and it rewards an extended exploration.  Take lots of water.

Deer Creek is small, but there are manageable swimming holes along the route.  The water is cold.

Midway along the stretch along Deer Creek is Deer Creek Falls, clearly signed.  It’s a very short hike, well worth doing and probably manageable in cycling shoes or bare feet.

2 thoughts on “Highway 32 Canyons

  1. Gary LaRowe

    I tried to do this ride starting in Chico last Sept and just gave up and turned around. Once the county changes from Butte to Tehema(?) the shoulder disappears and like you I found myself pulling off the road onto the dirt quite a bit. To get to Lake Almanor, I like the alternate of taking Humboldt Road past Butte Meadows campground (beautiful!) up over Humboldt Mtn. Still sharing the road with cars but not any (hardly any?) logging, etc. trucks.

    1. Jack Rawlins Post author

      Indeed, the ride from Chico to the Butte Meadows fork sucks, which is why I never do it. It’s a totally different road past the fork, however. Your alternate route has a lot to recommend it, but it’s also totally different from my route: much more climbing, much more primitive, largely dirt, and it goes somewhere else——to Lake Almanor, which is not a bad place to be. The road from the Hwy 32 fork to Jonesville on Humboldt Rd. is good and is praised in the Adding Miles section of the Paradise—Butte Meadows ride.


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