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 on the uphill side. It’s not ugly like clear-cutting, and the creek side is still pristine, but it’s a definite downgrade.)
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, much of it consisting of loaded logging trucks or heavy equipment haulers (because this is a working corridor), with little to no shoulder, paved or otherwise (we’re talking drop-off into the creek). The road contour will never allow the large vehicles to pass you, so you will have to remove yourself from the road. This is the only ride I’ve ever done anywhere where I routinely pulled off the road onto the dirt (and often had to ride a while to find some) when a truck got behind me. The traffic is infrequent but disturbing. Think of this ride as long periods of bliss interrupted with moments of high-risk stress. Don’t do this ride if you aren’t willing to put up with that. But look at the photos before deciding not to go.
This route has no amenities or perks—no quaint inns, amazing rock formations, or giant redwoods—just great road contour and gorgeous scenery.
I wouldn’t do this ride in the winter. Much of the beauty along Deer Creek involves the sun coming through the maple leaves, and in the winter they’re gone, leaving a perfectly conventional conifer forest.
(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—you’ll do three moderate, extended climbs in the 51 miles.
There are other rides in Bestrides that meander as sweetly and descend through curves as sculpted as these. 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. And always the light is streaming through the riparian maples.
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.
The Deer Creek Canyon riding is better in every respect than the Chico Creek Canyon riding, so you can easily shorten this ride and still experience the best of it: 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 34 and reducing the climbing by over a third.
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.
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, flat few miles from our Mill Creek Road ride and our Lassen National Park ride. In the other direction, you’re an unexciting but easy, flat few miles from our Warner Valley Road ride.
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).
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.