Distance: 54 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 5960 ft
Update 11/18: The Camp Fire raced through Paradise and parts of Magalia in the days following 11/8/18. Paradise was destroyed. The extent of the damage to Coutolenc Rd. and the rest of this route I don’t know, but the road through Paradise to Magalia is open. It’s possible to drive up Hwy 32 and begin the ride from Butte Meadows. JR
This ride actually starts in Magalia, the small community just up the hill from Paradise, CA, but who doesn’t want to ride in Paradise? The route strings together four distinct rides, three of them treats, and the other…well it gets you from one of the treats to the next. The four rides are, in order: a classic rolling stair-stepper, a short fast descent followed by a long straight slow upwards slog (the non-treat), a perfect serpentining climb through NorCal pine-and-cedar forest, and a rolling ramble across the top of the world on a spanking new (as of 2013) state-of-the-art mountain road.
This is a demanding ride with a lot of elevation gain. If you want less, see Shortening the Route 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.)
Leg #1 of the ride is Coutolenc Rd. Drive to the intersection of the Skyway and Coutelenc in downtown Magalia, CA, just past the last dregs of Paradise if you’ve coming from Chico. Park in the dirt parking area on your immediate R as you turn onto Coutelenc, and ride up Coutelenc. This is a lovely 7 miles of short climbs and big rollers that ends in a 1.5-mile climb that’s just long enough and steep enough to give you a workout without becoming burdensome.
Coutolenc dead-ends back at the Skyway. Turn R and do Leg #2, the ride to Stirling City. This leg is not something I hold dear. It’s 3.4 miles consisting of a straight, fast descent followed by a straight boring ascent. But we need it to get to a stretch of road I love: Leg #3, the 6 miles of road between Stirling City and Inskip. On the map it looks like nothing, but it’s a perfect climb through pleasant pine and cedar forest. It’s a cozy, old, barely-two-lane road with no shoulder that stairsteps its way steadily upward, getting curvier as it goes, with lots of variety to keep your spirits high and never steeper than 7%. The trees along the road have been thinned for a fire break for much of the route, which allows for good views of the impressive Butte Creek canyon on your R.
At Inskip, which is really just an intersection and three abandoned buildings with no services or water, you begin Leg #4: the ride to Butte Meadows and the Bambi Inn. Keep straight on through Inskip and immediately the road’s character changes. As I said, it’s new, and it’s a sterling example of the road-builder’s art. It’s straighter and more open than the older road you just did, with smooth, polished curves, and the pitches are a notch gentler than what you’ve been through. You’re up on top of the mountain here, so if you like open vistas and rolling terrain, it might be your favorite part of the ride. You’ll climb gently to a noticeable summit. Don’t miss the fine view of Mt. Lassen and Mt. Brokeoff beside it at 10 o’clock just past the summit at a dirt turn-out (the view is actually a little better about 100 yards down the road from the turn-out—watch for a momentary opening in the trees).
About a mile past the summit, go L following the sign to Butte Meadows at the clearly-signed and unmissable Y. Now you roll up and down, mostly down, then thrill to a great little descent that dead-ends at Humboldt Rd in Butte Meadows and the famous Bambi Inn, an unrepentant redneck country saloon. If saloons aren’t your sort of place (and they aren’t mine), you have two other choices. Just up Humboldt Road to the R is the Butte Meadows Mercantile, a very casual and friendly spot with simple sandwiches, ice cream, and the like. Don’t miss the outside benches made out of old wagon seats. A bit further on is The Outpost, a more traditional mountain restaurant. All three of these places tend to be for sale or closed at unexpected times, so it’s wise to check out their current status before riding.
Now turn around and do it all in reverse. You’ll climb up from Butte Meadows (not as bad as the drop-in would lead you to believe), roll/climb back to the summit, then it’s all sweet descending to Stirling City. From Inskip to Stirling City is particularly delicious, an ideal slalom course with banked corners, good road surface, and good enough sight lines that you’ll see (most) on-coming cars (and there will be at least one or two) in advance. This leg is in our Best Descents list. You’ll wish there was a chairlift so you could do it twice.
The big descent just after Stirling City is probably the fastest, straightest descent in Bestrides—you can top 50 mph if that’s your goal. Watch for one nasty pothole in an otherwise-glassy surface. There’s a nice 40-mph curve across a creek and a following uphill at the run-out, so you can go as fast as you dare.
When you get back to the top of Coutolenc, Coutelenc itself is a sweet ride back, but it’s rolling and has a surprising amount of climbing to it, so if you are climbed out or just crave variety you can go straight instead of turning L and continue down the Skyway to the intersection with the bottom of Coutelenc and your car. It’s just a tad longer, and much more developed, but it’s a much faster descent (you’ll be around 25-30 mph for much of the time), on a bigger, more trafficked road with much more sweeping turns. You’ll do some trafficky shoulder riding as you ride through the developed section of Magalia, just before you reach your car.
Shortening the route: You can ride from Stirling City to Butte Meadows and back, or from Stirling City to the summit above Inskip. You could also ride from Inskip to Butte Meadows or just ride Coutelenc—both nice rides—but to do either is to miss the descent from Inskip to Stirling City, which is the jewel in the crown for this ride.
Adding miles: If you want to add a few pleasant, mostly-easy miles to the route, you can go L or R from Bambi Inn and ride Humboldt Rd. Going R is easier. Going L adds 5.4 miles one way, to the intersection of Humboldt and Hwy 32, called “Lomo” in local lore though there is nothing there. The last couple of miles to Lomo are a fast descent, which means you get a couple of miles of vigorous (8%) ascent coming back. Going R gives you 6.0 miles one way of nearly flat to Jonesville (with some noticeable climbing in the last mile). Do both legs out and back and you add 23 miles and 2440 ft of vert to the ride. A mile past Jonesville the road turns to dirt—gravel bikes can continue on over Humbug Summit or Humboldt Summit (the road forks where the pavement ends) to Lake Almanor. One road is reported to be an excellent surface; the other is a nightmare. Choose wisely.
Lomo is the beginning to our Highway 32 Canyons ride. So you could ride from Chico to Paradise, over to Butte Meadows, down Humboldt to Lomo, up 32 to Lassen National Park, through the park and back, then down to Red Bluff, then find a bus to Chico, thus bagging 3 fine Bestrides routes in one loop. I’m just saying.
If you want a big ride you could actually do in a day, locals do a loop that goes from Chico up Honey Run to Paradise, up the Paradise Bike Path to Magalia, along our route to Butte Meadows, L on Humboldt Rd to Hwy 32 and 32 to Chico. But that stretch of Hwy 32 is wide, tedious, unvaried, and heavily trafficked, so I’m not recommending it. The loop is 80+ miles, very strenuous, and works equally well in either direction.
If you want a mellow warm-up before hitting Coutelenc, there is the afore-mentioned Paradise Bicycle Path. It was a pleasant, albeit straight, paved rail-to-trail conversion that runs the length of the town of Paradise, CA, paralleling the main road, The Skyway, and typically about 50 yards to the southeast. I don’t know what shape it’s since since the fire. It’s a steady 3% grade and about a 20-minute ride dead-ending at the Skyway a stone’s throw below the starting point for our ride. If you want to ride all of it, it starts at the intersection of the Skyway and Neal Rd, immediately after Paradise turns into real town, though you can cross it by driving further up the Skyway and turning R on any street.
Afterthoughts: Stirling City is big on loose dogs. I’ve never been bitten, but if you hate dogs prepare to be a little freaked out. Stirling City also has a nifty little museum devoted to local history, which is all about the lumber industry and the gigantic lumber mill the town was built around. Its hours are unpredictable.
Re-supplying is a challenge in this ride. You can get water at Merlo Park 1/2 mile off our route on your R as you enter Stirling City (signed at the turn-off)—IF the park is open—or at the Mercantile, the Outpost, or Bambi Inn in Butte Meadows—IF they’re open. There is a ramshackle building as you make the turn in Stirling City with a sign out front that says “Country Store” (sometimes) and a sign over the front door saying “Hotel Lobby”—that’s all I know about it. The one sure bet is the Stirling City Museum, which has a functioning water bib on the outside corner facing you as you ride up.