Distance: 54 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 5960 ft
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 ton of elevation gain. If you want less, ride from the beginning to Inskip and back or from Sterling City to Bambi Inn and back. However you edit the route, don’t miss the leg from Sterling City to Inskip—that’s the jewel in the crown.
(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, 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 Sterling 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 absolutely love: Leg #3, the 6 miles of road between Sterling 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%.
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 will change. 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 spectacular 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—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), there are sandwiches, ice cream, and a G-rated atmo at the Tank House just up Humboldt Rd to your R.
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 Sterling City. From Inskip to Sterling 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 website’s list of Greatest Descents. You’ll wish there was a chairlift so you could do it twice.
The big descent just after Sterling City is probably the fastest, straightest descent in the website—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 quite some 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.
Adding miles: If you want to add a few good miles to the route, you can go L or R at the end of the Skyway and ride Humboldt Rd. L involves you in a vigorous descent down to Hwy 32, which not surprisingly is a vigorous ascent coming back. R takes you up to Jonesville with less climbing. Both are lovely stretches of road.
If you want a very big ride, locals do a loop that goes from Chico up Honeyrun Road to Paradise, up the Paradise Bike Path to Coutolenc, along our route to Butte Meadows, L on Humboldt Rd to Hwy 32 and 32 to Chico. But 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’s 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. 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: Sterling City is big on loose dogs. I’ve never been bitten, but if you hate dogs prepare to be a little freaked out. Sterling 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.
The hillsides above Sterling City, especially the miles above Inskip, have recently (summer 2013) experienced some clear-cut logging, so the quality of the scenery has been taken down a notch, but it’s still lovely. I just pretend I’m in Oregon.
Water is a problem in this ride. You can fill up at Merlo Park 1/2 mile off course on your R as you enter Sterling City (signed at the turn-off)—IF the park is open—or at the Tank House or Bambi Inn—IF they’re open. At present (2014) the one sure bet is the Sterling City Museum, which has a functioning water bib on the outside corner facing you as you ride up.