Distance: 52-mile lollipop
Elevation gain: 1790 ft
This is another of those rides worth doing if you happen to be in the area, but probably not worth driving any great distance to do. It’s a pleasant roll through typical, often quite pretty westside (west of the Sacramento River) landscapes—orchards, cattle farms, small valleys, and up into the first bumps of the Coast Range. Its primary selling point is that it’s a few minutes’ drive off Highway 5, so it’s one of those rides in Bestrides you can use as a break while you’re driving between Oregon and Southern California (others being the Old Siskiyou Highway, Del Puerto Canyon Road, and some others). It’s flat or gentle rollers throughout (2500 ft gain in 52 miles on my computer), but if you want to climb, a simple extension of the route will give you all you could ask for (see Adding Miles below). Traffic is minimal, since there’s nothing along these roads but a few small ranches—my last time I saw 4 cars in the first 20 miles.
Two caveats: 1) for me, this is a spring-only ride. In summer the hills are burned brown, the heat is intense, and the creeks are dry. Once the rainy season begins the gravel leg (see below) can be a muddy quagmire. In the spring you get almond orchards in bloom, green grass on the hillsides, running streams, and happy cows. 2) There is a 4-mile stretch of gravel, as notorious for Chico-area riders as is the pavé of Paris-Roubaix for Europeans, smack dab in the middle of the loop. There’s no alternate route around it, and it can be unpleasant. The gravel is completely loose, so you slide around a lot. If the road has been regraveled recently, it’s like riding in rocky sand. If there has been recent rain, the road becomes a bog. Suffice it to say, timing is everything here. If you’re determined to avoid the gravel, at the end of this post I’ll show you two gravel-free out-and-back routes.
You can start this ride anywhere along the route, and it’s equally good in either direction. I start at the intersection of Corning Rd. and Black Butte Rd. because it’s the spot closest to Hwy 5, and I ride in whichever direction gives me a tailwind on the Black Butte Rd. leg, which is the straightest, flattest, and least scenic (read: most boring) leg of the route. My description goes clockwise, since the prevailing winds are northerly.
Ride Black Butte Rd. to Newville Rd., passing almond orchards whose blossoms are spectacular for about two weeks in late February or early March. Note the buffalo ranch on your R, with grazing buffalo in season. Mt. Shasta is to the north, smack dab behind you and prominent on a clear day. Mt. Lassen is to the east, over your shoulder on your L. At Newville Road go R. You’re paralleling the shore of Black Butte Reservoir, but don’t expect lake views. After two impressive rollers, the climbing for the ride is over unless you add the optional extension of Round Mountain Rd. (see below).
Cross a small bridge and begin the most bucolic leg of the ride, through a gallery of oaks along the lip of a small open valley. You’ll pass the Newville Cemetery, with gravestones from the 1870’s. Around mile 20 the road character changes from smooth, wide two-lane to battered country track, and you do 1.2 miles of nasty patches and potholes.
At 21.5 miles you cross another bridge at one of the ride’s more scenic spots and the road turns to gravel for the next 4 miles. It’s mostly gradual uphill, which might be an argument for riding the route counterclockwise. These 4 miles are not without their rewards: on your L along the length of the gravel is a valley walled by masses of small round mounds that look like the work of gigantic gophers. Geologically fascinating and quite lovely in its way.
At 25 miles the gravel ends at a T at paved Round Mountain Rd. Here you have a choice. You can go R, skipping the out-and-back lollipop stick, thus avoiding some climbing and lopping 7 miles off the route. But I go L, because that takes you up a draw through those round mounds you’ve had on your L for the past few miles, and I think it’s the best riding and best scenery of the entire ride. The road rolls easily up and down and back and forth for 3+ miles, then sets in for a very long, uninterrupted, rather grim climb into the heart of the Coast Range. There are great views of the Northern California Valley behind you, but not much else to offer besides exercise. My route turns around at the base of the climb, at about 29 miles in.
Retrace your steps to the intersection of Round Mountain and Newville and continue straight on Round Mountain to the hamlet of Paskenta, which is nothing more than a pleasant little country store where you can reprovision with ice cream or soda. Stay on the main road through Paskenta and continue on what is called Corning Road after the Flournoy store until you close the loop at Black Butte Rd. Check out the views of Mt. Lassen directly ahead of you as you ride.
Shortening the route and/or avoiding the gravel: There is no way to loop the ride and avoid the gravel, so you’re limited to riding out and backs on either side. On the north side, begin at Black Butte Rd. and ride to Paskenta and up Round Mountain Road until you’ve climbed as much as you want, then ride back. If you turn around at our turn-around point, this will give you 44 miles. If you want less, start at Flournoy. On the south side, I’d start at Black Butte Rd. and Newville (skipping Black Butte itself) and ride to where the road turns rough and return, for a total of about 22 totally pleasant miles. If you’re doing this version, leave Hwy 5 at Orland and follow the signs to Black Butte Reservoir.
Adding miles: There is a lot of worthwhile riding nearby, none of it as easy as what you’ve done. You can continue on up Round Mountain Road past our turn-around point for about another 5 miles of uninterrupted, substantial climbing before the road turns to dirt (in a normal spring, you’ll hit impassable snow before that). There is a similar road that climbs up into the same hills from the Paskenta intersection, Toombs Camp Rd, for about 12 miles of similarly uninterrupted, substantial pitch. If anything, TCR is even more featureless and interminable than Round Mountain Rd. Again, closed by snow until summer. Serious locals do a hard training ride in which they ride one road to the dirt, then ride the other.
A whole other kettle of fish is Rd. 306, which heads south (on your L) shortly before Newville turns to gravel. This road continues south for many miles, through Elk Creek, along Stony Creek, and through Stony Ford, Lodoga, and Leesville. You can even continue on from Leesville to Bear Valley Rd, which turns to ridable dirt, goes through world-famous wildflowers in the spring, and passes charming Wilbur Hot Springs (which recently suffered major fire damage). It’s all essentially flat except for Leesville Grade, and the spring scenery is excellent, but it’s not popular, for one reason: the road surfaces are often horrid. My cycling club used to run centuries out there, and people would bring mountain bikes.