Distance: 34 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 3790 ft
This ride is an offshoot of the Forks of Salmon loop ride, and has the same virtues: rugged, rocky landscape, minuscule road width, little traffic, major exposure. Since it’s short and relatively easy to get to, it makes a nice alternative if you found the FOS ride seductive but didn’t want to invest the 100 miles.
Of its 17 miles, 10 of them are just very nice canyon riding along a river on a large, polished two-lane road. But the other 7 miles are extraordinary—hair-raising serpentining along a vertical canyon wall on a true one-lane road with no guard rails or any kind of protection, with massive rock on one side and a 200-ft drop-off to the river at the very edge of the road on the other. I loved it, but it’s not for people who have trouble with exposure.
Salmon River Road takes off from Hwy 96 at Somes Bar and follows the river upstream for 17 miles to Forks of Salmon, an intersection with a few buildings but no services. The road is often mildly up and down, but it’s never hard work and no pitch lasts very long. Mapmyride’s elevation total seems excessive. It’s only slightly more work going upstream than it is going downstream. The Salmon River is dramatic and grand, and views of it far below you along the route are frequent and excellent.
The first 7 miles are domesticated riding, on a polished road surface with a double center line and road shoulders through a broad valley where the river is tranquil. At mile 7 a sign says, “Narrow winding road next 35 miles,” all the road amenities stop, and the good stuff begins. The canyon steepens dramatically, the river falls away beneath you, the tread becomes iffy (which feels perfectly appropriate), and the road width becomes truly one-lane, with no guard rails or shoulder of any sort. I saw two pick-ups meet, and one had to back up a quarter of a mile to find a turn-out. Don’t rush through these miles—drink in the exposed rock, the views of the river, the absurd drop-offs on your L. It’s quite a place.
At mile 13, around Nordheimer Campground, things mellow out and go back to something like the first miles. When you see an unintentionally hilarious sign reading “Congested area” you know you’re nearing Forks of Salmon, which is an intersection with two or three houses, a couple of barns, and—surprise!—a modern school (who’s going to this thing?). Turn around and ride home.
If there’s a down side to this ride, it’s that there’s not much in the way of carving turns on the descents. Most of the down isn’t steep enough to be dramatic, and when it is the road tends to be pretty straight. I only had a couple of “Whee!” moments.
Traffic should be next to nothing. When I was there, a forest fire was burning adjacent to the road, so I saw a fair amount of forest service and Cal Fire vehicles—perhaps 20—but on a day without fires I’d expect 3-4 cars in 34 miles.
There are no services on this route, but there are a number of places where emergency help could be gotten: a fire station, a few campgrounds (with brick outhouses), private houses at Forks of Salmon, and the Otter Bar Lodge a few miles before Forks of Salmon. It’s a kayak school, and it doesn’t cater to other guests, but it’s there in a pinch. The only sign from the road is a large mailbox reading “Otter Bar” and a dirt road, but you notice the buildings deep in the trees on the river side.
Shortening the route: Drive to the “narrow winding road” sign and start there. It will save you 14 miles.
Adding miles: This is a great bike riding area with lots of opportunities. At Forks of Salmon you are at the midway point in the Forks of Salmon loop—ride as much of it as you’d like, in either direction. If you’re not going all the way to Etna or Callahan, I’d recommend the southern route (Cecilville Rd.) over the northern (Sawyers Bar Rd.) because it’s right along the banks of the river and offers excellent swimming.
At Somes Bar, Ishi-Pishi Rd. parallels Hwy 96 for about 7 miles of tiny, meandering road deep in pristine woods. Quite lovely, but a significant ascent, so be sure you’re up for it.
Hwy 96 itself is a popular through-ride for long-distance cyclists. In fact the Etna-Happy Camp-Forks of Salmon-Callahan-Etna loop is a bucket-list ride. But most of 96 is only pleasant riding, a 60-mph highway that is pretty but too straight and too big for any sort of drama. The one stretch of it that looked fun to me was between Orleans and Hoopa, and it also looked deadly—tightly winding with no sight lines, no shoulder, with a guardrail on one side and a rock wall on the other, on a well-trafficked road and impatient drivers.