Distance: 34 miles one way
Elevation gain: 3770 ft
This is the rarest kind of ride in Bestrides, a ride on a major highway. But Hwy 3 isn’t like other highways—it’s almost car-free. On a beautiful Wednesday morning in August, once I cleared Trinity Lake, I saw perhaps a vehicle every ten minutes and spent much of the climb riding the center line in solitude.
This ride has a number of virtues—pretty forests, nice rocks, some good vistas, good-to-excellent road surface, a strange almost-ghost town as an end-point, lake-side riding, creek-side riding—but the raison is the climb and descent, which are both pips. Look at the overall numbers and it looks like nothing. The entire ascent racks up a mere 3000 ft in 18 miles, which is about 3.2%. But the last 5 of those miles average over 8%. To put that another way, of the 3770 ft total elevation gain, you do almost all of it in those 5 miles. The descent down the back side is steeper and straighter—you’ll do 45 mph if you want to. Because of that backside profile, I wouldn’t ride this route backwards, and I wouldn’t expect to ride it as an out-and-back unless you’re out for a really hard day. I arranged a shuttle.
Start at Trinity Center. It’s what Northern California calls a “resort,” which means it’s a general store, a launch ramp for the lake, and a campground. Ride Hwy 3 to Callahan.
For the first few miles you’re riding flat terrain along Trinity Lake, but it’s merely pleasant, because you aren’t by the shore so the lake is little more than hints of blue through trees, and the lake itself, like so many reservoirs in Northern California, is largely drained and therefore not very pretty unless you’re there early in the year.
Once you clear the lake you ride along the Trinity River, climbing imperceptibly, at first through dramatic mountains of boulders left by California’s gold mining past, then along the stream itself, which is a pretty rock-strewn thing but which tapers off to a trickle in the latter part of the summer. There are occasional “resorts” along the river in these first miles (I can’t imagine what people do there), but otherwise no services until Callahan. You follow the river, crossing it repeatedly on bridges, until mile 19, when you leave the Trinity and follow Scott Mountain Creek and the pitch goes from imperceptible to 8-10%.
Luckily the road serpentines constantly, so you’re never facing tedious slogs up endless straight pitches. The landscape here isn’t as dramatic as the Sierra, but it’s always pretty and you get some good rock formations and the occasional vista back down the Trinity River Canyon. Scott Mountain Creek is continuously below you but you won’t know it’s there. The climb gets easier—8-10% in the first half, 6-8% in the second.
At 25 miles you reach Scott Mountain Summit (unmissable, signed) and begin the 6-mile rocket ride down the back side. It’s almost straight, with a few wide, sweeping curves that needn’t slow you down, and it’s steepest in the first miles, so seek your max mph early. There is a grand vista off to your right of Callahan’s valley about the time the pitch is moderating.
The descent ends at a stop sign and a T. Signs tell you Callahan is 3 mi. to the L (still on Hwy 3). Callahan is a quirky spot, at first glance deserted but with a fully functioning “mercantile,” a hotel that may or may not be functioning, and a few other buildings. It’s what I call a codger town, the sort of place where you’re likely to find an old codger sitting in front of the mercantile and eager to chat. If he’s there, don’t miss the opportunity.
Shortening the route: If you can’t arrange a shuttle, you can ride to the summit and turn around—it isn’t an easier ride (more miles, actually), and you’re swapping a straight, very fast descent for a curvy, merely-fast one.
Adding miles: To the south, all of Hwy 3 between Weaverville and Trinity Center is not spectacular but worth riding—prettily wooded, lightly built up, and consisting mostly of straight stretches with big rollers (tiring). Just south of Trinity Center Hwy 3 intersects with Rush Creek Rd., a very lightly trafficked, meandering, pleasant two-lane road that goes to Lewiston, a tiny community where you can pick up Lewiston Hwy, a very sweet back road, and then Old Lewiston Hwy, even sweeter, or loop back to Hwy 3 via Lewiston Dam Blvd. It’s all nice without being great.
At the other end, there’s good riding in every direction. Callahan is actually on the route of the Forks of Salmon ride, which runs west and north from town. To the east is Gazelle-Callahan Rd., through the pretty valley you saw as you were descending Hwy 3, which is reported to be well worth riding and which ends in Gazelle, where you can go either way on Old Highway 99S, itself not rewarding. Going south soon takes you to Stuart Springs Rd., a road with a charming profile but unfortunately recently chipsealed. Going north takes you (in 16 miles) to Yreka and the north end of Hwy 3, which loops back to Fort Jones, Etna, and Callahan through pretty hay farms.
Afterthoughts: I seriously underestimated my water needs on this ride. There is no resupply spot after the first few miles, and the climb is largely exposed after early morning. On a hot day, doing pitches of upwards of 10% for an hour, you cook. If it’s going to be hot, go early and/or take as much water and ice as you can.