Category Archives: Northern California Inland

Sacramento River Trail

Distance:36.6-mile out and back more or less
Elevation gain: 1845 ft

(A Best of the Best ride)

(Warning: the last time I did this ride I parked at the Keswick Dam Trail Head parking lot and my car was broken into. Don’t leave valuables in your car. JR)

Normally I don’t like rec trails, because they’re crowded and fussy. But the occasional rec trail rises above the regrettable norm, and Bestrides discusses six that I really like: the Monterey Bike Trail, the Nimitz Trail, the Willamette River Trail in Eugene, the American River Trail in Sacramento, the Coyote Creek Trail in San Jose (use the search window for the last three), and this one. As with all rec trails, the Sacramento River Trail (also called the Sacramento River Parkway) can get unpleasantly crowded on weekends, but if you can catch it on a quiet day, it’s a wonderful ride, with an immaculate road surface, grand vistas, and (much of the time) an intriguing contour.

Besides crowds, the curses of rec trails are monotony and flatness/straightness (since most are trail-to-trail conversions). The SRT has neither problem. The route is a constant series of entertaining surprises: Turtle Bay Exploration Park with its vast array of educational attractions, McConnell Arboretum and Botanical Gardens next-door, a giant sundial, three river crossings on bridges (one world-famous, one a suspension bridge straight out of Indiana Jones), one spooky tunnel, endless views of the Sacramento River (since you’re riding along its very lip), distant views of Mt. Lassen to the southeast, views of Mt. Shasta at the turn-around, a ride along the top of one of the world’s largest and most scenic dams, interesting historical placards to further your knowledge, cards naming and describing the trees and shrubs along the path, one mighty hydroelectric generating plant, bald eagles in flight, and so on. And the SRT is, about 2/3 of the time, as far from flat/straight as you can get, a delightful roller coaster of up and down and back and forth (it’s more work than the elevation total suggests). When it is flat, it’s still perfectly pleasant.

Avoiding the crowds is key here. Two solutions are obvious: 1) ride on weekdays and 2) ride farther than the walkers can walk. The SRT is one of those trails that begins near the heart of the city and gets more and more isolated the further you go. Most of the walkers are in the first 3 miles of the route, and by Keswick Dam they’re almost entirely gone. The third solution is unusual: ride in the winter. The flora is as pretty in January as it is in June, but the crowds are indoors, so if you can find a clear, dry winter day the trail should pretty much belong to you and the hard-core runners. In addition, in the winter the surrounding summits are crowned with snow and the vistas are vastly improved. And it isn’t 105°, as it often is in August.

The frequent trailheads along the route all have bathrooms. Water resupply is available at Keswick Dam, Shasta Day Use Area, and (I’m told) the Shasta Dam Visitor Center.

Our route crosses the top of Shasta Dam, but RidewithGPS doesn’t recognize that as a “road” or it thinks it’s closed to the public—for whatever reason it wouldn’t let me map it.

Click on any of the photos to see them enlarged.

The SRT changes its personality every few miles, so I’ll describe the route in sections.

Section 1: From the Sundial Bridge to the Diestelhurst Bridge. Park in the Turtle Bay parking lot (it’s free). Make a mental note to come back and explore the riches of Turtle Bay soon. Ride across the famous Sundial Bridge carefully—the road surface of the bridge is mostly glass and is therefore slippery if at all wet or frosty. Check out the giant sundial laid out on the earth at the north end of the bridge. Turn L onto the North Sacramento River Trail. Immediately pass the gates to the Botanical Gardens. Make a mental note to come back and explore the riches of the gardens soon. At the gate to the gardens is a poster with an excellent map of the SRT—take a photo for later reference if you forgot to download your ridewithGPS route map.

Sundial Bridge

This section of the trail is cozy, full of tight little turns, drops, and rises as it works its way through pretty riparian oaks and past playgrounds and other suburban signs of life. It’s likely to be the section of the ride most crowded with walkers, dogs, and children. Note the pretty quarter-mile markers along the route—they are one of at least 5 different sets of distance markers you’ll see on the ride, so you’ll never be in doubt about where you are on the route.

Section 1

Follow the unmistakable trail as it passes under two bridges. At the third bridge, the Diestelhorst, pass under, immediately go R and loop up onto the bridge. From the center of the bridge (which is closed to cars), note Mt. Lassen through the trusses of the two bridges to the east.

Section 2: From Diestelhorst Bridge to Keswick Dam. At the south end of the bridge turn R onto the unmissable South Sacramento River Trail and ride to Keswick Dam. Note the large sign at the trailhead giving you distances to all destinations ahead—it’s the first of many. This is a popular trailhead for runners, because this leg is mostly flat and straight, so you may have company. It’s mostly free of development, traveling through pretty, small woods and later more open country, hugging the riverbank the entire way. Note the prominent mountain dead ahead of you (hopefully snow-crested if you took my advice and are riding in the winter), which I was told by a local is Whiskeytown Mountain. Watch for bald eagles from here to the turn-around.

Section 2

As you approach the impressive pile that is Keswick Dam and Power Station, you pass a lovely little suspension bridge across the river, called either the Sacramento River Trail Bridge or the Ribbon Bridge depending on your map. We’ll cross over on it on our return ride.

The Ribbon Bridge

Section 3: From Keswick Dam to Keswick Boat Launch and Trailhead. Officially the Sacramento River Trail ends here and the continuation is called the Sacramento River Rail Trail, but no name could be more misleading. This leg is by far the most dramatic, difficult, and rewarding on the route, and no rail line could ever consider traversing it. It begins with a challenging 0.5-mile hill, named Heart Rate Hill on the nearby placard, the first of two climbs on the route that you’ll really notice. RWGPS says it maxes out at a bit less than 9%, but I promise it feels like more.

Section 3

From Heart Rate Hill’s summit, the leg meanders dramatically, up and down, back and forth. You’re high above the river, on top of the canyon ridge, and it’s exhilarating. The terrain is sparse and dry, made more barren by the recent fires that pounded Whiskeytown, but it’s a grand barrenness, and the constant views of Mt. Lassen and Brokeoff across the river to the east are splendid. By now you should have out-ridden all but the heartiest of trail users, so you can really attack the course. This is great riding and is the one leg of the SRT you can’t afford to miss.

Section 3

Section 4: From Keswick Boat Launch to the Shasta Day Use Area. This leg fits the rail-to-trail stereotype—basically flat, straight, and homogeneous—as it works its way through riparian shrubs and low trees along the river’s shoreline. Trailside placards naming and describing the local flora pop up. The monotony is broken by a cool little tunnel, long enough to get pleasantly tingly but never pitch-dark. You’re nearing the northern end of the trail, so you may pick up some walkers or casual cyclists coming from the Shasta Use Area campgrounds just ahead of you.

The bike trail debouches onto a major road (Coram Rd., never signed) at the Shasta Dam Trail Head of the SRT. Follow the road to the R, which soon leads to the Shasta Day Use Area, a major complex with campgrounds, bathrooms, and water.

Shasta Dam

Section 4 would be the most skippable on the route except we need it to get to the next leg, which you don’t want to miss.

Section 5: Shasta Day Use Area to Shasta Dam. Ride through the Day Use Area (drinking water available) on Coram Rd. and follow it to the dam, a very sweet, moderate 1.5-mile climb serpentining up beside the dam face to the road across the top of the dam itself. Halfway up the climb the road changes its name to Shasta Dam Access Rd., again unsigned. At the dam, ride across it to the other side, then ride back. The dam road (officially still Shasta Dam Access Rd.) is surrounded by guardhouses, barriers, and guards armed with automatic weapons, so it looks forbidding, but you are in fact welcome to ride there and poke around (a sign says, “No knives, guns, or food”—I didn’t ditch my Clif Bar). Smack on the far side of the lake is Mt. Shasta in regal grandeur, and the views down the face of the dam are unforgettable. It’s an iconic dam, everyone’s image of what a dam should look like. On the far side is a Visitor Center where you can replenish your water, if it’s open—in an act of incredible (and typical) governmental idiocy, its current hours are Mon.-Fri. 8:30-4:00…in other words, exactly when almost no one can visit.

Mt. Shasta from the top of the dam

Turn around and ride back down the hill. It’s a perfect slalom on perfect pavement, over too soon. Return to the SRT and ride it backwards past Keswick Dam to the Ribbon suspension bridge. Cross the river on it and begin the next leg.

Section 6: North Sacramento River Trail to the Diestelhorst Bridge. You are paralleling Section 2, but the terrain couldn’t be more different. Whereas Section 2 is flat and straight, this leg is the most twisty/turny up and down riding you’ll do all day. I loved it. If you love it too, there is an argument to be made for skipping the tamer Section 2 on the ride out and doing Section 6 in both directions. I won’t say no.

Section 6, with Mt. Lassen in background

The NSRT debouches onto a suburban neighborhood street. Continue down the street and keep an eye out for the continuation of the trail, which takes off to the R in 1/4 mile with no signage. Don’t fall for the trail-look-alike driveway just before it.

This leg runs back into our outward path at the base of the Diestelhorst Bridge. Return the way you came to your car.

Shortening the route: Since there are car-accessible trailheads with parking lots scattered along the route, you can start/stop your ride at any of them and tailor the route to suit your aesthetics, conditioning, and tolerance for crowds (see my warning about theft at the beginning of this post). The 6 sections from best to worst are IMO #3, 5, 6, 1, 2, and 4. Which means there is no way to ride just the good stuff. My ideal short route would be #3, 4, 5, and back, putting up with Section 4 for what lies on either side.

Adding miles: You can add on 6-8 unthrilling miles to our route by continuing on past the dam Visitor Center and going R/south on Hwy 151, Shasta Dam Blvd., to Summit City (so called on maps, but signed “Shasta Lake” as you approach town), then either turning around or heading north on Lake Blvd, which will return you to the dam. Shasta Dam Blvd. is a generic moderate climb and descent on a big two-lane road with car-friendly contours (big sweeping turns). If you ride it as an out and back, it adds c. 1100 ft. of elevation. Lake Blvd. is even less exciting. The only real reward in doing the loop, besides getting additional miles in, is the spectacular vista point halfway up the Shasta Dam Blvd. climb looking back on the face of Shasta Dam, the lake behind it, and Mt. Shasta in the distance. I suggest riding to it, taking in the view, and turning around.

View from the Hwy 151 vista point

If you make it to Summit City, take the time to continue east 1/4 mi. on Shasta Dam Blvd. to the town’s Little League baseball field to see if there’s a game going on—if there is, it’s a heart-warming Norman Rockwell scene of small-town Americana. Water available.

If you’re determined to loop the entire ride and don’t mind riding a lot of mediocre stuff, you can ride to the dam and take this return route. It does a good job of avoiding the larger roads. Notice that for the fun of it I’ve included an out-and-back on Walker Mine Rd., which is a good bit better than anything else on this route.

There is some additional bike path to the east of the Sundial Bridge, on both sides of the river, and it’s all fun stuff—consult the map by the Botanical Gardens—but it isn’t a significant number of miles.

Salmon River Road

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. The vert is somewhere between easy and hard—RidewithGPS gives the elevation total as 3200 ft, which isn’t daunting, but I promise it feels like even less than that.

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. Both Mapmyride and RidewithGPS agree the ride has over 3,000 feet of gain, but I don’t know where they are. 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 good 7 miles

The first 7 miles are domesticat-ed 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.

Zero shoulder, 100 ft straight down to the Salmon River

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.

The Salmon River

Trinity Center to Callahan

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 about the same pitch but straighter—you’ll do 45 mph if you want to. You can ride the route as an out-and-back but you’d be in for a big day. I arranged a shuttle, and I’ve mapped it as one way.

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. Like so many reservoirs in Northern California, Trinity is low by the end of summer and any time during drought years and then not very pretty, so better early in the year.

Trinity Lake at low water

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%.

One of many Trinity River crossings

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.

Five miles of this

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.

Looking down toward Callahan from the descent

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 fast descent for a curvy 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 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 despite my rule that any road with “old” in the title is good. 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.

Mining tailings just north of Trinity Lake

Scott River Road

Distance: 55 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 2650 ft

The land surrounding the Marble Mountains Wilderness Area is a rich area for cycling.  Almost every small road is pretty, interesting, mostly car-free, not killer steep, and paved, at least in the main.  Loops are easy to construct.  The only drawback is there aren’t many communities up there, so you have to plan overnight stops carefully, unless you’re self-supporting.  The area is represented in Bestrides by two rides, Forks of Salmon and this one, but they’re the tip of a very rich iceberg—see Adding Miles to see the big picture.

This ride is representative of the area: smooth-surfaced, lightly trafficked, very pretty, and surprisingly easy.  It’s one of the easiest 55-mile rides I know.  It accompanies the Scott River for its entire length, so it’s gently downhill going out and gently uphill returning, but the difference is negligible—I rode out the 40-mile version (see below) in 2 hrs and back in 1.5 hrs.  The only noticeable hill is the last mile or so descending into Scott Bar, our turn-around spot, so if you’re really into mellow you can skip that, leaving you with nothing but constant gentle rollers, just enough to vary the riding experience without ever making it laborious or tedious.  You climb 2650 ft in 55 miles, which is less than half our sport’s norm for a climbing ride (100 ft per mile) (RWGPS says it’s over 4000 ft of gain, the only time I know that RWGPS has gone completely mad).  You could almost leave the granny gear at home.

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Covelo Road

Distance: 58 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 5844 ft

This ride was suggested by Friend of Bestrides Brian.

This is a good, solid ride.  I thoroughly enjoyed it, though it has no extraordinary features.  It’s got some nice rollers, a very pretty, flat stretch through a fairly dramatic river canyon, one fairly easy climb, one somewhat harder climb, and a totally unremarkable town, Covelo, at the turn-around.  It’s 10 miles down the road from my beloved Branscomb Rd. ride, and I wouldn’t do this one until I’d done that one.

It’s the only paved road by which Coveloans can leave town, and the river attracts lots of water seekers in the summer, so traffic can be substantial.  I recommend doing it early in the morning or sometime other than summer or both.  Anyway, the Eel River Canyon is prettier in early morning, before the sun gets high.  The seven-mile stretch from the Eel River Bridge to Dos Rios is the ride’s best scenery, and it’s essentially flat, which makes it a rarity in Bestrides.  The elevation total gives the impression of a laborious outing, but I didn’t find it hard at all.  The only time you’ll work is the 2-mile hill just before the turn-around, and that’s never worse than 6-8%.

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Bald Rock Road

Distance: 22 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 2600 ft

This is another of those “worthwhile if you’re in the area” rides.  It’s 22 miles of small two-lane back road through pretty but not extra-special Sierra foothill forest.  You pass through a small but bustling mountain community, Berry Creek, which unfortunately makes the first third of the route surprisingly trafficky for a foothill road.  You will do some work—2100 ft of gain in the 11-mile ride out—but it’s never steep.

Two features elevate this ride above the perfectly pleasant.  First, rollers.  The road is all up and down, so much so that there is only a 1465-ft. difference in elevation from start to turn-around but 2100 ft of vert on the road (in other words, you ride every vertical foot 1.5 times).  This has its charm.  It means the climbing on the ride out is constantly interrupted by little descents, and on the ride back the descending comes in short, fast runs interrupted by short risers, so about the time you think you have to brake the contour does it for you.  The riding experience is ever-changing.

Second: Bald Rock, the greatest rock formation the world has never heard of (see photos at the end of this post).  Take slippers or sandals and plan to get off the bike and explore—you will be enchanted.

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Paskenta Loop

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.

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Honey Run to Centerville Road

Distance:  22 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 1014 ft 

Update 11/18: The Camp Fire raced through this canyon on 11/8-9/18.  The area is much changed.   Much of the understory burned off, which makes the landscape more open, so Butte Creek and the canyon walls are actually prettier because you can see more of them.  Most of the big trees seem to have survived.  About a third of the houses burned and are now being rebuilt in some form.  The covered bridge burned to ash.  It’s a different ride, but I think it’s better, especially in the spring when the loss of canopy results in an abundance of spring wildflowers.  JR

This is the only ride in Bestrides I can do from my front door.  It’s a perfectly charming meander with pretty scenery and a road contour that is ever-changing.   In 11 short miles you get a number of bonus features: mid-Nineteenth-Century rock walls, a lively creek lined with stately sycamores, tailings left by the Gold Rush argonauts and their placer mining, a grand little canyon with dramatic rocky bluffs, a small back-country museum, a working flume, a great piece of cycling sculpture, and the remains of one of California’s finest covered bridges.  So the ride keeps you interested.  In addition, the elevation profile is perfect for your legs: a few miles of gentle rollers, then a little moderate climbing, then more rollers, then a bit more extensive climbing to get really warm, a short recovery period, and finally a 1.5-mile brisk climb to put all that warm-up to use.   With the final climb, the ride’s a good work-out; without it, it’s an easy stroll.

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Lumpkin Road

Distance: 61 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 6610 ft

A Best of the Best descent

This is a fine ride through Sierra foothills and forests whose virtues are three:

1. Solitude—the last time I rode it, I saw two cars between the summit and Lumpkin Rd. (20 miles).

2. A 30-mile descent of extraordinary variety—the ride back from the Road 27 summit (28.5 miles) is almost entirely descending, and the road contour is never the same for long.

3. 8.5 miles of the most whee-inducing, roller-coaster stretch of road I know.

The route climbs steeply for 8.5 miles through populated mountain communities, then traverses the deserted spine of Lumpkin Ridge, then descends for 2 miles to Little Grass Valley Lake, then returns.  The scenery is fine without being special: classic Sierra foothill scrub, then pretty madrone-and-conifer forest, with some views into the forested canyons of Fall River (the stream that supplies the water for world-famous Feather Falls) to the west and the South Fork of the Feather River to the east from Lumpkin Ridge.  the ride out is pretty much 30 miles of climbing, but after the first 8.5 miles it’s never particularly hard.  There are three sensible turn-around points along the way that reduce the work load while preserving the roller coaster, which is in the last 8 miles of the return route and the high point of the ride.

This route (like the alternatives in Adding Miles) is simple to navigate on the road (there are only two turns) but confusing on any map, so follow my directions carefully and ignore what any paper or web map is telling you.  To add to the confusion, all road signage is absent, ambiguous, or hard to see until the summit, 28.5 miles in.

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Clear Lake to Cobb

Distance: 23 miles out and back
Elevation gain: 2430 ft

This is a short, lovely, relatively easy out and back climb and descent.   It stairsteps with much variety of contour through beautiful scenery, then gives you a sweet descent you can really attack on the return.   No bragging rights on this one, no sufferfest—just sweet riding.  To add to your bliss, at the turn-around point is a unique, charming cafe/bakery/bookstore/coffee shop.

(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.)

IMG_7384Begin at the intersection of Hwy 175 and Highway 29, the moderately big highway paralleling the southern shore of Clear Lake.  There used to be a small dirt pull-out 100 yds up 175, but currently (3/2020) there is construction at the 29/175 intersection and it’s obliterated the shoulder along 175, so parking is tight.

Since our route is steepest in the first couple of miles, you might want to warm up on 29, which is flat or gently sloped in both directions, but much of it in this area is shoulderless and narrow, so the traffic can be disconcerting.

Ride 175 to the tiny mountain town of Cobb, where you turn around and ride back.  Hwy 175 is the main route from Middletown to Clear Lake, so it’s not car-free, but the traffic is light (even on weekends) and the wide two-lane road offers plenty of passing room.  And the payoff for riding on a “highway” is the road surface is glassy throughout.  The scenery is first-rate, starting in vineyards and deciduous oaks (particularly colorful in the fall) and climbing to lush Coast Range conifers near the top.

175 is moderately steep in the first mile, but then it mellows out and you won’t work again until the hill just before Cobb.  You gain 2430 ft in 11 miles, according to Mapmyride, but in fact the climbing feels much easier than the numbers suggest.  The road contour is pleasantly varied, so you never do the same sort of riding for more than about 50 yards.

1.2 miles before Cobb you reach an obvious summit, followed by a fast, straight descent into town.  Turn around here if you don’t want to do work, because the climb out of Cobb on the return is noticeable and not particularly fun.  But riding to Cobb is worth the effort, because it allows you to visit Mountain High Coffee and Books, on your R just before you intersect with Bottle Rock Rd. in a little strip mall (easy to overlook), a delightful coffee/smoothie/bakery/sandwich/breakfast eatery/aroma therapy/book store which makes for a perfect mid-ride pit stop.  This place is one of my favorite little stores anywhere.  It sells about 100 used books, all of them hand-selected and worth reading, with a children’s book section, big easy chairs for extended browsing, and outside tables for lunch munching.

The ride back from the summit is very special.  It’s never straight, but it’s not twisty, and the pitch is just steep enough that you can get up some real speed (in places you’ll touch 30 mph) but never so steep that you have to back off and brake.  I love descents like this, where you can really charge the hill, press the pace, and pedal hard.

In 2015 the Valley Fire burned tens of thousands of acres south of Clear Lake.  The fire burned on three sides of Cobb, but the town and our stretch of Hwy 175 were largely undamaged.  You’ll see major damage to the forest and several destroyed houses along the road in the last two miles before entering Cobb (see photo at end of post).  The stretch of 175 from Cobb to Middletown goes through the heart of the devastation, if you’re interested in such things.


Hwy 175: love that glassy road surface

Adding Miles:  You can continue on 175 to Middletown.  It doesn’t begin to match the interest or beauty of what we’ve already ridden, but it’s pleasant enough—bigger, straighter, more open, more developed—and just past Cobb there’s a substantial descent (1700 ft in 5.5 miles, c. 7%) you want to make sure you want to climb if you’re doing an out and back.

The other riding around Clear Lake is plentiful, popular, and consistently good once you’re off the main highways.  The hills south of Clear Lake are a warren of good roads, all much like Hwy 175—pretty, a little trafficky, never flat, never severely steep.  It’s easy to make up loops.  Bottle Rock Rd., which parallels our ride just to the west, is a little bigger, straighter, and busier than 175 (or was the day I rode it), and it has a 3-mile slog of a climb—straight, unvaried of pitch, and downright monotonous—soon after leaving the lake, all reasons I didn’t include it in our route, but it’s worth riding nonetheless.  If you love straight, fast descending, ride up 175 and down Bottle Rock.  Also worth riding in the area are Seigler Canyon Rd, Loch Lomond Rd, and Red Hills Rd.  Big Canyon Rd. used to be one of my favorites, but it does have a stretch of (ridable) dirt in its middle and it now goes through the heart of the Valley Fire burn.  Now years after the fire, the scenery is not barren but also not lush.   Seigler Springs Rd. and Diener Rd. are largely dirt.

Creating loop routes in this area almost always involves riding a stretch of Hwy 29.  It can be fine or harrowing, depending on where you are.  It’s a big two-lane highway with constant gentle rollers, a lot of traffic, and an unreliable shoulder.  The scenery—vineyards, hills—is charming.

Heading north from the north end of Clear Lake is one of those effortless gems that cycling brings our way now and then, Scotts Valley Road.  It’s a near-flat, dead easy, but utterly adorable roll through an unpretentious valley of ancient pear orchards and old farm houses (the kind with unmanned produce stands in front of them).  Take the Hwy 29 exit marked Scotts Valley in Lakeport.  Park as soon as the road leaves the congested highway area, ride to the road’s dead end at Hwy 20, then ride back.  You can add 6 miles by taking Blue Lakes Rd out and back along the river a stone’s throw before the intersection with 20, and you can add interest by taking the alternate route along Hendricks Road on your L about a mile down Scotts Valley from the beginning of the ride.  Rumor had it that the Mendocino Fire damaged Scotts Valley, but I’m happy to say it’s totally intact as of 11/18.


From Elk Mt. Road looking back toward Clear Lake

At the northwest corner of the lake is the town of Upper Lake, and from there you can do the Elk Mountain Rd. ride, the exact opposite of the Scotts Valley ride.  This one is a rough and rugged ride for a day when you want to work.  Ride away from the lake down Upper Lake’s Main St., jog R on Second St. and turn immediately L on Middle Creek Rd, which turns in less than a mile into Elk Mountain.  Ride Elk Mountain until it turns to dirt 17 miles out, then return.   For the first 9 miles you’ll roll sweetly through pretty oaks along the edge of an ever-narrowing valley.  As soon as the valley ends, the road turns up, and you’ll do a demanding 8% pitch for the next 5.5 miles over rough pavement with some splendid switchbacks and grand vistas of the country you’ve just ridden through.  At 14.5 miles you summit and roll up and down, mostly down, to the end of the pavement.

The returning descent from the summit would be a Best of the Best descent if the pavement were smooth, which it isn’t.  It’s generally poor, and in places it’s downright nasty.  Bring your 28 mm tires and prepare to do a lot of braking and feel a lot of jarring.

Elk Mountain Road leads to Pillsbury Lake and to a hugely popular off-road vehicle playground, so there are a surprising number of people up there.   I did it at 11 am-1 pm on a beautiful fall Saturday and saw two cars on the ride in—one of whom stopped, asked me if I needed anything, and offered me water.  But all those people have to drive up and down that road sometime, so at some hours it must be heavily trafficked, and it’s not a pleasant road to meet traffic on.  Plan your ride accordingly.

All that makes Elk Mountain sounds pretty dreadful.  It isn’t.  If you like a hard climb, don’t mind rough pavement, and can find a ride time that avoids the traffic, it’s the only ride in the Clear Lake area with a sense of epic grandeur.

A popular ride is to circumnavigate the lake.  I can’t see the appeal.  Highway 29, on the south side, is scenically pleasant but is all shoulder riding, Highway 20 along the north shore goes through a series of small, congested, bike-unfriendly towns that are hectic even in a car, and the connecting roads on the west and east sides are the epitome of big/flat/straight/trafficky.

Fire damage near Cobb