Notes for Potential Bicyclists
Many thanks to Andreas for working so hard to design a low-traffic route with great scenery and then spending the time to share the route on his website CyclingCalifornia.com. We were the beneficiaries of his efforts and we can’t thank him enough.
25 to 30% of the route is on graded hard packed dirt or gravel roads. A couple dozen miles are on rough dirt roads. The remainder is on paved roads, most of which have very little traffic. This is not a technical mountain bike ride and people used to paved road riding should not have trouble completing this route if they have appropriate tires on their bike. The dirt stretches were included in order to provide the most scenic and least trafficked option available.
We started and finished the trip in Willows and rode clockwise. In hindsight, we wish we had ridden counter-clockwise in order to have the inevitable northwestern coastal winds at our backs. If you take the trip in October and start in Willows or Chico, traveling counter-clockwise will also reduce the risk that you will hit snow at Lassen, since you’ll be there earlier in the trip.
Bikepacking, backpacking with a bike, has become increasingly popular in the past ten years and there is much more route and gear information available now than when we took this ride. Both bikepacking.net and bikepacking.com have extensive information about gear and routes. Our sweet spot is very quiet roads and we are agnostic as to whether those roads are dirt or paved. Those two sites sometimes focus on more technically challenging routes than we like, but do have information about dirt-road routes suitable for us. They are fine resources for up-to-date bikepacking gear information.
Our route differs in places from Andreas Vogel’s original route, and everything in this article is about our ride. We found some of Andreas’ notes confusing or misleading while en route, and perhaps he has updated his site. In any case, we attempt to provide all the necessary information in this article.
The red line on the CalTopo map shows our actual ride; the blue lines show alternatives we recommend. There are two substantive alternates to considere.
The first is in the northeastern portion of the loop, between McCloud and Burney. As described in the daily notes for Day 10 we were unable to follow our intended route and had to backtrack and ride on the highway. The blue line through Big Bend shows a viable route we have mapped but not ridden. Also shown, contained in its own folder, is the mapped route for the Great Shasta Rail Trail, which is not yet completed. Once open, the Rail Trail would certainly be the preferred primary route.
The second substantive alternate to the route we rode is in the northwest, between Weitchpec and Arcata. We believe the NorCal Loop could include more coast and redwood forests. We had walked the coast from Oregon to Arcata earlier in the year and felt that the section starting in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park was marvelous. The section between Arcata and Orick includes some riding on Highway 1, but much of it is on secondary and very scenic coastal roads. From the junction of Highway 1 and Bald Hills Road there is a fantastic loop north into Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. The alternate concludes with the Bald Hills Road between Weitchpec and Orick; we have studied the topo maps and looked at photos and believe it would be a fine piece of riding, but have not traveled this road. Once you reach Weitchpec, either go south and regain the primary route just north of Hoopa, or take highway 96 north and pick the loop at Orleans. These two options are discussed in the Day 9 notes. The best map for this alternate is the Trails Illustrated Redwood National and State Parks map.
Disclaimer: Do not rely on our exact tracks for your route; use skill and common sense. Use the stated distances as guidance; various sources of trail distances rarely agree.
The viable riding season is May or June through mid to late October.
Rain. Northern California has a wet and a dry season and the wet season can be really wet; for instance, Honeydew averages 80 inches of rain per year, nearly all during November through April. On the other hand, the dry season is usually completely dry and you are likely to have a trip with no rain. The wet season is typically November to March. October, April, and May are transitional months that can be completely dry or wet depending on the year.
Winter. The road through Lassen National Park reaches 8500 feet, and is closed from the first serious snow in October or November until the road has been plowed in May or June. Refer to the historical road closure data for guidance. The timing of the autumn closure is completely unpredictable until a week before the first storm of the season. The timing of the spring opening is somewhat predictable by the beginning of April and is based on the snowpack and the CalTrans schedule. There are other roads on the route that are closed in winter by snow, so even if you rerouted around Lassen the route would be impassable; the road closure schedule at Lassen is a reasonable proxy for the rest of the route.
Spring. The grass is green and the flowers are in full bloom from April through June. The landscape starts to dry out as soon as the rain stops and by the end of summer, everything is dry and golden. Spring and summer can be very windy, particularly on the coast.
Summer. The coast and low-lying coastal valleys are nearly always foggy during July and August. Sometimes that fog will burn off by mid-day, but not always. On the other hand, the view from the hills and mountains when the fog is below you is delightful. Parts of this route can be quite hot during the summer. If you are used to temperatures in the 90s, then don’t worry about it, but if you are a fair weather rider, then avoid July and August.
Autumn. The weather is usually excellent and often not as windy as spring. September and October have much less chance for dense prolonged fog at the coast. Big Leaf Maples, Black Oaks, and Dogwoods put on a colorful autumn show; depending on their location they peak sometime in October.
We had clear, cool, calm, pleasant weather every day of our trip. Our only windy stretch was between Petrolia and Eureka; the exposed coast there is, we believe, windy most of year, and the wind is consistently out of the north or northwest. We had temperatures near or below freezing on half of our early mornings; daytime temperatures were in the 60’s.
If you are a salmon or steelhead fisherman, you might want take that into consideration when choosing your dates.
Bike and Gear
There is plenty of climbing, some of it steep. Much of the route is paved, and many of the dirt sections are relatively smooth. We rode hard-tails and appreciated our front suspensions on a few sections, however a rigid frame should be acceptable. We used 1.9” tires, 1.5” should be OK, but skinny tires are not appropriate.
We carried a fairly lightweight kit and highly recommend that strategy; there is a plethora of information about gear at bikepacking.net and bikepacking.com and we have nothing unique to add to their information.
Food is available nearly every day, but the selections are often a bit limited. We did not carry a stove. We ate restaurant meals a half dozen times, and had grocery store deli food a few times. Specific information on food options is in the Detailed Route Notes section. Please keep in mind that restaurants and stores come and go over the years; our data is from 2008.
You could start the trip anywhere in the loop. We drove to Willows and parked at Walmart where they kindly gave us permission to leave our car in their lot for two weeks.
Greyhound has direct service from San Francisco to Arcata, with stops at Oakland, Santa Rosa, Laytonville and Eureka. Weed has Greyhound service. Chico has Amtrak, Greyhound and commercial air services.
If you are not within easy driving distance of this route, it might be easiest to take a plane, train, or bus to Chico or Reno and start there. Reno, which should be easier to get to than Chico, is about 120 quiet road miles from Chester.
We passed through a lot of timber lands, and were surprised and pleased to report that the lumber trucks were amazingly polite to us, consistently slowing down when passing. In some of the forests, the dirt roads used to service active harvest areas were watered down every day, so there was no dust.
Not sure how this happened, but neither of us was ever chased by a dog – not once on the entire trip. What a nice break!
Many of the rivers in the Coast Ranges, including the Eel, Klamath, and Trinity, are protected as part of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. These are important salmon and steelhead rivers and are very beautiful places. From bridges we could stop and watch huge salmon swimming in the tributary creeks below.
The route notes are organized based on our days and campsites. We don’t assume anybody would travel at our speed. Conversly, the segments in the CalTopo map are divided using logical landmarks such as towns.