Want a big cycling adventure on North America’s western fringe? Skip the heavily travelled Pacific coast route and go inland instead, from hip San Francisco through California’s central valley and up into the Cascade and Rocky Mountains.
You’ll have plenty of time for reflection on the long and lonely Route 395, see some of the best alpine scenery this part of the world has to offer, including the Going To The Sun Road in Montana’s Glacier National Park and experience beautiful bike paths in Idaho.
Duration: 6-7 weeks
Terrain: Plenty of hot, dry plains (some at altitude), mixed with glorious mountains like the Cascades and the Rockies.
Accommodation: Some camping required but hotels in the bigger centres.
Highlights: The bustling city of San Francisco, bike-friendly cities of Davis, CA and Moscow, ID and some intriguing, lonely roads.
Lowlights: Harsh conditions make some long distances without many services necessary. It’s tough to find shade in many stretches.
Be sure to bring: Lots of water, strong sunscreen and protective clothing.
These notes start with our route through California:
San Francisco to Samuel P. Taylor State Park (55km)
Shops: All along the route until Fairfax, both supermarkets and bicycle shops.
Accommodation: We saw very few hotels or B&Bs once we left Sausalito, although undoubtedly there are some around. Ask a local. Hiker/Biker site in the Samuel P. Taylor state park ($3/pp)
*GPS data logged with the QSTARZ BT-Q1000
If it’s high summer, follow the crowds to the Golden Gate Bridge. A marked cycle route along the bay shore will get you there and there’s a lookout point on the other side where you can capture the view with your camera.
Keep following the cycle path (marked as Route 15 and then Route 20) through pretty Sausalito, over the marshes to Marin City and up into the hills as far as Fairfax. Sometimes you’re on a completely separate path. Other times you have to share the roads with cars but traffic is rarely heavy.
You’re never very far from a main street, lined with cafes, restaurants and boutiques as well as more practical services like supermarkets.
From Fairfax, the road climbs steadily over Loma Alta and the landscape becomes less and less populated. By the time you reach San Geronimo and Lagunitas, there’s not much option for stocking up on supplies.
Soon the road is shaded by redwoods and you’ll see the Samuel P. Taylor National Park in front of you, with its small hiker/biker area. It’s well maintained and pretty but evenings can be cool.
Samuel P. Taylor State Park to Napa (90km)
Shops: Petaluma, Sonoma and Napa.
Accommodation: Hotels in Petaluma, Sonoma and Napa. Campers will want to head for the Skyline Wilderness Park ($15/site, reception closes at 7pm)
A bike trail path leads through the park, coming out a few kilometers later on Sir Francis Drake Road. Where the path ends, a small bridge to the right leads to Platform Bridge Road. Turn onto this road, which leads over a reservoir and uphill, past Hicks Mountain and towards Petaluma.
Along the way you’ll see the Marin French Cheese Company, well worth a stop for their delectable soft cheeses and fresh bread.
Follow the main road into the heart of Petaluma, where you go left on Petaluma Boulevard, right on Washington Street and right on Adobe Road. There’s quite a bit of traffic at this point but you do have a wide shoulder most of the time.
After Adobe Road becomes Route 116, the shoulder does occasionally disappear so be extra vigilant of cars approaching from behind. Watch for the first turn your left, which will take you get you off the busy road and into Sonoma on quite back routes.
Now you’re in wine country and for the rest of the day you’ll see little but vineyards in the fields and hills along the road.
In Sonoma, East Napa Street leads from the city hall out to 8th Street East. Then it’s a left turn onto Napa Road, which leads to Route 12. Once again, it’s busy but you have a good shoulder, sometimes as wide as the lane the cars are in! After a few kilometers, Old Sonoma Road on your left will take you into Napa.
There are two campgrounds in Napa, but the one at the fairgrounds has a firm no-tents policy (they claim they are trying to keep out homeless people). Happily, the Skyline Wilderness Park will take tenters and the grounds are far nicer anyway. It’s on Imola Avenue, just southwest of the town centre. Just before the park, keep an eye out on the left for the Mexican supermarket. It’s got a great selection of produce, Mexican cooked food and cold beer at very reasonable prices.
Napa to Davis (90km)
Shops: Napa, 128 junction (general store), Winters, Davis
Accommodation: Camping at the 128 junction and just outside of Winters. Hotels in Davis.
It’s a tough climb out of Napa and into the hills towards Davis. Start early and take plenty of water and snacks because there’s not much en route.
Route 121 takes you out of town, eventually turning onto Route 128. Although this is a twisty road, there’s not much traffic during the week so it’s a fairly safe ride. On the weekends, be vigilant of trucks hauling boats to Lake Berryessa.
Your only place to pick up food and rest before Winters is at the junction with the 128, where there’s a general store and a campground. Otherwise, there are plenty of spots to pull over and rest in the shade but nothing in the way of amenities.
The landscape starts out lush, with flower-filled fields in spring, and progresses to dry, rocky hills as you approach Davis and the arid central valley. After Winters, you can continue on the 128 but the better option is to go right at the main intersection into Winters, over a creek and then left to Davis on the old road. By going this way, you’ll have less traffic and a dedicated cycle path for the last third of the journey into Davis.
Davis is America’s most bicycle friendly city so soak up the great atmosphere (there are more bikes than cars!). Enhance your experience and make new friends by staying with one of the many enthusiastic WarmShowers hosts in town.
Davis to Colusa (90km)
Shops: Davis, Woodland, Knights Landing (corner stores), Grimes (corner shop), Colusa.
Accommodation: Knights Landing (RV Park), Colusa (hotels, camping at the State Recreation Park).
After the hills coming out of Napa, today is dead flat and although the road is technically a breeze, it’s not much to look at and can be swelteringly hot in the summer. Once again, services are thin so you’re best to stock up in Davis before you leave.
Follow the minor road north (up F Street from central Davis to the end, then right and left). It’s somewhat busy all the way to Knights Landing, where you turn onto the very quiet Route 45 along the Sacramento River. High dykes prevent you from seeing the river and instead there’s a constant string of farmland to admire.
Just 350 people live in Grimes so it’s a pretty quiet place but there’s a church and a Scout Lodge opposite each other on the main road, both of which make a good spot for a shady lunch break. There’s also an orange tree across from the Scout Lodge with juicy, sweet fruit.
From Grimes, you’re a mere 20km away from Colusa, a tree-lined town with a few shops, a historic courthouse and a state park with shady campsites ($15 each). Beware: although the park advertises hiker-biker sites online, they don’t exist and you must pay the full price.
Colusa to Chico (70km)
Shops: Colusa (supermarket), Princeton (corner shop), Chico (health foods, supermarket)
Accommodation: Colusa (camping), Chico (hotels or wild camping outside town)
From Colusa to Chico, the road is painfully flat and, to be honest, quite boring. On a hot day it’s absolutely uncomfortable with the sun radiating off the asphalt and little place to take shelter, aside from in the many walnut tree groves that line the road.
Your best bet is to get up early and, as long as there’s no headwind, you can easily be in Chico by lunchtime.
Chico is a pleasant little town, with a 15,000-strong student population that keeps it vibrant. The college here has a reputation as a party town and the Safeway supermarket nearest the campus sells more beer than any other Safeway in all of America!
Beware of mischievous students, who will happily steal your bicycle. A small lock should be enough to prevent disaster, since the focus is mostly on opportunistic theft.
Unfortunately there’s no camping in Chico, which leaves you with 3 choices: hook up with a friendly WarmShowers host, shell out for a hotel or go wild camping just outside of town. The last option is surprisingly easy. Just ask for directions to Bidwell Park (with its great natural swimming pool made from a dammed up creek – a savior on a hot day) and then follow the cycle paths north out of town. Soon you’ll find yourself along a plethora of mountain bike trails and there are plenty of spots where you can set up a tent near dusk.
Another option is Humbolt Road, off Bruce Road. This is the old Highway 32 and it parallels the new road for several kilometers, through completely unpopulated land. Here you can have your choice of tenting spots but there is no water nearby so bring what you need.
Chico to Deer Creek (70km)
Shops: Chico (health foods, supermarket), Forest Range (small store)
Accommodation: Chico (hotels or wild camping outside town), Deer River State Campsites ($14/site)
After so much flat farmland, it’s a relief to climb up into the hills today. The ascent starts as soon as you leave Chico, either on Highway 32 or on Humbolt Road, which parallels the main road for about 10km. There is next to no traffic on Humbolt Road and Highway 32 is only moderately busy.
As you climb towards Forest Range, the pine trees grow thicker and start to shade the route, a welcome relief from the strong sun.
The small town of Forest Range (population 1500) has a general store, a post office and a couple churches. Take the chance to grab a cold drink and refill your water bottles before heading further north, where a few strenuous hills await.
There’s very little on the road after Forest Range. You cross the occasional babbling brook but that’s about all. Even the cars become infrequent. It’s not uncommon to go several minutes between vehicles.
About 60km out from Chico the road turns sharply downhill to Deer Creek and then edges back up a touch to the Potato Patch Campground, a state-run site with pit toilets and water.
Deer Creek to Freydonyer Pass (75km)
Shops: Chester, Westwood (supermarkets)
Accommodation: State Campgrounds (on Route 32), Chester (hotels, campgrounds) or an abundance of wild camping
The ride out of Deer Creek and towards the Route 36 junction is gloriously cool in the morning, shaded by pine trees and with the sound of rushing water always nearby. There are two campgrounds shortly after Deer Creek, the first free (no water taps or garbage pickup) and the second a pay site.
Go right when you reach the Route 36 junction and cruise into Chester, a ride that’s slightly uphill overall but not very strenuous. Here you’ll find a variety of services including a tourist office with free wireless internet, a large supermarket, restaurants and, towards the end of the main strip, the town park on the left.
There are picnic tables under trees and plenty of green space, making this a possible camping spot if you’re desperate and on a tight budget (better wild camping can be found out of town).
Revive your energy with a milkshake at the Pine Shack Frosty, a classic American diner-style restaurant on the left as you roll through town.
Out of Chester, the road climbs slightly, then descends towards Westwood, a former lumber town that was once one of the largest mill towns in California. The company store was renowned for selling everything from “candy to cars” but not “demon rum”. This was a dry town.
Today, Westwood has 2 supermarkets, a 25-foot tall redwood statue of Paul Bunyan and not much else. Once you’ve posed beside Paul for the obligatory picture, the nicest route towards Susanville is found by taking the Bizz Johnson Trail, a 25 mile traffic-free path along the old Southern Pacific Railway line. There are 12 bridges and 2 tunnels to negotiate as you bike along the Susan River Canyon and 2 campsites where you can spend the night. Find it by taking Route A21 north to Mason Station.
Otherwise, it’s a steady but easy-going climb on Route 36 to the Freydonyer Pass at 5,748 feet. You’ve made up so much ground so far, there’s not much more left to cover. Just before the pass, a sign appears for a snowmobile park. You’ll find a pit toilet here and if you go down the trail at the end of the parking lot, there’s plenty of quiet space to pitch a tent. Walk another few hundred meters down the track and you’ll run into a stream to draw water from.
Freydonyer Pass to Ramhorn Springs (95km)
Shops: Susanville (supermarkets), Litchfield (general store)
Accommodation: Susanville (hotels), plenty of free camping on Route 395
From the pass, it’s a mostly downhill run into Susanville (population 17,500), with its long strip of hotels, restaurants and an IGA supermarket.
If you didn’t pick up the Bizz Johnson bicycle trail the day before, there’s a second chance as you go over the Susan River. Follow signs to the trailhead and the path will take you past the Cheney Creek Campground and into town, dropping you right at the helpful visitors centre, housed in an old railway station. Otherwise, Route 36 takes you down the main street and you can get to the visitors centre by turning right on Weatherlow Street and going ½ mile down the road.
At the visitors centre you can find out the status of the rails-to-trails project that will put a bike path along Route 395, hopefully by summer 2010, and where to take a dip in the river if you haven’t had a shower in a few days! Another worthwhile stop is the Bureau of Land Management on Riverside Drive. They have maps of campsites all over California and other information on the area.
When you’re ready, follow Main Street out of Susanville until you see the left turn for the Johnstonville Road, which leads onto Center Road. This takes you past the state jail to Litchfield, where there’s a general store with a tap for filling up water bottles, and Route 395.
Once past Litchfield, a sign welcomes you to ‘your land’ and you can camp anywhere in this wilderness, as long as it’s not obviously on a road leading to a ranch. Sometimes there are fences, other times it’s wide open.
There are a couple hills to ascend before you reach the next water stop, at a rest area around the 90km mark. Cool water pours from a fountain. A sign warns against drinking it but we found it was fine. It’s your call.
A further 5km up the road is the marked turnoff for the Ramhorn Springs Campground, a free camping site. The campsite is 5km down the dirt road so we just camped off to the side in the fields. If you choose to go to the campground, note that some brochures say no water is available and others say there is water so take some just to be on the safe side!
Ramhorn Springs to Davis Creek and Plum Valley Campground (139km)
Shops: Madeline (small shop, cafe), Likely (general store, cafe), Alturas (small supermarket), Davis Creek (corner shop)
Accommodation: Ravendale (motel), Madeline (free tenting at the RV park, showers $2.50), Likely (RV park), Alturas (RV park, hotels), Davis Creek (free camping at Plum Valley, 3 miles up a side road)
On a good day, with the wind at your back and a song in your heart, you can cover this whole stretch in one go but there are many opportunities to take it more slowly if you prefer.
From Ramhorn Springs, the road is largely flat through the settlements of Ravendale (pick up water from the fire station just before the village), Termo and Madeline, where you’ll find a general store and cafe. Try the biscuits and gravy for a real taste of Americana. If you haven’t showered in a few days, you can also scrub up here and the friendly owner welcomes tenters at no charge.
A small climb leads to the Sage Hen Pass at 5,559 feet and then it’s all downhill to Likely and Alturas, the biggest town you’ll see for some time. If you’re a bit hot by this point, stop in at Harold’s Frosty for incredibly thick milkshakes (on your right, towards the end of the main street and beside the high school).
The dry landscape gives way to greener fields as you leave Alturas and even some trees on the distant hills. You’re climbing but almost imperceptibly all the way to Davis Creek. Stop at the quirky general store to refill your water bottles and pick up a cold beer before you turn right and follow the signs for Plum Valley Campground.
If you’ve done this all in one day, the last 3 uphill miles to Plum Valley are a real killer but the ascent is worth it. The campground is beautifully set in a grove of tall trees and although there are no water taps, there is a rushing brook and fireplaces with plenty of wood around for an evening campfire. Plus, it’s free! What more could you ask for?
Want to carry on the route? The next set of notes are for Oregon…