Last fall I went to the Mendocino National Forest, north of Clear Lake, solo, to see if I could circumnavigate the Snow Mountain Wilderness. I tried to do it back in March in the Montero but the snow melt-swollen rivers were too deep to cross. This time I brought a dirt bike. I didn’t think I’d be able to cover the estimated 60 or 70 miles in the truck, at least not in a day—10 mph is about average on rough roads. I figured I could easily double that on the bike.
I got up early, was in the woods, and on the bike by noon. Within a few minutes I had crossed Parramore Creek (the one that had held me back in spring) without a problem. OK—I stalled the bike mid-stream and had to dunk a boot in the water to keep from falling over, but basically no problem. From there my wet right foot and I headed north on forest road M3—see map below—and things got a little more serious. At one point, after slamming through a deep puddle in an especially rutted section of road, I stopped and thought, “Should I take a picture of that for the blog?” I decided yes and headed back. There in puddle lay my spare gas can. Sheesh.
After an hour of bouncing two wheels over mangled dirt, I had covered only 11 miles, about as much as I could have covered on four. I doubted whether I’d make it round the whole loop. That morning though, much like a 17th-century captain hoisting the flag of his patron saint, or an Indian taxi driver with dashboard shrine to Ganesh, I had attached a photo of a statue depicting Archangel Michael to my handlebars. I’m not super religious but I figured a little divine luck couldn’t hurt.
Yes, I was heading out alone on a 24-year-old dirt bike but I wasn’t rash about it. The bike had been recently tuned up and I had food, water and tools in my backback. After adjusting this load, and getting my spare gas can permanently strapped down, I started to make better time. After heading east across Skeleton Creek, the road began to climb through a series of switchbacks. Here in the trees on the north side of the mountain, I opened the throttle and flew over roads strewn with leaves. They looked like they hadn’t seen tire tracks in months.
The temperature had fallen with my gain in elevation and another hour had gone by as I stopped for a sip of water and another layer of clothing near Crockett Peak. A check of the GPS showed that I had dramatically improved my pace to an average of over 20 mph. Though many miles lay ahead, I felt confident for the first time that I was going to make it.
After the road straightened out, I made very good time for a few miles. Near the most northerly point in the loop, I headed right onto the narrow, rock-and-boulder-strewn Forest Road 18N02 and headed downhill towards the Southeast.
After flying across a cattle guard, I hit the brakes. “What the…?” Yes, a bear had recently been walking down the middle of this very road. Here the view opened up towards the Sacramento Valley.
As 18N02 headed more directly south, I had to stay on my toes, literally. Plenty of rocks and switchbacks meant lots of time standing on the pegs. I noticed the weight of my pack but the view was gorgeous and charging up and down along the ridge was thrilling.
I had meant to take a right turn onto Forest Road 18N03 and take it west, through another series of switchbacks. Instead, I missed that turn and ended taking 18N30 east, right out of the forest. As soon as I saw the straight-as-an-arrow road and the farm houses, I knew I had made a mistake. Damn.
I pulled out the map. I had gone so far out that I decided to keep going to tiny Stonyford, take a right and then head west back into the forest. When I stopped in Stonyford for a Clif Bar and some water, I realized that I was within a stone’s throw of where my girlfriend and I first met, East Park Reservoir, the site of a camping trip last summer. My cell phone was dying but I sent her a text to say hi and tell her that I hadn’t crashed on a lone hill somewhere.
Side note: I saw permanently closed gates on my Mendocino National Forest map but, thankfully, didn’t come across any on the trail.
I hadn’t planned on this extra detour but, with the spare gas can still attached to the rear fender, I wasn’t worried. I donned my helmet, gunned the bike, and headed back into the woods.
Here I could have taken Forest Road M5 for a more dirt-intensive trip but the day was waning, so I stuck to the pavement for a little longer. After a several miles of blacktop, however, I was back on the dirt and charging along the southern leg of my loop. The roads were in good shape, save for the rain-carved channels. Blasting along, picking the right line through the ruts, raised my adrenaline, not to mention an ear-to-ear grin. I roared down the road, ahead of a cloud of dust, towards the intersection of the M3 where, several hours ago, I had started. When I reached it, I let out a yell—I had closed the loop!
I crossed back over Parramore Creek—this time without getting wet—and raced up the hill to the truck. Throttle, break, downshift, avoid the ruts, throttle, cut across the ruts, downshift for the next corner. My scrappy little Honda had some life in it yet. I didn’t want it to end. And then, just when I’d had enough, there was the truck. I got the bike on the trailer right as the sun began to set. Perfect!
In the end I covered 83 miles in 5 hours with fuel in the tank to spare. If you’re interested in a backcountry motorcycle trip, I can recommend this one. I really enjoyed the mix of terrain, road surfaces, and water crossings. Besides that, the views are gorgeous.
The first map below shows the route I took. The second one shows an idealized loop.
For a .gpx file of this route, visit West County Explorers Club.