Nestled amidst the rolling landscapes of Lake County, Clear Lake emerged as a revelation—a shimmering expanse of freshwater, the largest in California. Despite 15 years in the Golden State, this hidden gem had somehow eluded my explorations. Intrigued by its allure, I embarked on an overnight bikepacking journey, commencing from the hamlet of Hopland in the Sanel Valley.
As I set out on my bikepacking adventure one early Saturday morning in November, the thick early morning autumn fog and mist quickly dissipated, unveiling a picturesque transformation of broken pavement to the comforting crunch of hard-packed gravel on Old Toll Road. The ascent to the ridge unfolded with a gentle embrace, allowing me to lose myself in a pedal rhythm, soaking in the breathtaking views of hill ranges, valleys, and vineyards to the north.
Arriving at the high point, a three-way junction of dirt roads, proved somewhat anticlimactic, with private property signs and gated side roads. The descent led me from Mendocino County into Lake County, revealing a dazzling display of autumnal colors on the east-facing slopes along Highland Creek. As I meandered towards Highland Springs Reservoir and Recreation Area, the distant echoes of gunshots and lack of amenities urged me to press on.
Traversing local roads into Kelseyville, I eventually reached the entrance to Clear Lake State Park. I found solace in the late afternoon, witnessing the sun’s golden brushstrokes paint the hills in deep orange and red hues. The roar of speed boat engines provided the soundtrack to the scenery. Once those eventually had made their way to a dock, the tranquil sounds of waves caressing the shore marked the transition from daylight to twilight.
Prepared for much colder temperatures, I awoke to 46°F (8°C) and a landscape already aglow with light. Packing up and enjoying a leisurely breakfast, I departed Clear Lake State Park, journeying westward toward Cow Mountain. Passing vineyards and orchards, I took a left onto Martin Street, guiding me into the foothills and towards the entrance of Cow Mountain Recreation Area.
I cruised along the access road following the dry bed of Scotts Creek for not even two miles before I reached a sandy parking lot. The climb that awaited me was a formidable beast, with a ten percent average grade and a peak of seventeen percent over three miles. Paved initially, the road demanded humility, prompting me to walk parts of it with my laden gravel bike.
The area was popular with OHV enthusiasts, but I encountered way more dirt bikers than folks on ATVs. I had stopped at a Y junction when a guy in his twenties on a dirt bike barreled down the dusty road and stopped beside me. “Did you come up from the creek?” he asked. I told him yes, I had indeed ascended from Scotts Creek, about 1300 feet below, and admitted some parts had been too steep for me to ride. “Hey, no shame in walking,” he said with a chuckle.
Continuing on Mendo-Lake Road, the main artery of the recreation area, the high-pitched engine sounds of dirt bikes echoed in the distance. Reaching the highest point at just above 3000 feet, panoramic views unfolded, revealing Clear Lake, the community of Upper Lake, and the southern reaches of Mendocino National Forest.
From the highest elevation point, the route continued on undulating terrain, with short dips and inclines on the hard-packed and wide dirt road. From Red Mountain Camp, I descended to the northeastern entrance of the Recreation Area and sped down an incredibly rough paved road littered with cracks and bone-crushing and teeth-shattering potholes. I briefly stopped at Marsh Creek Reservoir before spilling into Russian River Valley, a couple miles east of Ukiah.
The final stretch, a serene 13-mile cruise along Old River Road, resembled an opulent wine tour on two wheels. As I passed vineyards adorned with grandiose entry gates, the sun-drenched autumn afternoon showcased the changing seasons—a symphony of yellow and red hues signaling winter’s imminent arrival.
Scouring Ride With GPS for suitable options, I found a route created by Eric Marshall which seemed to fit my requirements for a (for me) decently challenging but reasonably doable bikepacking overnighter. Apart from a minor correction, it worked out perfectly.
The whole trip was taking me across the former ancestral home of the indigenous Pomo Indians. The Hopland Rancheria and the Big Valley Rancheria are two federally-recognized settlements and Native American Tribes close to the route.
The starting point (and suggested spot to park your car) is next to the entrance to Hopland Cemetery, which is roughly a two-hour drive from San Francisco. Alternative parking spots along Hwy 175 are marked on the Ride With GPS route map.
If the Hopland area is inconvenient to start from, one could also start from Ukiah and connect to the route from the north.
Water is, in general, a challenge on this route. I had several water bottles with me, totaling over one gallon of carrying capacity.
On the first day, one could refill at Highland Reservoir, however, there is no spigot so one would need to filter water from the lake itself. For day two, I suggest fully filling up before leaving Clear Lake State Park.
For either food or hydration needs, there are grocery store options in Kelseyville and in Lakeport before getting to Cow Mountain Recreation Area.
The majority of the route (by distance) is actually on paved roads, where as Old Toll Road and Mendo-Lake Road (through the Recreation Area) are the main gravel/dirt sections. However, those are wide roads and non-technical, so a gravel bike, like my Trek Checkpoint, with wider tires (40-45c) is ideal for this route.
- Original route by Eric Marshall
- South Cow Mountain OHV Management Area (blm.gov)
- South Cow Mountain OHV Recreation Area map (PDF)
- Clear Lake State Park. Hiker/biker sites ($5/night, as of November 2023)
- Clear Lake State Park brochure and map (PDF, 2012)