Is it wise to attempt an eighty-mile bikepacking loop over two days in 100+ degree heat with 11,000+ feet of elevation gain? Probably not. Does it scream “type 2 fun“? Definitely.
Having visited the coastal town of Mendocino in Northern California a handful of times for low-key weekend recreation and quaint bed-and-breakfast stays, I was more curious about exploring the dirt paths of Mendocino National Forest this time around. The winter snow had melted, and the gravel roads cleared; the long July 4th weekend seemed the perfect time to explore the area. Were it not for the forecasted heatwave.
I arrived at Eel River Station, a hamlet roughly an hour’s drive east from Covelo, the closest census-designated space, around 8am on Saturday morning. The sun was already well up in the sky and impressing its power on the ground surface. Sweat was already building on my forehead and back as I unpacked the car and readied my bike for the two-day trip.
The route starts with a bang: a roughly 18-mile climb on Mendocino Pass Road (FH-7) on a steady six percent grade from 1,500 to 6,500 feet. I would stay on this road, connecting the Covelo in Mendocino County with Elk Creek and Willows in Sacramento Valley for most of the first day.
The US Forest Service website states that “nearly 90% of the Mendocino National Forest has burned within the last four years” due to various large-scale fire activities, namely the Mendocino Complex Fire (2018), burning the southern half of the forest, and the August Complex Fire (2020), burning the northern half. In practice, this meant I was about to cycle through vast landscapes of blackened and scorched trees and thus providing little to no shade on the pass road and elsewhere along the route.
The first few hours were tough, and I considered abandoning this adventure several times in my head. My fitness level isn’t what it once was, and the heat and constant climbing got to me. I pulled into a dirt side road and took an extended break for about half an hour to regroup and reset my expectations. I would need to take it way slower than anticipated and take more frequent breaks, ideally getting out of the sun beating down on me mercilessly and the thermometer reading 102 Fahrenheit.
Hydration was crucial, and I had extended my water-carrying capacity on the bike to close to 1.25 gallons just before the trip. I encountered a couple of streams flowing down the hillside as I climbed. About an hour before reaching the high point, I came across a water tank in a small meadow on the north side of the road, the faucet constantly spewing water into a trough. A perfect place to take rest and refill my water bottles.
Seven hours into the ride, I finally reached Pinto Ridge, the route’s high point at 6,500 feet. The temperatures at this altitude had entered the more tolerable 85-degree range, and a small pull-off into the forest provided the perfect place for lunch.
The rest of the first day’s terrain came with mixed feelings. It turned out to be a mix of harrowing descents on fairly well-maintained forest roads, during which I gripped my handlebars tightly and desperately tried to not cramp up from squeezing the breaks constantly. Sadly, those thrilling downhills eventually ended, and the next soul-crushing uphill on a fully exposed forest road lurked around the next bend.
I puttered along the ridge like this for a long while before turning south onto Road 311 to commence the loop back toward the start. At an average grade of nine percent and in worse shape than the main road, I finally gave in and walked the bike for a good bit. It was simply too hard.
From the next high point at a Y intersection, it was downhill again. Speeding down the gravel surface, I tried to balance excitement and speed with the risk of crashing, which would have been disastrous here, in the middle of nowhere. The road condition got progressively worse, rutted by snow melt, but thankfully cleared of fallen trees with tree-cutting debris spread across the ground where the tree trunks were removed.
My forearms and triceps were burning, and my neck muscles were tiring from keeping my head upright on the bike. I finally reached the bottom of the canyon around 7pm. I crossed the free-flowing Estell Creek, which, not too much further down, merges with Middle Creek to form the Black Butte River. I set up camp next to the creek and stuffed my face with as much food as I could muster the energy to prepare after this challenging day. To the white noise of the water rushing past behind me, I fell into a deep slumber.
I woke up shortly before sunrise, slowly going through my morning routine and packing up camp. Shortly after leaving my overnight spot, the climb out of the canyon awaited, again only accomplishable with a considerable amount of hiking on my bike.
A guy in a white flatbed truck equipped with knobby offroad tires came barrelling down the grooved and rutted road just as I attempted to ride a short section under my own power. “Wow, I haven’t seen anyone for the past four days. I camped on Hull Mountain last night, which still had snow”, he reported. It would remain my only human encounter for the rest of the day.
As I slowly dragged myself and my bike around another bend, I heard the sound of gunshots in the distance. As I continued to move along, it became clear that my direction of travel steered me right toward the sounds. The road eventually turned right at a green metal gate adorned with a “no trespassing” sign and a modest-looking cabin hiding at the end of a dirt driveway not too far from the entrance. I heard what sounded like children’s voices further back from the structure in the woods before yet another gun salvo went off. In my sleep and rest-deprived state, the scenery and situation inevitably conjured up visions of “cabin in the woods” horror movies. I eventually chalked it up to some redneck family having fun on a July 4th weekend.
I laboriously made it back up to the ridge and, not too different from the previous day, puttered along the ridge with thrilling descents followed by exhausting uphills in the blazing sun. Luckily, it was much breezier than the last day, providing a welcomed cooling effect.
I followed along Etsel Ridge and Mexico Ridge, which eventually kicked off the downhill back to Eel River Station. The more I lost elevation, the hotter the air started to feel. Towards the bottom, it registered again at slightly above 100 degrees, and with the wind now kicking up, it felt like riding through a furnace. I crossed Black Butte River, now several tens of feet wide, on a one-lane bridge and was back at the car shortly after that. At the nearby campground, folks continued their 4th of July activities with barbecuing and cooling off by the river. That is probably the one sensible thing to do in 100+ degree weather.
But who wants to be sensible all the time?
I created this route based on wanting to explore this section of Northern California more, the idea being to be able to do it as a weekend adventure trip. Doing it over two days proved a bit arduous during said heatwave. In regular conditions it might be fine, but splitting it up over three days might be more enjoyable.
The starting point is located at Eel River Station, a small outpost roughly an hour east of Covelo. Coming from the San Francisco Bay Area, it is about a 3.5 hour drive. I left on a Friday night and stayed overnight at a motel in Willits before driving to the beginning of the route Saturday morning.
All food needs to be brought in, there are no services along the route.
Given the heatwave during my trip, hydration was the bigger concern. I had several water bottles with me, totaling close to 1.25 gallons of carrying capacity. As mentioned in the article, I came across various water sources along the way, but unclear how reliable the smaller springs and creeks are year-round. To be safe, I recommend treating (boiling, filtering) any water before consumption.
I knew that I had to mostly contend with fairly well maintained forest service gravel and dirt roads. Because of that, I went with my Trek Checkpoint and gravel bikepacking setup. Wider tires (40-45c) are a must, but a mountain bike setup would be overkill for this route.