Mendocino Mountain Biking & Camping

Mendocino has been on Lynn & my mountain biking to-do list for a while now – especially once Lynn got the taste for mountain biking in the Redwoods in my old Santa Cruz stomping grounds. With winter approaching here in Tahoe, we decided to hit the road on an impromptu trip – tent, bike and gear thrown hastily into the flying green toaster on a Friday morning.

About five-and-a-half hours of driving through Grass Valley, Yuba City, Clear Lake and Willits on Highway 20 delivered us to Russian Gulch State Park campground, a beautiful but pricey site ($40 a night!) close to the few trails we’d turned up on the internet.

The park ranger pointed us to Catch a Canoe and Bicycle Too – a cool little shop on the side of the Big River – for a map and more guidance, where PBS was filming a family travel segment of some kind. Maps there were laminated, poster style, not exactly practical for carrying on a bike, which was our plan in a place with a reputation for no trail signs and no GPS signal through the dense canopy. Fortunately there was Mountain Biking the Mendocino Coast, 2nd Edition, a guidebook that was worth the purchase.

Saturday we rode Manly Gulch Trail in Jackson Demonstration State Forest, dropping in from a parking spot at the top down flowy, fast and sometimes exposed trail covered in redwood needle leaf litter with the occasional root ledge. It was a blast. Pedaling back up Forest History and Cookhouse was a grunt, but overall a super fun ride – worth the trip in and of itself.

The second day we started closer to camp, pedaling up the not-quite singletrack, not-quite fire road North Boundary Trail to Road 409, where we explored a spiderweb of unmarked trails in a dense forest. On the way back, a stint on the North Trail was worth the detour above Russian Gulch before coming to an end.

Camping got pretty chilly this time of year, but day-time weather was beautiful, and we passed the time when we weren’t riding site seeing around Mendocino and Fort Bragg, watching free divers hit the water for abalone. From our campground, we could pedal to a great beach or up to an overlook with fantastic views south.

Monday morning, as we planned to head south to Boonville, somewhere I’d never been – ominous smoke crept out to the coast, turning the morning light burnt orange. Texting with family and searching the internet from a local coffee shop – we first decided to avoid the numerous fires that sprung up overnight by heading back on Highway 20, but quickly turned around as we found news of more fires in the region.

Plan C became a drive straight down Highway 1 to my folks in Point Reyes. One of the most beautiful drives in the country – it was made otherworldly by a thick blanket of smoke. Each 2-lane highway that poured out of the hills onto the coast was bumper to bumper with people escaping the fires – and when we tried to stop for gas and lunch in Bodega Bay, we found the picturesque coastal community over-run, lines of cars 20-long out each end of the only gas station in town.

Point Reyes Station was out of gas as well, but after staying the night in Inverness we were able to make our way back to Truckee on Tuesday.

Mendocino is a remote destination no mater where you’re coming from, but worth the trip as their mountain bike scene continues to grow.

Mountain Bike Gear Tip for Mendocino

Light-lens Sunglasses: Both Lynn and I used rose-colored sunglasses, lighter than typical grey or gold, but in many places deep in the redwood jungle could have used clear lenses – and we didn’t even have fog or overcast.