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Touring the Lassen National Forest: My idea of California dreamin’

By John Galvin

Chico To Lake Almanor, Calif.—I moved from Chico, California, to Minneapolis, Minnesota, about eight years ago. “Why?” is typically the first response to that statement. Shortly after the move I started riding. No matter how much I explore and continue to fall in love with Minnesota, I always find myself thinking about the college road trips up to the northern Sierra Nevada Mountains—God’s Country.

Touring the Lassen National Forest

Touring the Lassen National Forest

After experiencing enough winters no human should ever willingly endure, it was time for a late-spring getaway while the rains space out the Midwest riding days. After reserving a loaner bike, a generous brother’s frequent-flyer miles got me to Sacramento, about 85 miles south of Chico. Folsom Harley-Davidson is one of the few licensed H-D rental services in the Greater Sacramento area. The dealership is located on Woodmere Road, and you can’t miss it when you spot the massive amount of gleaming bikes lining the lot that faces Folsom Boulevard. Inside is wide-open and spacious, with equally as many pieces of Milwaukee iron in the showroom. The rental area is located in the back near the shop, and the top-notch service had me signing the dotted lines and running through the paces on a like-new 2014 Street Glide in no time. Next stop, Chico.

After a day catching up with family, friends and a handful of familiar bars, it was off to the hills surrounding Lake Almanor for four days of riding and fishing. With the rig and gear already docked at the lake thanks to that same generous brother, we packed up and hit the road. Normally from Chico you’d head east on the winding and logging truck-heavy Highway 32 to get to Lake Almanor, a great ride if you can time it right and get a little lucky. Knowing construction on 32 near Butte Meadows closed half of the two-lane with flagmen causing heavy delays; we instead opted for Highway 99 north to pick up 36 east near Red Bluff. Much like the rest of it, there’s nothing exciting about this stretch of 99 other than a distant view of Shasta and Lassen on clear days, so 36 was a welcome reprieve as it quickly climbs into the Northern Sierra foothills with spectacular canyon views to the north. The landscape is littered with rolling lava rock and few trees until you reach 3,000 feet, where the increasing pines indicate you’re in the shadows of Mount Lassen and the majestic Lassen National Forest.

Folsom H-D is about 30 miles east of the Sacramento airport and one of the only licensed Harley rental locations in the Greater Sacramento area, offering stellar service and one helluva selection of new and used scoots

Folsom H-D is about 30 miles east of the Sacramento airport and one of the only licensed
Harley rental locations in the Greater Sacramento area, offering stellar service and one
helluva selection of new and used scoots

Lassen Volcanic National Park is about 10 miles to the east of Mineral, population 123 according to the 2010 census. Saving that ride for later in the week, we carved 36 east for 30 miles toward the town of Chester and our cabin at the Plumas Pines Resort on the western shores of Lake Almanor. We ditched our riding gear, tackled up and hit the water before nightfall set in.

Almanor can be a tricky lake to fish, as it tends to be rather seasonal. Our trip was in early June, which is right around the end of the late-spring action caused by the warming weather. Anglers can go after king salmon, small mouth, catfish and a handful of other species, but we were there to slay the trout. Our plan was to hit the water by dawn each morning, ride all day and then put the lines back in before nightfall. Tough life.

Monster trout roam the bottom of Lake Almanor as the weather warms in the late spring. Jigging with mealworms and night crawlers proved successful to the tune of four keepers, the largest being a brown trout weighing in at over 4 pounds.

Monster trout roam the bottom of Lake Almanor as the weather warms in the late spring.
Jigging with mealworms and night crawlers proved successful to the tune of four keepers,
the largest being a brown trout weighing in at over 4 pounds.

Basecamp at Plumas Pines was your basic fisherman’s cabin with electricity, kitchen, two beds, a full bath and plenty of spiders. Jokes aside, it’s really a great, affordable hideaway with easy access to the lake and a nice lakeside bar and grill that definitely got the best of our wallets. The fishing started slow but picked up after the first day to the tune of three monster browns that were absolutely delicious on the grill back at the cabin. There were also a handful of throwbacks and a few that got away, but even when the fish weren’t biting it’s tough to beat beers on a boat with sublime views of Mount Lassen. Early morning storms caused us to fish less than we would’ve liked, but an all-metal boat on a lake while lightning’s strikin’ ain’t smart. After all, we were there to ride; and once the skies cleared, ride we did.

Susanville stretch

For our first jaunt we decided to take our time, shoot some photos and wind our way back to 36 east toward Susanville for some lunch. We looped around the southern end of Almanor on Highway 89 to Lake Almanor Eastside Road/147, which hugs the shoreline as you twist through the pines on the border of Plumas and Lassen National Forests. Views are spectacular, but traffic can get heavy—particularly on weekends. However, this was the most scenic and enjoyable ride around the lake.

A quick stop at “The Chimney” alongside Highway 36 just outside of Westwood offers great photo ops with views of Goodrich Mountain to the north and Mountain Meadows Valley and Reservoir to the south

A quick stop at “The Chimney” alongside Highway 36 just outside of Westwood offers great photo ops with views of Goodrich Mountain to the north and Mountain Meadows Valley and Reservoir to the south

We stayed on 147 heading northeast and connected back with 36 in Clear Creek. Our first stop was in Westwood where we pulled off at “The Chimney,” the remains of a Chevron station built in the 1920’s. Rumors are that the site was also an illegal dancehall and bordello, where in 1942 the bartender was shot and killed by an angry patron. The building burned in 1960, and the chimney is all that was left standing, looking much like it does today. Every Christmas the residents of Westwood gather at the site to sing carols and “toast those who have gone to the golden hills,” the plaque dedicated by the local chapter of E Clampus Vitus (a.k.a., the “Clampers”) states.

The rest of the ride on 36 is enjoyable, but don’t anticipate an exhilarating experience. There were a few areas of twisties, but the majority of the two-lane is made up of sweeping berms and wide-open straightaways through picturesque valleys. We hit the cool little mountain burg of Susanville around mid-afternoon and found some lunch. “The biggest Little City in the World” is just another 86 miles southeast, but a Reno overdose at a concert a few months earlier meant it was back west on 36 after fueling up.

Clouds will often roll in from the west unannounced. The riding in the park made up for the fact that our best views of Lassen came from the lake.

Clouds will often roll in from the west unannounced. The riding in the park made up for
the fact that our best views of Lassen came from the lake.

A planned detour about five miles west of Susanville took us to the Eagle Lake Ranger Station and Road/A1, which breaks northwest from 36 to Eagle Lake some 15 miles up and over gorgeous Roop Mountain. The ride was stunning as it skirted Susanville Ranch Park and Greens Peak. The views were endless on this day, and the road was a floorboard-scraping cruise up and over the ridge with a descent winding straight into Eagle Lake. We parked the bikes, took a walk around the recreation area and witnessed the semi-depressing state of the lake due to drought. Docks and fish carcasses littered the dried-up marina lakebed, and levels of the main body of water were noticeably down. Beyond where we stood there was beauty in abundance, as views of remote, near-untouched perfection were endless. After a few shots of the contrasting landscapes it was back to the cabin for some evening fishing. I highly recommend this short detour off 36 if ever in the area.

Blasting through Lassen Volcanic Park

We explored Almanor and Plumas National Forest over the next few days, but the highlight of the trip was the ride into Lassen Volcanic National Park. Lassen is one of the largest lava domes on earth and the southernmost active volcano in the Cascade Mountain Range, with its last big eruption on May 22, 1915. The blast rained fine ash and debris as far away as Winnemucca, Nevada, and throughout the northern Central Valley of California. It also decimated Lassen’s surrounding landscape from the multiple pyroclastic flows and snow-mixed lahars. The “Devastated Area” is a popular site among hiking enthusiasts and remains largely unchanged, showing little life due to the porosity of the soil.

If you like the smell of burnt matches, you’ll love the “Sulphur Works” located just a few miles up from the visitor’s center

If you like the smell of burnt matches, you’ll love the “Sulphur Works” located just a few
miles up from the visitor’s center

Once again we took 36 west to Lassen Park Road/89, which is closed during the winter so plan accordingly. The winding eight miles leading to the entrance station is dotted with campsites and trailheads that lead to spots like Bluffs Falls to the east and Brokeoff Mountain to the west. A motorcycle-friendly $15 fee per bike (cages are $20) valid for seven days will get you past the southwest entrance station and onward to the Kohm Yah-Mah-Nee Visitor Center at the base of the ascent into the park. The visitor center has a café and exhibit hall that’s loaded with volcanic and geological history of the area, as well as interactive maps and tours, both guided and self-served. It’s also the hub for school and summer camp field-trip tours, which we witnessed firsthand on this midweek day. Needless to say, our stop at the small cabin-like building was limited to grabbing a few brochures and mapping out a ride to get a few good shots of the sleeping giant.

The “Sulphur Works” site is located only a mile from the lodge, but was intriguing enough that it warranted a quick dismount for further investigation. Sidewalks span the bridge over Sulphur Creek and plaques tell the story of the springs while allowing visitors to lean over bubbling cauldrons. The highly active springs and hot mud pots spew steam into the roadway for a dramatic entrance to the roller coaster-like ascent up Lassen Park Road to the Brokeoff Mountain lookout point. The winding road rises and dips, hugging serious drop-offs as it skirts the ridges of cinder cone volcanoes Diamond Peak, Bumpass Mountain, and Mt. Helen. Turn-offs and lots near the Bumpass Hell overlook, Emerald Lake and Lake Helen would’ve provided great views of Lassen, but the clouds had already started rolling in. Weather can change in an instant around these towering peaks, so rain gear and last-minute checks on the radar up to and during your ride are essential. In all, the park loop is about 30 miles with plenty of white-knuckle riding. We opted to head back once reaching the Lassen Peak Trail with the rain starting to fall and cloud cover ruining the photo-ops. The park road continues to loop around the north side of Lassen to the popular camping spot at Manzanita Lake. Overall the ride was breathtaking and prompted a promise to return with more time to camp and explore the area.

The long, winding road home

With Highway 32 congested and having had our fill of Highway 36, we took 89 south out of the Lake Almanor area to pick up 70 west near Paxton. The Feather River Highway snakes along that same magnificent mountain riverway. Dangerous views can distract the most discerning rider, so fight the urge and hone in on the sharp curves and steep descents that make up one of the more enjoyable stretches of two-lane to be found. Bald Eagle Mountain towers to the southeast as the descent continues into the striking Feather River Canyon. Crossing the north leg of a grimly low Lake Oroville, 70 eventually connects with 149 north which dumps you onto 99 about 15 miles south of Chico. The ride along 70 warrants its own adventure, and another promise made to return for more.

After a few goodbyes it was back to Folsom H-D the next morning to return the Street Glide. In all, the tally was just less than 1,000 miles after four days of riding the most beautiful mountain roads God’s Country has to offer. A special thanks goes to the crew at Folsom H-D for the stellar service and coming through on short notice with few Harley rental options available in the Sacramento area. And remember to plan your trip to Lassen National Park accordingly by checking the National Park Service website for camping regulations and seasonal closures. (www.nps.gov/lavo/index.htm)

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