It’s no secret that Fall is an amazing time to be in Truckee-Tahoe – it’s definitely my favorite season, and it’s almost here. The trails are less crowded, the weather ranges from stormy (Yay! It’s finally raining.) to hot & sunny (Yay! A little bit more summer.), and the general feel of the locals is just more relaxed. Over the years, I’ve posted a lot of my recommendations for the fall, so I thought I’d do a round up of previous fall favorites, and add some bonus new suggestions as well.
Sierra Fall Essentials: Here’s a round up of some of my favorite products to help me get through the variable weather of fall in the Sierra.
Bonus Favorites: An ultra-light, packable wind shell, like the Patagonia Houdini is perfect for cooler morning runs or to stick in your bike pack for a chilly downhill after a sweaty climb. It’s water resistant, so it will even keep you dry for a little bit in the event of a surprise rainstorm.
A mid-weight vest is the perfect fall layering piece. You can wear it under a raincoat or over a flannel, and your arms will be free while your core is warm. I think springing for a down version, like the Marmot Aruna is so worth it, for quality, packability, and warmth. The Aruna is a high quality – I own the vest and the jacket version and I love them both.
Fall In Yosemite Valley: Fall is my favorite time to visit Yosemite – check out these photos of Yosemite Valley to see why!
Whiskey Pumpkin Bread Recipe: Nothing says fall like pumpkin, and this pumpkin bread recipe with a kick of whiskey is just about perfect, if I do say so myself.
Round the Lake Beer Tour: You’ll need a designated driver for this one, but check out my loop from Truckee, around the lake, and back, hitting up breweries and craft beer spots along the way. I just updated it for fall of 2018, so check out the new version!
Favorite Fall Activities:
And here are some of my favorite things to do in Tahoe and the Sierra in the fall: Go mountain biking. Often, we’ll get an early snowstorm that melts out and gets the trails in perfect condition. My favorite trails to ride in the fall are the Donner Lake Rim Trail to Wendin Canyon and Sawtooth Trail in Truckee, Mills Peak in Graeagle, and the Corral Trail Network in South Lake Tahoe. Jump in the lake one last time. Often, the water is still warm enough for a quick swim in September and October. Or you could head to nearby hot springs, like Grover Hot Springs State Park in Markleeville or Travertine Hot Springs in Bridgeport. Get in shape for snowboard season with some trail running. I like to get a few more trips up and down Donner Peak before the snow falls in Truckee. In South Lake Tahoe, Powerline Trail is my preferred trail running location. Go on a road trip to the coast. Alright, that might be cheating for favorite Tahoe fall activities, but the California coast in the fall is amazing too! I especially likeSanta Cruz, Point Reyes, Mendocino, and the North Coast during this time of year.
If you’re looking for a challenging and scenic ride you can shuttle in the Truckee area that is still mostly doable by intermediate riders, I highly recommend the the Donner Lake Rim Trail (DLRT) from Castle Valley.
To do this ride as a shuttle, leave one car parked at the Wendin Canyon Trailhead, located at the top of Donner Lake Road, in the dirt parking lot on the left. From there, get on the freeway westbound and take the exit for Boreal (Exit 176). Turn right off the freeway and you’ll be at the trailhead parking. This trailhead is access for the PCT and Hole in the Ground, so it can get busy on the weekends, but we’ve always found parking there, you just might have to park further down on the paved road.
Start up Castle Valley Road, a chunky fire road climb that’s a pretty nice warm up. A little more than 0.5 miles from the trailhead, you’ll make a right turn on to what TrailForks calls Castle Valley East OHV trail. There should be a noticeable sign, pointing right directing you for DLRT access. There’s also a great view of Castle Peak to the right here.
After a short downhill, this trail climbs ~190 feet in just over 0.5 miles. There, the double track forks left for the PCT and right for the Castle Valley section of the DLRT. This trail feels very old school to me – it’s not in any way flowy, and there are lots of short steep sections, both up and down with tight, blind turns and rocky drops. It’s definitely the section that I still have to walk a fair amount of any trails I ride regularly. That said, it’s really fun, great for sessioning and skill building, and the views are expansive. It’s one of the best places to ride sustained granite in the Tahoe-Truckee area and while features may be difficult to clear successfully, they’re not exposed.
After the rocky granite section, the DLRT goes back into the trees for the Summit Lake segment. This section I find slightly easier than the Castle Valley section, and tends more towards roots and narrow trees, though there are still rocky features. Summit Lake is really pretty, and a nice place to stop for a breather or a snack.
Just past the lake, stay left at the fork and get on Summit Lake Road. To me, this section seems something between fire road and double track, but I have seen jeeps on it, so keep an eye out for vehicles. After about 0.7 miles, you’ll take a sudden (and steep) left back onto the DLRT for the Negro Canyon segment. This section is a fun, smooth downhill, though it can get rather overgrown in the spring. The single track ends and spits you out for a left turn onto a short fire road climb. After about 0.1 miles, you’ll be back on single track, a short descent on the Wendin/Drifter Connector. When the connector ends, you’ll be on the Wendin Way trail, one of my favorite downhill trails in Truckee. By late summer, it can get fairly dusty, but the trail is well built enough that it never gets unrideable. There are a few rock gardens and rollable drops, but pretty much everything can be tackled by a confident intermediate rider. There’s one combo of features that’s a blind corner into a rocky drop that’s closely followed by a pinch between two boulders and then another tight rocky switchback that took me a long time to get confident on, though! After a little more than a mile of downhill and almost 500 feet of descending, you’ll be back at the trailhead where your car is parked.
These trails, along with many others in the Truckee area are built and maintained by the Truckee Donner Land Trust. The TDLT is an awesome organization whose mission is “To preserve and protect scenic, historic and recreational lands with high natural resource values in the greater Truckee Donner region and manage recreational activities on these lands in a sustainable manner.” This means, they’re not just protecting the land, they’re actively creating recreation opportunities on their properties, including for mountain bikers. If you enjoy recreating on these trails, I encourage you to help out with a volunteer trail day or donate to the organization if you can. Without organizations dedicated to preserving lands, our favorite trails are at risk to be sold off or shut down, so I encourage everyone to help out, however they can!
While Reno has a reputation for being Las Vegas’s grimier, less fun little sibling, I think it’s an extremely underrated destination. It’s relatively cheap, has amazing access to Lake Tahoe and the Sierra, and has an increasingly good food and bar scene. There are two adjacent neighborhoods where the city is seeing a renaissance – Riverwalk District and MidTown and are my two favorite to visit.
Riverwalk District: The Riverwalk District in Downtown Reno is anchored by two things – the historic casinos and the Truckee River. While this is definitely where you want to be if you’re going to gamble, there’s a lot more to do here than play the slots.
For a climbing experience like no other, you can climb at Whitney Peak Hotel at Basecamp. You can boulder inside or climb outside next to the famous “Biggest Little City sign. Also at Whitney Peak Hotel is the concert venue Cargo. Cargo is my favorite size of venue – large enough to attract big-ish names, but small enough that you still feel close to the action. In addition to concerts, they also host events like Zombie Prom, Henry Rollins Slideshow, and wrestling!
The Truckee River runs right through downtown, and Reno has really begun to take advantage of it. In addition to parks, riverfront dining, and pedestrian bridges, there is the Truckee River Whitewater Park, a whitewater kayaker playground with man made and natural features. You’ll often see whitewater kayakers paddling through the rapids, and the Reno River Festival is held every May, with competitions, demonstrations, and a fun street fair.
The Riverwalk District has some great restaurants as well. My favorite Italian restaurant is located here – Campo. It has great pizza and pasta, focusing on local, seasonal ingredients. Their menu varies with what’s in season, but you can’t really go wrong. If the beet salad is on the menu, order that and be sure to check out what their barrel aged cocktail special is. It’s usually something delicious.
For something less fancy, Pho 777 has the best veggie pho I’ve tried so far in Reno. For late night (or early morning!), greasy diner food the Mel’s Drive In in the Sands casino is cheesy, but perfect for what you’re looking for. Also, the Sands will give you a glimpse of the gritty side of Reno.
MidTown: MidTown Reno is definitely the up-and-coming hipster neighborhood in the city. Greyson and I joke that every time we come there is some new Portland stereotype business that’s opened up – sushi burritos, dog aromatherapy, etc. Some of the original charm still remains. A cupcake shop will share a parking lot with a payday loan store and strip club.
My favorite things to do in MidTown are eat and drink, though there are tons of cute shops and one of the best thrift stores I’ve ever been to, Junkee Clothing Exchange, is located in this district. The Nevada Museum of Art is also here, and it is one of my favorite hidden gems in Reno. It’s only $10 to get in, and they frequently have incredible exhibits with renowned artists. If you’re visiting Reno and have a free evening or afternoon, I highly recommend it!
For breakfast, I frequent Great Full Gardens. This is a great restaurant to visit if you are feeding both vegetarians & meat eaters or adventurous eaters & pickier people – everyone will find something that they like. I almost always get the pupusas, but the liege waffles are a must try and they have the best vegetarian eggs benedict I’ve ever gotten. There are lots of other brunch places in MidTown that look great, but they almost always have long waits, while Great Full Gardens is (inexplicably) less busy.
For a different kind of breakfast experience, the Brewer’s Cabinet has a “Kegs and Eggs” special on Saturday and Sunday mornings. For $16.95, you get two beers and something off the breakfast menu. It’s a great deal, and I really like their breakfast food, especially the BC scramble.
Moving on to lunch, I like to go to Pinon Bottle Company, a tap house with an extensive beer list that is a great mix of local breweries, less distributed western US breweries, and few beers from far away. After ordering your beer, you can wander next door to Noble Pie Parlor and order delicious pizza. They’ll even deliver it to you back at Pinon, so you can continue enjoying your beer. I love the T-Pane, which has caramelized fennel and onions, sausage, and granny smith apples, though they do have more “normal” pizzas as well.
On to dinner and desert! When I want to go to a nicer dinner, I frequently go to Midtown Eats. Like many of Reno’s awesome restaurants, the menu is focused on local and seasonal ingredients, so it changes frequently, but everything I’ve had there has been delicious. They also make great cocktails. Though I am more of a savory treats person, my two favorite sweet things are donuts and ice cream. Simple combines both of these things into an amazing (and incredibly messy) desert. Simple gets donuts, cronuts, cookies, and ice cream from local businesses, and you can create your own ice cream sandwich. They are very messy, don’t get one to go!
That’s just scratching the surface of some of my favorite things to do, eat, and drink in just a couple of Reno’s neighborhoods. If you visit Reno, I hope you check out a couple of these places and enjoy them as much as I do!
Last fall, Greyson and I took a spontaneous long weekend road trip to one of my favorite parts of the California coast – Mendocino. Fall is the perfect time to visit Mendocino, if anyone is planning any trips. The weather is warm, but not hot and we didn’t get any rain or fog while we were there. In the afternoons, it got pretty breezy on the coastal cliffs, but that was about the only thing that wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t crowded at all, and though it was the tail end of abelone season, we were able to get a campsite at Russian Gulch State Park on Friday night with no reservations.
I’d been to Mendocino a couple of times before, once during a road trip with Greyson and once with my friend Katie. Both of those times we did typical coast things – beach walks, looking for tidepools, stuffing myself with smoked salmon. This time we brought our mountain bikes with the goal of exploring some of the singletrack we’d heard a lot about.
Most of the mountain biking in Mendocino is in Jackson Demonstration State Forest, located between the towns of Mendocino and Fort Bragg. When researching mountain biking in this area, one thing we heard over and over is that the trails are nearly impossible to navigate without a guide. They’re not signed, you won’t get any service on your phone so you can track using GPS, and then you’ll get lost and murdered by weed farmers. We found this to be a slight exaggeration.
Since we’d heard about the navigation difficulty, we started our Saturday with a visit to Catch a Canoe & Bicycles Too, a local bike shop that came highly recommended. The staff at Catch a Canoe were super great – really helpful, very friendly, and willing to share route recommendations. We ended up buying a guidebook put together by a local expert with maps and suggested routes. The proceeds from the book went towards local trails and we found the maps helpful, though the routes we’re all much longer than what we were interested in this trip.
Manly Gulch/Forest History/Cookhouse We decided that for day one, we wanted to ride Manly Gulch, one of the better known trails in Mendocino. We parked at the top of Manly Gulch on Little Lake Road/408. We had a little difficulty finding the parking area, but figured it out eventually. Manly Gulch is about 2.2 miles with almost 900 feet of elevation loss. The trail isn’t super technical beyond some roots and blind corners, but is just about a perfect example of a flow trail. It’s fast and fun, and can be ridden carefully by beginners and more advanced riders can challenge themselves with speed and small, natural jumps.
After all we’d heard about the un-navigable forest and non-marked trails, we didn’t find this to be true. Maybe it was the specific trails we rode (or our recent experience bushwhacking in British Columbia), but we thought the trails were well signed and we were able to use Trailforks on our phones to help us navigate.
At the end of Manly Gulch, we turned right onto Thompson Gulch, a fire road. We could see another trail ( Marsh Creek Trail) paralleling us, but it peels off and wouldn’t have taken us back to our car. After about 1.2 miles on the fire road, Thompson Gulch bends right, goes for about 0.2 miles before a sharp switchback in the road. Right at that switchback is the entrance to Forest History Trail and the beginning of the climb back to the car. We stayed on Forest History for about 0.6 miles, before hitting a fork. At the fork, we went left and got on Cook House, as Forest History recommends no bikes at that point. Between those two trails, we climbed about 850 feet in 2.2 miles. There are some steep sections on both, and there were some spots I was definitely pushing my bike up, but the majority of the trail is quite rideable. We took quite a few breaks, but it isn’t the worst climb in the world, especially since it was decently shaded and cool. Exhausted and sweaty, we made it back to the car with 5.94 miles, 952 feet of climbing in 1:09 moving time.
Russian Gulch On day two, we decided to ride something really close to our campground, Russian Gulch State Park. Theoretically, we could have ridden from our campground to the trails, but that would have involved a long road climb that I was not into, so we were lazy and drove the mile or so uphill to the trailhead. We hopped on North Boundary Trail, which was an interesting riding experience unlike anything I’ve ridden before or since. After the first half mile or so of wide singletrack climbing, we ended up on something between double track and fire road, that was a mix of hard pack and sand pits. This mix of terrain, especially the strength-sapping sand made for a ride that was more challenging that it looked.
At mile 2.7, we crossed Caspar Little Lake Road. Almost directly across from where North Boundary Trail comes out, there’s a break in the forest that signals the start of a fork with two trails. We took the right fork onto Parallel Action, which we rode for about 1.5 miles. There are lots of little offshoot trails in this area, but if you pay attention to your route, we didn’t find it hard to navigate here either. Also, most of the trails stick pretty close to Caspar Little Lake Road, so you could always jump back onto the main road fairly easily.
Parallel Action was a fun trail – it reminded me a lot of the BC style of trails (minus wooden features). There were lots of quick, little turns, the trails were narrow and heavily wooded and you have to pay attention and not go off onto social trails that go nowhere. After returning on Parallel Action, we got back on North Boundary Trail, but decided that we were going to try some of the offshoot trails we’d seen on our way up. There are some trails that are hiker only in this area, but they’re clearly marked and they’re not trails you’d even want to take a bike on, from what we could see when we walked a little ways down.
At mile 6.4, we took a left onto North Cutoff, a ~0.1 mile trail that took us to North Trail. We turned right on North Trail to head back to our car and were treated to the most fun section of trail we’d ridden all day. This trail only dropped 80 feet in about 1.1 miles, but whoever built it did a great job. It felt like a consistent downhill where you could really let go, go fast, and play on its natural features. At about 7.6 miles, the trail forked and we went right to get back on North Boundary Trail and back to our cars. We think that the trail to the left might have gone back to our campground, but we weren’t sure, and, since it isn’t listed on TrailForks, it might not be bike legal. In total, we rode 8.68 miles with 628 feet of climbing in 1:14.
Where to Camp & Eat We camped in Russian Gulch State Park, which we loved! It was pricey – $40 a night, but that’s the going price for coastal state parks now, I guess. The location was gorgeous in the redwoods, there were nice, clean bathrooms that had hot water showers, and, though you can’t camp super close to the beach, there is one in the campground within easy biking distance. One of the nights we were there, a wedding was going on in the park’s small venue, but our campsite was far enough away that we weren’t bothered by noise at all. I’ve also camped at Westport Beach Campground, which is a private RV park and campground, which I usually try to avoid. However, if you’re tent camping here, you can actually camp on the beach and you’re far away from the RVs! Westport-Union Landing State Beach is a nice cliffside campground, though you’re fairly north of Mendocino at this point.
Over a few trips to Mendocino, I’ve tried quite a few restaurants. My favorite overall is a pizza place in Fort Bragg – Piaci Pizza. There’s really nothing better after a long day of riding. Also in Fort Bragg, is North Coast Brewing Company. I wasn’t super excited about their food, but their beer is great, so I’d at least go for a tasting, even if you eat somewhere else. For seafood, I like Noyo River Grill in Noyo Harbor. The view is the best, and there are lots of fish sellers nearby where you can buy fresh fish to take back to your campsite or bring home. In the town of Mendocino, we had a great dinner at Mendocino Cafe and a delicious breakfast at GoodLife Cafe & Bakery.
I love Mendocino, and I had a great visit last fall. I’m excited to go back!
While it’s not the most efficient way to travel between Santa Cruz and Point Reyes, California, driving the whole way on Highway 1 is the most beautiful. Driving this way will take you about 3 and a half hours to cover 124 miles, but it’s one of the best stretches of coastal California, and so worth taking your time. I’d recommend doing the drive all in one leisurely day, but tack on a couple of days at least in your starting point of Santa Cruz and your destination of Point Reyes.
Start: Santa Cruz Check out my blog post here with suggestions for things to do, places to eat, and breweries to check out in Santa Cruz. When you’re ready to head out, start your morning off right with coffee at one of Verve Coffee Roasters four Santa Cruz locations.
Stop One: Davenport Roadhouse Restaurant & Inn (11 miles, 15 minutes) Stop for breakfast just a few miles up the road at the Davenport Roadhouse Restaurant & Inn. Breakfast is served from 9:00 to 11:30 am. The menu is based around fresh, local ingredients, and the food is as good as the view. If the weather is good, you can sit outside, and the patio is dog friendly.
Stop Two: Pigeon Point Lighthouse (17 miles, 20 minutes) The Pigeon Point Light Station State Historic Park is my next suggested destination. The Pigeon Point lighthouse is one of the tallest in the US, and was built in 1872. It’s a gorgeous setting, and there’s even a hostel you can stay at (with a cliffside hot tub!) if you want to really take your time on this route.
Stop Three: Pescadero (9 miles, 13 minutes) The small town of Pescadero is a slight detour off of Highway 1, but it’s worth it. First, stop at Arcangeli Grocery Company/Norm’s Market and buy a loaf (or two) of the artichoke garlic herb bread. The historic market is on Sage St., the main drag of the small downtown and it’s hard to miss. Next, head west on North St. to Harley Farms Goat Dairy. This place has seriously the best goat cheese I’ve ever had in my life! The farm store has samples of a ton of their delicious flavors – I wish I could have bought them all. My favorites were the lavender honey and the chive. You can even do a tour, which is definitely on my list for the next time I go. Even if you aren’t able to do a tour, you can wander around the grounds and see the goats. Be sure that you have a cooler so you can keep all your purchases cold. I’m a big fan of Yeti Coolers, and the Roadie looks like the perfect size for short road trips.
Stop Four: Half Moon Bay (19 miles, 27 minutes) The goat cheese and artichoke bread are just too good not to dig into, so head to Half Moon Bay State Beach for a perfect snack spot. Work up an appetite with a beach walk or a hike. There’s four miles of sandy beach in Half Moon Bay, and a 4 mile paved multi use trail as well.
Stop Five: Pacifica (11 miles, 15 minutes) For one more stop at the beach before you head into the city, stop at Pacifica State Beach. It’s pretty small, but there is swimming and a beach area if the weather is good enough for it. If you want to stretch your legs, there are hiking trails in the Pedro Point Headlands, which leads to a coastal view.
Stop Six: Marin Headlands (17 miles, 40 minutes) Get ready for some city driving, though this route will take you through Golden Gate Park and The Presidio, both of which are great stops if you need to take break. After the Presidio, you’ll drive over the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. Just after the bridge, there’s a pullout view to the right. It’s usually pretty busy, but that’s for a reason. I think it’s one of the best views of San Francisco. It’s one of the few places that you can get a view of the city’s skyline and the Golden Gate Bridge. If you want to hike up to one of the viewpoints in the Marin Headlands, get off on the Alexander exit just past the scenic viewpoint turn off.
Stop Seven: Stinson Beach (17 miles, 40 minutes) Stinson Beach is an adorable beach town in Bolinas Bay with gorgeous views of Mount Tamalpais and the coast. My favorite thing to do in Stinson Beach is to eat at the Parkside Cafe. You can eat outside on their deck or stop at the snack bar to pick something up and take to the beach. Get the garlic-cheese bread, if you’re not too carb-ed out already! Parkside also has a bakery, where you can pick up delicious fresh pastries.
Stop Eight: Gospel Flat Farm Stand (5 miles, 10 minutes) Before your final destination, make one more crucial stop – Gospel Flat Farm Stand. This incredible farm stand is a slight detour from Highway 1 on the other side of the narrow Bolinas Lagoon. Here you’ll find incredible, fresh produce. In addition to the usual, in season staples they often have unique and heirloom veggies like panisse lettuce and watermelon radishes. The stand is on the honor system and cash only, so come prepared with small bills and your own bags.
Destination: Point Reyes National Seashore (13 miles, 23 minutes) One final stretch of driving, now through the scenic Point Reyes National Seashore, and you’ll arrive in Point Reyes Station, the main town in this area. Check out my blog post about Things to do in Point Reyes for detailed recommendations of sites to see, places to eat and drink, and outdoor activities.
This spring, Greyson and I had a chance to ride a new-to-us trail system in Marin County at China Camp State Park. Marin County doesn’t have a ton of mountain bike legal trails, but the ones at China Camp State Park are. We had a great time riding at China Camp – we really didn’t know what to expect, and we were pleasantly surprised. The trails are definitely old school xc style, which we don’t really have any chance to ride in the Tahoe area. The nine mile loop we did was a great early spring ride. The trails weren’t super challenging, but there was enough variety to keep things exciting, and there were some great views of San Pablo Bay as well.
We stuck with the front side of the park, parking on North San Pedro Road across from the main trailhead. Parking on the road is free, but there is a $3 per person trail use fee that goes towards park and trail maintenance. We headed up Bay View Trail which starts with a climb of about 615 feet over two miles. The trail is really well graded, though, so the climb never seems too difficult.
At about mile 3.7, we made a left turn on to Oak Ridge Trail. Since we were going east, this segment was mostly downhill after a climb of less than 50 feet. Oak Ridge Trail had some gorgeous views out across bay at the higher points of the trail. Oak Ridge Trail ends, and we turned left onto Shoreline Trail at about mile 5.4, which we stayed on for the rest of our loop. This segment parallels San Pedro Bay for the majority, so there are more great views. Shoreline is also more rolling than Bay View and Oak Ridge trails, and the trail climbs about 600 feet and descends about 575 feet in around 4 miles. We skipped a small section of this trail due to it being closed during construction, and rode double track and road for the last half mile back to our car, for 9.1 miles in 1:16 moving time.
While not extremely technical or flashy, I thought that the trails at China Camp were fun with some great views. There was enough elevation gain that we got a good workout in, but weren’t overwhelming on our out of shape legs and lungs. I’d highly recommend the trails we rode in China Camp State Park to beginner mountain bikers or anyone who wants to do a mid-winter tune up ride. I wouldn’t plan a trip to Marin County just to ride these trails, but if you’re in the area with your bike and looking for something to do, a visit to China Camp is worth it. These trails can definitely be ridden on a hardtail or cyclocross bike- we saw several of each on the trails.
While we were in the area, we had to check out the then-newly opened Splitrock Tap & Wheel, a bike shop/restaurant and tap room in Fairfax, California. Splitrock is located in downtown Fairfax, but has its own lot with plenty of parking, as well as indoor parking for your bike. It’s a one room affair, with long tables sharing spaces with bikes and bike accessories and the kitchen and bar in the back. It’s the only US distributor of Whyte Bikes, which Greyson is interested in as his next potential bike purchase – so this was one of the main reasons we stopped.
Splitrock Tap & Wheel combines bike, pizza and beer – three of my favorite things. It was pretty busy when we were there, and it took a long time to get our food. However, they were newly open and I’m guessing that things run more smoothly now that it’s been open for awhile. Besides, there was plenty to look at and the staff was happy to answer lots of questions about the bikes, so waiting wasn’t too bad. The fast service on the beer end of things didn’t hurt either! When the pizza came out, it was delicious and worth the wait. I’d recommend Split Rock Tap & Wheel if you’re looking for somewhere to eat in the Fairfax/San Rafael area, especially if you are into mountain biking – the novelty of the space is worth a visit.
The stretch of the Sierra from north of Truckee to Lassen, or the “Lost Sierra” is one of my favorite parts of the whole state of California. Even better, it’s highly underrated and much more lightly travelled than the coast or other parts of the Sierra. Here’s my recommendation for a five day trip through this incredible area.
Truckee to Downieville (60 miles, 1.5 hours) Head north from Truckee along the scenic Highway 89 corridor – be sure to watch for migrating deer on the road because this is a very active wildlife corridor. If you want to start your day out with a hike before you get on the road, there are a couple of options very close to Truckee. There’s Emigrant Trail, which is a popular mixed use trail, so you’ll likely see hikers, mountain bikers and horses. It’s an out and back, so just walk until you feel ready to turn around. For a scenic loop of 5.3 miles, try the Sagehen Creek Loop Trail, an easy meander along Sagehen Creek that’s a good spot for wildflowers in the spring. Both these trails are right off Highway 89, so they’re very convenient for this route.
After about a half hour of driving, you’ll be in Sierraville, a gorgeous open valley that’s home to cattle grazing and hot springs. There aren’t any free hot springs open to the public here, but you can drop in at Sierra Hot Springs Resort if you’re interested. At Sierraville, you turn left to get on Highway 49 and head to Downieville.
Downieville is a historic gold rush and timber town that was slowly dying, but has been bouncing back with a growing tourism economy – especially mountain bike tourism through the efforts of the Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship. While Downieville is a mecca for mountain bikers due to the world famous Downieville Downhill trail and a fast growing network of new trails, there are plenty of other things to do. There’s fishing, gold panning, swimming, and even a little museum downtown if you’re into history. The Pacific Crest Trail crosses nearby around Sierra City, so there is plenty of hiking as well. I think that Downieville is worth staying for a couple of days at least to take in a few of the many activities available.
If you’re at all interested in mountain biking, that’s something that you have to do while you’re here, if only to say that you did it! While I wouldn’t recommend the full Downieville Downhill route unless you are a strong intermediate+ rider, there are plenty of other options in the area. See my trail report of the Downieville Downhill here. Visit Yuba Expeditions bike shop in downtown Downieville to help you plan a route, book a shuttle, or rent a bike.
When I’ve stayed in Downieville, I’ve camped. I like the Union Flat campground. While it’s a few miles out of town, it’s right on the North Yuba River, which is great for a post ride or hike soak. If you’re looking for something unique, you can stay the night in an old fire lookout! I haven’t got to do that yet, but some friends did and said it’s awesome. The Calpine Lookout isn’t far from Downieville and would be a great basecamp for a few days. There are also lots of little resorts, cabins, and vacation rentals in the area if camping isn’t your thing. For food, I’d recommend bringing groceries and camp kitchen set up to supplement eating out. There are a couple of restaurants in Downieville (literally a couple), and they’re okay, but a little pricey. Definitely support the local businesses, but eating there every meal would get expensive.
Downieville to Quincy (60 miles, 1.5 hours) Head back east on Highway 49 from Downieville toward your next destination of Quincy. You’ll head north on 89/70 and pass through the small town of Graeagle, which is a fun place to stop. If you’re a mountain biker, there’s the awesome Mills Peak Trail, which is worth a ride, even if you’re exhausted from Downieville. See my trail report linked above with tips for shuttling or riding from the bottom. If you’re not into biking, you can drive up to the Mills Peak Fire Lookout (which is a working lookout and offer tours during the summer) and take in the gorgeous views of the Sierra Buttes and the Lakes Basin. A few miles of the road are unpaved, rough, and narrow, so I’d recommend high clearance and all wheel drive.
Graeagle has a bunch of little shops and restaurants, so wandering around the town is a good option. For food, I’d recommend picking up a to go order from the Graeagle Mountain Frostee and heading a few miles up the road to The Brewing Lair in Blairsden. This is one of my all time favorite breweries. They sometimes have a food truck and live music, so check their facebook for updates.
Quincy is one of the bigger towns in the Lost Sierra, and it’s located on the gorgeous Feather River. Similar to other spots in the area, there is lots of hiking, fishing, swimming, and rafting. It’s home to the High Sierra Music Festival, which is a must do for festival fans who want a more mellow experience. For mountain bikers, it’s also home to the Mount Hough trail, which I haven’t ridden yet (on my bucket list!), but I hear is awesome. There’s lots of campgrounds around Quincy, and plenty of resorts, RV parks, and vacation rentals for lodging.
Quincy to Lassen Volcanic National Park (71 miles, 1.5 hours) Compared to more popular parks like Yosemite and Yellowstone, Lassen Volcanic National Park is practically deserted. While lacking iconic landmarks like Old Faithful or Half Dome, Lassen is worth spending a couple of days exploring the park. The National Park’s website gives a great overview of places to stay and things to do while you’re there.
There are literally dozens of day hikes you can do in the park, and in the summer, you can climb Mount Lassen with a reasonable level of fitness and some hiking experience. It’s also a popular backcountry ski destination, since there’s some level of snow all year. Like Yellowstone, Lassen Volcanic National park is home to thermal areas. The most well known area, Bumpass Hell is currently closed for a rehabilitation project, but there are many others you can visit.
One of the coolest things about Lassen is how little light pollution there is. It has incredibly dark skies, making it a great area for stargazing. The Park even hosts a Dark Skies Festival in August, which would be an awesome reason to plan a visit.
Just a 45 minute drive from Lassen is the McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park. This park is home to the incredible Burney Falls, which is another one for my California bucket list. If you’ve got a couple of days in Lassen, a visit to Burney Falls is worth the drive.
Lassen Volcanic National Park is a little off the beaten path – which is why it’s so quiet, and the park doesn’t have huge infrastructure of the larger parks. While there are a few places to eat in the park, you’d be better off stocking up on groceries in Quincy or Almanor. While you’re staying in the park, be sure to be bear aware and store your food and garbage in the proper way.
The entire trip is about 190 miles and 4.25 hours of driving, not accounting for any scenic detours or side trips. While you could drive straight from Truckee to Lassen, I think that taking multiple days to explore the Lost Sierra is worth it – especially if you bring your mountain bike or fishing pole.
The Downieville Downhill is one of the best known mountain bike trails in the US, and it’s for good reason. The trail is unique, challenging, and a blast to ride. The network of trails around Downieville is growing, thanks to the hard work of the Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship, but the classic route is 15 miles with nearly 6,800 feet of descent.
As a mountain biker in California, I’d been hearing about the Downieville Downhill for years, and really wanted to ride it. Before I rode it for the first time in 2014, I wondered if I could handle riding it, since I’d heard about how rough, technical and exposed it could be. If you look around the internet, you’ll find dozens of videos of people riding the trail, which do give a good overview of the trail. However, the vast majority of the people doing the POV videos are guys who are advanced to pro-level riders, which isn’t super helpful for determining difficulty if you’re less skilled.
So, how good of a rider do you have to be to ride the Downieville Downhill? I think that anyone with intermediate mountain bike skills can have fun on the trail, but if you’re a less than advanced rider, be prepared to walk some sections. The Downieville Downhill is mostly downhill, with less than 500 feet of climbing. Despite this, the ride is physically exhausting due to the technical and unrelenting nature of the trail. You’ll want to be in good cardio shape, take breaks as needed, and be sure to drink lots of water and eat plenty of calories. The first time I did the trail, I bonked and had a complete meltdown, so stay on top of your nutrition. The first time I rode the Downieville Downhill,
As far as gear goes, you’ll need a full suspension bike to ride this trail. I’ve ridden it on both my 26 inch, 150 mm travel GT Sanction and my 115 mm travel Transition Smuggler, and I had a blast on both. Most people would probably prefer more travel than 115 mm, but with 29 inch wheels and modern geometry, my riding ability is the only thing limiting me on the trail. Though I ride with clipless pedals most of the time, I like flat pedals for the long rocky sections of the trail. Knee pads are also a must, and I usually wear my beefier ones for Downieville. I’d recommend a full face helmet and goggles, though plenty of people do the ride in half lids.
The Trail Basically everyone does the Downieville Downhill as a shuttle. You can self shuttle, but I recommend doing the Yuba Expeditions shuttle. It’s much easier to arrange, a reasonable price ($25), and the proceeds from the shop go towards trail building and maintenance in the area. The shuttle will drop you off at Packer Saddle where you’ll jump right on to the first trail of the Downhill, Sunrise Trail. Sunrise Trail is a newer section that’s a mix of flowy dirt berms, rocks and roots. It can get pretty dusty during long dry stretches, but this is one of the easiest sections of the trail, even when blown out. Trailforks rates it as intermediate, which I think is accurate.
You’ll be on Sunrise Trail for about 1.6 miles and drop about 450 feet in elevation before it turns into Butcher Ranch Trail. Butcher Ranch is the trail you’ll be on the longest – about 6 miles with about 3,100 feet of descent and 1,200 feet of climbing. Butcher Ranch is a legitimate advanced trail, though, like I said before, intermediate riders can handle it with careful line choice and walking some sections. There are extended rock gardens with 6 inch – 1 foot drops, and these long technical sections always have me wishing for an uphill “break” by the end. Butcher Ranch bottoms out at a bridge over Pauley Creek at about mile 7.7. Take a break here, because you’re about to tackle the stoutest climb of the trail. (Though this spot can sometimes be really buggy!) You’ll climb almost 200 feet in under half a mile, which feels even worse than it sounds.
After the climb, you’ll get to a trail intersection with Second Divide climbing up and Third Divide heading down. The Downieville Downhill route has you heading down Third Divide at this point. Trailforks rates this trail as intermediate, but I think it’s definitely on the hard side of intermediate, especially as fatigued as you are at this point of the trail. This segment is about two miles with 1,250 feet of descending and is not nearly as rocky as much of Butcher Ranch. Third Divide has some long, flowy sections but isn’t a “flow trail” in the modern sense as there are more rooty sections and small drops, and not very many bermed turns.
Third Divide spits you out on Lavezzola Road, an easy fire road section you’ll be on for about 1.2 miles. The fire road section is a nice break, so relax for a bit. Lavezzola Road intersects First Divide at a pretty obvious trail head on your right. First Divide is the most rolling section of the Downieville Downhill, as you’ll climb about 1,050 feet and descent 1,460 feet over three miles. However, most of this ascent comes in small rollers that don’t even feel like climbing. There are a few stout climbs though! Trailforks has First Divide graded as an intermediate, which I think is pretty accurate. There’s nothing super technical on this segment, though there are some narrow sections with major exposure (like literally fall off a cliff and die exposure) that make the riding feel more challenging. You’ll also be feeling the cumulative effects of the long ride at this point and fatigue from the rollers. It’s also usually significantly hotter at this point in the ride. This is all to say, don’t underestimate this section! Also, watch out for poison oak if you do stop for a break here.
Just before you hit the 15 mile point, First Divide will drop you back into town on to Main Street of Downieville. While you may be tempted to blow through stop signs to get back to your vehicle, don’t! Apparently, there are often officers waiting to ticket riders who ignore the stop signs.
After this long, difficult, but incredibly fun and rewarding ride, there’s nothing better than jumping in the North Yuba River which has its confluence with the Downie River almost directly across from Yuba Expeditions bike shop. The bike shop usually has beer from the Brewing Lair on draft, so grab one of those while your at it. Cheers with your riding buddies and celebrate the fact that you just conquered one of the best mountain bike trails in California!
P.S. If you’re looking for recommendations for places to stay or eat in and around Downieville, check back tomorrow!
Disclosure: Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. If you make a purchase, I receive a small percentage of the sale as compensation – at no additional cost to you. I promise to only recommend products that I use and enjoy!
Point Reyes National Seashore is one of my favorite coastal California destinations. I mean, Greyson and I got married there, so of course I love it. Point Reyes is an easy trip from Tahoe, so when we’re feeling a need for saltwater, that’s usually where we’ll head. The fact that his parents live there and we have a free place to stay doesn’t hurt either!
The Point Reyes area has everything you could want in a coastal California oasis. There are breathtaking vistas, sandy beaches, breaking waves, wildflowers, wildlife, hikes for every ability level, a historic lighthouse, world famous cheese, farm fresh food, and much more. It’s only ninety minutes from San Francisco and even closer to wine country.
After dozens of trips to the area, I’ve amassed quite a list of recommendations, so here are just a few of my favorites.
Whales, Elephant Seals, and Other Wildlife
PRNS is famous for its varied and interesting wildlife. Depending on the time of year you visit, you might see whales, elephant seals, river otters, bobcats, weasels, harbor seals, tule elk, foxes, and dozens of species of birds. You will definitely see the happiest cows in California. If you want to learn more about wildlife viewing in PRNS,click here or visit the Bear Valley Visitors Center. Elephant seals are among the most charismatic of the megafauna at PRNS, and if you want to spot the huge nosed males that give them their name, your best bet is June & July or November through March. You’ll have a good chance of spotting some variety of elephant seal in Point Reyes every month except August, and even then you might get lucky.
If you are an avid birder,Abbot’s Lagoon is a popular location and nesting site for snowy plovers, and you can spot birds of prey like osprey, peregrine falcons, red tailed hawks, kestrels, and more throughout the seashore.
The ocean side of Point Reyes is a great place to spot the gray whale migration as they head back and forth between their northern feeding grounds of Alaskan waters to the warm shallow seas of Baja in the south. January is the best time to see them southbound, while March and April is when they head back north. I prefer the northern migration, because the mothers are traveling with calves, so their usually moving more slowly and closer in to shore. Since whale watching at the lighthouse is so popular, the park operates a required shuttle on weekends and holidays from Christmas to Easter.
Hiking, Biking, and the Great Outdoors While Point Reyes is worth a visit year round, II love visiting in the spring. The hills are be green and the wildflowers are going off. While it’s usually impossible to completely avoid fog there, spring gives you a good chance for sunny days. Even days with some fog, it will often roll out for a few hours.
When it’s foggy, there are still great places to explore. My favorite hike for wildflowers is theTomales Point Trail, a 9 mile out-and-back, fairly flat hike that also lends itself to whale watching and Tule elk spotting. Chimney Rock trail is another one known for wildflowers, and it’s only 1.75 miles round trip with barely any elevation change. If you’re looking for something with more of a climb, get to the highest spot on the point with theMt. Wittenberg Loop. While the high point doesn’t have a view, there are spots along the way that will give you an incredible vantage on the seashore.
Despite being the birthplace of the sport, Marin County isn’t known for being friendly to mountain bikers. However, we often bring our bikes for a quick ride on the Estero Trail. It’s nothing gnarly, but you’ll get gorgeous views of the bay. Be sure to stop on the bridge and look for bat rays passing underneath! Watch out for cows. If you ride all the way out to Drake’s Head, you’ll get awesome views of the whole seashore.
In the summer, Tomales Bay is warm enough for swimming due to how shallow it is. Chicken Ranch Beach on the west side of the bay in Inverness is a good location, though it can get crowded on nice weekends. Parking is on the road only, so you might have to walk in for a bit to get to the beach. Tomales Bay is also a great place to kayak, since it’s usually so flat and calm. Blue Waters Kayaking rents kayaks and offer guided trips and lessons. You can kayak up to some secluded boat only beaches pretty easily.
During the fall, there’s bioluminescence in Tomales Bay and you can go on night kayaking trips to check it out. Several local outfitters offer guided tours and provide the boats. I still haven’t done this yet, but it’s on my to do list.
Oh, and you can’t go to Point Reyes without visiting the three most famous attractions: the Lighthouse, the Boat, and the Tree Tunnel.
Eating and Drinking Marin County has some of the best farm to table restaurants in California, and you’ll be able to find fresh, local produce, meat, and seafood wherever you go.
For quick sandwiches, burritos, and picnic supplies, I likeInverness Park Market. You can head right next door to the Tap Room for an excellent sit down meal as well. The Tap Room serves breakfast on the weekends – try the chilaquiles. For wood fired pizza, Cafe Reyes in Point Reyes Station is my favorite. If you’re looking for a meat-heavy option, there’s a tinyMarin Sun Farms butcher shop/restaurant just outside of downtown. Vegetarians be warned, there might be nothing on the menu that doesn’t have meat.
Finally, my favorite place in Point Reyes Station –Heidrun Meadery. Heidrun makes their mead champagne style, so it’s fresh, bubbly and not overly sweet. It’s definitely not your typical mead. Each varietal comes from honey made by bees exclusively collecting pollen from a specific flower. The varietals available vary season to season and year to year, but some favorites are almost always on the menu, like California Honey Blossom and Macadamia Nut. My current favorite is Arizona Desert Mesquite, which is a little weird but wonderful. Tours are by appointment only, but you can stop in to taste and buy during business hours.
Lodging I’m biased, but my favorite place to stay is the Cottages at Point Reyes Seashore in Inverness, which is owned and operated by Greyson’s parents. It’s within walking distance to the beach, has a pool, hot tub & tennis court, some of the rooms are dog friendly, the prices are affordable, and it’s the lodging that is closest to the National Seashore entrance.
“Blythe design co created this space as a personal sanctuary from our busy city lives and a place to recharge in a truly gorgeous cabin with the wilds of West Marin just outside our doorstep… This Bohemian Modern A- Frame is a two bed two bath spacious cabin located in Northern California in beautiful West Marin county. …Commune with nature, connect with loved ones or gift yourself a personal retreat with a view amongst a forested acre of bay trees, redwoods, and mature oaks….The A-Frame is a sanctuary for all to rest, recharge and create. Designed with a ‘slow’ pace in mind, our hope is that you enjoy every part of your stay; from making breakfast in our open kitchen, to choosing the perfect record to put on as the sun sets, or relaxing on the deck in the heated seats under a moonlit sky. When the weather turns enjoy watching the storm pass over black mountain cozy by the fire with a hot drink in hand.”
Santa Cruz is many things – a hippie college town, a laid back surf city, a growing hub for tech, a great location for foodies, and it offers just about every outdoor opportunity. Different neighborhoods of Santa Cruz have distinct vibes, and nearby cities and towns offer different feelings as well. Everyone knows the big Santa Cruz landmarks, like the Santa Cruz Wharf or the brightly colored houses of Capitola, but I’m giving you some recommendations that you won’t find everywhere.
Food & Drink: While I’m in Santa Cruz, I have two must stops: Verve Coffee Roasters and The Penny Ice Creamery. Both are Instagram dream locations – Verve Coffee Roasters 41st Street location has a succulent wall, along with incredible coffee and their other locations are worth visits as well. At The Penny Ice Creamery, the toasted marshmallow topping tastes just as good as it looks.
Even in the last couple of years, Santa Cruz’s beer scene has exploded. I used to be unimpressed with the town’s beer selection, but now I have a couple of favorites. I haven’t written reviews yet, but I really like Humble Sea Brewing Company in Santa Cruz proper and Corralitos Brewing Co. a little south in Watsonville. Sante Adarius has a Santa Cruz and Capitola location.
For actual meals, I’m going to recommend two different Hawaiian restaurants – Hula’s Island Grill & Tiki Bar and Pono’s Hawaiian Grill. Hula’s is more kitschy – think velvet Elvis paintings and mai tais served in pineapples. The Big Sur Veggie Burger is one of the best veggie burgers I’ve ever had and the Caesar Salad is similarly amazing. Pono’s is a little more traditional, with a good beer selection plus full bar, outdoor seating, and live music pretty often. Go traditional here and get a plate lunch.
Another place I love to eat is burger. – the period is part of the name. It has a couple of locations – both Aptos and Santa Cruz and an absolutely bonkers menu. You can get a burger with a grilled cheese sandwich for the bun (the Snooki), a burger made with mac and cheese (Johnny Marzetti), or including a donut AND bacon (Luther). I like a more simple burger, the Johnny Cash which still has fries, bacon, and blue cheese. Even if you just get a few of their sides, it’s worth a visit.
I’m just scratching the surface of all of the awesome things to do in Santa Cruz. It’s one of my favorite California cities, and I can’t wait to get back. What are your favorite things to do in Santa Cruz? What did I miss?