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Twisty Roads and Redwoods in Northern California

Gregory SeegerJune 02, 2016
Route 36 through the coastal mountains. (Photos by the author)

Route 36 through the coastal mountains. (Photos by the author)

On a warm summer morning, my wife and I departed on a four-day trip that would take us on some of the finest motorcycle roads in Northern California, most notably State Route 36 with its 140 miles of continuous twists and turns. Riding north from Sonoma County on U.S. Route 101 to its junction with State Route 128, we followed the highway westward as it winds its way through the Anderson Valley, the coastal mountains, and finally follows the Navarro River to the coast. Route 128 is a motorcyclist’s delight with many miles of tight corners and fast sweeping turns.

140 miles of twisties!

140 miles of twisties!

In the heart of the Anderson Valley is the town of Boonville, a place once so geographically isolated that it developed its own language, known as “Boontling.” There you can enjoy “bahl gorms” (good food) and a “horn of zeese” (cup of coffee). Farther along Route 128 is the town of Navarro (population 67), a great place to stop, take a break and drink a good cup of coffee among the redwoods. There is an interesting larger-than-life carving of a guitar player in front of the store.

From Navarro to the coast, the road follows the Navarro River and winds its way through thick groves of redwoods. The air among the redwoods is cool with the sweet smell of forest. Route 128 ends at the junction with State Route 1, also known here as the Shoreline Highway. Following Route 1 north we passed the picturesque town of Mendocino, perched high on the cliffs above the ocean. It is a great place to eat, visit the unique shops and soak up the local culture.

Farther up the road, Route 1 turns inland. In this area temperatures can vary widely. Our trip computer registered 59 degrees on the coast and 95 inland, areas separated by only a few miles. Arriving at the town of Leggett we took a short side trip to the Chandelier Tree. This giant redwood has had a hole cut through it large enough to allow a car to drive through. The trip through the tree is well worth the $3 (cars have to pay $5!).

The Chandelier (Drive Thru) Tree

The Chandelier (Drive Thru) Tree

For many the sight of a coast redwood is worth the trip alone. Redwoods can top 300 feet (greater than the length of a football field), exceed 25 feet in diameter and live 2,000 years or more.

Continuing north, Route 1 joins Route 101, and soon we arrived at our first overnight destination, the historic Benbow Inn near the town of Garberville. The Inn was built in 1923 with beautiful old-world Tudor style architecture. Our room was small but very charming, and furnished with antiques, giving it the feeling of an age gone by.

Tuesday morning we continued north on U.S. Route 101, diverting onto the Avenue of the Giants, which roughly parallels 101. We had intended to ride the entire length of the avenue, but due to a wrong turn (thanks a lot, GPS) we merged back onto Highway 101 too soon, missing more than half of it. What we did see was spectacular and we intend to ride the entire route in the future.

Along the route we encountered the Chimney Tree alongside the highway. The entire interior of the tree was burned out in 1914 without killing it. The interior forms a circular room more than 12 feet in diameter. Looking up from inside, you can see all of the way to the top of the tree and to the blue sky above. And you don’t see many trees with a door!

Navarro Redwoods State Park on sublime Route 128.

Navarro Redwoods State Park on sublime Route 128.

Rejoining Route 101 for about 25 miles took us to the beginning of State Route 36, where we turned east through the coastal mountains. This is an amazing road, and after a few initial straights becomes 140 miles of virtually continuous left and right curves. On the final stretch into Red Bluff we encountered a section of road that could be called the “rollercoaster.” For several miles the road twists and turns, going up and down, enough to make us light in the saddle and occasionally lift us off the seat. Before beginning this trip, I had wondered if 140 miles of continuous twisties would be too much. Nah! We enjoyed every corner and still wished for more.

Our destination for the second night, Red Bluff, divides Route 36 roughly in half. The western half traverses the coastal mountains in 137 miles and the eastern half crosses the Sierra Nevada Mountains in 114 miles.

Wednesday morning we headed across the Sacramento Valley and up into the Sierra Nevada Mountains still on Route 36. On the way through the valley we covered some long straights befitting of Kansas, but after crossing the valley the road heads uphill into the mountains. The eastern half of Route 36 remains very scenic but lacks the constant flow of twists and turns found in the western half.

Lake Almoner with Mount Lassen in the distance.

Lake Almoner with Mount Lassen in the distance.

State Highway 36 passes along the western side of Lake Almanor, the third largest freshwater lake within California. Continuing on Route 36 eventually took us to Susanville in the northeastern part of the state. A few miles past Susanville, Route 36 ends unceremoniously at its intersection with U.S. Route 395. At that point we made a U-turn, and having covered the entire length of Route 36, we backtracked to Quincy on State Route 147, which follows the eastern shore of Lake Almanor.

The Sierra is one of those places where it is said, “If you don’t like the weather, wait 10 minutes.” True to form, we rode from warm sunshine into a 10-minute cold, chilling downpour accompanied by thunder and lightning, the kind of thunder you can feel in your chest. Before long, we broke back into brilliant sunlight and 91-degree heat, and by the time we reached Quincy, everything that had gotten wet had thankfully
dried out.

The interior of the Chimney Tree was burned out in 1914 without killing it.

The interior of the Chimney Tree was burned out in 1914 without killing it.

Quincy is a delightful town that was recently voted “Best Small Town in the West.” It has motels and a number of great restaurants, including Moon’s, which is in a building with a colorful past, having once served as the local brothel.

Thursday morning we headed down out of the Sierra Nevada and back toward home. There are three routes from Quincy that lead southwest out of the Sierra and into the Sacramento Valley. Having previously ridden the other two routes we opted for Quincy-La Porte Road, where we reached the highest elevation on our trip, at 6,561 feet. The twisty road was in good condition, except for one stretch of very roughly patched pavement.

The town of Mendocino.

The town of Mendocino.

Upon reaching and crossing the Sacramento Valley, the temperature soared, hitting a high of 109. We were thankful to be wearing mesh jackets, a necessity during summer in California. We continued through Lake County, passing Clear Lake, the largest freshwater lake in California.

We completed our trip by riding through Napa County, with its renowned vineyards and wineries, and finally crossed the hills back to Sonoma County. This was a great ride, and we plan to repeat this route in the future. Maybe we’ll see you there!

Map of the route. (Map by Bill Tipton/compartmaps.com)

Map of the route. (Map by Bill Tipton/compartmaps.com)

One comment

  1. Having ridden these roads at one time or another (some, many times) in my past, this certainly brings up great memories. Some of the roads you must ride with other bikers, just to recount the “air” during the roller coaster ride. But, I hesitate in saying anything, and you should retract this publication. This should remain as a secret only passed down verbally, maybe as folklore, through the generations.

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