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Lake Pillsbury, Mendocino National Forest, California

Hiking and backpacking at its finest, through pastoral grasslands and forests of pine and fur.

Little-Known Fact:?Elevations in the one-million-acre Mendocino National Forest range anywhere from 1,000 feet to 8,000 feet.

Current Rating “Busted,” said my partner, squinting toward the lonely fire road. A cloud of dust was tumbling toward us, and as it settled, our fears were confirmed. It was The Man. The Ranger.

Our bikes were loaded with panniers containing camping gear. We were preparing to pedal off down a singletrack trail into the thick of Mendocino National Forest’s Upper Lake District, and we figured we must have been doing something wrong. As the pickup truck window rolled down, we tensed in anticipation.

“How you kids doing?” asked a kindly ranger wearing a worn forest service cap. “Everything all right?”

I was suspicious of his smile. We were coming from the San Francisco Bay Area where trail closures and user conflicts are as common as ticks in the woods. I knew mountain bikes were allowed on the chaparral-shaded trails above Lake Pillsbury, but decided to see where the chat would lead.

“We’re going to ride down to the river and camp out overnight. Will that be OK?” I asked.

“Sure, sounds like fun,” he said.

“We’re going to leave our car on the side of this road for the weekend,” I added.

“I’ll keep an eye on it for you,” he said.

As the truck rumbled off, we realized we’d stumbled upon something special: a voluptuously lush place few people have discovered ~ and where a mountain bike is actually welcome.

More than 100 miles of trails, from rugged, three-mile singletrack to longer, well-maintained trails, are accessible through the network of fire roads that stretch through the southwest section of Mendocino National Forest. Although motorized vehicles are allowed on many of the dirt fire roads above Lake Pillsbury, we only saw a handful the entire weekend. The main fire road is perfect for bikepacking. It’s nontechnical and has lots of whooshing descents (and just as many uphill grinds), and it’s a point of departure for many of the single-track rides, most of which are legal for cycling.

To start your journey, drive up the fire road a bit, park somewhere on the side, then start pedaling. If you’re hankering for a good climb, park at the Oak Flat Campground and start your trip from there. Expect to climb in your granny gear for at least five miles.

When you finally summit the first climb and stop to catch your breath, you’ll be rewarded with a soothing panorama of verdant hillside. As you continue, the immediate surroundings become increasingly pastoral, especially if you get off the main road and onto some designated bike-use single-track that winds through dense fir and pine forests as well as open grasslands.

Because all-terrain vehicles are allowed on some trails in the off-season, plan your trip between May 18 and September 8, when ATVs are banned in the Pillsbury Basin. The roller-coaster trails they use in the winter are empty in the summer.

Mendocino is the only National Forest in California not crossed by a paved road or highway, which probably accounts for the lack of crowds. Expect to spend more than an hour driving on dirt roads to get to Lake Pillsbury. But when you finally pull your bike out of the dusty car and gaze up at the limitless green forest, you’ll wish you’d pedaled all the way from home.

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