Lake Pillsbury, Mendocino National Forest, California

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

Contact Information:

Forest Supervisor's Office

Mendocino National Forest

825 N. Humboldt Ave.

Willows, CA 95988

Upper Lake Ranger District

Middle Creek Road

Box 96

Upper Lake, CA 95485

707/275-2361

Stonyford Ranger District

Box 160

Stonyford, CA 95979

916/963-3128

Covelo Ranger District

78150 Covelo Road

Covelo, CA 95428

916/983-6118

Corning Ranger District

22000 Corning Road

Box 1019

Corning, CA 96021

916/824-5196

24-Hour Information: 916/934-2350

Location:

Lake Pillsbury is located in the Upper Lake District of the Mendocino National Forest, three hours northeast of San Fransisco. Ukiah, about an hour to the west, is the largest nearby town.

Getting There:

From San Francisco, take U.S. Hwy. 101 North from San Francisco to Ukiah. Turn at State Hwy. 20 and follow the signs to Potter Valley and Lake Pillsbury.

Seasonal Information:

Approximate high-low temperatures:

Spring

Low Elevation - 40 to 68 degrees

High Elevation - 25 to 53 degrees

Intermittent rain with thundershowers in late spring.

Summer

Low Elevation - 57 to 94 degrees

High Elevation - 42 to 79 degrees

Thunder showers at high elevations.

Fall

Low Elevation - 42 to 76 degrees

High Elevation - 27 to 61 degrees

Intermittent rain.

Winter

Low Elevation - 32 to 62 degrees

High Elevation - 17 to 47 degrees

Rain at low elevations; snow at high elevations.

In summer, temperatures are in the 60s at night and the high 80s and low 90s in the day. In winter, campgrounds are not open and the access road may be closed. Winter temperatures can range from -20 to 40 degrees F.

Wildlife:

Keep an eye peeled and you'll see bald eagle at Lake Pillsbury. Flocks of bandtailed pigeons vacation at Thomas Creek in the fall, and golden eagles soar above Black Butte and Anthony Peak. Common mammals are deer, quail, foxes, squirrels, chipmunks, and wild pigs.

There have been reports of black bear problems in some campgrounds, especially the Lake Pillsbury area in Upper Lake District and Hammerhorn Lake area in Covelo District.

Hunting is allowed during the authorized hunting season.

Insects:

Contact park office for information.

Plant Life:

Contact park office for information.

Facilities:

Camping is restricted to existing sites in the National Forest. Most campgrounds are free of charge. A few charge from $3 to $20 per night, with the average being $7. There is a group campground with handicap sites available by reservation.

No water hookups, electrical hookups or sewage disposal sites are available for trailers.

Parking:

Parking information is available from the ranger stations.

Permits:

A permit is required for fires outside the provided campground rings, so call or write one of the contact addresses.

Policies:

  • Bikes and motor vehicles aren't allowed in designated wilderness areas.
  • Fires outside of official firepits and rings are prohibited without a permit.

Hazards:

  • The Mendocino NF treads a fine line between motor vehicles, bicycles and hikers. If you want to avoid multi-use areas get Off-Highway vehicle guides for each district and plot around these trails.
  • Watch out also for snakes, poison oak, and possible illegal marijuana growing. This is evidently enough of a problem for the Forest to put out guidelines on how to stay out of trouble if you stumble onto a pot farm.

Leave No Trace:

All LNT guidelines apply.

Maps:

Detailed ATV and singletrack trail maps are available.

Other Trip Options:

Snow Mountain Wilderness and Yolla-Bolly Middle Eel Wilderness offer a secluded alpine hiking experience within the borders of Mendocino.