Northern California: Grapes to Gold and Back Again, Part I

Northern California: Grapes to Gold and Back Again, Part I
Independence in America means freedom. Freedom to do whatever we want to do, whenever, and wherever, right? Well . . .within reason, of course.

Once a year, freedom rings louder than normal and people are free to blow stuff up, party all night, and praise Old Glory with all their might—often all at the same time—to celebrate the anniversary of the birth of our nation on July 4th. This year, I praised our nation in my own way, with a tour through a few of Northern California’s counties, each with its own ideas of independence. From gold miners to Native Americans, rural to urban, fact to fiction, the Golden State is the living definition of freedom.

Into the Furnace

Beginning in the seat of wine country, this weeklong journey (and the first of a two-part story) into the volcanic belt of the western U.S. will take me from Calistoga, in Napa County, to Yreka, in Siskiyou County.

Pulling out of Calistoga, I hop onto Route 29 north and head toward Clear Lake, then I take Route 20 east. The road climbs along a two-lane, low mountain road and eventually connects to Interstate 5 in Williams. After a short, 40-mile freeway blast north to avoid some urban sprawl, I exit into Orland. Route 32 will lead me to and through Chico, where the good stuff begins. The rest is easy!

Chico is known for the brewery that produces the great-tasting Sierra Nevada beer, but unfortunately, I’ll ride right past the brewing company. I guess I’ll just have to pretend I’m in Chico when I stop for the night. My ability to resist temptation is strong, and the riding for today has only just begun.

Crawling slowly out of town atop a frozen finger of lava, Route 32 (Deer Creek Highway) snakes toward the source of the flow in Lassen Volcanic National Park. The route, partially adopted by the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company (as an Adopt-A-Highway sponsor), ascends higher and deeper into pine forests and terminates at its intersection with Route 36. I turn west, onto combined Routes 36 and 89, and ride for a few miles. (Turning east, by the way, leads to fuel at Lake Almanor.) Bring your sportiest bike, or the bike with the most ground clearance, and enjoy the escape. There are lots of deer in the area, though, so be wary if you have to travel at night.

Despite the 100-plus-degree July heat surrounding the volcano’s foothills, further passage along Route 89 is blocked due to snow-covered roads at the point where Route 36 splits off westward from 89 a few miles east of Mineral, CA. As the southernmost volcano on (and endpoint of) the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway, Mount Lassen, named for a Danish blacksmith, is a dormant lava dome volcano buried under many feet of snow, even in July. This is where proper planning is important. Wandering is fun, but sometimes you just can’t get there from here! Reluctant to ride all the way out to Red Cloud (at I-5) and back east again on Route 44 to the northern entrance to the park, I decide to find my own way between the two roads.

My first night’s rest is at a makeshift campsite near Paynes Creek. Exploring the lesser roads of Shasta County will have to wait for morning.