You want to ride in Lassen Volcanic National Park, and you want the best sport touring roads to get there. Read on for an exciting route from Chico that will make you appreciate why the journey really is the destination.
Lassen Volcanic National Park may not be one of the most visited national parks, which is a bit surprising given its proximity to more popular parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite. But be that as it may, getting to Lassen is at least as scenic as the park itself and certainly makes for fun riding. While there are several routes from the east and from the north, only the path eastward from Chico combines three must-ride roads, with the highlight being California State Route 32 also known as the Deer Creek Highway.
Start in Chico California
Chico California is a relatively small city located in the northern Sacramento Valley. The city was founded in the 1850s during the California Gold Rush as a convenient hub for miners working the nearby Sierra Nevada Mountains. Today Chico boasts a broad economic base anchored by the California State University Chico campus. There’s plenty to see and do for everyone.
To illustrate the range of attractions, start with the world’s largest yo-yo collection at the unusual National Yo-Yo Museum located in the Bird in Hand novelty shop. The Chico Air Museum, near the municipal airport, displays a diverse collection of aircraft – and admission is free. And on a more traditional note, the Bidwell Mansion State Historic Park surrounds its namesake structure, the John and Annie Bidwell Victorian mansion. The Bidwell’s were an important pioneer family who frequently opened their home to guests that included President Rutherford Hayes, social activist Susan B. Anthony, and conservationist John Muir.
Of course, there are a wide variety of overnight accommodations in Chico and plenty of choices for food and drink. Just know that daytime temperatures can sometimes top 100 degrees in the summer months.
The Deer Creek Highway
The Deer Creek Highway, CA-32, stretches from Chico in the west to its eastern terminus at the junction with the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway (CA-36). The first miles run through the outskirts of Chico, climbing into the hills leaving the Sacramento valley behind. At Forest Ranch, Chico is well behind and the fresh Sierra mountain air above 2400 feet feels a bit cooler.
The road begins to twist and turn from here, winding through mile after mile of California pine trees. Traffic is light and services are far between along this well paved two-lane highway. Occasional gaps in the trees reveal wide views of the surrounding hills and valleys. Shoulders are narrow, leaving little room for picture stops.
Another 13 miles beyond Forest Ranch, lies the community of Lomo California at an elevation of 3779 feet, one of the highest points on CA-32. Riders may see piles of plowed snow on the roadside as late as March and April. Lingering snow aside, the ride east from Lomo to CA-36 is filled with some of the best curves the Deer Creek Highway has to offer. These lively closely spaced corners come one after another, weaving miles higher into the Lassen National Forest.
On to Lassen
The Deer Creek Highway comes to an end at the junction with CA-36 also known as the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway. Turning to the north, the ride to Lassen rolls through more of the now familiar forest-lined twisties. The roadway climbs deep into the mountains reaching an elevation of over 5000 feet in the Lassen National Forest before arriving at the junction with CA-89.
Follow CA-89 for a little over 5 miles to the Lassen Volcanic National Park southwest entrance and the nearby Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center.
A Diversion on CA-172
For anyone who would like to take a road less traveled, consider riding CA-172. The junction off CA-36 is about a mile past the Highlands Ranch Resort. This paved two-laner veers south before turning west where it eventually arrives in Mineral California. That’s just about 5 miles away from the junction with CA-89 leading into Lassen National Park.
A snack at the Mineral Lodge combined with the extra curves and added views of Lassen National Forest feel like a reasonable tradeoff for an extra 14 miles on the original route.
Sights Along the Way
Riding the Deer Creek Highway and adjoining roads to Lassen is its own reward offering spectacular views of mountains, expansive valleys, and occasional wildlife. Historical landmarks are few and far between. Nevertheless, there are at least a couple worth calling out.
The Deer Creek Bridge is a hard-to-miss historical bridge on CA-32 that crosses Deer Creek near the parking area at the Deer Creek Trail head (roughly 35 miles east of Chico). There are multiple points where the road crosses the creek, but only this bridge, built in 1939, sparks the imagination about what riding in the early days may have been like. All the other crossings feature modern, and much less ornate, concrete spans.
Stop in at the Highlands Ranch Resort on CA-32 for lunch or a stretch before continuing to Lassen which is only another 10 minutes or so up the road. The ranch has a comfortable restaurant and bar and offers newly built cabins for overnight guests. Amenities in Lassen Volcanic National Park are limited making the Highlands Ranch Resort (and perhaps the Mineral Lodge) as good as it gets in the Lassen National Forest.
For another inspiring ride in the Sierras east of Chico read the article Discover the Feather River Scenic Byway.
A Destination to Remember
Lassen Volcanic National Park may not be among the most visited parks, but the ride from Chico on the Deer Creek Highway for many is reason enough for a visit.
Deer Creek Highway combined with the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway and the optional ride on CA-172 to Lassen is an easy day ride from Chico that checks all the boxes. Put this road on your list of touring destinations.
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