I’ve been fascinated by the course for the Lemurian mountain bike race since event organizers moved the event from French Gulch to Whiskeytown in 2005.
The 23rd running of the Lemurian is this Saturday, April 24, and my colleague Jim Dyar has a look at the history and organization of the race here. I’m going to concentrate on the race course.
Over the years, I’ve logged hundreds of hours in Whiskeytown’s backcountry, primarily as a trail runner, and only occasionally as a mountain biker. I can’t say that every one of my favorite Whiskeytown trails is on the Lemurian route, but the 26-mile-long course links together many of the park’s best offerings. So, let’s take a tour. You may follow along with the maps on the event website and on the Whiskeytown National Recreation Area website. My mileages and elevations are approximations. Your mileage may vary!
The race starts at the Brandy Creek Marina. After a short warm-up on paved roads, the course heads up the gently sloping Brandy Creek Road for a little more than a mile before reaching the dreaded Peltier Valley Road (closed to motorized vehicles for much of the year, including now). This is where the climbing gets tough. The large, loose rocks that compose most of the road’s surface don’t help, whether you’re on a bike, on foot or on horseback. After a little less than a mile of this torture, you’ll veer left at a sign that warns you the road is no longer maintained. This is Panther Gap. Climb some more on dirt trail/road to the summit of Monarch Mountain, about 1,300 feet above the lake. This little-used trail doesn’t appear on most park maps, but it provides some of my favorite views of the lake, Shasta Bally and rugged the Whiskeytown backcountry.
Once you’ve reached the peak, prepare for a serious descent of about 1,200 feet in a little more than a mile. If you don’t know what you’re doing on a mountain bike, either get off and walk, or prepare for a trip to the ER. The trail is not overly technical, but sections are very steep and some turns will sneak up on you quickly.
At the bottom of the hill, you’ll hit John F. Kennedy Drive at a blind intersection. Hang a very careful right, follow the road across the dam to Paige Bar Road, then head right and down the hill. Soon you’ll connect with the Clear Creek Canal Trail on the right. This fairly flat mile-long trail section provides a nice jaunt for walkers and good material for beginning mountain bikers.
At the road, turn left and head across the parking lot (often called the “horse turd lot”) to the Shasta Mine Loop Trail. Sorry, you’ve got to head up the hill on the left. This is the second substantial climb on the Lemurian course – roughly 550 feet in about three-quarters of a mile. Whether you’re pedaling the bike, pushing the bike or simply walking, take a moment to appreciate the lake, Kanaka Peak, South Fork Mountain and Shasta Bally. At the first trail on the right, start heading down the hill. This single-track section of Shasta Mine Loop Trail is only about 5 years old, and it’s a big improvement over the old, heavily rutted dirt road that has since been closed. Soon enough you’ll be at a gorgeous little creek, but tread carefully. This piece of trail has a lot of ruts, loose rocks and quick drops. At the bottom of the hill, turn left, cross a different creek and head up this connector trail to Mule Town Road, where you’ll turn left.
After a brief section of road, get onto Buck Hollow Trail for a mile of short ups and downs. Turn right at the T and then right on the road. After climbing a short hill, go left at the intersection and in a few hundred yards you’ll turn right onto a different piece of Clear Creek Canal Trail. You’re now in for more than 3 miles of relaxing, nearly flat trail interrupted only by the Orofino Creek gulch – the unofficial halfway point of the course. This part of the Lemurian route includes a stretch of Clear Creek Canal Trail – from Paige Bar Road near Horse Camp to the trail’s junction with Shasta Mine Loop – that might have the best reward/effort ratio in Whiskeytown. The trail offers several nice vistas, a babbling brook, a good chance to see wildlife, including deer and bear, and an opportunity to observe areas rebounding from prescribed fire – and almost no hills. The trail is wet and muddy in spots right now, though.
After crossing the paved road and finishing the canal trail, speed down Peltier Valley Road to the bridge over Clear Creek. On race day, take advantage of the inviting aid station, because you’re still 10 miles from the finish, and the real work lies ahead of you. Climb the road for a few hundred yards, veer left at the first opportunity and go downhill a short piece to Logging Camp Trail. Many mountain bikers know this mile-long trail as Satan’s Crack. Climb it during mid-summer and you’ll start to understand. But the slope isn’t unreasonable, and the trail is smooth single-track. Turn right onto Kanaka Peak Trail and head uphill a little more. You’re going to get your feet wet crossing Paige Boulder Creek. At the T, turn right and cross the creek again. Back on the road, turn left and head uphill for about a mile.
Turn left onto Peltier Valley Trail, also known as The Recliner. A recent run reminded me how rough and steep this trail is: VERY. After half a mile, pick up Salt Gulch Trail, (AKA The Couch), where the vertical gets almost ridiculous. While this roughly 3/4-of-a-mile climb is truly a bitch, the mixed forest of oak, pine, maple and the occasional cedar is a treat. Blink through your pain at the specimen trees.
After a false summit, you’ll hit the high point on the Lemurian Course at 2,700 feet, or about 1,800 feet above the friendly Clear Creek aid station four miles earlier. You’ll know you’ve reached the top because, within a few yards, the trail will essentially fall off a cliff.
The maps say Salt Gulch Trail drops about 800 feet in one mile, but it feels even steeper than that to me. Several years ago, I was running (all right, hiking) UP this trail when I met a mountain biker flying down the hill. “Two more” he yelled to me while passing. I waited a moment. No one. I started trudging uphill and in a few minutes encountered a rider carefully carving his way down the technical trail. A little farther along, near the top, I found rider number three. He had a white-knuckled death grip on his bike and a look of both anger and terror on his face. If he survived the descent, he was clearly going to kill his “friend” who talked him into this ride.
Assuming you make it down alive, you’ll turn left on the dirt road. Just before the parking lot for the Brandy Creek Falls trailhead, hang a sharp right onto Brandy Creek Trail for a gentle downhill run of maybe half a mile. Cross the creek, turn right on the road and make the last real climb of day. At the top of the quarter-mile hill, veer left and then left again onto Lower Brandy Creek Trail (AKA Ice Box). At this point, you’re less than three miles from the end. The first few hundred yards of this trail are rocky and heavily eroded, so tread carefully whether on bicycle, foot or horse. After the shallow creek crossing, the trail surface gets better.
You’ll jog along the road for a short stretch before getting back onto single-track and sweet downhill. Keep an eye out for dogwoods, which are blooming right now. Near the bottom of the hill, the trail makes at least three creek crossings. Before you know it, you’re back on the paved road. Cross it, head up the paved sidewalk, pass through the RV campground and you’re back at the marina.
Depending upon whom you believe and which maps you check, the 26-mile Lemurian long course climbs somewhere between 4,300 and 5,200 feet (with, obviously, an identical amount of descent). Whatever the quantitative measurements, “epic” is the most common qualitative description. Heck, if you choose to ride, run or hike even half of the course, you’ve still got yourself a pretty epic outing – especially if you include the latter portions of the Lemurian course.
Shortly after the Lemurian race moved to Whiskeytown, I got to talking with a mountain biker from the coast. I was running trails on a late spring morning and he was re-riding the Lemurian route solo. When I asked if he’d like to see the race return to the trails above French Gulch, he looked at me as if I were from outer space. “What for?” he said.
Paul Shigley is senior editor of California Planning & Development Report, a frequent contributor to Planning magazine and a surprisingly slow trail runner. He lives in Centerville. Paul Shigley may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.