Updated: Jun 14, 2021
With its rugged and wild coastline, majestic redwood forests, untamed rivers, and unspoiled wilderness, the Emerald Triangle Grand Traverse might just be the quintessential Northern California overland adventure.
Adventure Rating: Baja
Trip Length: 665 miles, 6-12 days
Season: May - November
Technical Rating: Green
Typical Terrain: 60% dirt, 40% pavement. The dirt sections are primarily well kept service roads, but there is a mild rocky section the last couple of miles up Hull Mountain.
Recommended Vehicle: Subaru with all terrain tires.
Adventure Vans: A 144" Sprinter with 4x4 should be able to manage 98% of the route. We have suggested detours for adventure vans along short sections of trail in the Lost Coast and Mendocino BDT. See these pages for more details.
Alternative Routes: n/a
Fueling Up: While there are a number of gas stations shown on the Google Map between Covelo and Ruth Lake, these are not full service stations and have been known to occasionally run out of gas (unknown if they have diesel). As a precaution, it's recommended that you bring extra fuel. The gas station at Dinsmore is more reliable, but it never hurts to check ahead!
The Emerald Triangle Grand Traverse strings together three separate routes in Northern California (Lost Coast Adventure Route, Mendocino BDT, Six Rivers BDT), creating a 665 mile loop through some of Northern California's most scenic wildlands. The route begins in central Mendocino County, in the quaint and idyllic town of Ukiah. Because the route covers much of the same ground as the three routes noted above, we've posted the route details for each section below. In an effort to traverse as much dirt as feasible, there are additional sections of dirt roads through Cow Mountain (Ukiah, BLM) and the redwood forests east of Fort Bragg (Sherwood road) that are not covered in the guides below, both of which are rather mild in character. We hope you enjoy this grand traverse!
Mendocino Backcountry Discovery Trail
The Mendocino National Forest is the only national forest in California that isn't crossed by paved road. Despite the fact that there aren't many paved roads in the forest, there's an overabundance of well kept dirt roads and trails, which will delight travelers who like to stray from the main thoroughfares.
This particular route is largely based on the California Backcountry Discovery that is featured on the official Mendocino National Forest map. The Mendocino BDT runs the entire length of M1 from CC Camp (Middle Creek Camp) to the north where it spits out at the confluence of the middle fork Eel and Black Butte Rivers (just east of Covelo). We've taken the liberty of extending the official BDT from its original termination point at the Eel River to include an additional loop through some of the forest's most scenic and remote areas along the northern boundary of the Mendocino National Forest. If you're just getting into overlanding and offroad travel, with mostly wide dirt and gravel roads, the Mendocino BDT is a great place to start. The route begins in the historic downtown of Upper Lake, before heading into the forest. As you make your way to the forest and up Elk Mountain, you'll notice many of the surrounding mountains and hills have succumbed to wildfire. The Mendocino Complex, the largest fire in California history ravaged large swaths of the forest along the southern boundary. The stretch of road from Upper Lake to Lakes Pillsbury is probably the most well travelled in the forest. While Lake Pillsbury is a great place to relax and cool down from the sweltering mid-summer heat, you can expect crowds, especially in the developed campgrounds that dot the lake. But don't let that scare you away, as Lake Pillsbury is a great place to watch the sunset, take a cooling dip, or view a variety of birdlife, including raptors, eagles, and osprey. As you leave Lake Pillsbury, you'll make your way up Hull Mountain (elev. 6873)), which dominates the valley below. Hull Mountain rewards the steadfast traveller with numerous views of the surrounding coastal mountains as you make your way towards the summit. The wide dirt road gives way to a very mild technical section of rocks the last few miles up the summit. At the summit you'll find the remains of the old Hull Mountain fire lookout, along with spectacular 360 degree views. The crowds will thin out dramatically as you make your way north from Hull Mountain. The roads will tame and widen, and the alpine landscape will eventually give way to rollings hills of golden grass dotted with oak trees and chaparral. There are a number of unique geographic areas and points of interest that you'll pass by as you continue on the route. Check out the lunar scape (moon dust on the Google map) just north of Hull Mountain, or one of several historical homesteads along the path. Eventually you'll find yourself passing the Black Butte River Ranch, which is a great place to grab a bite or have a cold beer on their patio. You've made it to the confluence of the Black Butte and Eel Rivers. The Eel provides for some deeper swimming holes, and unlike the the rivers that run through the Sierra, both the Eel and Black Butte are relatively mild in temperature during the warmer months (often low 70s).
Camping Recommendations - Mendocino NF
We highly recommend exploring the surrounding wilderness, as there is an endless supply of great camping locations within the Mendocino National Forest. We've listed some of our favorite spots below:
M1 between Hull Mountain and Eel River (numerous spots)
Little Doe Campground (Primitive)
Howard Lake Campground (Primitive)
Hammerhorn Campground (Primitive)
Green Springs Camp (primitive)
Atchison Campground (primitive)
Sunset Point on Lake Pillsbury (if you prefer developed campgrounds with crowds)
Eel River Camp (not the prettiest campground, but it sits right at the confluence of the Eel and Black Butte Rivers)
Six Rivers Backcountry Discovery Trail
At just under one million acres, Six Rivers National Forest stretches across much of the length of far Northern California, reaching all the way to the Oregon Border. The Six Rivers Backcountry Discovery Trail traverses the southern portion of the forest from Mendocino County heads north into the heart of Humboldt County. This is bigfoot country, and for good reason, it's easy to disappear into the seemingly unending wilderness! But, for those seeking solitude in the mountains, the Six Rivers BDT delivers in spades. This particular version of the Six Rivers BDT follows the original route as marked on National Forest maps, but the route has been extended so that it now terminates on Hwy 299, just west of Willow Creek (home of the once famous bigfoot siting and Bigfoot museum). The route begins in the town of Covelo, where the Mendocino Backcountry Discovery Trail terminates. The Six Rivers BDT heads north on paved country roads for some ways until it finally turns into a well kept dirt road. The scenery along much of the route is mixture of steep mountain slopes covered in mixed coniferous forests and open and rolling grass hills dotted with oak and chaparel. You'll pass through the tiny villages of Kettepom and Zenia as you make your way towards Ruth Lake. Ruth Lake is a hidden gem that's frequented by locals during the warmer months. If you're lucky, you may see osprey or a bald eagle hunting over the lake. Peregrine falcon are also known to frequent the forest. Ruth Lake seems like a thriving bastion of civilization compared to the deserted mountains that surrounds it (a small gas station, lodging, and couple of restaurants). If you're planning to stay along the lake, consider checking out Fir Cove campground, or Mad River campground to the north (on the banks of the Mad River). From Ruth Lake the route mostly follows along the banks of the Mad River, before heading up to Horse Ridge. Be sure to visit the two lookouts along horse ride (one of which is abandoned and the other is still staffed during summer and early fall). Horse ridge also has some great views of Ruth Lake below and some great hidden campsites if you know where to look! From Horse Ridge you'll cross over the pavement of Hwy 36 as you continue north on the final leg of the journey. On this portion of the BDT, there's a good chance that you'll see more wildlife than humans. The route continues along well kept dirt roads until it meets its northern terminus, along Hwy 299. If you like getting squatchy, consider heading a few miles east on Hwy 299 to Willow Creek, home of Bigfoot Collection Museum.
Camping Recommendations - Six Rivers NF Dispersed camping is permitted throughout the National Forest (make sure you are within NF boundaries, as the southern section traverses mostly private property.
Fir Cove Campground
Mad River Campground
Horse Ridge Camp
Recommended Points of Interest
Mad River (south of Ruth Lake)
Horse Ridge fire lookout
Pickett Peak fire lookout
Bigfoot Collection Museum (Willow Creek)
Arcata (college town)
Lost Coast Adventure Route
Big Sur seems to get all the fanfare when it comes to California's coastline. In just the past decade, more and more adventurers have come to recognize Northern California's Lost Coast as the other jewell along California's coastline. And unlike Big Sur, you won't find Highway 1 running along the coast here. If massive redwoods, wild beaches, and rugged emerald mountains are your thing, then you'll love this overland adventure! If you're lucky, you might even spot one of the Roosevelt Elk herds in Sinkyone State Park (Usal Beach, Needle Rock, and Bear Harbor are popular viewing spots). The route begins on Highway 1, about 29 miles north of Fort Bragg just before Highway 1 heads east before it conjoins with Highway 101. The southern section (Sinkyone State Park) is dominated by mixed conifer forests consisting mostly of Douglas fir and coast redwood. Usal Beach is a great place to camp on your first night, but it tends to fill up on weekends during the warmer months. If you're looking to get away from the crowds, then consider setting up camp at one of the sites around Bear Harbor. As you make your way north, you'll come to the old fishing village of Shelter Cove. Shelter Cove provides its share postcard worthy views. Consider making stops at Black Sands Beach and the old Cape Mendocino Lighthouse. As you leave Shelter Cove, you'll enter the the most rugged section of the King Range (managed by BLM), which is one of the most seismically active regions in California. The section along Saddle Mountain Road rewards the intrepid traveller with spectacular vistas over the Pacific and the best view of King's Peak (namesake peak of the King Range) along the route. Mattole Beach is a great place to set up camp, but if that's full, consider heading over to A.W. Way County Park a few miles up the road. The final leg of the journey goes from Mattole Beach through the Mattole river valley and into the heart of Humboldt Redwoods. We recommend driving Ave of the Giants and exploring the hiking trails through the Bull Creek flat area, which has some of the tallest redwoods in the park.
Camping Recommendations - Lost Coast
Land managers require camping in designated campgrounds along the Lost Coast. Certain campgrounds (Humboldt Redwoods, Mattole) fill up in the summer, so plan your adventure accordingly.
Humboldt State Redwoods (any campground, gets busy!)
AW Way County Park (if Mattole Beach is full)
Maps + Navigation
>> Always check with local land managers for road closures and conditions.
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