• Traxx

Mendocino Backcountry Discovery Trail

Updated: May 18

If you're looking to get away from the crowds and explore an expansive and rugged wilderness filled with endless dirt roads, then "The Mendocino" (as locals call it) has got you covered!

Route Overview

Adventure Rating: Epic

Trip Length: 2-3 days, 167 miles

Season: April - November (depends on snowpack on Hull Mountain)

Avg Trail Rating: 2

Peak Trail Rating: 3

Typical Terrain: Primarily wide dirt and gravel roads. There is mild technical section consisting of rocks and off-camber trail the final 2-3 miles up Hull Mountain.

Recommended Vehicle: Subaru with all terrain tires.

Adventure Vans: Short wheel base vans with low roofs and all terrain tires should be able to manage the entire route, including the climb up and over Hull Mountain. Due to the off-camber nature near the summit of Hull Mountain-- you have a 144" Sprinter with a high roof, we recommend using the "Sprinter Van reroute" (see the Google map below).

Alternative Routes: Yes! See bottom of route details.

Adventure Badge: Get your Mendocino BDT adventure badge at our online store.


Route Description

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). The BDT makes a final loop around the base of Hammerhorn Mountain before heading to the summit of Anthony Peak, the highest point in Mendocino County. Anthony Peak is the only remaining staffed fire lookout in the Mendocino NF, and if you're lucky, you might just get invited inside! On a clear day you can see Mt Lassen to the east, and the Pacific Ocean to the west. Anthony Peak (elev. 6959) also a favorite location of stargazers, especially when meteor showers occur. The route concludes with a visit to the historic homestead of the family, which includes a maintained cabin the remains of the old apple orchards that the Keller's planted and kept.

Discovery Points

  • DP1 - Upper Lake Historic Downtown

  • DP2 - Pine Mountain Fire Lookout

  • DP3 - Eel River

  • DP4 - Lake Pillsbury

  • DP5 - Gravelly Airstrip

  • DP6 - Bloody Rock

  • DP7 - Hull Mountain

  • DP8 - James Hull's Grave

  • DP9 - Milsap Cabin Site

  • DP10 - Bald Mountain

  • DP11 - Blue Banks (Serpentine Rock)

  • DP12 - M1 Golden Hills Viewpoint

  • DP13 - Black Butte River

  • DP14 - Black Butte River Ranch

  • DP15 - Eel River

  • DP16 - Twin Rocks

  • DP17 - Keller Place Historic Cabin

  • DP18 - Black Butte

  • DP19 - Anthony Peak Fire Lookout

  • DP20 - Hammerhorn Mountain

  • DP21 - Howard Lake

Camping Recommendations

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)

Alternative Routes

Mendocino BDT + Six Rivers BDT Consider linking the Mendocino BDT with the Six Rivers BDT for a week long adventure! The Mendocino BDT ends in Covelo, exactly where the Six Rivers BDT begins.

Emerald Triangle Grand Traverse This route combines The Lost Coast Adventure Route with the Mendocino and Six Rivers Backcountry Discovery Trails for a truly memorable and remote expedition in far Northern California.

Emerald Triangle Grand Traverse page


Maps + Navigation

>> Always check with local land managers for road closures and conditions.

Recommended Maps

Download GPX files