Photo: Gregory McDonald

I first spotted the California Backcountry Discovery Trail a couple of years ago as a yellow highlighted route on my Mendocino National Forest map. The idea for the CBDT started in the 1960s when 4-wheel-drive enthusiasts had the dream of creating a jeep trail that would traverse the length of the state from Mexico to Oregon.

Today over 600 miles of trails are designated as part of that system. Try to find information on it though and you won’t come up with much. I called the Ranger’s Station in Upper Lake and they faxed me some mid-90s-era brochures. They listed “Discovery Points” along the route, mostly things like campsites, trail heads, and, interestingly, a hang glider port.

Wanting to see what this grand 4×4 trail system was all about, we planned a week-long trip up the CBDT starting at the southern end of the Mendocino National Forest and snaking through the Six Rivers National Forest. Our 235-mile route would end on a 35-mile-long, 5,000-foot-high ridge called Southfork Mountain. We would traverse some of the least visited wilderness in the state, an area more known for its bigfoot sightings than anything else.

This past September Natalie, Greg, and I set off to see what the CBDT had to offer.

Update: I posted a map at the bottom of the post.

Natalie outside the Tallman Hotel in Upper Lake. Photo: Nik Schulz

We started in Upper Lake, California, just north of Clear Lake, a town that still has its share of mid-century buildings —  mid 19th century, that is. If you’re ever there, the Blue Wing Saloon is a good place to have lunch. The place looks like its been mildly updated but still retains its original charm.

The Blue Wing Saloon & Cafe, Photo: Nik Schulz

We didn’t have time for lunch though. The town clock was ticking and we wanted to be at camp on Lake Pillsbury before dark.

Greg and me in front of the town clock. Photo: Natalie Menacho

Stopping to air down the tires on Elk Mountain Road (Forest Road M1). Photo: Natalie Menacho

After about 30 miles we turned along the grass-strip runway at Lake Pillsbury in Potter Valley. (Yes, you could actually land a plane there.) We drove to the end of the road and spotted a herd of rutting elk along the shore.

Natalie checks out the elk with the carnoculars (the binoculars we keep in the truck). Photo: Nik Schulz

Here's what she saw. Photo: Natalie Menacho

We pulled out the camp chairs to watch the elk for a while and contemplated where to pitch our tents when a forest ranger drove up. After some friendly chit-chat he asked if we knew that we weren’t allowed to camp here.

The campgrounds were all crowded and full so we decided to keep following the trail into the hills up on Boardman Ridge.

Magnets and beanbags assist as we pulled out the maps to look for a camp site. Photo: Natalie Menacho

After about five miles we found a nice spot just off the M1, pitched the tents, and Natalie started a delicious dinner of risotto, home-grown tomatoes, and smoked trout. She opened the cans of trout, tossed them into the risotto, and was about to pour the leftover oil on the ground when Greg and I jumped to the edge of our seats, “Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! We’ll take that!”

Two cans of fragrant fish oil on the ground would have been tantamount to wrapping our tents in bacon. Every animal on the mountain would have been in our camp looking for leftovers. We had a good laugh about it — it was our first night out — then Greg and I walked the fishy animal bait half a mile down the road to dump it. After that, we stayed up a while and watched the stars.

Deer season was set to open the following day. Still we were surprised to hear traffic rumbling up the M1 until well after midnight.

Our camp on Boardman Ridge. Photo: Gregory McDonald


CBDT Notes:

Upper Lake to Boardman Ridge: 35 miles
Travel time: 2 hours, 11 minutes
Trail difficulty: 2 of 10


View Larger Map


CBDT, Part 1: Lake Pillsbury
CBDT, Part 2: Dead Deer, Live Deer, Eel River Work Station
CBDT, Part 3: What’s up Watts Lake?
CBDT, Part 4: Ruth Lake, Jewel of the Middle of Nowhere
CBDT, Part 5: Bear Den, Coyote Tracks, Camp Site
CBDT, Part 6: Best Campsite Ever
CBDT, Part 7: Obviously Not Bigfoot