NorCal Roadtrips

An Explorer's Guide to Northern California


Mendocino National Forest- Forest Road M1- California Back Country Discovery Trail

Forest Road M1- California Back Country Discovery Trail

We'll take this one in phases. For much of its initial length, the CBDT follows FR M1. We'll let you know when that ceases to be the case. The road is good, rocky with some ruts; the biggest problem is there are some inclines that are steep and slippery. 4WD is definitely recommended with good tread on the tires. Some of the side roads, like the one to Howard Lake, require a creek crossing, but not an issue later in the season. In early spring it could be an issue.

Phase 1- Upper Lake to Eel River Work Station

The southern terminus of FR M1 (aka County Road 301) is the village of Upper Lake on the north end of Clear Lake. From Clear Lake turn north on Mendenhall Avenue, which becomes FR M1. About 8 miles into the trip OHV fans will encounter three campsites in relatively close proximity to each other. The first is Middle Creek Campground. Next up within a mile or so is a turn onto FR 16N20 (turn right- east) which will take you to the Deer Valley Campground. If you stay on FR M1, about a mile past the turn onto FR 16N20 you will come to the third camp, Penny Pines. All cater primarily to OHV folks.

Middle Creek Campground

Location: From Upper Lake, take Mendenhall Ave. (FR M1) eight miles to the site.

Attraction: OHV staging area.

Campsite Description: 23 sites for tents or RV's to 30 feet. No hookups. Picnic tables, fire grills, potable water and vault toilets.

Season: All year.

Reservations: None accepted.

Public/private Public   Wheelchair Access No
Fees $8   Fishing No
Hook-ups No   Boating No
Drinking Water Yes   Lake on Site No
Showers No   Elev 2,000 feet
Toilets Pit   Supplies No

Information: Mendocino National Forest, Covelo Ranger District. (707) 275-2361.

Day Hikes in Area:

Backpacking Hikes in Area:

Off-Road Opportunities in Area:  Numerous OHV trails

Deer Valley Campground

Location: From Upper Lake head north on Mendenhall Ave. (FR M1) and drive about 17 miles to FR 16N01. Turn right and drive 4 miles to the camp.

Attraction: OHV staging area.

Campsite Description: 13 sites for tents and RV's to 16 feet. No hookups. Picnic tables, fire grills and vault toilets. No potable water. At 3,700 feet, higher than Middle Creek.

Season: Year round, weather permitting.

Reservations: None accepted.

Public/private Public   Wheelchair Access No
Fees None   Fishing No
Hook-ups No   Boating No
Drinking Water No   Lake on Site No
Showers No   Elev 3,700 feet
Toilets Pit   Supplies No

Information: Mendocino National Forest, Covelo Ranger District. (707) 275-2361.

Day Hikes in Area:

Backpacking Hikes in Area:

Off-Road Opportunities in Area: Numerous OHV trails.

Penny Pines Campground

Location: From Upper Lake, drive north on Mendenhall Ave. (FR M1) about 20 miles.

Attraction: OHV staging area.

Campsite Description: 5 campsites for tents or small RV's. Picnic tables, fire grills and pit toilets.

Season: Year round, weather permitting.

Reservations: None accepted.

Public/private Public   Wheelchair Access No
Fees Yes   Fishing No
Hook-ups No   Boating No
Drinking Water No   Lake on Site No
Showers No   Elev 3,600 feet
Toilets Pit   Supplies No

Information: Mendocino National Forest, Covelo Ranger District. (707) 275-2361.

Day Hikes in Area:

Backpacking Hikes in Area:

Off-Road Opportunities in Area: OHV staging area.

Continuing north on M1, another 5 miles or so will bring you to the turn for the Pine Mountain Lookout Tower. It is now a rental unit in a pretty spot. Click the link for more information. To get there you would turn left (west) on FR 18N05 and watch for signs. You will pass one posted as Pine Mountain; not the lookout. You will then see one noting Pine Mountain Lookout. Bingo.

Continuing on FR M1- County Road 301 the next stop will be the hamlet of Soda Creek, on the west side of Lake Pillsbury. You will leave County Road 301 behind as it turns west; FR M1 is now your home. If necessary, stop at the Soda Creek Store and provision up as that's the last civilized outpost you'll see for a good while, depending on how slowly you go. Hopefully, you are here to enjoy the experience, not set a back-country speed record. The next stop will be the Forest Service Eel River Work Station, and then on into the town of Covelo where you can once again get services, albeit limited. As the crow flies the distance from Soda Creek to the Eel River Work Station is about 26 miles and another 7 miles or so into Covelo, but this is back-country driving on gravel, winding roads so the crow's not a good judge of fuel consumed, meals eaten, views observed, side trips taken, real miles driven and nerves frayed.

Between Soda Creek and the Eel River Work Station there is one established campground, about 2/3 of the way into the trip. That would be the Grizzly Flat Campground.

Grizzly Flat Campground

Location: On FR M1 about 25 miles north of the hamlet of Soda Creek (Lake Pillsbury) and south of the Eel River Work Station near the town of Covelo.

Attraction: Hunting basecamp. If you like to boondock, this is the spot.

Campsite Description: A dispersed campground, meaning there are no established campsites. The only amenity is a vault toilet. Used primarily as a basecamp for hunters.

Season: May- December

Reservations: None accepted.

Public/private Public   Wheelchair Access No
Fees None   Fishing No
Hook-ups No   Boating No
Drinking Water No   Lake on Site No
Showers No   Elev Unk
Toilets Pit   Supplies No

Information: Mendocino National Forest, Covelo Ranger District. (707) 275-2361.

Day Hikes in Area:

Backpacking Hikes in Area:

Off-Road Opportunities in Area: To the south as previously described.

Phase 2- Eel River Work Station to the End of Forest Road M1.

We divided this drive into 2 phases for a reason; you can begin the northward trek on FR M1 from Covelo rather than starting from Upper Lake. Or you could do one phase at one time and the other at a different time. Phase 1 took you to the Eel River Work Station. At that point FR M1 and the California Back Country Discovery Trail part ways; the CBDT leaves the forest here. To remain on it you would turn left (west) on County Road 338 (unmarked but there is a sign pointing you in the right direction) which becomes County Road 162 (marked) and take that west to Covelo.

If you want to take FR M1 north, if you are continuing from the Phase 1 path from Upper Lake, just stay on FR M1. If you are starting Phase 2 from the Eel River Work Station you need to get there.

For that purpose, Forest Road M1 marks the entrance of Hwy. 162 into the MNF. First find Willits on Hwy. 101. Then drive 12 miles north to the village of Longvale (or about the same distance south of Laytonville) and turn east on Hwy. 162 and drive thru Covelo (it's about 28 miles to Covelo) for 32 miles to the boundary of the national forest. This is a winding country road so there's no rushing it, and there are several good swimming holes along the way as you track the Middle Fork of the Eel River for a ways. Stay on Hwy. 162- Mendocino Pass Road to the Eel River Work Center. You will know you are there as there's a bar there; go figure. Turn left (north) at the sign. From here you are driving on FR M1, also known as Indian Dick Rd. (but you'd never know it from any signage). As an aside, if you were not to turn onto M1 and just continued straight you could drive 80 miles to Willows. Turn right and you can drive 48 miles to Lake Pillsbury or 17 miles to Grizzly Flat. Back to business: from the turn onto M1 it's 23 miles to Hammerhorn Lake and 28 miles to Indian Dick, which is where M1 ends. The turn to Howard Lake is 6 miles closes than Hammerhorn. But if you need to camp, here is your first opportunity; Eel River Campground.

P.S. Covelo is your last chance to get gas (including diesel) and provisions; they have a Blackberry Festival in August.

Another aside. As you drive on FR M1 there are numerous spots to pull off and camp if you need to. You'll have no amenities but it may be preferable to driving a dirt road in the dark. So rest in peace.

Eel River Campground

Location: County Road 162 ends but the road itself continues to the bar (as in "I'll have a Bud Light") where you pick up Forest Road M1 north. Turn right at the intersection to the campground instead of left onto FR M1 north.

Attraction: Proximity to the Eel River, but it's not at river level so you'd need to hike down. Kind of a homely place with little to recommend it in our opinion.

Campsite Description: 15 sites for tents or RV's to 21 feet. Picnic tables, fire grills, drinking water and vault toilets are available. At 1,500 feet it can be hot in summer.

Season: April thru December.

Reservations: Not accepted.

Public/private Public   Wheelchair Access No
Fees $8   Fishing Yes
Hook-ups No   Boating No
Drinking Water Yes   Lake on Site No
Showers No   Elev 1,500 feet
Toilets Pit   Supplies In Covelo

Information: Mendocino National Forest, Covelo Ranger District. (707)983-6118.

Day Hikes in Area: Travelers Home National Recreation Trail. From Covelo  its about 10 miles East)on Hwy. 162 to the junction with Blands Cove Rd. Turn left and go 3 miles. Trailhead on FR 24N21 marked "Travelers Home Trail." 7.6 mile jaunt that ends in a Wild and Scenic area of the Middle Fork of the Eel River. Starts at an elevation of 2,100 feet so is hot in summer; best to go in other seasons. The trail rises from 2,100 feet to 3,700 feet, a moderate elevation gain but enough to justify bringing water. This is not a loop, but you can turn it into one by crossing the river at the end and following the Hell Hole Trail south to its trailhead. See below. Mountain bikers share the trail. GPS location: Lat. 39.841256; long. 123.077989. Hell Hole Trail. The trailhead is just past the turn onto FR 23N29, 3 miles from the turn onto FR M1 north.  and it follows the Middle Fork of the Eel River as you hike in a northerly direction. As noted above, you can cross the Eel River and hook up with the Travelers Home Trail to create a loop. If you are driving 2 vehicles, you can park one at each trailhead.

Backpacking Hikes in Area:

Off-Road Opportunities in Area: OHV areas to the south. See campgrounds above.

Leaving the Eel River Work Center, past the Hell Hole Trailhead at the 3 mile mark, M1 meanders vaguely north. You will be driving on pavement for the next 10 miles. Boardman Campground (see below) offers dispersed camping ( no facilities at all) but seems to be unmarked or we've missed it. The next "official" camping opportunity is Little Doe Campground, at FR 23N37, where you would make a left turn to get to Howard Lake if that is your destination. Howard Meadows Campground is nearby. Both are fine to camp but with no "attractions." You are now 13 miles into your trip and driving on dirt.

Boardman Campground

Location: On FR M1 north of the Eel River Work Station, just past the Hell Hole trailhead and before you reach the Howard Meadows Campground.

Attraction: Dispersed camping.

Campsite Description: 3 dispersed sites with a toilet. No water or anything else.

Season: None posted.

Reservations: None accepted.

Public/private Public   Wheelchair Access No
Fees None   Fishing No
Hook-ups No   Boating No
Drinking Water No   Lake on Site No
Showers No   Elev 4,600
Toilets Pit   Supplies Covelo

Information: Mendocino National Forest, Covelo Ranger District. (707) 983-6118.

Day Hikes in Area: Hell Hole Trail.

Backpacking Hikes in Area:

Off-Road Opportunities in Area:

Little Doe Campground

Location: 13 miles from the Eel River Work Station on FR M1.

Attraction: A nice campground in a forested setting. If you don't care about lake proximity this is an okay place to camp. But nothing much to do but camp. It's about 4 miles to Howard lake.

Campsite Description: 13 sites for tents or RV's to 16 feet. No hookups. Picnic tables, fire pits and vault toilets. No potable water.

Season: April to December.

Reservations: None accepted.

Public/private Public   Wheelchair Access No
Fees None   Fishing At Howard Lake
Hook-ups No   Boating Non-motorized
Drinking Water No   Lake on Site Close-by
Showers No   Elev 3,600 ft.
Toilets Pit   Supplies In Covelo

Information: Mendocino National Forest, Covelo Ranger District. (707)983-6118.

Day Hikes in Area: Hell Hole Trail.

Backpacking Hikes in Area:

Off-Road Opportunities in Area:

Howard Meadows Campground

Location: On FR M1 (Indian Dick Rd) 12 miles from the Eel River Work Center.

Attraction: Primitive camping near a remote lake. Howard Lake stocked with rainbow trout, but with issues. It's choked with water lilies and swimming is not recommended due to much and algae. It's about 4 miles to Howard lake.

Campsite Description: 8 sites for tents or small RV's. Picnic tables, fire rings and pit toilets. No potable water.

Season: April to December.

Reservations: Not accepted.

Public/private Public   Wheelchair Access No
Fees None   Fishing Yes
Hook-ups No   Boating Non-motorized
Drinking Water No   Lake on Site Yes
Showers No   Elev 3,500 feet
Toilets Pit   Supplies In Covelo

Information: Mendocino National Forest, Covelo Ranger District. (707)983-6118

Day Hikes in Area:

Backpacking Hikes in Area:

Off-Road Opportunities in Area: OHV areas to the south. See campgrounds above.

The drive into Howard Lake from Little Doe Campground is relatively straightforward. There is a creek crossing, but the water depth is only a few inches in late summer. If you are making the trip in early spring, check conditions with the forest service.

To be frank, Howard Lake is less than ideal for someone who desires to fish or swim. The lake is overgrown with lily pads and as of summer 2013 about 15% of the lake is open water, the rest is clogged. You can push thru the lily pads with a small inflatable to get to open areas if you want. For swimmers, the lake is full of algae and pretty mucky. You're going to need a shower before getting into that sleeping bag, so bring one.

Howard Lake Campground

Location: Off FR M1.

Attraction: Primitive camping and fishing for stocked rainbow trout. There are only 4 sites but there's little competition for them, other perhaps than during hunting season. Swimming is not recommended due to muck and algae. Fishermen need to know that the lake is choked with lily pads, with only about 15% of the lake being open water. Click this link for a write-up on Howard Lake.

Campsite Description: Four sites for tents or small RV's. One site with wheelchair access. Picnic tables, fire rings, pit toilets are provided. No potable water.

Season: April to December.

Reservations: None accepted.

Public/private Public   Wheelchair Access Yes
Fees None   Fishing Yes
Hook-ups No   Boating Non-motorized
Drinking Water No   Lake on Site Yes
Showers No   Elev 3,500 ft.
Toilets Pit   Supplies In Covelo

Information: Mendocino National Forest, Covelo Ranger District. (707)983-6118.

Day Hikes in Area:

Backpacking Hikes in Area:

Off-Road Opportunities in Area:

Of the 2 lakes, Hammerhorn is the best. The campground is very nice, in a forested setting and a short walk to the lake. Easy to carry a small boat. On a summer weekend in 2013 we had the place to ourselves. Like Howard Lake, however, there is a downside. The lake is choked with reeds and water lilies with only about 15% being open water. You can push thru the lily pads with a small boat but it looks more like bass habitat than trout. There are 2 fishing piers, both of which are useless. For more distance than you can cast (unless you use a rocket launcher) there are reeds and lily pads. Lastly, there are a few areas where you can fish from shore into open water, but most of the shoreline is clogged. For swimmers; not recommended. The lake is full of algae and you'll need a shower after a little swim. If you elect not to, a single sleeping bag is recommended over a double, unless your partner went swimming as well. Click this link for a write-up on Hammerhorn Lake.

Hammerhorn Lake Campground

Location: From FR M1 23 miles from the Eel River Work center and about 6 miles from Howard Lake turn at Little Doe Campground. Turn right (east) on FR M21 and drive a mile to the campground.

Attraction: Remote camping and fishing for stocked rainbow trout. A very nice, shaded campground. Swimming is not recommended and fishing is somewhat limited by a lily pad infestation.

Campsite Description: 9 sites for tents or RV's to 16 feet. No hookups. Picnic tables, fire grills, drinking water and pit toilets.

Season: April to December.

Reservations: None accepted.

Public/private Public   Wheelchair Access Yes
Fees $8   Fishing Yes
Hook-ups No   Boating Non-motorized
Drinking Water Yes   Lake on Site Yes
Showers No   Elev 3,500 ft.
Toilets Pit   Supplies In Covelo

Information: Mendocino National Forest, Covelo Ranger District. (707)983-6118.

Day Hikes in Area: Hammerhorn Lake Trail. A 1 mile circle of the lake. The first 1/4 mile is ADA compliant. It leads to 2 fishing piers, which are now lily pad viewing platforms. As noted, the lake is stocked with rainbow trout.

Backpacking Hikes in Area:

Off-Road Opportunities in Area:

Leaving Hammerhorn Lake, FR M1 continues north until it ends at the Indian Dick Forest Station a few miles away. At that point FR 25N30 heads northwest to the Hoxie Crossing trailhead, and FR 25N45 heads northeast to the George's Valley and Soldier Ridge trailheads, both in the Yolla Bolly- Middle Eel Wilderness. From here you need to carry a pack or ride a horse. To get home you need to backtrack.

There are three trailhead dispersed camps in this area, about at the end of FR M1.  On FR 25N30 heading northwest into the Yolla-Bolly- Middle Eel Wilderness you will encounter Rock Cabin Camp, with 3 dispersed sites and no services including water. On FR 25N45 heading northeast into the Wilderness you will encounter the Georges Valley and Soldier Ridge camps. Both offer dispersed camping with no facilities or water.

Now you have two choices. You can turn around and go back home. Or can stay and homestead.

A final note. Kudos to the Forest Service for the way they maintain these campsites. The grounds and restrooms are spotless.

End of Trip