NorCal Roadtrips

An Explorer's Guide to Northern California

Exploring Mendocino National Forest

Mendocino National Forest is a unique place, close to the San Francisco Bay Area yet counted as one of the least-visited of the national forests. That may be a function of one of the things that makes it unique; it is the only national forest in California that is not traversed by a paved road. So casual visitors usually find a more hospitable place to give their cruise-control a workout. Even getting to Lake Pillsbury, the only sizable lake in the forest and a popular place for boaters, campers and fishermen, can only be reached by a gravel road. Some may consider these issues as hardships; others see virtue.

The forest consists of 913,306 acres and is about 65 miles long by 35 miles wide. It is home to four wilderness areas: the 60,077 acre Snow Mountain Wilderness, the 180,083 acre Yolla Bolly- Middle Eel Wilderness, the 10,571 acre Sanhedrin Wilderness and the 53,717 acre Yuki Wilderness. For the uninitiated, wilderness areas are protected in such a manner as to be as pristine and free of human incursion as possible. These are places for backpackers and equestrians; leave the RV at home. Visitors are morally obligated to leave no trace of their having been there save for a footprint.

Too much of a good thing? Just north of Mendocino National Forest sit the southern boundaries of the Six Rivers National Forest to the west and the Shasta-Trinity National Forest to the east.

Like many national forests, this one has had its share of fires over the years and you will frequently encounter burned out areas. If this is a concern check with the nearest ranger station before heading to a place for that cherished campout.

A Brief History

The area was originally settled by seven Native American tribes, the Tuki, Nomlaki, Patwin, Eastern Pomo, Northeastern Pomo, Wailaki and the Huchnom. European settlers used the forest for timber and grazing, and limited mining for copper in the late 1800's. During both World Wars mining was conducted for manganese and chrome. In the late 1800's and early 1900's the area around current day Bartlett Flats was a hotbed of spa activity, and remains of resort hotels, baths and a bottling plant are still visible today. Protection began in 1907 when the area was designated as the Stony Creek Reserve, then the California National Forest in 1908 and the Mendocino National Forest in 1932.

Things to Do

There's lots to do here, and like all national forests it is managed to cater to many constituencies, including hunters and off-road OHV fans. So it's a very democratic place. And you will find areas that have been or are currently being logged. Such is life in a democratic state. So, what's to do?


Later on we will tackle the task of highlighting several of the "major" forest roads so you can get some idea of what you will encounter. We'll cover things to see and do and places to camp. Since these are mainly forest roads, maintained by the forest service, slightly different rules apply than those you encounter in the "real" world of highways and interstates. For one, pavement is a rarity to be cherished, but usually not for long. And prudence dictates that you carry a good map. Travel on forest service roads is generally not life-threatening, but people do get lost and sadly some have died when the weather turned nasty. So be prepared, as the Boy Scouts preach.

Within the forest road hierarchy, at the top there are roads suitable for passenger cars. These "primary" roads are generally marked with a simple designation starting frequently with the capital letter "M". For example "M1". The next level, lets call them "secondary" roads, generally have a horizontal road marker with a series of letters and numbers. A road near Howard Lake is marked 23N37. Secondary roads suitable for passenger cars are listed in capital letters on Forest Service maps; those unsuitable for passenger cars are listed in lower case. Secondary roads in particular may be closed for a variety of reasons, from weather to fire to maintenance and other reasons. If you are traveling on such roads contact the forest service about road conditions at or call the Ranger District office.

Next up are roads definitely not suitable for passenger cars. These are marked with vertical road markers with a numbering scheme similar to secondary roads described above. When you turn onto one of these check your owner's manual to ensure that you are driving, at a minimum, a high-clearance vehicle like a pick-up truck, SUV or Jeep. Four wheel drive is a plus. You will likely encounter things like serious ruts, boulders, slippery gravel or dirt, overhanging limbs, a stream crossing, a fallen tree and a stranded compatriot. When traveling these roads you need to do research beforehand to know what you are getting into. Many roads will start out looking benign and later degenerate into something else entirely. When traveling these "roads less traveled" we always carry, at a minimum, a shovel, hatchet, extra water and food and a Bible. And the "buddy" system has it's virtues. Never forget that AAA will not be taking your call. If you are traveling alone to a really remote area, consider a Personal Locater Beacon for use in a dire emergency. These are the devices backcountry skiers/ snowboarders carry to activate a distress signal in the event they get buried by an avalanche. The devices can be purchased at some marine and outdoor stores. The process is managed by a federal agency, the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration).

The California Back Country Discovery Trail (henceforth known as CBDT)

This driving opportunity deserves special mention. Dating back to the 1960's, a consortium of off-road enthusiasts that included state, federal and local agencies as well as private organizations began putting into place a series of inter-connected OHV (off highway vehicle) roads/trails that ultimately will stretch from Mexico to Oregon. A segment of this passes thru the Mendocino National Forest; about 86 miles worth to date. It's southern terminus is the village of Upper Lake and the Mendocino National Forest section ends as it enters Six Rivers National Forest to the north. The "main" road connects with many other roads along the way, many of which are best suited to an OHV. But when conceived, the SUV was the vehicle that the road was intended to handle. Most of the road/trail is two lane gravel with the usual potholes, rocks, etc. Portions of it are paved. Some of it utilizes normal roads for a time. Elevations vary from about 1,200 to 6,400 feet. It is a shared-use trail, so horses, bikes and hikers are welcome. Since Jeeps are not allowed on the Pacific Crest Trail, this may be a logical alternative for some of you. This is one of several CBDT trails in California; several other national forests have their own versions.


Lake Pillsbury- The largest and most popular lake is Lake Pillsbury. At an elevation of 1,800 feet it covers 2,000 acres and has 65 miles of shoreline. It has a diverse fish population; Florida-strain bass, bluegill and sunfish and rainbow trout stocked by DFG. Many believe that the best fishing is to be had where the Eel River enters the lake, an area that is also free of "development", in this case meaning campgrounds as well as homes. There are two boat ramps, several forest service campgrounds, swimming areas and a resort with services including boat rentals and gas. This is a place for small to medium sized boats; not yachts. Motors are allowed. Click the Lake Pillsbury link for more information about the lake and it's campgrounds.

Letts Lake- Located on the east side of the forest near the village of Stonyford, Letts is a fine combination of decent fishing in a beautiful spot. We rate it very highly as an all-around destination. Fishing is primarily for stocked rainbow trout. It's a perfect place for a canoe, kayak or float tube, as motors are prohibited (including electric). It covers 35 acres at 4,500 feet. Lake access is excellent from shore and launch sites are numerous for a small boat. Unlike many alpine lakes, this one has a very hospitable shoreline, forested almost to the lake and easy to navigate. The surrounding area was ravaged by fire in 2012 and earlier but the lake and environs was spared. Click the Letts Lake link for more information.

Howard Lake- this is a small lake with four primitive campgrounds (no water) that is stocked with rainbow trout. Not all sites are flat. It's about 20 miles down two forest service roads and provides solitude for those who prefer that. The road is okay for any 4WD and there are many spots for turning around or passing. The lake covers 20 acres and motors of any kind are not allowed. It's even smaller neighbor (Hammerhorn) is nearby. On the access road there is a creek that needs to be forded; it is only a few inches deep normally but if you are making the trip in early spring a call to the forest service would be advised as runoff may swell it. And now the bad news. The lake is choked with lily pads so only about 15% of the lake is open water. As for swimming, its pretty mucky and filled with algae (at least in summer 2013) so its really not great for fishing or swimming. Click the link for Howard Lake for more information.

Hammerhorn Lake- if Howard Lake is small, this is tiny- 5 acres. But it's stocked with rainbow trout. At 4,500 feet it has a boat ramp for very small boats and potable water. Motors are not allowed. And now for the bad news. The lake is pretty choked with reeds and lily pads so only about 15% of the lake is open water (in summer 2013). Even a small inflatable can push thru the lily pads but you need to want to. There are two fishing piers that are useless; there are so many reeds and lily pads between you and open water you'd be better off swimming out and dropping your bait somewhere. But then you'd encounter another problem. We'd not recommend swimming here as the lake is mucky and full of algae; you need to shower after a dip in the water to wash off the grime. The good news is that the campground is very pretty, set under a variety of trees with plenty of shade. On a weekend in July 2013 we had the place to ourselves. It's on the border of the Yolla Bolly Wilderness so backpackers sometimes use it as a basecamp. It is six miles north of Howard Lake. Click the Hammerhorn Lake link for more information.

Plaskett Lakes- two small, connected lakes with planted rainbow trout. Motors are prohibited. The nearby Plaskett Meadows Campground has potable water. Like Howard and Hammerhorn, the lakes are not swimmable and are noted for being mucky. Click the Plaskett Lakes link for more information.

North Fork, Middle Eel River- fishing is permitted here, on the north fork only. Always a good idea to check with the DFG when fishing remote rivers and streams; things change.

Snow Mountain Wilderness- fishing for native rainbow trout can be had in the South and Middle Folks of Stony Creek. Again, check with DFG for current rules.

Gualala River- you can camp at the Gualala Point Regional Park and fish for steelhead in the river. Check with DFG before keeping any fish. Crowds can be an issue so try to fish during the week, and early in the day.

Russian River- Steelhead fishing is best from Healdsburg south. When they are running you can see them hanging at the mouth of Dry Creek, quite a sight even if you don't fish. Dry Creek is off-limits to fishing.

East Fork of the Russian River (aka Cold Creek)- a good place to fish for stocked rainbow and Eagle Lake trout. Stocks occur along East Potter Valley Rd. past the village of Potter Valley on the way in to Lake Pillsbury. You can camp at Lake Pillsbury, Lake Mendocino or Blue Lakes.

A tip. When fishing from a boat, even a tiny one, you need to carry a PFD (personal floatation device) per person. Rangers can ticket you if you fail to do so.


Off-highway vehicles and their riders are catered to in several areas of the forest. The Fouts Springs Recreation Area, near the village of Stonyford and Letts Lake, serves as a major staging area for OHV use with four campgrounds, a dump station and access to several trails. In 2012 the area was ravaged by fire and is now denuded of vegetation and many of the campgrounds and trails were closed and may well still be as you read this. Check with rangers for current conditions. The Middle Creek- Elk Mountain Recreation Area north of the village of Upper Lake also has several campgrounds catering to OHV users. They will be described below.

Equestrian Pursuits

Horses are allowed on many trails and areas throughout the forest.

Hiking/ backpacking-

You could spend several lifetimes hiking the trails within the Mendocino National Forest, never mind bushwhacking in the wilderness areas. Wilderness permits are not required, and campfire permits are if you are setting up camp outside of an established campground. If you are taking a "serious" hike it is always prudent to check in with the nearest ranger station and sign in at your trailhead. Unexpected things can happen to even well-prepared people. As noted above, there are four wilderness areas located within forest boundaries. If trailheads suited to backpackers are near listed campgrounds we will generally mention them, and you will see some "Hiker Alert" entries in the narrative for a particular roadtrip. The Forest Roads M22/M2 road trip is pretty much for backpackers only, as is the Forest Road M3 trip. Take a look.


There are numerous established campgrounds and we will cover many of them as we discuss exploring several of the areas within the forest. In addition, being a national forest, you can "freelance" quite a bit. Just be careful to see if you are thinking about setting up camp where a logging operation is ongoing- loggers are notoriously hungry. Unlike some areas, wilderness permits are not required anywhere, even in the designated wilderness areas. Campfire permits are required anytime you intend to cook (even on a stove) outside the limits of an established campsite. They may be obtained at a ranger station and select other federal facilities, as well as online. Most campgrounds are discussed in relation to the roads that they are located on or near. We have also included an alphabetic list of all National Forest Service Campgrounds, with links to the location where they are discussed. Lastly, if you are boon docking in really remote areas, you need to be alert to your surroundings. Mendocino County is a hotbed of illegal farming of plants that yield banned substances usually consumed orally and you don't want to stumble on such a farm. They are sometimes guarded by bad people with guns.


Okay. It's time to get out there and go exploring. For most of us there's no way you are going to do this in one trip unless you are funded by the National Geographic Society. So we have offered up a few trips that can be handled stand-alone, or combined with others if you have the time. Remember to take maps, water and emergency supplies just in case your vehicle decides to go on strike. We have all seen vehicles broken down along the highway; think about having that experience along highway 23N37. We were driving the Alcan Highway one time and ran across a family driving a Winnebago; they had been stranded in the middle of nowhere (luckily at a gas station) for 2 weeks waiting for a wheel bearing to be flown in to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory and then driven to them. Such is the life of a nomad.

We have provided links below to discussions about several of the main forest service roads. Some of the roads can be driven from more than one direction. You get to choose. If you can't figure out how to reverse-engineer the route talk with us about work; you'll fit right in.

Link #1- Forest Road M1- California Back Country Discovery Trail

Link #2- Forest Road M10- To Letts Lake and Beyond

Link #3- Forest Highway FH7- To Plaskett Lakes and Beyond

Link #4- Forest Road M3- the interior

Link #5- Road Trip- Willits to Howard & Hammerhorn Lakes

Link #6- Forest Roads M22/ M2- To Ides Cove National Recreation Trail