The Tuolumne Westside Rail Trail gets most of the attention, and it deserves it for its easy access, better than average state of preservation, and proximity to the historic Westside Lumber Mill site. Its a great local recreation trail, and it tells a story. But there’s so much more to tell.
The Clavey River section of the Westside mainline is maintained as an interpretive trail by the Stanislaus National Forest and has connections to an extensive network of lightly-traveled roads and trails which are mostly on old Westside Railroad alignments. These trails are a find for riders looking for a bike ride on mountain roads that are not too steep and a good deal of fun to bomb around on. Look for the rail trail interpretive pamphlet at the Mi Wuk Ranger Station on Highway 108.
This post is tagged “casual and kids”. The two out-and-backs included will work for many, but they are not flat bike paths. They may not be casual enough for some grown-ups and may be overwhelming for small kids. There are no facilities at all on the shorter rides; the closest are pit toilets at the Hull Creek campground on 3N01 and a piped spring at the entrance to the campground. Milk shakes will have to wait for the return trip on Highway 108.
The area and rail trail itself are open for OHV use, but realize that a rail trail is probably not a big draw for the hard-core thrill-seekers of the OHV world. I have met a few OHVers on the trail, but I have not had anything close to a problem with out of control OHVs. We should probably thank them for helping to keep the trail clear.
I’ve mapped four rides for this post; I’ll go through them in order of increasing length and difficulty. Access to all is via Highway 108, Merrill Springs Road, and Forest Route 31 (3N01) south of Long Barn. The first three start at the intersection of 3N01 and 3N86 about 1 mile west of the 3N01 Clavey River bridge.
Westside Rail Trail Clavey River Segment and Clavey Trestle Site Out-and-Backs
Look for 3N86 across from 3N10 and next to the mileage sign. 3N86 starts as a road and narrows after it passes some informal campsites. There are places to park, but be aware of the Forest Motorized Vehicle Use restrictions. 3N86 works it’s way downhill for two miles until reaching a crossroads of dirt trails after descending a short but steeper than usual hill. Keep the initial downhill in mind when planning an out-and-back with kids. (Note that trail segment of the rail trail has various trail designations on USFS maps: 17EV299, 17EV51, and 17EV14. It is signed as 3N86 at the road segments on both ends, so I’m sticking with 3N86.)
At the crossroads the decisions start. Turn to the left for the Clavey Trestle out-and-back, a short ride on a narrow trail out to the remaining stacked rock abutments and concrete footings of the Clavey River trestle. At the end there’s a steep hiking trail down to the river for exploring.
Clavey Trestle out-and-back: 5.4 mile total round trip from 3N01 with about 400 feet of climbing, 1.2 mile round trip from the rail trail junction with negligible climbing. All dirt.
Turn right at the junction for the interpretive rail trail. The rail trail out-and-back travels the most open and accessible part of the interpretive trail. The rail trail is missing all of the railroad bridges, so the creek crossings create challenges.
The first few miles of trail are easy, but it gets tougher further out. The bridge bypass trails get more challenging, and with the decrease in traffic, the obstacles on the trail multiply. Choose your turn around spot according to distance and the skill and determination of your group. I mapped the end of the out-and-back at the first of the more difficult creek crossings just past Forest Route 3N83. Bring the interpretive guide, but expect to work a bit to find some of the sites referenced in the guide.
Rail Trail out-and-back: 11 miles round trip from 3N01, about 600 feet of climbing, all dirt.
Westside Rail Trail Clavey River Segment with Return on 3N83
If you don’t mind some climbing, there is a 13-mile-long loop returning via 3N83 and 3N01. The climb up from the rail trail is steep and dirt, but eventually the road transitions through gravel and deteriorated pavement to a paved road mostly on a railroad alignment. 3N83 eventually meets 3N01 and a short paved descent to the starting point. Ride this loop counter-clockwise for easier going on the dirt, but plan to shuttle (very short) or be prepared for a steep climb on 3N01 to close the loop.
Short/3N83 loop: 13 miles, about 1,200 feet of climbing, about 1/2 paved.
Westside Through-loop including 2N07 and 3N08
There are a lot of options for a longer loop in this area. The Forest Service has signage posted on 3N07 for the Westside Rail Tour–the Rail Tour down to and including part of the rail trail is wide and buried in a sometimes deep layer of gravel. It’s not as bad now as when the gravel was first put in, but the wide road is less interesting and the deep gravel makes for unpleasant riding in spots. This road was designed as a motor vehicle experience. 3N08 is the real deal for bikes, so I used it to make a longer and much more fun loop. I don’t like driving out further than necessary, so this loop starts at the intersection of 3No1 and 3N08.
After finding 3No8 on the right after the climb out of the North Fork Tuolumne River canyon on 3N01, park where convenient and head out clockwise on 3N01. I chose clockwise and will describe the loop that way, but there’s no real reason to choose one direction over the other.
The mapped loop uses 3N09 to cut down on pavement, but 3No1 works well too. The paved road cuts out about one mile and 400 feet of climbing; 3No9 has a little stretch with solid but rocky volcanic surface. Both have parts on old railroad alignments.
Arriving at 3N86 via 3No1, proceed as per the rail trail out-and-back–but don’t stop. There’s nothing horribly difficult out there, but as the number of obstacles increases, the riding slows down.
Eventually the trail transitions to a wide gravel road. As the view opens up watch for the cut of the mainline across the way to the southwest and a concentration of railroad detritus at Camp 24. The blocked turn off for the mainline is evident on the left just past the Hull Creek crossing. 3N86 continues on a branch line.
Enjoy the meadow on the left as 3N86 joins 3N07 at a T-intersection. Turn left on 3N07, right on 2N07, and right on 3N08 to complete the loop. 2N07 and 3N08 are narrow, zippy roads on Westside branch lines. 3N08 gets quite narrow in spots, but never quite single-track. The Wright’s Creek crossing on 3N08 takes some rock-hopping or wet feet if the creek is high in the spring. Enjoy the views out over the North Fork Tuolumne and peeks out to the Dardanelles on the home stretch of 3No8.
Long/3N08 loop: 33 miles, about 2,400 feet of climbing, 7.5 miles paved. With 3N01 instead of 3N09, 32 miles, 2,000 feet, 11 miles paved.
Not long enough? Combine with the Basin Loop out of Tuolumne and/or the Paved Road to Nowhere with return via the Strawberry branch of the Sugar Pine Rail Trail and Frasier Flat Road (not mapped yet).
Click on “View Larger Map” to allow selection of individual loops.
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Download the .gpx file for the loop if you want to upload it to a GPS
- Downside—Lack of facilities, remote roads and trails.
- Upside—Varied length routes with reasonable climbing for average riders, scenic and historic, free Stanislaus Forest interpretive guide, roads generally well-marked.
- Dispersed camping sites all around–observe Forest Motorized Vehicle Use restrictions.
- Smaller trails abound, expect OHV-steep slopes and loose surfaces.
- Several cell sites are painted on 3N01–test before relying on them.
- The best maps for these loops are the Stanislaus Forest Motorized Travel Management DEIS pdf file maps. Use the Hull Creek and Twain Harte quads. The labeling of the rail trail segment on maps is not consistent. The Forest Service has signed it 3N86 at both ends–I’m inclined to call it 3N86. It’s not hard to follow because it looks like a rail trail–level and windy.
- roads: paved, gravel, dirt.
- terrain: moderate to very steep with railroad grade roads and trails.
- tires: cross to mountain, most will prefer mountain.
- seasons: Closed during winter (Dec 16–April 14).
- current weather