There are not a lot of complete loops to choose from at the higher elevations in the Stanislaus. Excepting the highway corridors, most of the high country is designated as Wilderness with no bikes allowed. The Herring Creek Loop is a well-known Forest Service unpaved road loop that ranges between 7,400 and 8,400 feet. The basic loop is 13 miles with pretty reasonable climbing and great views of an ever-changing panorama of surrounding eroded lava peaks. Adding on some more challenging OHV trail options provides access to some pretty interesting lava formations and a 8,800 foot peak. There are even some single-track options. It’s a great bike ride for when it’s just too hot down below, and it doesn’t require exceptional skills or remarkable conditioning. There are two small campgrounds (no water, pit toilets) along Herring Creek and plenty of informal camp sites along the loop.
Find the start of the loop on Herring Creek Road (Forest Route 4N12) near the Trail of the Gargoyles. Herring Creek Road intersects with the south side of Highway 108 about 2.5 miles east of Strawberry; the Trail of the Gargoyles is approximately 6.7 miles from Highway 108. Look for a sign saying “Gargoyles” on the right and a trail on the left. It’s well worth the short side trip to go see the Gargoyles.
I put this loop in “casual and kids” with some reservations. It’s not easy and flat, and the elevation is a challenge. Think of it as “stout of heart casual and kids” I did this ride with my wife and kids when my kids were 11 and 13, and we all did fine. I would not consider the OHV trail side route options as “casual and kids”.
Just past the Gargoyles 4N12 splits to a loop–look for the “wall of signs” from the Forest Service. For more reasonable climbing, ride the main loop clockwise starting from the split. The road is generally wide and graded, but is rough and rocky in spots. The most rocky part is right at the beginning. The loop climbs steadily through forest and volcanic hill sides covered in mule’s ears flowers. For the base loop, there are no turns to make; at the top of the climb the road rambles a bit past some very nice meadows and vistas and then descends steeply and fairly roughly (with some washboard) to the campgrounds and the start of the loop.
Base loop on 4N12: 12.5 miles, 1,500 feet total climb.
Lava Ridge on 19EV114
The first alternate loop branches to the left off of 4N12 about 4.2 miles from the start of the loop (traveling clockwise). There are two dead-end roads on the left before the turn off. Look for signs showing a fork to Forest Routes 5N74 and 19EV114. 5N74 is a dead end, but 19EV114 is an OHV trail that climbs to the top of the ridge that parallels the north side of the 4N12 loop. There are a couple of steep parts, some loose material, and the usual OHV cross-slope all of which often combine to make OHV trails challenging to ride. But the detour is short (3.7 miles) and the reward is great. The ridge is lava in varying stages of wear: there’s solid rock with tire tracks and occasional ducks for guidance, pebbly gravel and sand, and a large expanse of hilltop covered in mule’s ears.
On 19EV114 there are two side opportunities to catch striking views. The first appears as eroding lava bluffs on the right of the trail about 1.5 miles from 4N12. There’s a trail for hiking to the top to take in a lava landscape with views to the east, south, and west.
The second is further up the trail past a wide expanse of mule’s ears. Follow the trail up the lava to the top of the hill marked with a pile of rocks and take in a full 360 degree panorama. There are also numerous “gargoyle” formations along the edges of the ridge.
Return to the trail by backtracking and watching for wheel tracks continuing off to the left. The trail passes a junction with another OHV trail out to Eagle Peak before doubling back and descending to 4N12.
OHV trail 19EV114 side trip: Add 1.5 miles to 4N12 loop, add 500 feet of climbing.
Hammill Canyon Trail
The second alternate is the Hammill Canyon Trail. Look for the start of the trail on the right of 4N12 just before the trail to Bloomer Lake (about 5.6 miles from start of the loop traveling clockwise). It’s kind of hard to find. Once on the trail, watch for a large granite formation on the left before descending a steep hill in loose soil. There are multiple tracks. At the bottom of the hill the trail consolidates as a clean and moderately challenging single-track parallel to Herring Creek as it descends to Herring Creek Reservoir and the campground. There are some obstacles and mountain bike ramps on the way.
4N12/Hammill Canyon loop: 10.7 miles, total climb 1,200 feet.
Madhatter Rim Trail
Another side loop is Forest Route 5N67, the Madhatter Rim OHV Trail. 5N67 intersects 4N12 on the left (10 miles from start of base loop, traveling clockwise).
This trail has some fairly miserable sections with very steep, deep, and loose volcanic sand/dust, but a short scramble off of the trail accesses a peak with panoramic views. There is also an area just past the parking lot with tortured junipers and views out over the upper South Fork Stanislaus, the Emigrant Wilderness, and across to Dodge Ridge Ski Area. Ride it because you love the challenge and you want to see what’s out there, but allow yourself some extra time.
5N67 ends at the Waterhouse Lake trail head where you can head back to the main loop by turning right on 5N31 or head out to Pinecrest Peak on 5N55Y or 5N31.
5N67 with return on 5N31: Add 2 miles and 550 feet (hard) climbing to 4N12 loop.
Roads out to Pinecrest Peak
Pinecrest Peak has more great views and is the start (end) of the Pinecrest Peak Trail which descends to Strawberry. The Pinecrest Peak Trail is a multi-use trail that is a popular and challenging downhill ride for mountain bikes. Also see http://ogrehut.com/trails.php/Sierra-South/Pinecrest for more.
5N67 and loop to Pinecrest Peak: Add 4.5 miles and 900 feet climbing to 4N12 loop.
Out and back to Pinecrest Peak on 5N31 and 5N55Y: Add 3.75 miles and 575 feet of climbing.
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- Downside—Remote roads and trails, elevation can be a factor–dial back expectations for speed and distance and check weather for potential summer thunderstorm/lightning activity, volcanic soils can be challenging on the alternate trails, area and campgrounds get crowded when deer season opens (mid September).
- Upside—Striking scenery, good range of options for varied abilities and interests, lots of camping options.
- Dispersed camping sites all around–observe Forest Motorized Vehicle Use restrictions.
- Good maps for these loops are the Stanislaus Forest Motorized Travel Management DEIS pdf file maps. Use the Pinecrest, Donnell Lake, and Dardanelle quads.
- roads: dirt and gravel.
- terrain: moderate on main loop to very steep on OHV trails.
- tires: cross to mountain, most will prefer mountain.
- seasons: Closed during winter (Dec 16–April 14).
- current weather