Nor Cal BDR - Expedition Ride!

Words by Kris Fant, BDR Ambassador, Photos by Ely Woody

Envision haunted ghost towns, twisties through lonely forests, the pony express trail, 13 fire lookouts with breathtaking views, quaint small towns, general stores, and roller-coasteresque two-track. Does it surprise you that this is a description of the all new Northern California Backcounty Discovery route? No Hollywood, big-city bustle, or trolly cars, just 940 miles of backcountry bliss. Join me as I take you along on the Northern California Expedition Ride. 


With eager anticipation flowing through my veins, I tried to sleep the night before starting the Nor Cal BDR expedition. My trusty KTM 690 enduro was waiting outside and I knew a bit of what Day 1 would bring - sandy two-track, expert sections, a ghost town… I’d been on the scouting team for sections of this route, and couldn’t wait to ride with the BDR team and experience the long awaited NorCal BDR route. I was also excited to be traveling with two Zero DSR-xs, fully electric adventure bikes! My dreams that night were full of curiosity about what the days ahead would bring. 

Day 1

Mammoth Lakes to Bridgeport

Waking in a cozy cabin, and sipping tea on the front porch of the Tamarack Lodge was a lovely way to start the day. It wasn’t long, however, before we were astride our trusty steeds, heading up to the CABDR-N start at Minaret Vista, where our route co-architect and historian Ron West told the sad tale of the highest gravesite in the US. The grave is that of Walter “Pete” Starr who did not return from a hiking trip in the Minaret’s in 1933. His body was later found, and his grave constructed on site. This story provided stark contrast to the adrenaline pumping through our veins and was a good reminder to ride cautiously on the days ahead. 940 miles is a long way, and we all wanted to see the finish line. 


Day 1 feels like an entire BDR in a single day. The early riding consists of dusty two track and good dirt roads. There are two optional harder sections - one with a rocky hill climb, and the other with deep sand. After this bit of fun riding, we got to see Tufa’s at Mono Lake, which are remarkable limestone features created by a chemical reaction between calcium carbonate saturated spring water and lake water. We didn’t linger too long, because our next stop was at the amazing haunted ghost town of Bodie where the life expectancy was 36. I highly recommend the full tour of the mill; our historian was a hoot, and could have talked for days about Bodie! The road between Bodie and Bridgeport is not for the faint of heart. It’s steep, rocky, and has been torn up due to the quick melt of a heavy snow - bring your A-game! 


As a people lover and history connoisseur, I absolutely adore Bridgeport. The museum, the historic jail, and the many historic places to visit and sleep make the Old West come alive in this little known town. If you are a fan of hot springs, Travertine is a gorgeous spot right outside of Bridgeport where you can set up camp for the night. Our weary crew pulled in to stay at the Historic Bridgeport Inn. Our bodies would recharge with fabulous food, and our Zero’s could plug right into the rooms overnight, to be ready for our next day's adventure. 

Day 2

Bridgeport to Bear Valley

Did you know that Bridgeport is one of the coldest places in California? We woke to frost on our motorcycle seats and were grateful for our warm sleep the night before. Our group split into two - some folks went to explore the expert section, the rest of us took a leisurely and relaxing ride to our lunch meeting spot. The expert section between Bridgeport and Topaz Lake is aptly named. The optional trip up Mt. Patterson is rocky and steep. You then descend back to your original track and wind through Jackass Flat and Taylor Valley; the terrain is rocky, has bike-swallowing ruts, there are lake crossings, and a long patch of sand that pushes you through to the ending. Having scouted this on my KTM 350, I left this section to the hot shots, and enjoyed the scenic route, which was a delightful gravel and pavement ride with beauty that brought a delighted smile to my face. 


After regrouping and hearing the wild tales of the hot shots, we enjoyed a stretch of some of the best twisties in the state as we rode toward Bear Valley under threat of rain. When we got to our Glamping Tents in the Bear Valley Mountain Resort, the Zeros nestled into the ski rental area for charging while we found our way to bed, warmed by woodstoves. 

Day 3

Bear Valley to UTC

We woke to a light snow in Bear Valley; we did not know that this was going to be such welcome weather compared to the full day of rain we were about to experience. It was the day I was ready for, as I’d brought my Hippo Hands! We road a mix of paved and gravel roads nestled deeply within the El Dorado National Forest. The highlight of the riding was a stretch of the Pony Express which was a narrow gravel two-track that all but delivered us to our venue for the evening - UTC! 


Named after the original builder and landowner, Uncle Tom, UTC is a slice of off-grid heaven. Originally built in 1864, it has burned down and been rebuilt three times and is fully volunteer staffed. After a full day of riding in the rain, we took over the bar - drying gear and clothes by the fire. Our awesome support team cooked a dinner buffet fit for kings, and Ron West had recruited Owen Balduf and Chris Wilson to provide live music. An evening of mingling, dancing and camaraderie warmed us from the inside out. I 100% recommend visiting UTC for camping, a drink in the bar, or a warm sleep in a cabin. It is an experience not to be missed.


Day 4

UTC to Truckee

With relief, we woke to clear skies. With mostly dry gear, we started our journey to Truckee on a scenic ridgeline that brought us to a stunning bridge spanning the Rubicon River. We had no idea what today’s adventures would bring. We enjoyed some gentle dirt roads into the forest, and made it onto a lonely stretch of pavement. We were all enjoying the scenery of a beautiful stretch of water when Ron’s bike gave a loud pop and slowed to a stop. Seems his recent engine rebuild was a bust! What we didn’t know is that the bridges on either side of this pavement were washed out. Ron would need to be rescued by our trusty support truck driver, Nathan, via the CABDR-N tracks, while the rest of the group ventured on. We rode some sweet two-track through pristine forests, and then made our way to the Chinese Tunnels and Donnor Pass. The Chinese Tunnels were the first to traverse the Sierra Nevadas, 1695 feet hand drilled and blasted by Chinese workers over 15 months. This was a lovely place to get off the bikes and explore before hopping back on and riding down Donner Pass, a gorgeous bit of road who’s beauty obscures its haunting past. We’d left just enough time to stop into the museum to learn a bit more about the history, weather, and fate of the Donner Party. After his support truck rescue, Ron pulled the backup bike out of the trailer, and was ready to rejoin our group exploring the backcountry all the way to the border. 

Day 5

Truckee to Downieville

We left Truckee for a short pavement section, and then hugged the west side of the last stretch of the Sierra Nevada Mountains that separate California from Nevada. The road was of the spirited roller coaster type, with small rocky ascents and descents that make riding playful and fun. This led to a delightful bit of two-track in a valley filled with aspens that were just starting to turn for the fall and meadows full of cows, grazing and oblivious to the beauty. We stopped in Sierraville for lunch and then connected with Henness Pass Rd, a packed dirt road. With only a blip of pavement, we then got to climb onto the hog back of the mountain, giving us a preview of tomorrow’s adventure; in the distance we saw Sierra Buttes high above all of the mountains, inviting us to play. But first, we must descend into Downieville for the night. 


My favorite moments of this trip were the people. The playfulness of our team outshone the mind-blowing beauty and the quaint towns, and our journey into Downieville captured the essence of the trip for me. Approaching Downieville was a very long, very steep downhill. We’d been warned about this stretch by Ron who described it as steep and intimidating, but manageable. He also threw in that it was totally straight with some corners. Now, this description, and Tim’s reaction were both the funniest thing I’ve ever heard, and at the same time, somehow accurately described the descent! I’ve never laughed so very hard while riding a steep downhill, trying to control my speed around “straight corners”. 


We entered Downieville, crossing the iconic bridge, and found our accommodations for the night. Downieville is revered by mountain bikers around the world, and I’m delighted that motorcyclists will be joining their ranks. The quality of the pizza in this town cannot be overstated. Be aware as you wander back to your sleeping space; we definitely had some bear sightings! 

Day 6

Downieville to Quincy

Today was to bring the most stunning view on the trip. Leaving Downieville,we meandered along a pristine river before turning back toward mountains. The two-track got fun, and then even more fun, and then we found ourselves at a spot to make a choice - riding or hiking. Our group split up - half riding and half hiking up to the Sierra Buttes Lookout. I couldn’t resist trying the steep, rocky, twisty hill climb, and made it close to the top before deciding to hike the remainder. I was glad too - right after the last switchback it gets very rocky, and our hot shot riders had a great time climbing the final ascent. The view from Sierra Buttes was incredible; I definitely felt like I could see my Oregon home from there. Whether you ride or hike, don’t miss this lookout; it’s less than a mile hike, and a view you’ll never forget. There’s a geocache where you can let the world know that BDR riders are discovering this gem. The rest of the day we meandered on gorgeous forest roads, dipping into small towns. I had a bit of an eventful day as I realized that a small crack had developed in my radiator; through the wonders of social media I was able to rent a DR650 in Quincy and carry on with the trip. Quincy is the sweetest of towns. Having visited the Feather Bed Inn a few times now, it felt a bit like coming home. 

Day 7

Quincy to Chester

The riding right out of Quincy will absolutely bring a smile to your face. The gorgeous forest, the two-track, and the team well rested in high spirits led to a joyful riding morning. We stopped at the Mt. Hough viewpoint, immersing ourselves in another beautiful vista. 


For me, the highlight of the day was the small town of Taylorsville. I simply adored the little country store that places more of an emphasis on aesthetics than preserving space, and I also loved telling people that to get to the bathroom you “turn right at the peanut butter grinder and follow the flowers on the floor.” The electric bikes had a chance to charge up, and we had one of the best burgers in history. 


Back into the woods, we rode and saw Seneca - a tiny gold mining ghost town recreated after fires tore through the area. The riding was easy hard-packed two-track through a burned forest - our reminder to recreate responsibly. We rode into Chester ready for dinner and a good night's sleep.

Day 8

Chester to Little Valley

Some good news this morning - My fabulous husband Nathan, our support truck driver extraordinaire, had patched my radiator, and I was back on the 690! The start of the day was unique - you turn off the pavement onto dirt through a local cemetery. The Antelope Lookout had an exceptionally friendly resident, who allowed us to experience a moment of her daily life. We were slowly approaching the Oregon border, visible from this lookout on a clear day, but the adventures were not over yet. We journeyed toward Little Valley, a slice of heaven in Northern California. We were able to camp with some friends we’d met while scouting the route a couple years earlier; they regaled us with stories and local legends and lit up as we shared tales of our own adventures through their backyard. 

Day 9

Little Valley to Alturas 

There are two options out of Little Valley. The road, or the hard way. Our entire crew chose the hard way, riding over large baby heads up a long hill. The reward, however, is after you summit the rocks and the hill. The forest turns into an ancient, unused two-track that is some of the best riding you’ll ever find. We all decided it was worth the effort to get up the rocks once we made it to this bliss. Navigating in this section is tricky, so zoom in on your GPS and watch those turns! We enjoyed a lot of fun riding today, including gravel roads, two-track, and stream crossings; the fun took us all the way to Alturas, where you’ll find one of the most unique hotels you’ve ever stayed at. As much as I love camping, I highly recommend staying at the Niles Historic Hotel while you’re on this route. You’ll feel like you stepped back in time, which just adds to the Wild West feeling of this whole BDR. 

Day 10

Alturas to the Border

The final day on the BDR did not disappoint. The roads are gentle gravel ascents and descents, but take you along some of the most scenic ridgelines of the trip. There was one more lookout to explore - Sugar Hill Lookout. I could feel the end of the trip looming, and grabbed selfies with each of the team members as we looked out over Goose Lake. Back on the gravel roads, as we started to see homes we were sure to slow our pace and ride respectfully, so we preserve access for years to come. Our expedition wrapped up at Goose Lake, and to my delight, I experienced my first champagne shower. A celebration felt right for this route that had been years in the making, rerouted dozens of times due to fire, and having faced challenges while persevering to the end.


For the full story, be sure to catch one of the screenings of the expedition. You can find a list of dates near you on the BDR  Events Page . Be sure to download the  GPS Tracks  and check for Route Updates before you go. There’s even a  Facebook Community  to discuss the route real time, and to share your ride reports with all of our BDR family.