Trinity County, California
Ruth Zenia Rd
47 Miles - Length
Humboldt & Trinity - COUNTY
Two-lane, poor, patched, short gravel sections - PAVEMENT
Hairpins, slow, bumpy, super-curvy - CURVES
Alderpoint, Dinsmore, Ruth - GAS
Quick Ride: Even the mail lady said as I was trying to right my bike, "I wouldn't recommend this road to anyone, but certainly not anyone on a motorcycle."
Everyone knows not to take that road.
For many years, I wondered if this road was even paved. It is not mentioned anywhere, no one talks about it, it’s not mentioned on ride sites, bicycle sites, anywhere. It’s remote, forgotten, no towns, no people, and portions of it are a racetrack in the sky. Wait, what? How’s that? Come again? Sky? Track?
What the hell is he talking about… Well kids, gather up, come along then, let’s ride this. A quick caveat though, these sorts of roads aren’t for everyone, it’ll never make the magazines, it’s so remote, you won’t see anybody on it. And with Avenue of the Giants to the west, and Highway 36 to the north, it’s quickly steamrolled over by better more well-known rides. The touring riders, the VLMs (very-large motorcycles), the cruiser set, mostly everybody should stick to more well-traveled rides and take a pass on this road. But then again, there's a subset of riders who don't care about any of that.
My curiosity was finally satiated on my last ride through the NorCal Motorcycle Wonderland when this ride finally made it to the top of the To Do List. Let’s ride the Hoagland- Zenia-Bluff-Ruth-Zenia-Van-Duzen-Mad River-Loop, this article is really about three roads, as you can’t ride only one, they connect together, and once you’re this far out into the wilderness, you’re committed.
To even find Zenia Bluff Rd, you’ll need to gas up in Garberville along Highway 101, then head out Alderpoint Rd past the tiny mountain community of Alderpoint (flashpoint of the Murder Mountain documentary on Netflix) and across the Eel River.
Zenia Bluff Rd is 19 miles from Highway 101, 1.5 miles from the Eel River bridge and the road is not labeled. There was no road sign and the first stretch is known as Hoagland Rd (some maps spell this Hoaglin) which connects over to Kettenpom.
From Kettenpom, the pavement continues south diving deep into the Six Rivers National Forest all the way to Mina where pavement ends. Dual sports can continue on fire roads to Covelo. Kettenpom is 31 miles from Garberville and has a small general store for the locals and that’s it.
Zenia Bluff Road
To reach Zenia Bluff Rd to Zenia, ride Hoagland Rd for one mile and in a hairpin, the road splits: Zenia Bluff Rd heads north, and Hoagland Rd continues 4 miles southeast to Kettenpom. Hoagland is paved, and can add mileage to your loop. Return north from Kettenpom on Zenia-Lake Mountain Rd. Covelo is nearly 50 miles away from this junction and after Mina is a dirt fire road into Covelo.
The first few yards of Zenia Bluff Rd left me wondering what have I gotten myself into?
Most of Zenia Bluff Rd is single lane paved mountain road
The lack of road signs and minimal cell signal if you’re trying to use your phone as a GPS may require a bit of intuition. My belief in my exemplary navigational skills wavered a bit when Zenia-Bluff Rd went to gravel within a few turns but my qualms were relieved when the pavement started up a few hundred yards later. Zenia Bluff Rd is single lane paved for this early section for 10 miles to Zenia with broad views across the hills as you approach Zenia The road is so long forgotten, grass along the road side was growing on and across the road in several places as if to reclaim the road, like in that zombie movie series you like where nature is reclaiming the land.
This particular area of California transitioning from Humboldt to Trinity County is especially unique for the mixture of wooded hillsides and meadows devoid of trees seemingly at random. During spring, these meadows come alive with color, and in fall they fade to a golden brown.
Elevations are not high here, although this ride tops out at 3800 feet and snow levels can drop to 2000 during cold winter storms in January & February. These ranges are not the mountains of the Sierra Nevada, but the terrain is endlessly demarcated by low ridgelines all cut by streams and creeks that flow into the Eel River that drains a rugged watershed of 3,684 square miles in five counties out to the ocean near Fortuna.
The flow of the river varies greatly through the year; average flows in January and February are over 100 times greater than in August and September. This dramatic difference is often caused by Pineapple Express-type winter storms, a term that describes an atmospheric river of heavy water vapor over the Pacific Ocean that is released on coastal mountains.
See the large hole on the left? Don't hit that at speed.
Mountainous wilderness terrain in every direction
Heavy winter rains in Humboldt County can contribute to an abundant glowing color of brilliant meadows mixed with woodland. This region is 20% grassland which provides for stunning views at times across the hilltops.
In the 1960s, numerous dams were proposed to contain & store water from the winter storms but these proposals met with stiff opposition. Due to those grass roots efforts decades ago, there are very few dams or reservoirs anywhere along the Eel River. The Eel River was granted federal Wild and Scenic River status in 1981, formally making it off limits to new dams.
Many other roads in the Six Rivers National Forest reflect on this same terrain, Forest Road 1 to the north and Mattole Rd head out to the ocean are all paved across similar elevations. Much like those roads, the views are just as spectacular from these treeless meadows across rugged terrain long forgotten and passed over.
The TL1000R on a short gravel section near Zenia
The sprawling metropolis of Zenia, el 2960 ft, is little more than two buildings made up of the abandoned Zenia Store that sits across from the Zenia Post Office in a small single-wide that has been operating since 1899, the post office that is.
The Zenia Store is full of an old washing machine, chairs, and assorted other junk and likely hasn’t been an actual store in decades. Zenia was originally named Poison Camp after larkspur in the rolling hills poisoned early settlers cattle. Larkspur is toxic to humans and livestock and sickened the cattle.
Zenia does not look like it has ever grown beyond these two small buildings, there are no city streets, no grid pattern, rather the Zenia post office is the center of a spread-out collection of small ranchettes and grazing land.
How many years has it taken for this tree to grow into the sign?
The best part about Zenia was the pictured sign. How many years did it take for the tree to grow over the sign? Decades perhaps? That one kept me going for several miles. In case you aren’t sure where you are, those in charge of naming the road were not that creative. Leaving Zenia, there’s a name change to Ruth Zenia Rd. Anyone want to guess where we’re headed? Anyone?
Kettenpom is 4-miles away via Zenia Lake Mountain Rd. Again, these are not towns in the classical sense, rather mountain communities where the local store is the center of the community.
Kettenpom is where the local convenience store holds a raffle for a Henry 44 Lever Action rifle (the kind from cowboy movies) and a Stihl chainsaw at $10 a ticket along with the Chili cook off and pie contest.
Yes, guns, chainsaws & pie!
Welcome to rural Northern California.
Get there at high noon and they will be open till the food runs out. The Kettenpom Store does advertise having fuel, but I never rely on these remote mountain towns as my fuel destination. You may arrive on fumes, and they simply don’t have any. At Kettenpom, Covelo is another 42 miles to the south, but the pavement ends at Mina.
Ruth Zenia Rd
Headed eastward out of Zenia, the ride is single lane paved mountain road and right as you’re feeling grateful the road is even paved, 1-mile outside of town, the single lane ends and a wide smooth beautiful two lane opens up as the road reaches Zenia Lake Mountain Rd.
The Racetrack in the Sky. What just happened? Why is this here? Through double hairpins climbing in elevation.
Ruth Zenia Rd looks like this for the next 9-miles. However, it's another 22-miles to Ruth
Zenia Ruth Rd will top out at 3800 ft. This wonderful pavement lasts 9 miles to Bar Creek and then mysterious ends. Is it perfect? Not even close. As soon as you gain any speed, a pothole appears and there's that slap in the face again. After Bar Creek, still paved, but the rest of the ride into the Hettenshaw Valley is more patched, bumpy, and occasional surprise potholes that can grow quite large.
It’s also worth mentioning your speed in these sections should never be elevated to where you cannot take evasive action. Come around a corner and the road has sunk 6 inches as it begins to slide into the canyon, seen it, next corner has a pothole 2 feet in diameter, seen it, next corner a cow is standing in the middle of the road, seen that too.
Topping out at 3800 ft , expect snow if you try to ride this in winter
Van Duzen Rd
Ruth Zenia Rd reaches Hettenshaw Valley at the base of the hill to intersect with Van Duzen Road. Miss the turn, and you’ll be headed due north to Highway 36 (on Van Duzen Rd) which is 16-miles distant on the west side of Ruth Lake although Van Duzen Rd isn’t anywhere close to the lake. Ruth Zenia makes a turn east here into the Hettenshaw Valley.
Van Duzen Rd is a smooth two-lane paved back to Highway 36. Most of it is a meandering left-right-left over relatively flat terrain with a low rise in the middle. Very little traffic if any, although note the lack of traffic loosens the rules of the road. Right as you let your attention waiver, a car is coming around a corner right at you on the wrong side of the road. Seen that too. There is also a single-lane bridge over the Van Duzen River to contend with. Sight lines are ample enough to take turns with any traffic you come up on the opposing side.
Note the holes in Van Duzen Rd as you enter this hairpin at Black Lassic Creek
There are however sections of Van Duzen Rd that are a poor state of disrepair. One sweeping turn 9 miles south of Highway 36 over Black Lassic Creek was completely full of holes our last ride through here. It was so bad; I stopped the tour group for our hourly break here like a bunch of tourists to get pictures of the road surface.
Van Duzen is worth riding if you are not in a hurry and have no place to be. It combines well with Mad River Rd for a remote out-n-back loop off Highway 36 that will add a few miles to your Highway 36 trek. Most riders will be so engrossed in the euphoria of 140-miles of non-stop twisties of Highway 36, they’ll never pay any attention to the Ruth Lake Loop that combines Van Duzen Rd with Mad River Rd. Most homesteads are nearer to Highway 36.
Riding across the Hettenshaw Valley
Make the turn here to stay on Ruth Zenia Rd and it’ll take you across open meadows of the Hettenshaw Valley. This remote flat valley at 3000 ft is surrounded on four sides by low ranges, running dead straight to the other side of the valley for a few miles, then up and over the range to the other side to Ruth Lake.
More single lane paved climbing and more hairpins to the summit at 3800 ft. Always be on the lookout for sections of pavement that are simply missing. As in not there. Come booking around a corner, maybe a sign, maybe not, and pavement changes to gravel for a few hundred yards then restarts. These stretches of gravel change from year to year are often never the same. One year in a straight, next year the hairpin is all gravel. There is Lower West Side Rd providing access to the west side of the lake, but this is single lane gravel and emerges at the dam on the northwest end of the lake to rejoin with Lower Mad River Rd.
Looking west across the Hettenshaw Valley near the summit
Right after this junction with Lower West Side Rd is Ueland Place and Boy Scout Cove Camp. Most of the stretch up and over this low range is single lane paved. It can be bumpy and nothing denotes the summit other than expansive views in both directions. At the base of the range, the center line starts back up. The road smooths out finally and you’ll get a glimpse of Ruth Lake through the trees. Let yourself coast the next few miles.
With the final bridge over the Mad River, Ruth Zenia Rd finally ends when it t-intersects with Lower Mad River Rd. Ruth is a short distance away one mile south although it’s nothing more than a small general store and two aging gas pumps. Currently, they offer fuel. And a small café, the Blue Moon Café. And there is Ice Cream. After surviving this road, you deserve ice cream. Mad River Rd was built along the edge of Ruth Lake, aka Ruth Reservoir, and it is the only large body of water on the Mad River.
Hairpins descending to Ruth Lake
First glimpse of Ruth Lake looking north
Lower Mad River Rd runs alongside Ruth Lake to Ruth
Lower Mad River Rd
The Mad River drains nearly 500 square miles and outflows into the ocean at Arcata 90 miles to the northwest. It’s also one of the few still-free-flowing rivers, 85% of its length is untouched by man-made controls such as dams. The dam here creating Ruth Lake over the Mad River was completed in 1962 providing water for Arcata and Eureka. Two 1-MW turbine generators inside the dam generate power for the surrounding region.
Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District dedicated its Gosselin Hydroelectric Plant on June 18, 1983. Pacific Gas and Electric Co purchases 1450 KW of electric power produced by the project's twin turbine-generators. PGandE is encouraging the development of alternative energy resources which benefit the Company and its customers by reducing dependence on expensive fossil fuels for generating electricity in Northern California. In addition to producing electric power, Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District provides water service to approximately 60,000 Humboldt County Customers from the waters stored in Ruth Lake behind R.W. Matthews Dam.
Lower Mad River Rd back to Highway 36 is another 18 miles of smooth two-lane twisty road with minimal traffic and as mentioned earlier, is largely overshadowed by nearby Highway 36. Ruth Lake is a narrow-long mountain lake but has active boat traffic and numerous campgrounds around the perimeter of the lake.
Overall, Zenia Bluff Rd – Ruth Zenia – Van Duzen - Lower Mad River Rd may look like a shortcut to Garberville, it’s not, it’s slower, outright wilderness, endlessly twisty, and 99% paved. Possibly 98. Depends on the year.
This is not a fast road; you will not make time on any of these roads, nor is this a good option for a detour off Highway 36.
From the beginning of Zenia Bluff Rd at Alderpoint Rd, it took me 3 hours to ride 34 miles to Ruth at a steady relaxed pace in no hurry with lots of stops for photos, and total of 4-hours to ride 70 miles from Garberville to reach Highway 36 via this route. Take off at least an hour for all my lolly-gagging and picture taking and it may take you around 3-hours to ride this 70 mile leg. If you rode Garberville to the Highway 36/101 junction to Lower Mad River Rd, that’s 95 miles and you could easily ride that in less than 95 minutes on Highway 36.
The TL1000R at Ruth Lake atop R.W. Matthews Dam - Not the most logical choice for backroad exploring
The vast majority of riders should flat out skip this route, touring riders, VLMs (very large motorcycles), the cruiser set, and most everybody else on two wheels, this is not your road. When I came across Frank’s comments below about this road, I chuckled heartily. Not at his consternation, but the differences in our experiences riding this road. Even before I rode it, as a local rider, I knew what to expect. California is full of goaty roads like this if you seek them out and I was not surprised by anything on this ride, only the race track portion. Remote wilderness communities, gravel patches and poor pavement full of holes are not for everybody, however, California has more of these types of roads than I could ever count (although I'm trying).
Yes, I rode it on my TL1000R which is a v-twin purpose-built track bike. Suzuki engineers probably were not imagining it would ever head up a goat road (a road fit only for goats) like this, but the bike did just fine and my Hayabusa would also burble right along on this road. The racetrack portion is short, less than 10 miles, but it does exist. If you want a race track in the wilderness, you head for Cecilville Rd at Callahan along Highway 3, not here.
Would I lead a motorcycle tour down this road, no. Although we have ridden the Van Duzen – Lower Mad River Rd loop as part of our tour day. These two roads start and end only two miles apart so you’re not missing any portion of Highway 36. Despite all that, if after reading all this text, stay-away warnings, absorbing all the photos and you still get excited, then this is your road.
Other Rider Thoughts:
"I rode Highway 36 in 2019 except there was a section closed about 120 miles into it. No detour information, so I took what seemed to be the most logical route, Ruth Zenia Rd. Dumped the bike twice, got a flat tire, and EVERYONE that I came across said, "You shouldn't have taken this road" and when telling of my escapades the following day to a fellow at the gas station he replied, "Everyone knows not to take that road." I've ridden through 49 states and seen what I thought was rough road but never have I ever seen any sh*t like this!"
- Frank Clayton
Where to Next?
Northern end: Van Duzen Rd or Lower Mad River Rd are two miles apart (at the north end), so either northbound choice will get you back to Highway 36 with Van Duzen Rd slightly shorter, however Mad River Rd will get you close to the Mad River Burger Bar, which for many years has been a couple ladies cooking up burgers out of the back of an old camper. It is what it sounds like. Locals eat there, lots of carry-out, so if you're in a hurry, call ahead.
Northbound riders will reach Highway 36 and a plethora of incredible motorcycle rides await. West towards the ocean will get you back to Fortuna (gas at Dinsmore) and you can make a loop by circling around with Alderpoint Rd. Northern destinations use Forest Rd 1 - Lamb Creek Grade or Highway 3 Hayfork Pass. Far off to the east is Mount Lassen.
Zenia Bluff - Ruth Zenia Rd - Photo Gallery
MORE INFO: Zenia Bluff - Ruth Zenia Rd
RIDE (near) IT on a PASHNIT TOUR
47 Miles - LENGTH
poor, bumpy, patched, gravel patches - PAVEMENT
Extreme, tight, hairpins, elevation change - CURVES
Garberville, Dinsmore, maybe Alderpoint or Ruth - GAS
Benbow, Garberville, Fortuna - LODGING
3800 ft - PEAK ELEVATION
40°12′20″N 123°29′31″W - Zenia
40°22′08″N 123°26′00″W - Ruth Lake
40°6′N 123°48′W - Garberville
40°10′35″N 123°36′42″W - Alderpoint
LISTED CONNECTING SIDEROADS:
Hoagland Rd (paved)
Zenia-Lake Mountain Rd (paved)
Van Duzen Rd
Ruth Lake Community Services
Zenia Bluff Rd
Ruth Zenia Rd