Almost the instant we finished getting the bikes loaded up with our gear, it started raining. Tearing everything down and retreating to the car didn’t seem like an option, so we took shelter under the eaves of the Susanville Depot, hoping the storm would pass soon. Twenty minutes passed, and the dogs were getting restless. Just as I started to worry that we might need to make other plans, the sky cleared, and it was sunny in the direction we were headed. It was time to start our ride down the Bizz Johnson Trail for a family bikepacking adventure!
According to the guide we picked up at the trailhead, The Bizz Johnson National Recreational Trail is named for Harold T. “Bizz” Johnson. Bizz served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1958 to 1980, and was instrumental in making this trail a reality. The trail is 25.4 miles long, and winds its way through the rugged and scenic Susan River Canyon, connecting Susanville on the east end, and Westwood on the west end. The Bizz Johnson is a Rails-to-Trails trail, meaning it was a former railroad route that has been converted to recreational use. Along the route, it features 12 bridges, two tunnels, multiple access points, day-use areas, and campgrounds. The wide gravel trail climbs at a very gentle 3% grade leaving Susanville, making it a fun ride for people of all ability levels.
The original plan was for just my son and I to go, but then about a week before departure, my wife said she wanted to go too. This meant bringing our little dogs along as well. Although they’re classified as “lap dogs”, they’re no strangers to adventure. They’ve been all over the West, from the slot canyons of Utah, to the top of 12,000 ft mountain peaks in Central NV, all along the Pacific Northwest Coast, and have made dozens of treks into the Sierra Wilderness. But this would be their first overnight trip on two-wheels.
To solve the dog transport issue, we used our old kid hauler bike trailer. Much to our neighbors’ amusement, we tried different setups at home leading up to the weekend. Using chest harnesses and leashes, we were able to secure them in the trailer safely. Naturally, they wanted to ride the very front edge of the trailer, so we had to make sure the leashes were just the right length to prevent them from falling out. The trailer also served to haul my wife’s gear.
I have my own bikepacking specific gear, but since it’s rather expensive and takes a while to collect, we went with a do-it-yourself approach to the rest of the family’s gear. Sleeping bags and pads strapped easily to my son’s handlebars. I made seat bags from $15 waterproof dry-bags and $3 straps. My son carried the rest of his gear in a small backpack and one of my fork bags. My wife’s gear stowed easily in the trailer. I brought along a few trash bags for emergency water proofing. For this type of ride over easy terrain, it all worked rather well with no issues to report.
Our ride began by leaving the Susanville Depot trailhead, where there is a small museum, restroom (open during museum hours), and a parking lot where you can leave your car overnight. Crossing the street, the trail starts by an old rail car. The old railroad tracks are still intact for a short distance, a nice reminder of the trail’s heritage. It’s not long before you get to a high and narrow bridge crossing Lassen Street and the Susan River. Soon you are into the Susan River Canyon, and riding out of town.
The Susan River parallels CA State Route 36, but it’s out of sight above the canyon and to the north. You’d never know there’s a road up there, as it feels pretty isolated once entering the canyon. Early on, we passed signs for the South Side Trail, a singletrack trail that climbs up above the river on the south side of the canyon. It looked like it would be a lot of fun if we weren’t hauling the wide trailer!
Nearly all the trail we rode was easy cruising, but there were a few sections that sustained heavy damage from this year’s flooding. It took two of us to get the dog trailer around the worst of it. Caution tape alerts riders to the dangerous areas well in advance.
Crossing the bridges along the trail had been a lot of fun, and now we were at the first of the two tunnels. My first thought as we approached is that it looked like something out of Stephen King’s novel “IT”. My wife stopped and looked at me before entering, “Is it safe?”. There are singletrack bypasses around the tunnels, but of course we had to go through to get the full experience. “Sure it’s safe. You can see the light at the other end!”. We got near the midpoint, and it’s dark enough there that you can’t see the ground with eyes not yet adjusted to the darkness. Again my wife stopped, unsure of what we’re doing. But we were halfway now, so it was just as easy to go forward as go back. One of the dogs was running along side the trailer as we entered, but I could no longer see her. I just had to assume she was still there until it brightened up again. Finally exiting the tunnel, my son said, “That was awesome.”.
The second tunnel isn’t nearly as along, providing enough light to see pretty good the whole way through. It was still long enough to feel the wind in our faces, as the air rushed through the narrow space. The tunnel exit made a nice frame as we exited the rock and concrete, returning once again to the woods and river.
The original destination was to make it to the Goumaz Campground, about the halfway point of the trail. We were only near Devils Corral, one of the access points along SR 36. It was now 5:00 PM, though, and Goumaz was still six miles away. Even taking turns, towing the dog trailer had slowed us down more than anticipated. Just a mile back we had passed the Cheney Creek Campsite, a primitive bike-in site on the river. Camping is allowed along the trail once you’re a couple miles in, but the trouble is finding a good spot in the narrow canyon that is far enough off the trail and away from the river. The designated campgrounds are the only place you’re allowed to have a campfire as well. Additionally, the Cheney Creek Campsite requires that you have a CA Campfire Permit. Luckily I had just gotten my free permit online that morning!
We rode a mile back to the Cheney Creek Campsite. Although I hadn’t noticed the 3% grade much coming up, I really noticed it going down. Even with the dog trailer behind me, I didn’t even have to pedal to move along at a good pace. My son got to the campsite first and flagged us in. We didn’t see it from the trail, but the site is tucked away back in the trees and bushes. It had a few spots to put tents, three log benches, and a metal fire ring. Someone had even stocked it up with firewood! I felt a little bad taking the whole place over, but there was nobody else out there.
Notice it’s called the Cheney Creek “Campsite”. There’s only one established site with a fire ring here in this wide spot in the canyon. In a pinch, there are a few other spots with privacy to pitch a tent, but nowhere else to build a legal fire. There’s no drinking water faucets here, but there’s plenty of water from Cheney Creek or the Susan River if you have a water filter or other water treatment system. With the cool temperatures, we had plenty of water with us and didn’t need to get water from the creek.
We woke up pretty early the next morning and had the whole day free; however, it was hard to tell what the weather was going to do. It kept alternating from dark to sunny as the clouds passed quickly over. Rather than push our luck, we decided to get on the trail.
Heading back down the trail, the riding was easy. Even the tunnels went by much faster this time with gravity on our side. Once again, we carried the trailer around the flood damaged area. It looks like it’ll take a lot of work and money to fix the damage, and this is just one example of probably hundreds that got hit with flooding from our crazy Sierra winter.
Near the Susanville Trailhead, there is a day-use area called Hobo Camp. We took the short trail over to check it out. There are restrooms, picnic tables, and cooking grills here. I did not see any running water. We finished off the ride by noon, and had planned to go to the Lassen Ale Works Boardroom for pizza and beer. Unfortunately they didn’t open for 3 more hours! This will be another stop for next time.
The Bizz Johnson Trail really exceeded my expectations. Our mileage was small, but the fun was big! We only saw a quarter of the entire trail on this outing, so we’re looking forward to going back for more exploration. Even a day ride from Westwood to Susanville would be great, and probably not too much trouble with all the downhill. My trail brochure even mentions bike rack equipped bus service to Westwood. And of course, the South Side Trail would be a fun way to make a loop trail.
Now that you’ve read the story, here’s some video of our ride:
- Trailhead: Turn off Main Street in Susanville and head South on Weatherlow Street. The road crosses the river and becomes Richmond Road. The trailhead is just ahead at the depot.
- Best bike for the Bizz? Anything with knobby tires!
- Bike shuttle: Lassen Rural Bus
- Free California Campfire Permits: www.preventwildfireca.org
- Singletrack option: South Side Trail
- More trail info and map: Lassen Land and Trails Trust