California's Bizz Johnson National Recreation Trail

Posted 11/01/08 by Rails-to-Trails Conservancy in America's Trails

Bizz Johnson National Recreation Trail | Photo by TrailLink user anwary

Trail of the Month: November 2008

California's coastal climes, though famous for Mediterranean summers and mild winters, don't often produce much variation throughout the year. Yet if you head a few hundred miles northeast of San Francisco—just east of the Sierra and Cascade mountain ranges—you'll find craggy canyons and upland forests that cycle through four distinct seasons. And you won't find better exposure to these changes than on the 25.4-mile Bizz Johnson National Recreation Trail, which carves through the Susan River Canyon between the communities of Susanville and Westwood.

Named for former Congressman Harold T. "Bizz" Johnson, the corridor follows the old Fernley and Lassen Branch Line of the Southern Pacific railroad. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) completed assembly of the trail in 1986 and now jointly manages it with the U.S. Forest Service.

Stan Bales, an outdoor recreation planner with the BLM, has helped shepherd the pathway from its first days. "I've been fortunate to be involved with it from the beginning when the abandonment notice was filed 32 years ago," he says, and he's watched the pathway develop into a popular and versatile attraction year-round.

Yet no season has proven more inviting on the Bizz than the fall, when visitors and events seem to gravitate to the trail. While you won't find many places in the state known for autumn leaves, the Bizz Johnson is a huge exception, usually peaking around the third and fourth weekends of October. "We have knock-your-eyeballs-out foliage," says Bales, and there are few better ways to cruise the colors than on the trail.

One weekend a year in late October, the BLM and Forest Service organize a fall color ride, a special event in the "Ride the Bus, Bike the Bizz" program (see sidebar for information on shuttles). Visitors can buy a ticket in Susanville and ride a bus 25 miles to the opposite end of the pathway at Mason Station. The first seven miles on the return cover an almost imperceptible uphill to Westwood Junction, the highest elevation on the trail at 5,500 feet. Riders, runners or plucky hikers can then enjoy a comfortable 1,300-foot descent into Susanville. This year's leaf tour drew 52 riders, Bales says, many driving from up to three hours away for the event. (Contact the BLM for information on other ride lengths and drop-off points available.)

Bizz Johnson National Recreation Trail | Photo by Michael McCullough
Bizz Johnson National Recreation Trail | Photo by Michael McCullough

Earlier in the fall, usually on the last weekend of September or first of October, Susanville also hosts the annual Rails to Trails Festival. The nonprofit Lassen Land & Trails Trust originally planned the event to raise funding and community support to save the Susanville Railroad Depot, which is now the primary trailhead in Susanville (bicycle rentals are available nearby at Bike Station; 530.257.2525). The celebration has since evolved to feature live music, a chili and salsa cook-off, and even old-fashioned railroad handcar rides and races on a stretch of preserved track. "The handcar rides are a kick in the pants, I'll tell you," says Bales.

But regardless of the season and how you experience the trail—on horseback, skis, bicycle or foot—the Bizz is bound to please.

Most visitors access the trail in Susanville, yet Bales recommends beginning on the western end at Mason Station to enjoy the downhill grade. "West to east," he says, "I describe it like a symphony. You start out with the forest movement, next is the mid-canyon movement, and then you reach the lower canyon, which is like the finale as you go across eight bridges and through two tunnels."

That final 16-mile rumble along the Susan River into Susanville is Bales' favorite, and he considers it the most striking and ideal for scenic rubbernecking. Laura Cohen, director of RTC's Western Regional Office, is partial to the western miles through shaded pine and fir woodlands. She first visited the trail a few years ago with her family during the Rails to Trails Festival, and she still recalls the remarkably secluded feeling out on the trail. "You really feel like you're lost in forest country with all the big trees and quiet," she says.

To that point, no matter where you start or how far you ride, Cohen says it's important to remember you'll be traveling in remote countryside. The gravel surface is best suited for fat tires and soft saddles, and visitors are advised to bring ample water and resources for the journey. There are no services between the two endpoints; what you carry is what you'll have to use. Also, the trail is at the mercy of the seasons and may be under snow during the winter. Snow melts quickly in the lower Susan River Canyon west of Susanville, but the western 18 miles of the trail are higher and more shaded and often have snow into March and April. Bales recommends calling the BLM at 530.257.0456 to check current conditions before your visit.

But don't fear the weather or any roughness in the ride. The Bizz has a habit of converting avid new fans with each new face and adventure—just one of many charms the have earned the Bizz Johnson Trail a place in Rails-to-Trails Conservancy's Rail-Trail Hall of Fame.

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