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Near McCloud, the Great Shasta Rail Trail runs through the shadow of Mount Shasta, not far from this roadside viewpoint.

A preview of Shasta area's emerging rail trail

Northern California's latest Rails to Trails project has brought an epic multi-use trail opportunity within easy excursion distance of the Rogue Valley. 

The three-pronged Great Shasta Rail Trail is planned along the old McCloud Railway between the towns of McCloud, Hambone and Burney. Two sections totaling 37 miles were opened in late September.

Most of the proposed 80-mile system is ready for public use. The ties have been stripped off the old railroad bed and a red cinder surface has been laid down, but a few major gaps remain.

Five old bridges along the route are in a state of disrepair, and the local association behind the trail is having engineers assess the cost of the needed restorations to accommodate foot, bike and equestrian traffic across all of the bridges, which range in size from small creek crossings to the epic 80-foot-tall, 462-foot long Lake Britton Bridge.

Movie buffs might recall the scenic span from the 1986 movie "Stand by Me." 

Of the two trail sections now open, one starts 11 miles south in Burney and ends at the Lake Britton Bridge. The bridge's northern end is also accessible from the Highway 89. The crossing, however, is closed on both ends for safety reasons, and cannot be safely circumvented.

For now, the longest continuous route on the Great Shasta Rail Trail is the northern branch that will connect McCloud and Hambone. The open portion of the trail begins five miles east of McCloud, a former company town spawned by the McCloud River Timber Company. From McCloud, go five miles east on Highway 89, then turn left onto Esparanza Road. In less than a mile, the trail crosses the road.

East from there, the route to Hambone is a mostly straight and flat hustle, paralleling Hwy. 89 until the intersection with the still-closed southern fork, at which point the trail jogs north, away from the road, and lazily winds its way into the hills to the unincorporated point of Hambone, 26 miles later.

During my visit to the trail last week, I didn't manage to make it all the way to Hambone.

The cinder surface of the trail offered significant rolling resistance, making me pedal quite a bit harder than I would on a dirt surface, though in some spots the cinder was packed down enough to make it easier.

The journey to the trail junction near Bartle and back was plenty to tire me out. After a while, the satisfying "crunch" of the cinders under my wheels turned into hypnotic white noise as I hurtled past the endless corridor of pine trees back to my waiting car. The peak of Mount Shasta could be seen peeking out between the trees every now and then. 

Unfortunately, with only one afternoon to spare and twilight nearing, I lacked the time to tackle the southern part of the trail, which looks far more interesting for its twists and turns through the mountains. I found myself wishing I had the time to take advantage of the campgrounds in the area and spend two days exploring.

The Great Shasta Rail Trail is a far cry from the hills and single-track that many Rogue Valley mountain bikers thrive on, but the trail is going to be a beautiful and epic ride when it is all completed, with the Lake Britton Bridge serving as a spectacular centerpiece.

Don't forget that it's a quick jaunt to the Mount Shasta Ski Area, which could soon offer lots of fun for the more vertically inclined biker.

For more information and updates on the trail, keep an eye on greatshastarailtrail.org

Digital copy editor Forrest Roth can be reached at froth@mailtribune.com

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