The Ultimate Northern California Brewery-Camping Road Trip

By Zach O’Brien

This journey began a few months ago, when I was lounging in my back yard, sipping on a delicious craft beer with Active NorCal’s Adventure Consultant Backcountry Craig. We were reminiscing about our most recent backpacking trip, an 8-mile hike into Tahoe’s Desolation Wilderness, which included three days of exploring, swimming and fishing. We recalled the moment when planning for that trip we realized we would have to leave the beer behind.

On the one hand it would be unnecessary weight. On the other, beer and camping go together like chips and salsa. One is mutually exclusive of the other, but combining the two provides a perfect balance. Then we had our light bulb moment. “Let’s embark on a camping trip that pits beer and camping together.”

“We can match a craft brewery beer with a nearby campsite,” replied Backcountry Craig. Pure genius.

We were off, six breweries, six campsites, six nights, (a six-pack of camping) a beer camp road trip.

Wildcard Brewery Double Down Imperial Red Ale – Whiskeytown Lake

We packed up our Ford Explorer early in the morning with the various camping amenities – tents, sleeping bags, warm clothing, a mini-grill, pocketknives and fishing poles. Since we began in Redding, we decided that our first stop would be in our own backyard. Wildcard Brewery is located off the Old Oregon Trail exit of Highway 44 in Redding. Founded within the past five years, this brewery has taken the local area by storm, creating great craft beers that can be found all over the area.

We stopped in the taproom and decided to fill up two growlers of Wildcard’s most popular beer, the Double Down Imperial Red Ale. [A growler is a glass or ceramic jug, typically 64 ounces, used to transport draft beer. They are commonly sold at breweries as a means to sell take-out draft beer. They generally have either a screw-on cap or a hinged porcelain gasket cap, which can provide freshness for a week or more.] Then we jumped in the car and high-tailed it west down Highway 299 over to Whiskeytown Lake’s Oak Bottom campgrounds. There we were able to snag a large campsite and rent two SUP boards at the Brandy Creek Store. The Oak Bottom campsites are very family oriented with bathrooms, an amenities store and even security at the entrance. Alcohol is prohibited on the beach and in picnic areas, but allowed within legal limits elsewhere.

The Oak Bottom arm of Whiskeytown Lake is perfect for a day on SUP boards. This part of the lake is a thin arm of the lake, so it keeps away hefty boats and unwanted crowds. The water is typically glassy and untouched. We hopped on our water vehicles and paddled around finding numerous rope swings and rocks to jump off, helping to fill our adrenaline-craving souls. We headed back to the campsite right before the sunset to crack open our growlers. We built a fire and sipped wonderful beer in the fading light.

The Double Down Imperial Red Ale is certainly not for the timid. Its red tint is unique in itself, and the full-bodied malty taste (and 7.5 percent alcohol content) was just the refreshment we needed on the first night of our expedition. We spent the evening discussing our looming journey and strategically planning the logistics.

One down, five to go. On to the next location…

Sierra Nevada Old Chico Crystal Wheat – Feather River

We rose from our tents with unbridled enthusiasm knowing our next destination was a familiar one. You see, Backcountry Craig and I had both lived in Chico at one point and we knew the Sierra Nevada Brewery and its surroundings well. We packed up our car and headed south for an hour and a half drive to the Sierra Nevada taproom.

We might take this brewery for granted. I know I do. Sierra Nevada is a craft beer juggernaut, rivaling only Samuel Adams as the first and most successful craft brewery in the country. This brewery has paved the way for the booming craft beer industry we see today with their flagship pale ale beer.

We arrived right on time for an incredible lunch at the taproom, and stocked up on Old Chico Crystal Wheat for that night. While the name of this beer may not be familiar to you, the taste will send memorial chills down any beer enthusiast’s spine. Formally known as simply the Sierra Nevada Wheat, this beer was rebranded years ago to pay homage to the brewery’s home, Chico, California. It is the lightest beer you will find at this brewery and contains a mild wheat taste very friendly to the palette.

We saddled up and headed to our favorite camping location, a beach on the Feather River. If you take Highway 70 east towards Quincy, you will encounter a long, windy drive along the Feather River. After about 18 miles down this road you will see a large entrance to a public dirt driveway, which takes you to a well-hidden beach on the river in the Plumas National Forest.

The campsite is perfect for adventure seekers. It offers great swimming; fishing and a humongous rope swing across the water next to the train tracks. (This rope swing is one of the most dangerous I’ve ever encountered and should only be attempted by true rope-swing professionals.) We had the beach to ourselves and we washed down grilled hot dogs with Old Chico Crystal Wheat as the sun went down.

We woke up the next morning with the sun and reluctantly washed off in the brisk water of the Feather River. We had to move fast, as this day would be our longest.

Two down, four to go. On to the next location…

Lagunitas IPA – Fort Bragg

We had a lot of driving to do, heading from the eastern part of the state all the way over to the coast. The Lagunitas Brewery is in Petaluma, which is about 15 minutes south of Santa Rosa and roughly an hour north of San Francisco. Petaluma is a unique town off Highway 101 with an active downtown area and a fun, energetic vibe.

We were able to manage the traffic on Interstate 80 through Vacaville in what we true Northern Californians consider “Bay Area Traffic.” We arrived at the Lagunitas taproom in three hours at about 11 am.

The brewery personifies the town of Petaluma – the energy is palpable, everyone is friendly and everything reflects an indescribable brightness. After being trapped in the car for hours, we decided to tour the brewery first. A tourist attraction for San Franciscan weekend warriors, it was filled to capacity by mid-afternoon. There always seems to be a party going on there, with a large bar, an enclosed outside area and usually a quirky band playing inside.

Wood you say it’s time for a beer?

A post shared by The Lagunitas Brewing Company (@lagunitasbeer) on

We decided to grab some of their most popular beer, the Lagunitas IPA (Indian Pale Ale). The IPA was Lagunitas’ first seasonal beer back in 1995, and like many successful craft breweries its overwhelming reception among beer-enthusiasts laid a foundation for ongoing popularity. It’s one of the lighter IPAs you’ll ever taste. The brewery claims “The malt and hops work together to balance it all out on your ‘buds so you can knock back more than one without wearing yourself out.”

We hit the gift shop for some odd souvenirs – a bottle opener, a beer cozy and sweatshirt before taking off for our next camping destination.

We were out by noon in order to make another long drive to Fort Bragg. (We started to seriously question our sanity on this stretch of the trip.) We headed up Interstate 101 and cut over to the coast on the beautiful Highway 20 through the Jackson State Forest. There we arrived at Hidden Pines Campground in Fort Bragg. The camp was unique – a green forest with the distinct ocean smell. We checked in, found our site and immediately took the quarter-mile walk over to the main attraction – the Pacific Ocean.

Tired and nearing the midway point of our journey, we walked to the beach with our beer to watch the sunset with our IPAs in hand. We quickly realized that this is what this entire road trip is all about – new experiences. We were typically mountain men, viewing camping as a rough experience involving only you and your survival instincts. This trip was, of course, different. Sure, it had a tourist feel to it, but to be honest, I’m not sure I had ever just sat on a beach and watched the sunset. With new days come new ideas, which bring new experiences.

Three down, three to go. On to the next location…

Mad River Steelhead Extra Pale Ale – Patrick’s Point

We could barely contain our excitement as we rose from our tents and packed up the car for the next leg of our journey up Interstate 101 to Humboldt. The three hour drive was chock full of craft breweries. We would pass Eel River Brewery in Fortuna and the very popular Lost Coast Brewery in Eureka. We were also very curious about the Mad River Brewery, which celebrated their 25th anniversary this year.

We made the beautiful drive up Interstate 101 and over to Blue Lake on Highway 299 to the brewery. I knew exactly which beer I wanted, the famous Steelhead Extra Pale Ale. I’ve only had this beer a few times, and I knew its reputation – 2008 and 2012 Gold Medal, and 2010 and 2013 Silver Medal at the Great American Beer Festival. This is a popular beer among beer-snobs known for its medium body and slight bitterness.

Beer stash #madriversteelhead

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Feeling spry, we purchased some Steelhead Extra Pale Ale and backtracked to the famous Patrick’s Point State Park in Trinidad. This campground is located about 25 miles north of Eureka, right in the heart of California’s coastal redwood country. We were ready to arrive at the park by 2 pm and, considering the time we had spent in the car over the past few days, we were anxious to get more active.

We hiked the six miles around the rim trail with beautiful redwoods; luxurious plant life and the occasional access trail to ocean views. It was a spectacular way to get the exercise we craved. With daylight dwindling, we headed back to camp to savor our tasty beverages and grab an early bedtime.

Four down, two to go. On to the next location…

Etna Brewing Company Blackberry Blonde – Indian Scotty Campground

We had another tedious drive ahead of us, so we rose with the sun to get on the road. We journeyed back to Highway 299, on to Highway 96 and eventually on to Highway 93. Known as the Bigfoot Scenic Highway, Hwy. 93 is famous for its Bigfoot sightings.

This long and windy road is almost entirely adjacent to beautiful rivers, most notably the lower Klamath. While this ride is not for those prone to carsickness, it is one of the most beautiful drives you will ever take. Be sure to fill up on gas and have a spare tire since you go through long stretches without seeing any civilization.

We finally made it to the town of Etna in a little less than four hours and were ready for our much-anticipated trip to the Etna Brewing Company. This is a small brewery with an even smaller tap house (in comparison to some of the giant ones we had already visited), but what it lacks in size it makes up for in beer brilliance. We had played it safe with our beer selection throughout the journey, so we decided to try something different – the Blackberry Blonde – a light wheat ale with a sweet, blackberry taste. Our palettes were pleasantly surprised.

We purchased some for that evening and headed about 25 miles north up Highway 3. We then turned onto the Scott River Road to our next campground, the Indian Scotty Campground on the Scott River near Fort Jones. We set up camp and immediately went fishing.

As with most fishing trips you highly anticipate, our catching came up short. The site was beautiful with grassy areas surrounded by Douglas firs and Ponderosa pine trees. We had heard about the trailhead that led to the Marble Valley Wilderness, but instead decided to relax at camp with our Blackberry Blonde. Fatigue began to set in as the finish line approached.

Five down, one to go. On to the next location…

Mt. Shasta Brewing Co. – Lake Siskiyou

We packed up and emerged from the wilderness eventually traveling over to Interstate 5 via Hwy 3. Suddenly we found ourselves in more familiar territory. Stopping at the Mt. Shasta Brewing Co. in Weed, we were hungry and anticipating our final destination. We grabbed lunch and purchased some Weed Golden Ale, a light and refreshing choice.

I’m all about the brews baby #weedgoldenale / rebelution playlist #feelinonlygoodvibes

A post shared by brianna boyd (@brboyd) on

Full of great food, we then meandered down Interstate 5 to Mt. Shasta City and headed directly to the Lake Siskiyou Campground, a place I have become well acquainted with. Arriving early, we set up tents and rented a kayak to explore the shores of the lake. Though not very big, Lake Siskiyou’s claim to fame is its proximity to our mighty Mt. Shasta and the stunning views that go with it. While exploring the lake, we couldn’t help but stare at the mountain, even though it has been a staple in our lives since we were children.

We headed back to camp to savor our beer reminiscing about the trip that would soon draw to a close. We had seen beautiful landscapes, interesting, curious people and some of the best craft breweries in the state. This road trip was an epic journey to travel Northern California in search of the best beer camping combinations. It also proved to be a vehicle for new experiences, finer knowledge of our surroundings and a deeper friendship.

We woke the next morning dirty and still tired. Soon we headed down the hill on Interstate 5 back home. Reality set it on this final stretch – the fun and games would soon be over.

Six breweries. Six campsites. Six nights. It was the greatest six-pack we had ever had.

Active NorCal

Telling the Stories of Northern California

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