New Year's Eve 2016 Overnight Trip
Around Crhistmas, while I was huddling indoors back in Michigan with cold, gray skies outside, Will floated the idea past me of spending new year's eve on the coast (possibly camping on a beach) as part of a mtb-specific bikepacking trip. We'd done a couple CX-oriented trips together by this point but no mtb trips yet, and besides, he had a brand-new (to him) full-squish Trek to play with. I was keen on the idea, itching to get outside, back on my bike, and also to do some camping. I had done a mtb ride to the coast and back once before, so I knew that it was possible to hit dirt roads and singletrack for most of the distance (with so many trails in the Bay Area off-limits to bikes due to up-tight horse owners, and other roads dead-ending into or passing through private property, it takes creativity to link up more than a few miles of dirt at a time). I re-used the route from my previous trip, giving us a pretty straightforward ~55mi and ~6,500' of climbing per day. Should be a cake walk. Bonus, the route was designed in part around the Highway 1 Brewing Company, so as soon as we spat out of the mountains and onto the coast, we'd have burgers and beer spitting distance away (I checked; they told me they'd be open until 9pm on New Years Eve). We'd refuel and have a good time, maybe take some extra food to go for breakfast, and find a quiet spot along the highway to camp for the night.
My plane landed at SFO Thursday evening, and public transit got me home around 8pm; I managed to stay awake long enough for Will to show up an hour later (I was running on <3hrs of sleep) before passing out for the night. Friday morning I was still jetlagged, but we were both stoked to get back on our bikes, so we geared up early, had breakfast at the Summit Center near Demo, then got in two epic laps of Flow Trail, both of us taking some time to regain our skillz after weeks off. Still wanting more trails, we headed to Upper Campus in Santa Cruz for round 2, getting in a short lap of EMT before daylight left us. As an afterthought, we took the long way back to Stanford by driving up the coast and scoping out oceanside campsite locations for the following night. Seeing the stars in the clear sky and hearing the sound of the surf from our potential campsites, I was getting pretty stoked for the trip.
What's this? A trip going exactly to plan?
After the hard riding we did the previous day, along with continuing vacation-hangover, I was pretty sluggish to get packed and moving Saturday morning. My primary motivation was knowing that once I was on my bike, I'd start to warm up and get excited for the trip ahead - and by the time we hit the first strip of singletrack, it was game on! The first 20 or so miles went by uneventfully but slowly, with both of us feeling out of shape and also (per usual) spending time stopping for pictures. The views are what make most of the Ridge Trail network interesting, and Will hadn't seen most of these trails before, so pictures were certainly mandatory. As an unexpected bonus, when we popped out of Saratoga Gap Trail onto Highway 9, we were greeted by the cheery red-and-yellow umbrella of Mr. Mustard's hot-dog stand! We stood around and chatted while chowing down on our processed meat sticks, and I received some skeptical looks when I applied some "100% Pain" sauce to my dog. "Don't let his ginger appearance fool you - he can take the heat!"
After the quad-burning, lung-busting climbs and rollers leading to Hwy 9, I was excited for the next segment of our route: 2,000' straight down. The descent was seemingly endless, and I entered the much-sought-after mental flow state as I flew down the seldom-used, empty, smooth singletrack. I was rather surprised at how smooth and agile my fully-loaded bike felt; packing light (i.e., no tent and no Jetboil) has its benefits.
Unfortunately, we were a little behind schedule by this point, so with a 2,000' climb ahead of us, I took us on the paved option rather than an unknown trail alternative. We kept up a decent pace considering we were riding fully-loaded mountain bikes up a paved climb, although we both refrained from our typical pace-escalation-turning-to-hill-climb-race. The redwoods and firs alongside the road filtered the low winter daylight and provided enough scenery to keep us occupied until reaching China Grade Road. China Grade absorbs your attention simply because you have to work hard to get up its steep grade, but throws in expansive views down to the coast to keep things interesting. By the time we reached the top, at the intersection with Johansen Road, I was tired and ready for the final descent to the ocean, followed by a burger and a beer.
Just kidding, of course it won't go to plan!
The first thousand or so feet of descending went by quick - our full-squish bikes soaked up the occasional stretch of bumpy bedrock on the otherwise loam-covered dirt road, and soon we reached a giant treehouse that sits at an intersection at the outskirts of Big Basin. I remembered this intersection from my previous trips through here, but couldn't recall which road was my "official" route. After a quick low-resolution map consultation, we picked what appeared to be the most direct route to the coast and continued on. I realized shortly thereafter that this wasn't the original plan, but no matter - this road was actually in better condition, and offered considerably better coastal views, than my planned route. The timing unintentionally worked out perfectly as well, and we crested a small rise after exiting the dense redwood forest to see the sun coming down for an ocean landing. I started bonking at about this time since I had actually expected us to be at the brewery by then, so I took a snack break and watched the setting sun while passing drivers gave us big smiles and thumbs-up upon seeing our bike setups. We quickly reached the coast, and were treated to a short downhill spin along Highway 1 to the brewery. Hungry and salivating, I eagerly led us into the parking lot, only to see that it appeared to be closed! Confused, we came across an employee heading home for the night, who told us we had missed closing time by just minutes - they closed two hours early due to the holiday, not two hours later, as we had been told the previous day. I was directed inside to the manager, who attempted to help us find alternate food sources; the closest restaurant that would be open on New Year's Eve long enough to be useful to us was "a quick 20-minute drive away" (I re-emphasized we were traveling by bicycle). After a quick discussion, we instead went to the gas station next door and ate a dinner of microwave burritos and high-calorie snacks while being politely but forcefully asked to hurry up and leave so they could also close. Will was mostly okay with this, but I was highly disappointed in the relative let-down of junk food vs. a solid meal. You've heard of the McDonald's Happy Meal? Well, this was the Gas Station Morose Meal.
With the sun long gone and the cold seeping in, we set out (literally and figuratively) for Año Nuevo for the night. After a little exploring we came upon a stretch of singletrack leading to an abandoned bridge just outside the park; with the sounds of the ocean to one side, flat concrete below us, and clear skies above, we decided to just camp on the bridge. From our sleeping bags, we ate the remainder of our junk-food dinners, talked about the things guys always talk about on long trips, and just lay back and enjoyed the show overhead. The sky was clear, and besides the crescent moon, we could see Venus and Mars, as well as a number of satellites and meteors. After a few hours - but still well before midnight - I curled up in my bag and closed my eyes; a soft breeze caressed my cheek, and the soft rumble of the surf crashing on the beach nearby lulled me into a peaceful sleep. Goodnight, 2016.
Somehow, improvising 2017 seems fitting
Since we had been a little disappointed on our last bikepacking trip that we had missed watching the sunrise, I set an alarm for a little before 7am to be sure we'd catch it this time. Unfortunately, by the time the alarm went off, I was already lying awake in my sleeping bag debating whether the gray sky overhead looked noticeably different with my glasses on vs. glasses off. No epic sunrise lighting this time. I had spoken to my friend Bernardo the previous night, and he had offered to bring us breakfast burritos and ride with us for a while in the morning if we waited for him to ride up from Santa Cruz. With no urgency to start our day, we lazily ate more junk food and packed up our gear while waiting for Bernardo to fight the coastal headwind towards us. Upon his arrival, we discussed route options to get back over the mountains; we had accidentally followed part of the return route the previous day, and Bernardo suggested an option I hadn't even considered, so we went with novelty over familiarity. As a bonus, the new route had a water spigot to refill before the long backcountry trek into Big Basin.
Bernardo turned back once the dirt road transitioned to singletrack (he wanted to go play with his new remote-control Millennium Falcon) and once again it was just Will and I making our way up the floor of a heavily forested valley, with a number of stream crossings over cool bridges to keep things interesting. Eventually, we were forced to turn onto a trail that shot directly up the side of the valley, and it became a game to see how far we could ride at a time before our hearts exploded, our tires spun out, or we toppled over backwards. We both had SRAM 1x11 setups, but I had a smaller chainring (and was feeling less fat and slow than Will was) so had better luck clambering over roots on top of ~20% grades (surprisingly fun until my cardiovascular system revolted and forced me to stop!). There were still plenty of sections of trail that were simply no-joke hike-a-bike regardless of fitness or skill, and in true Gingerbeard Men Bikepacking Trip fashion, one of my body parts started acting up and slowing us down: this time, my right Achilles tendon, recently injured slightly on a long hike in Colorado. I resorted to an awkward 1.5-legged hike-a-bike hobble to avoid stressing the tendon, simultaneously laughing and cursing as the situation demanded. But don't worry, I'm no stranger to suffering in relation to bikes; Rule #5 was strictly adhered to, and we made the connection to a manzanita-lined dirt road that would carry us towards Big Basin headquarters.
As we rolled into Big Basin past the long line of cars full of day trippers and families with small kids and, in general, those whose idea of exploring nature was likely far different from our own, my brain released endorphins and my gastrointestinal system turned over and began idling in anticipation of - finally - a freshly prepared meal at the cafe. Upon entering the cafe, however, the endorphin flow reversed and my idling intestines sputtered and changed gears as I noted that the normal overhead menus were gone; the refrigerated display empty - the kitchen was closed for the winter; the sandwich was a lie. A palpable cloud of ennui developed around my body - or maybe it was perspiration and BO - as I dejectedly scavenged a rack of Slim Jims and jerky for alternative calorie sources.
Behold the Trail-Use Holy Trinity
After consuming our snacks and bad coffee and topping up our water reserves, we set out for the big climb up to Skyline. We followed the paved road out of the park for a while, leaving the congestion of cars and hikers behind us. We started noticing a tempting piece of singletrack criss-crossing the road, and eventually my willpower gave out and I dove into the next opening I saw. The next few miles were like a gift from the gods - the trail equivalent of a juicy Ethiopian pour-over with a dash of cinnamon. A smooth, sinuous ribbon of loam took us out of sight of the road, then treated us to bermed corners, roller-coaster whoops, and generally fast flow with a few roots and switchbacks thrown in as seasoning.
"Hiker up! Horses up!" Suddenly we were the physical manifestation of those Share the Trail signs - two mountain bikes off to one side of the trail, a hiker and trail dog on the other side, and two equestrians coming down the center. Everyone was friendly and happy to be on the trail, and no trail user questioned the presence of the others. The beautiful moment soon passed, and we were back to lamenting on why cyclists were systematically discriminated against in the bay area, and why couldn't all trail encounters be like that?
All good things must come to and end, and at the 236/9 intersection we were forced to bail to the road to keep on schedule. Highway 9 is a long climb, and Will started daydreaming about hot dogs from Mr. Mustard at the top, despite my pessimism about the likelihood of that happening given our luck so far. As it turned out, I was right to be pessimistic - we had to settle for trail mix instead. I started listing off options for dinner once we got down the mountain, such as a Mexican place on the way back - then stopped when I realized that, so far, every food source I had counted on over our trip so far had failed us. Plodding on, we reversed the previous day's route, bypassing trail segments closed due to mud, and reached Russian Ridge right at golden hour. By this point, my everything was sore and I was bonking again, but I still wanted to add a couple more trails to our route to finish the trip on a high note. We bombed down root-infested singletrack and climbed back up into the setting sun, stopping for pictures along the way. One of the coolest moments was coming around a corner into a panorama of golden light beams shining upon a young buck on the trail ahead. He was skittish, but allowed me to slowly follow him a while before bounding down the side of the hill.
After taking in the amazing lighting for as long as we dared (and as long as we could keep warm), we were left with only the dessert of the final descent ahead of us; a high-speed trail left in mostly pristine condition after recent rains. Man and machine became one as the foliage flew by on either side of me. My pains evaporated as I boosted off of waterbars, plowed through roots, and skidded through corners. I left Will in the dust behind me - but to be fair, I've done that descent at least 100 more times than he has. Satisfied with our weekend of riding, we raced each other down the remaining pavement towards Stanford in search of food to cap off the adventure, followed by an early bedtime. Another overnight trip on the books, the seeds of the next germinating in our minds and Strava routes - because there's always another adventure to be had.
Fittingly, that Mexican joint I mentioned was closed and we made do with Panda Express. That's bikepacking for ya.
Fittingly, that Mexican joint I mentioned was closed and we made do with Panda Express. That's bikepacking for ya.