Gila tour

Wut?

The roads north of Silver City, particularly Highway 15 to the Gila Cliff Dwellings, twist and roll through ponderosas and alligator junipers, with no lane markers and little traffic. They are justifiably popular among cyclists, and home to the Tour of the Gila bike race. The so-called “inner loop” heads east from Silver City to San Lorenzo, follows the Mimbres River northwest to Lake Roberts, then crosses the Continental Divide to meet Highway 15 about twenty miles north of town. The loop by itself can be done as a long road ride, but the detour to the Cliff Dwellings makes it a bit too much for a single day, even without stopping to explore the ruins and hot springs.

After returning from Mogollon, we packed up our gear and drove toward Silver City, camping at the last semi-legal spot west of town. We had contemplated riding this road, but were glad we had not, as it is flat, dusty, windy, busy, and passes through a mixture of bland scrubland and ranch towns deeply red of neck. I had a hankering for a breakfast burrito, and had opted for Don Juan’s as our source mostly because it was on the way. As soon as I saw the place, I knew I had chosen well. It is a small, slightly dilapidated stucco box in a parking lot, with a window on one side to place orders, and one on the other to receive paper bags of food. All of its meager resources are focused on producing quality burritos cheaply and quickly. In about five minutes, we had two burritos costing about five dollars apiece, which we consumed in the car. It felt slightly odd that an Asian girl took our order, and an African one handed us our food, but the burritos were authentic and filling; presumably the two working the windows were students at Western New Mexico University.

We once again left our car at the ranger station, then took off east along Highway 180. Though it is the main route between Silver City and the outside world, it was quiet on a Sunday morning, as many people were at their churches, leaving us to ours. This stretch east to the Mimbres is by far the least pleasant, a four-lane highway (albeit with good shoulders) to Santa Clara, then a winding two-lane road through lower scrubland. The main “scenery” is the Santa Rita Mine, a massive open pit carved a thousand feet into the ground through decades of steady labor. It was much as I remembered it from my first visit thirty years ago, with a slow stream of massive ore trucks carrying loads of mostly dirt to be sifted through for traces of profit. The “scenic” overlook tries to give visitors a sense of the place’s scale: a tire taller than a van demonstrates the trucks’ size, while the trucks’ insectile work below hints at the pit’s scale. The “pride of industry” narration that I remember was not playing, though, and the viewpoint was closed for COVID. Unlike before, we stopped at a sign about a strike that was the basis for the movie “Salt of the Earth”, in which women picketed the Empire Zinc Company for over a year when the male miners were forbidden to do so.

Since we were in no great hurry, we stopped at the store in San Lorenzo for some cheap calories and sunscreen, then again at the Mimbres Cultural Heritage site. The latter looked closed, but a chatty and knowledgeable volunteer showed us in and gave us a history lesson. The Mimbres were contemporaries of the Anasazi, known for the their pottery with intricate, stylized black-and-white designs. Their civilization in the area peaked in the 12th and 13th centuries, before drought and deforestation dispersed them. They buried a pot with a hole in the bottom with their dead, creating a rich lode for archaeologists and pot-hunters to mine in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Feeling slightly more educated, we posed for a photo (touring tandems are rarer than Mimbres pots), then continued upriver. We had budgeted three days for the loop to allow for side trips, and had intended to go hiking off Forest Road 150, but there was a prescribed burn scheduled there for the next day, forcing us to look for another spot to camp. We climbed over the divide, and soon found a network of roads in a pleasingly open ponderosa forest. There was no stream or other natural water source, but the Forest Service had thoughtfully provided a 3000-gallon orange bag of water. It was probably meant to be dumped on a fire by helicopter, but hopefully the gallon we took did not cause them to lose control of their prescribed burn. The tub was also useful for a brief, cold bath.

Volcanic terrain around Gila
The next morning we continued past Lake Roberts, a popular fishing marsh, then turned north on Highway 15 toward the Cliff Dwellings. The road climbs 2000 feet from the junction before dropping the same amount to the Gila River. Fortunately the south-facing climb is mostly moderate and shaded, much easier than I had dreaded. We took a break at an overlook, where Leonie did some yoga while I tagged nearby Copperas Peak. The “climb” was a slightly annoying hike through dry grass and loose basaltic rubble, but the summit had a 360-degree view of gentle mountains to the south and east, and more colorful volcanic terrain to the north.

Be safe, snakey!
From this divide, we flew down a steep and winding descent to the river. Near its base, the car in front of us abruptly pulled over, to help a snake in the middle of the road. I thought it might be a rattler, but soon realized it was just an angry bullsnake. A few others stopped as well, and eventually one man distracted the snake with a stick long enough to pick it up by the tail and move it off the road. I have always tried to grab bullsnakes just behind the head, and did not realize that this was an effective technique. I wanted to pick it up, handle it, and perhaps move it farther from harm, but it was still annoyed, and continued to hiss and shake its tail, so we watched it for a few minutes, then continued to the park.

The main visitor center was closed, but the bookstore and cliff dwelling path were open. We moseyed around the short loop, passing well-preserved buildings which tourists can no longer enter. The homeowners had chosen a perfect site, a south-facing canyon wall with a spring below and an overhang above to shade them from the high summer sun. If I were at all competent at hunting and farming, I could imagine myself settling down there.

Gila cliff dwellings
Cultural enrichment complete, we returned to a trailhead behind the visitor center from which we could reach some nearby hot springs. There were a half-dozen cars parked there, but we hoped the springs would not be too crowded, and even more foolishly hoped we could find a campsite along the trail. We rode and pushed the bike about a quarter-mile past the gate, then stashed it on a sandy flat behind some willows and burrs.

The hike to the springs requires two fords, calf-deep and 20-30 feet long. The water wasn’t cold enough to be truly miserable, but was cool enough that I attempted a high-difficulty log crossing — a large step to a moving log — earning my shoes a wash. The springs were neither crowded nor empty, with a couple and a not-couple in bathing suits sharing the warmest and least disappointing of several pools. I was hoping for something more like the Rico or Buckeye springs, but found a knee-deep, somewhat slimy pool separated from the shallow Gila by ten yards of alluvium. We both felt filthy, though, so… good enough!

Leonie opted for nudity, bravely soaping up and washing in the cold river, while I chose to simply rinse my bike shorts and my self soap-free. She chatted with the couple from Chicago, while I awkwardly talked to the non-couple from Sedona, a Frenchman who made custom wood flutes and a woman who was currently his landlord. They had both been in Sedona for a long time, witnessing its brief golden era between electrification and kitschification, and retained a fondness for the place. The Frenchman reminded me a bit of Fritz Damler, the 9.5-fingered man who made my guitar in a previous life, and who made his living by, among other things, sailing to Turkey to import kilims.

Once we had both pruned up enough, we dressed in hiking clothes and wrestled the bike through the sand and burrs and back to the trailhead. The non-couple were camping right at the closed visitor center (Gila is that kind of place), but we wanted a bit of solitude, which we easily found a short distance down-canyon on a National Forest road. As I prepared dinner, I thought forward to the next day with mixed apprehension and anticipation: we faced a hard climb out of the Gila followed by more climbing along Highway 15, but we would also be on the loop’s best roads.

In deference to the day’s heat, we started reasonably early despite the morning chill, and were soon steadily laboring out of the Gila valley. After an initial steep pitch, where I had expected to push, the climb was mostly moderate, and the north-facing aspect made the sun feel a bit less intense. We descended from the divide, then passed the Lake Roberts intersection and immediately began climbing again on what was signed as a “hazardous mountain road.” The lane markers disappeared, the traffic thinned, and we rode slowly but happily through alligator junipers transitioning to ponderosas.

I noticed a camper next to a break in the climb, which turned out to house the Chicago couple, who were spending another day in the Gila before continuing on their long road trip around the west. I am distressed by the recent wave of hashtag-vanlifers invading every quiet corner of the western wilderness, but still identify with its individual particles, so I wished them well and advised them not to visit Saguaro National Monument, as southern Arizona would already be oppressively hot.

After this flat break, the road climbs along some mostly-dry streams up to another high divide, through a shady forest of tall ponderosas, then rolls through the high country to the village of Pinos Altos. We took a side-trip through downtown, where I hoped to perhaps find some ice cream, but the tourist town was mostly silent. A sign outside the general store advised me to call a local number for service, but it hardly seemed worth the effort. I think we were both somewhat impatient at this point, so we did not linger to look at the old buildings or learn about the village’s history. Silver City beckoned a thousand feet below, so we put our heads down and cranked downhill into the headwind toward the car.

Having time to spare, we decided to resupply and patronize some local businesses while we were in civilization. We found a local bike store that had some overpriced gloves to replace Leonie’s absurdly worn-out ones, and a health food store to get a vegan ice cream sandwich (???) and some expensive veggies. On the way back to the car, we were diverted from Don Juan’s by the promise of $1 tacos at a shiny, California-looking Mexican place. The “carne asada” and “carne adovada” were dry ground beef with different spice packets, the “fish” was from a cat food can that had been open too long, and the “veggie” was bits of fried kale. As the saying goes, you can’t shine a turd. With bellies full of lukewarm disappointment, we restocked on road calories at Walmart, then drove back north and west on highway 180.

Glenwood and Mogollon

Nope!

While I have been traveling and getting out more than I do in a normal winter in the Lower 48, I have unfortunately been writing less. Though I do not plan to abandon the blog, I expect this new sporadic schedule to continue.

The greater Gila is a largely undeveloped area of mixed piñon-juniper and ponderosa forest in southwestern New Mexico and eastern Arizona. While much of it lies within the Gila and Aldo Leopold Wildernesses of New Mexico, they are surrounded by a vast area of non-wilderness (i.e. bikeable) National Forest. With elevations ranging from around 5000 to over 10,000 feet, there is only a narrow springtime window in which the lowlands are cool enough and the highlands are relatively snow-free.

We had been carrying a tandem and bike trailer around on my car for weeks, at a significant cost in both hassle and gas, and it was finally time to use both. My friend Mike had laid out an ambitious 350-mile tour through the Gila, north from Silver City, then west to Alpine and down scenic Highway 191 in Arizona, which we hoped to complete in a bit over a week, including some time for hikes. The forest roads on the northeast part of the loop climb as high as 9,000 feet, though, so while the lowlands around Morenci would be too hot (and windy!) for pleasant touring, some sections remained impassable due to snow and mud. We therefore saw only small parts of what would have been an excellent loop.

New catwalk
Our plan was to leave the car at the Glenwood Ranger Station, then bike the paved road up through the ghost town of Mogollon and continue on dirt forest roads to Beaverhead Ranger Station. The helpful woman at the Station, however, informed us that fire crews had recently been turned around on that road due to lingering snow. Since minor snowdrifts that block a truck are often avoidable on a bike, we remained slightly optimistic. However it was too late in the day to sensibly start, so we instead took a side trip to the nearby Catwalk.

Better alternative
The Catwalk in its current form is a sturdy metal structure extending less than a mile up the box canyon of Whitewater Creek, popular among tourists visiting the Silver City area. It was longer and more impressive in its earlier forms, first as a slapdash wooden affair built by miners in the late 1800s, then wooden and metal replacements built by the CCC in the 1930s and Forest Service in the 1960s. We started on the modern structure, but were soon driven down to the river by the crowds of children and lumbering gawkers. It was actually much more fun below the catwalk, as I was able to hop from rock to rock, while Leonie splashed up the shallow stream.

Rockslide damage
Somehow missing a trail closure sign, we continued past the crowds, finding remnants of several old routes up-canyon, all destroyed by rockslides and flash floods. There is no way to build a long-lasting trail up a box canyon with crumbling sides, but the trail has at various times followed the creek all the way to its source near Whitewater Baldy, the Gila highpoint. This area contains (or contained) a rich network of trails connecting the western lowlands at 5000 feet to a highline trail closer to 10,000, but fire, erosion, disuse, and lack of maintenance have left them in an uncertain state. As tempted as we were to backpack these trails, we retreated and decided instead to try riding up through Mogollon as far as we could along our original tour route.

Mogollon ore carts
We spent a decent night in the Ranger Station parking lot; the ranger who approached us in the morning was more bemused than upset by our choice of campsite, and invited us to the annual dutch oven bakeoff that afternoon. We slowly assembled food and water for a single day, then headed north of town on the highway before turning right on the dead-end road to Mogollon. While there are a few summer homes there, and perhaps even a permanent resident or two, it is mostly a tourist destination in normal years, or a well-maintained cluster of abandoned buildings in COVID times.

This is the good stuff
After climbing 2000 feet from Glenwood, the road descends 500 to Mogollon before turning to dirt. We stopped to take a few photos among the abandoned buildings and equipment, then continued uphill, climbing another 2500 feet to Silver Creek Divide at just over 9000 feet. The road maintained a consistent grade that was pleasant on the tandem alone, but would have been painful with a loaded trailer. It was mostly snow-free and dry to the divide, though its route along the creek meant we had no views and no visual cues of when the climb was done. We met a few cars, including a an ambitious Mini Cooper from Florida, but mostly had the area to ourselves.

At the Divide, we regrettably elected to miss the cookoff, instead continuing along the high traverse, with expansive views to the north. Unfortunately this north-facing slope held much more snow and tire-sucking mud, so we soon gave up, settling for some trail mix before returning through Mogollon and back to town. It seemed both too early up high, and too late down low, to complete our original tour. We were not done with the Gila, though: the mid-elevation roads between Silver City and the Gila Cliff Dwellings offered a suitable and seasonable consolation prize.

Lonesome Miner Trail (20h20)

Bighorn cabin

The Lonesome Miner Trail (LMT) is a route through the Inyo Mountains near Lone Pine, traveling between the range’s crest and eastern base. The Inyos are a desert range made mostly of garbage rock, and the route does not go over or even particularly near any peaks, so it is a strange place to find Yours Truly. However, the Inyos have their own grandeur, rising almost 10,000 feet from the Saline Valley on one side and over 6,000 from the Owens on the other. Their eastern side is also both hospitable and mind-bendingly remote: while most canyons have year-round springs, these are mostly at elevations between five and six thousand feet, separated from the inhospitable and uninhabited desert valley below by a vertical mile of brushy slot canyons and loose ridges. The springs are no easier to reach from the barely-inhabited Owens Valley to the west, from which one must climb a vertical mile to the crest before descending several thousand feet. Nevertheless, a brief mining boom occurred around these water sources around 1900, and the LMT links some of the water sources and mines via their old roads and pack trails.

A lonesome miner must eat
Ever since first hearing of it in 2018, and backpacking it around that winter’s solstice, I had a vague idea that the LMT might be doable in a single day. With trails that span elevations ranging from 4000 to 9500 feet and are difficult to follow at night, timing is difficult for a fast trip. The best time might be in October or November, between when daytime temperatures are bearable and when the first significant snow coats north slopes. However it can also be doable in March or April with some tolerance for snow and/or heat. The official route crosses the range from Hunter Canyon on the Saline to Pat Keyes Pass on the Owens side. However this involves a hundred-mile car shuttle on annoying dirt roads, so I prefer to come in from Long John Canyon on the Owens side, requiring slightly more climbing but only a ten-mile shuttle.

Dawn from above Long John
I had not planned to attempt the LMT on this trip, but when my circumstances thrust it upon me I shoved about 5500 calories into a daypack, drove as far as I dared up Long John Canyon road, and set my alarm for 2:30 AM. I was not sure I had the fitness or desire to do the whole thing, but an early exit via Forgotten Pass would leave me only a few miles from the starting trailhead. I took longer than usual preparing in the morning, then started out around 3:20, hiking and occasionally jogging the road as it decayed into the wash. I been this way twice in the past, so although the trail is often faint to nonexistent, I had little trouble following the general route to the crest, where I saw dawn on the barely-drivable road north from Cerro Gordo. I sent a few final text messages, then began jogging down the other side, committing myself to at least a very long day.

Postholing begins
Conditions soon reminded me of my previous December trip, with snow filling in the switchbacks on some of the east-facing switchbacks. The road was easy to follow, but the snow was punchy and deep enough to force me onto its edges, making running difficult. Snow-line seemed to be somewhere between six and seven thousand feet on the wooded north slopes, foreboding a frustrating day. The south-facing climb back to the Hunter saddle was dry, however, and I climbed comfortably in a t-shirt as the sun finally hit me.

Lower Hunter Canyon
The descent into Hunter was again snowy, but the trail was easy to follow, as was the dry trail along the wash’s bottom. I paused at the camp spot before Bighorn Spring, where we had slept on my 2018 backpack, and noted that only one party had signed the register since then. Continuing past the spring and nearby rusting machinery, I climbed up the bank to the left, admiring the view down-canyon from above a fork, then plugged in my poor cold phone to charge before contouring into the north tributary in search of the trail up to Bighorn Mine.

Bighorn cabin and Saline
I wasted some time finding the route, as the original trail followed the wash and has therefore been consumed by rubble and brush. After a bit of exploration, I proceeded left and spotted some cairns along the right bank. The line of cairns followed the edge of a collapsing rubble cliff, which made me doubt that this was the original route, before following old rockwork as it switchbacked up the right side of the valley. I stopped to take some photos of old tools and a broken bowl at the mine, then continued to the Bighorn Cabin. Perched on a narrow spur ridge near 7000 feet, the cabin is close to the ore vein, and has an incredible view of the Saline Valley below. However living there must have been arduous, requiring frequent trips to the spring 1500 feet below for water. The cabin is in good shape and well-equipped with tools, cots, and a stove, but I doubt any of the handful of people who now visit each year stay the night. I took some photos of the cabin and commemorative plaque, then kept moving.

Frenchy’s from above
The route is again somewhat unclear here, traversing along a rusty pipe and continuing up-canyon for awhile before switchbacking past some more prospects to the ridge above 8000 feet. From this crossing, a difficult trail descends 2500 feet to Frenchy’s Cabin in Beveridge Canyon. This section is faint, and has been obliterated partway down in a talus field, but cairns and careful attention make it possible to follow by daylight, even in snow. Unfortunately said snow was piled calf- to knee-deep on parts of the trail, with a crust only beginning to soften as the morning warmed, turning potential running terrain into laborious hiking. My friend Kim had proposed doing the route in the other direction for precisely this reason — you might as well be going uphill if you have to walk — but plowing uphill would have been much more tiring.

Thanks, Kim!
I reached Frenchy’s before noon, around eight hours into the day, and paused to refill my water and pillage the two sandwiches Kim had left in the cooler for passers-by. This was the only point on the route at which I could bail, climbing about 3000 feet to Forgotten Pass and returning to the Owens Valley near my car. Pleased with my progress, and believing myself almost halfway through the LMT, I decided to continue to the end, expecting to reach the top of Pat Keyes Pass around dark. This would allow me to do the last climbing, and most of the tricky route-finding, before headlamp time.

Beveridge Ridge cabin
Passing the “town” of Beveridge, I climbed past the trail east to the Saline Valley, ascending mostly easy-to-follow switchbacks along the spur ridge to Beveridge Canyon. The thermometer at Frenchy’s had read 65 degrees, and it was hot on the south-facing slope, but I was still moving well enough. Stopping at the Beveridge Ridge Cabin, I signed the register and took a few photos. I also took a packet of beef ramen, licking the noodles, sprinkling the flavor packet on top, and shoving them into my mouth as I turned the corner to posthole through more snow on the way to the bulldozer and other remains of the Keynot Mine. With no obvious road leading to this spot around 8000 feet, I am not sure how the equipment reached this remote spot. Perhaps it was helicoptered in to the dirt helipad at the cabin, then driven around the corner.

Keynot machinery
On my previous trip, we had made the mistake of continuing along the mine to its other end, following more evidence of mining until the level road disappeared into the hillside, then sidehilling miserably for several hours across loose terrain to reach the next ridge. This time, I followed a line of cairns and a faint trail back and uphill from just before the dozer, eventually finding bits and pieces of old trail leading to a collapsed cabin. I suspect that the LMT route follows a path that predates the mechanized Keynot Mine, connecting Beveridge to a more primitive prospect and the hermitage of McElvoy Canyon. This trail frustratingly gains and loses elevation, but is preferable to and far faster than cross-country travel across the steep hillside.

Bleeding bighorn
After the high traverse, the trail into McElvoy Canyon is one of the faintest and most confusing parts of the route. After descending along a hardpack dirt ridge, where the faint trailbed has almost completely disappeared, it weaves around complex crags on the canyon’s steep south side. In several places, it crosses unstable talus-fields that have obliterated whatever trail once existed. Looking for sporadic cairns and rockwork on either side of these slopes, I was able to follow its general path, though not its every detail, on the long descent, finally losing it in game trails and brush just above the stream, near where it flows in a cascade over smooth slabs.

McElvoy stonework
Here the correct route follows the southern bank downstream, eventually crossing near some well-built stone cabins. However I had neglected to bring the route description, and in my haste forgot the route. I wasted perhaps half an hour here, first looking upstream, then following a wash with a giant cairn just upstream of the McElvoy Mine buildings. Finally, I remembered that the correct route starts in the ravine immediately behind the cabins. Though it starts out well-built and clear, it soon fades and splits, with branches leading to multiple small digs. I initially went too far left, then contoured right to find the correct route, which climbs a hillside near the eastern edge of the prospecting, then switchbacks up a dirt ridge out of the canyon’s north side.

Here I remembered the trail well, and followed it easily as it returns west along a ridge toward the Inyo Crest, then contours north through woods to reach Pat Keyes Canyon. I had lost too much time crossing McElvoy, and was both frustrated and cold plowing through the slushy snow on this high traverse. Fortunately the trail crosses the canyon relatively high, as it must climb to 9500 feet on the other side to cross back to the Owens Valley via Pat Keyes Pass. Unfortunately the sun had set, I was out of water, and the stream was small and muddy where the trail crosses it. I eventually filled my water bladder with cold hands, then lost the trail on its way downstream toward a supposed ruin.

The trail probably climbs behind this old cabin, but I had run out of light, and decided to simply claw my way directly up to the ridge and find the trail when I reached it. I had counted on reaching this part, which is cold and difficult to follow, with at least some daylight left, and was annoyed and discouraged to once again be doing it in the dark. After a bit of cross-country wandering I picked up the faint Pat Keyes Pass trail, which for once follows the line on the USGS topo. There are enough cairns that the trail would probably be easy to follow at a jog by daylight with fresh legs, but I was dark and fatigue forced me to proceed at a walk.

After traversing around a couple of bumps on the south side of the ridge, the trail crosses to the north for the final half-mile to the pass. Here the misery began, with shin-deep powder and uneven rocks covered by a crust now hard enough to hurt my shins through my pants. I wallowed and cursed in the dark for what felt like an hour to finally reach the saddle, crossing at a point with no trail or markings. I had lost quite a bit of time here wandering last time, so failing to at least start on the trail boded ill. It was almost 9:00 PM — well after dark, but fortunately early enough for Leonie to still be awake. I told her that I would be coming out Pat Keyes, then texted Kim to see if she had a GPX track for the descent.

Unfortunately the cold drained my phone’s aging batter in the few minutes I had it out, knocking out both my communication and navigation. I knew the trail trended left, and did not follow the line on the map, so I headed in that general direction, looking around carefully for cairns above and erosion below the snow. I luckily found the line, following it slowly until my phone revived and I was able to not only see a map, but swap in fresh headlamp batteries. The cairned route, which fades in a couple of places, seems to stay right of the line on the topo, descending closer to a faint drainage before rejoining it where the overall slope steepens. I lost trail a couple of times, and there may be another route closer to the line, but my path was not too onerous.

The trail became easier to follow as I approached the level of the Owens Valley’s lights: Independence, Lone Pine, and some smaller settlements whose names I forget, connected by the cars crawling between on Highway 395. I was pleased to be able to jog the final switchbacks, which are smooth and easy to follow, but maddeningly horizontal compared to most of the trails I had visited. Reaching the trail register, I took a couple of experimental selfies, signed out, and started the two-mile walk to the car. It had taken me about 20h20 from where I had parked on the road up Long John Canyon. With better conditions and no major route-finding errors, I could have done the Lonesome Miner Trail in under 20 hours, and probably under 19; a faster runner somewhat familiar with the route could easily go under 18. I had doubted that I could complete it in a single push, but math works even in the Inyos: 50-55 miles with 15-20 thousand feet of climbing are still doable in a single push.

Santa Barbara tour: to Carpinteria

Morning from camp

In addition to being sheltered from the wind, our campsite was above the cold marine layer, so waking up was pleasant despite our lack of a source of water. We had another forty or so miles to go, but they were downhill or flat and, more importantly, all paved. The final descent followed a stream and valley that collected cold air, but we were far enough south to prevent redwoods from growing, or my hands from freezing.

Declining to take a side trip to the “best hiker-biker beach camp in California” at Refugio, we turned onto Highway 101’s frontage road for the long ride east along the Santa Barbara coast. With smooth pavement and a tailwind most of the way, we made ridiculously good time, reversing several days’ progress west in a single short day. Low on food, we stopped at a convenience store for snacks, and were once again told that we were absolutely not allowed to have any water or use the restrooms. Perhaps this low-grade hostility will fade with the coronavirus, but I suspect it will become the new normal as businesses realize they can save a few pennies on their water bills and minutes of employee time. It is just another small efficiency eked out by the crushing magic of the free market.

Did not slide out
This part of the route involved a mixture of segregated bike paths, striped lanes, urban streets, and a few miles of highway. Finding the best mix would have been difficult for a traveler, but green signs pointed us to the “Pacific Coast Bike Route”, which has been chosen as the least painful way to follow the coast through SoCal’s urban sprawl. While enjoying the easy ride through Santa Barbara, I fantasized that it might extend all the way from the San Francisco Bay to the Mexican border, but it sadly only goes from San Luis Obispo to Malibu. We will need to find another way to plow through greater Los Angeles and reach Baja.

Carpinteria sunset
Even after a lengthy lunch stop with Steve, we made it back to Carpinteria by mid-afternoon, with plenty of time to shower and walk on the beach. We watched the sun set behind the Channel Islands and blinking drilling platforms — some of the few allowed on the California coast — then stumbled back along the beach in the dark to pick up some good but overpriced Thai food and retire to the car. The next morning we packed up slowly, then drove Highway 101 back north, the prevailing wind and tandem on the roof killing our mileage the whole way.

It had been a short tour, with only 160 miles and 16,300′ of climbing. However, we had crossed much rougher terrain than I expected would be possible with the tandem and trailer, and both the touring rig and our relationship emerged without suffering permanent damage. Parts of the route rivaled the roughest terrain I had navigated in South America, and we even negotiated several stretches of single track, which I had never considered. However, the rig’s sweet spot is paved side-roads or good graded dirt, which is where I hope to focus in the future.

Santa Barbara tour: West Camino Cielo

Afternoon on Camino Cielo

It was once again cold and windy overnight at Hidden Potrero, but we woke encouraged by the knowledge that it was all downhill between us and pavement, which we had not seen in four days. (A potrero is a long mesa on the side of a mountain, often used as a pasture. Like the campground’s supposed water source, its pasture was not obvious, making the name accurate.) The sun also rose early at the saddle, making it easier to get a reasonable start around 8:30.

Descending to Upper Oso
The rig was relatively light and maneuverable, with not much water and only one more dinner and breakfast. I had feared that the descent would be rutted and overgrown like previous day’s climb, making it little faster, but the road down to Upper Oso was in much better shape. It is steep, though, and we had to walk the bike down a couple of sections where I did not feel confident in the caliper brakes’ ability to stop it. The road cuts spectacularly down Oso Canyon, with steep chaparral and minor cliffs on both sides and the Santa Ynez mountains ahead.

Pavement at last!
I kissed the pavement at Upper Oso, then we rolled into a campground that much larger and better-maintained than the ones we had passed over the last few days. There was a working spigot, a dumpster, and even flush toilets (!), though only the camp host and a possible day-hiker were around. The miles flew by on the smooth descent to the Santa Ynez, and even the rolling terrain out of Los Padres National Forest along the river went quickly.

Highway 154 is now the main route over the divide at San Marcos Pass, but Steve had suggested we take the old stagecoach road, which is paved and in good condition, but windier and more gently graded. A few minutes after turning up the climb, we were caught by a guy with full panniers. He introduced himself as Eric, and said he was headed down to “San Diego… and if I have the time, Florida.” He was clearly no novice, having first biked this way with his father decades ago. With a bit of digging we learned that, among other things, he had ridden the Baja Divide route, a rugged mountain bike trail down the spine of Baja California. With his restaurant job mostly scuttled by the pandemic, he now had more time than money — a situation perfect for bike touring.

Camino Cielo
We parted at the pass, heading in opposite directions along Camino Cielo, a gratuitous road that snakes from Refugio Pass to Romero Saddle along the crest of the Santa Ynez Mountains, eventually connecting Refugio on the Pacific to the Santa Ynez River at Juncal. On foot or possibly motorbike, one can continue east along the crest, following the Ocean View Trail to another section of Camino Cielo that descends to Ojai. The sections east and west of San Marcos Pass are paved, and a moderately popular scenic route for cyclists and (unfortunately) cars and motorcycles as well.

Having climbed 1300 feet to the pass, we descended slightly along a cold stream where we should have refilled on water, then climbed another thousand feet to the end of pavement at the Winchester Gun Club. We noticed numerous sandstone blobs along the road, and later learned that the area behind Santa Barbara has quite a bit of climbing described by Mountain Project as “not a destination area, but good routes exist.” With hot springs, wilderness, closed-off dirt roads, peaks, and local-friendly crags, it wouldn’t be a bad place to live… if it were affordable. California is a wonderful place, ruined by the number of people aware of that fact.

At the noisily active gun club, we once again left pavement for another ten miles along the crest, to another paved section near Santa Ynez Peak at our tour’s highpoint just over 4000 feet. The pavement had made me complacent and uncharacteristically optimistic, so the initial steep descent, with scattered rocks, eroded channels, and another gate passed by partial disassembly, was a rude shock. With a mixture of careful riding and hike-a-bike, we eventually reached the lowpoint, from which we had another 1600 feet to climb, all on similarly-degraded dirt.

Lake Cachuma
Between the wind, the slow terrain, and an increasingly-worrying shortage of food and water, this was a rough slog for an afternoon so late in the tour. We mostly had the road to ourselves, suffering together toward the towers that marked its end, appearing and disappearing with the undulating ridge. While I do not handle brush and miserable washouts well, I am comfortable with long miles and elevation because, with a predictable rate of progress, I can calculate how much longer they will last. I was therefore able to settle into the grind and enjoy the inverse views: to the left, the Pacific surrounding the Channel Islands; to the right, the rolling dry hills surrounding Lake Cachuma.

As we approached Broadcast Peak, we were surprised to hear “on your left” and be passed by a mountain biker, taking a video on his phone as he passed. I was a bit jealous of his ease, while he thought our unlikely setup was “sick.” The road winds just south of both Broadcast and Santa Ynez Peaks, both of which would have earned me Peakbagger Points via short roads to their summits, but time was short, and I was too beaten down to even consider tagging them.

Past Santa Ynez Peak
At the pavement it was Leonie’s turn to crouch and kiss the ground. Then we put on all our clothes to race the sun down the 4000-foot descent to the sea. Steve had recommended the Refugio biker-hiker campground on the beach, about an hour away, as the best one in the state, and we made our best effort at speed down Refugio Road. This could be scary at times, as the pavement was sometimes rough, the road narrow, and the joy-riding drivers and motorcyclists headed up to watch the sun set took the blind corners at speed. Even with our lightest load of the tour, carrying little food or water, I wore down the brake pads considerably, and was worried about my ability to control our speed. (I briefly looked into adding braze-ons and replacing the calipers with discs, but this does not seem like a clear win.)

My hands were aching and cold, and Leonie was practically falling asleep on the back, when we found a pullout about 1200 feet above the ocean with a sheltered and flat-ish spot to camp, and no angry signs. We were low on food and water, but both tired enough to prefer it to riding another half hour to the beach. I was happy to just suck it up and figure things out in the morning, but Leonie decided to flag down a car and ask for water, something I would hesitate to do in the States even in non-COVID times. This time we lucked out: the first car was driven by a young woman named Angelina who was carrying not just bottled water, but mandarin oranges and (for me) chicken salad. We watched the light fade over Santa Cruz Island as we ate our last dinner, then crawled into the tent for our first windless sleep of the tour.

Santa Barbara tour: Hidden Potrero

WTF?

[by Leonie]

Anticipating a short day of about 20 miles by bike, we aimed for a mellow start to our last morning at Big Caliente hot springs. The main pool had mysteriously cooled to slightly warmer than bathtub temperatures overnight, so after a chilly breakfast and hot beverages we set off to explore the creekside pools. A short hike through the former parking area led to the trail to the debris dam; we followed a use trail across the creek. Volunteers have funneled the hot seep through a PVC pipe down the steep hill and created lovely round pools inlaid with shells and river-worn rocks.

Minor obstacle
After a soothing soak we packed up the remainder of our gear and set off. The first eight miles were familiar, since we had ridden them twice the day before. We paused at the pass for fifteen minutes of sun-drenched yoga before enjoying the descent. The slog through thistles was not as challenging as we feared and soon we were out of the worst of the road conditions at Indian Creek trailhead.

Not-a-road
Not knowing the state of Camuesa Creek, which we would follow for the next nine miles, we filled water bottles at a river crossing and turned upstream. Our route meandered near an occasional trickle of water, algae-laden pools and dry creek bed. The canyon walls narrowed and the road disintegrated, eventually disappearing beneath thistles and jumbles of crumpled concrete. Riding was impossible and we resigned ourselves to a slog through the debris. I’m not sure who thought to build a road inches away from a flowing creek in a slot canyon, but it probably collapsed within months of completion. A culvert loomed five feet overhead, and the remnants of a bridge pushed skyward. We dragged, pushed, and pulled our heavy load, cursing our way through the thick tangle of cement, shrubbery and spiky plants.

Full yard sale
But then the canyon walls dropped, we regained a wide dirt surface, hopped back in the saddle and started pedaling, all troubles left behind in the snarl. We enjoyed about ten minutes of trouble free cruising before the next major obstacle: another locked gate. We had passed almost a dozen and perfected our technique for passing them, but this one was too low to pass our tandem beneath, even tipped on its side. A full fledged yard sale ensued, followed by the desperate maneuver of passing the ten-foot-long, 50-pound steel tandem over the gate. Leonie held it steady, perched atop the gate, while Sean crawled underneath to complete the passage. Touring with a tandem requires cooperation and communication, not just while riding!

Sunset from camp
Fortunately the road smoothed out beyond this ridiculous assortment of complications. We climbed steadily, the road a thin cut hugging steep hills, offering sweeping views and a moderate grade. After a thousand feet or so of climbing, we arrived at a saddle perched 3000 feet above sea level. A short spur road led to Hidden Portrero camp, where picnic tables and a grassy expanse of flat ground beckoned. We were prepared for the lack of water, but surprised by the sweeping view of the Pacific Ocean from the saddle — after being immersed in chaparral and oak woodlands for five days we had forgotten our proximity to the sea.

The day’s toil was short, only six hours, but intense, so after setting up the tent and eating an early dinner we relaxed at the saddle, enjoying a spectacular central coast sunset before retiring to our tent for our final wind-blown night in Los Padres National Forest.

Santa Barbara tour: Indian Creek

Bath and sleeping shelter

[by Leonie]

The midnight pee is a dreaded part of camping — unless there’s a tub of steaming hot water 20 steps from camp. We soaked under the glittering stars before returning to the relative shelter of our concrete bunker, clean, damp, and toasty warm for the second part of the night. I enjoyed breakfast and tea while soaking and we were ready to depart at the crack of 10 AM for a short ride and a day hike.

Not so bad unladen
Riding unencumbered by panniers and trailer felt breezy and blissful; the first three miles of downhill cruising sped by. River crossings were more relaxed and pleasant, and without gear and weight demanding attention we were able to focus on the delight of riding through this improbable wild beauty, less than 150 miles from almost 5 million people.

At the Middle Santa Ynez campground a few miles from the hot springs we were surprised to see half a dozen shiny cars and a dozen folks gathered around picnic tables. Over the past three days we’d seen maybe a dozen people, all either backpacking or biking, and had forgotten folks got around by turning a key and pressing a gas pedal.

The gathered crowd were volunteers and staff from Channel Islands Restoration, a crew dedicated to removing invasive plants and replanting natives; they had permission from Los Padres National Forest to drive in and remove tamarisk. Tamarisk is a feathery plant with pink blooms that hosts dragonflies, hummingbirds and bees. The plant is also called salt-cedar and was brought over from Europe, with federal approval, for erosion control during the 1800s. It has quickly taken over riverbanks throughout the west and is considered an invasive plant by the US Department of Agriculture; ranchers and environmentalists alike despise the water-sucking plant which can transform desert streams and ponds into dry basins.

Removing the plant requires dedication; you can’t burn it, and many herbicides are ineffective against this plant which can go dormant for long periods before re-sprouting. Back-breaking labor is required, and if natives aren’t replanted and tended, a newly cleared river bank may erode severely in the next gully washer. I wrote an article about Channel Islands Restoration and their work a few years ago. After a quick chat, we kept biking towards the day hike Steve had suggested, up Indian Creek.

Not much of a road
The route brought us to the top of a small pass and dropped down a steep hill passing more abandoned infrastructure; an interpretive sign about the diversity and fragility of the Santa Ynez River, more signs for Cold Spring, and Mono campground. About seven miles from the hot springs the road disappeared in a thicket of waist high invasive thistles. Their spiky seed-heads clung to our pants and socks as we heaved and shoved to push the bike through the tangle and across stony river beds.

Creek crossing and uplift
Once we cleared the snarl where a road or trail had once been we were relieved to find the surface of a narrow dirt road and the trailhead to Indian Creek just beyond. A rusted metal post held a trail register which revealed that only two groups had visited the trail in the past year. A crew of trail volunteers had cleared a path 3.5 miles up the creek, and a couple from a month earlier had pushed on further. “Trail overgrown with poison oak, no water. Misery.” read their entry in the trail register. We opted for a 7-mile out-and-back instead of the 11-mile loop we’d originally planned for.

Jeep road reclaimed
The trail followed flowing water, so we enjoyed birdsong and the musical trickle of Indian Creek as we contemplated the barren hillsides, distant ridges and streaky blue clouds. Walking exercised forgotten muscles after days in the saddle and we reveled in the freedom of being upright on our own two feet. The trail dipped down to creek crossings and vanished into head-high brush; generous flagging kept us on track. Back at the trailhead we combed through the trail register. Only a dozen groups had visited in the past five years, and their entries revealed a pattern of fire and flood that made the trail seem heroic.

Little Caliente
On the return trip we stopped at Little Caliente Hot Springs, two picturesque pools on a dry hillside that reeked of sulphur. The climb back up to the pass was casual on an unloaded bike and the Middle Santa Ynez campground was empty. We passed three cyclists on e-bikes on our return to Big Calilente, and settled in to read books and enjoy a final night at our own private wilderness hot springs.

Santa Barbara tour: Big Caliente

Relaxing?

My peak-bagging had put us behind Steve’s itinerary, leaving us a mostly downhill half-day from Big Caliente hot springs, or a full day from various other possible camps. The hot springs were a side trip of several miles out of our intended loop, but supposedly worth the visit, offering a better experience than neighboring Little Caliente. We decided to at least try the springs, then choose whether or not to continue depending on quality and crowding.

More dirt…
The unfriendly couple were only slightly better in the morning, perhaps still resenting having to share their “private” campground. This complicated our start, as my tissue paper Thermarest had predictably sprung a leak; such is the way of “ultralight” gear. Once the picnic/operating table was available, we set about trying to repair it, following the manual in the repair kit. The preferred way to fix a long tear is to heat an adhesive packet, then quickly spread it around the hole and apply a nylon patch. This supposedly both works in the field and lasts, but the glue would not liquefy after several minutes in boiling water just above sea level. We eventually slapped on an inferior self-adhesive patch, saw that it apparently held, and got on with our day.

Jamison Reservoir
We continued down the Santa Ynez River, passing Jameson Lake, the highest of three reservoirs supplying drinking water to Santa Barbara. At the small caretaker house below the dam, the road finally became passable to normal vehicles again, and we made good time to the Pendola Guard Station. This was our most pleasant riding in awhile, descending gentle grades through a sparse oak forest along a broadening river valley. The Station was closed, but in good repair, with intact informational signs outside informing us that, among other things, the area is home to some of California’s condors. These giant vultures became extinct in the wild in 1987, and were subsequently bred in captivity and reintroduced to the wild in 1991; I am old enough to remember hearing about both events on the evening news.

This being a holiday weekend and an accessible backcountry hot spring, we met a number of parties headed in both directions. These included two parties of light bike-packers going in and one coming out, more than I have probably seen in the rest of my travels in the United States. The modern way to camp on a mountain bike is to eschew panniers and load up the frame, bars, forks, and whatever else with small bags of ultralight gear. This allows for probably three days of food without wearing a backpack, and with a decent-handling bike, at the cost of only a few thousand dollars. Though I find it slightly tempting, I do not enjoy singletrack enough to invest beyond my cheap and capacious trailer.

Rules are flexible
We were concerned that the springs would be crowded, but we met two parties leaving, one consisting of ten or so young women and a bored-looking guy. Arriving at the most-developed pool, we saw the expected “no camping” signs, but hoped that we would have the place to ourselves, and could camp unmolested. It was only slightly after midday, but with hot water in the main pool and drinkable water in the creek nearby, we would probably not find a better place to camp. Not traveling ultralight, we had brought a couple of books apiece, and spent much of the afternoon reading and unconsciously dehydrating in the hot pool.

It turned out to be less than ideal, but still good enough to spend two nights without regretting it. With one more day of holiday weekend remaining, we shared the pool with a couple of other groups in the afternoon, and two more overnight. Fortunately everyone was more or less considerate in maintaining social distancing and not being too loud overnight. Unfortunately, though, the wind picked up in the evening as it had every night, and blew in unpredictable gusts all night. While the others hunkered in their tents, we set up camp in one of the nearby concrete bunkers or changing rooms. This had the advantage of being a large, flat space, but it channeled the wind more than blocking it. That, plus what turned out to be a failed patch job on my TissueRest, made for a long and sleepless night.

Santa Barbara tour: Old Man, Santa Ynez HP

East from Murietta Divide

We were enjoying a pleasant breakfast of coffee/tea and apple-chia mucus in our roadside tent when a middle-aged Hispanic couple walked by and greeted us. They had woken in the dark to drive up from LA, and had probably started hiking from the car closure soon after first light. While they were just headed over the Murietta Divide that day, they were clearly familiar with the area: when I mentioned that I hoped to tag Old Man Mountain, the man immediately asked if I planned to continue to nearby Monte Arido. Like many Angelenos, they often hiked with a large group, but this time they were blessedly alone. We talked longer than usual, but eventually they had to continue their hike, and we had to pack up ahead of the weekend hordes.

Old Man Mountain
We continued riding and pushing up the Murietta Divide Road, meeting a few people headed in the opposite direction on the way up. At the divide, I took off by myself on Road 6N03 toward Old Man and Monte Arido. Though it looks identical to the Murietta Divide Road on the map, this road has not seen wheels in years, and well on its way to fading back into a brushy hiking trail. The road climbs a sometimes faint and meandering ridge north of the Divide, passing the “water source” of Murietta Pond (a 20-yard-wide puddle of greenish-brown slime) within ten minutes. Beyond, it wanders back and forth across the ridge, sometimes descending slightly on its way past minor bumps.

Not having been able to download the topo maps before leaving town, I was not sure which bump was Old Man, so I chose one near where I found what looked like a use trail and headed up and north along the ridge. My so-called trail soon disappeared, but regular and recent fires had fortunately tamed the chaparral, leaving a sparse mix of dead sticks and small plants amidst the loose dirt and granite boulders. There was a strong wind on the crest, encouraging me to sidehill up the left side.

Old Man behind false summit
Reaching what I thought was the top, I found a large metal pole that seemed like a summit marker. However, the Peakbagger app informed me that the actual summit was the next bump north, which looked like it might be a few feet higher. This point was the upper end of an uplift, so I had to detour and sidehill around some minor cliffs on the way to the true summit, where I found the expected red-painted tin can. Old Man is not a popular mountain, so the register went back a few decades, and included both Bob’s entry and a dozen or so from local character Mars Bonfire.

Santa Ynez summit rocks
I had hoped to tag the higher Monte Arido as well, but did not have enough time to do that before rejoining Leonie back at the saddle. I dropped straight down the loose hillside, then hike-jogged the road back, passing one other hiker heading up. After a break at the saddle, we headed up the other side to tag the Santa Ynez Mountains highpoint via the Monte Arido Trail. This route heads more or less straight up a faint ridge to the south to join a jeep road along the Santa Ynez crest, looking more like a use trail than anything built by the Forest Service. We passed a few other hikers on their way down, apparently finishing some loop.

Ocean from Santa Ynez
Dirt bikes seem to frequent the route along the divide, but the obscure and unnamed summit sees little traffic, and has no established trail. It was getting late, and Leonie had no interest in Peak Points, so I jogged off by myself along the road. I found a small cairn at a likely-looking ravine, and tunneled up through the unburnt chaparral toward what I hoped was the top. I eventually emerged on a rocky ridge just west of the highpoint, which I followed to the summit to find a recently-placed register tin. The summit has sweeping views of the Pacific and Channel Islands to the south, and the higher peaks of the Los Padres Forest to the north, but it was getting cold and late, so I stayed only a few seconds before returning to the OHV road.

We descended the trail to the pass, then put on all our clothes and reassembled the bike to coast the short descent to the Upper Santa Ynez campground. This abandoned site has a creek nearby for water, a picnic table, and flat space for a couple of tents. Unfortunately, a covetous bike-packing couple had laid claim to the last two, forcing us to set up our tent on a less-than-flat patch a short distance away, and to cook on the ground. We were both too tired, cold, and surprised by the unfriendliness of a fellow-traveler to do more than passive-aggressively grumble as we set up camp and prepared our hot, oily pasta and veg.

Santa Barbara tour: Murietta Divide

This again

[by Leonie]

Extending 200 miles from Santa Barbara to San Diego, the south coast sliver of California hosts half the state’s population, and the regulations necessary to keep them in line. Leonie is allergic to instagram influencers, and Sean has already climbed the choicest peaks, so this is a dead zone for two climbing-biking-back-country dirtbags.

But a free platform for the back of Sean’s Element and an old friend beckoned in Pasadena. Driving 700 miles without cease held no appeal, so we cast about for entertainment in these densely populated environs. A casual inquiry with Leonie’s friend Steve, who lives in the hills behind Santa Barbara, produced a detailed itinerary for a 6-day mountain-biking adventure in the southern end of Los Padres National Forest. So we strapped the tandem to the roof, packed up a week’s worth of food and aimed the trusty Element south. [Thirty minutes later, we returned north, attached the bike trailer to the roof, and aimed south again. — ed.]

Our first stop was the backyard of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratories. In the 1930s, pioneering experiments in rocket propulsion at Caltech proved hazardous, so a professor and gang of grad students moved their work to a dry wash north of Pasadena. Their trials led to the establishment of a federally funded research lab that claims to be “humanity’s leading center for exploring where humans cannot yet reach.” We were more interested in exploring the adjacent forest land, which offered a sweaty climb to a spectacularly smog-ridden vista and a delightful descent crossing several streams.

After a lovely hike, platform installation, and backyard tea, we braved SoCal’s freeways headed north. Steve had recently acquired a home in Carpinteria, a sort-of suburb just south or east of Santa Barbara, and offered to let us leave the car there during our tour. We slept soundly in the driveway, and passed a community arts center, a used bookstore, and a public swimming pool on our way to a Mexican bakery with cheap and filling breakfast burritos — the last vestiges of adorable uncrowded SoCal beach village. The median home price is an astronomical $825,000 — only 15% higher than the state average. Buy now if you can.

Steve provided a detailed topo map and handwritten directions for his personalized Sea to Summit tour. These featured an overview as well as detailed day-by-day instructions, including mileage, elevation and water sources. It felt kind of like climbing with a permanent top rope.

Nutrient rubber
We set off on a smooth, buttery swath of pavement leading over a pass, winding around Lake Casitas and past lemon and avocado orchards. A sign warned us that “Stealing Avocados is a Crime,” so we harvested some windfall from outside the fence. It turns out that eating an unripe avocado is like chewing on a yoga mat.

A sharp turn up a steep hill on Matilija Canyon road forced us to a grinding halt and we pushed the tandem until the grade relaxed. We pedaled past barbed wire and aggressive private property signs until we reached a gate excluding motorized traffic and welcoming us to Los Padres National Forest.

Things get slower
Reaching into five counties, Los Padres National Forest covers 1.75 million acres, an area over twice as large as Rhode Island. It stretches 220 miles from north to south, from Monterey to Ventura, and includes stately oak woodlands, hot springs and peaks over 7000 feet tall. Mountain lions and black bears roam hillsides tangled with chaparral. Almost all dirt roads are closed to cars, creating a haven for cyclists and hikers.

“Campsite”
But the original road builders were sadists. Our route to the evening’s camp featured steep grades and over 3000 feet of climbing. We grunted and groaned and managed to keep our feet on the pedals as we advanced at a brisk walking pace up the abandoned fire road. Just as our water anxiety reached a crescendo we heard the welcome trickle of water. Sean engaged in vegetable combat to reach a small flow overgrown with lush foliage while Leonie set up a cozy nest at a mild angle on the side of the road. Evening chores and dinner were completed rapidly and we dropped to sleep exhausted and happy.