Category Archives: Biking

Illabot Peaks, North Mountain

Illabot from correct route


Illabot Peak and North Mountain are two peaks notable only for having more than 2000 feet of prominence, and for being near where I was. I had hoped to do the Twin Sisters southeast of Bellingham, supposedly one of the Cascades’ better scrambles and a fun bike-n-hike, but SR 9 was closed for some reason. Looking around for a last-minute substitute, I settled for these two.

Illabot Creek road

To make Illabot a bit more of a challenge, I decided to bike from the base of the Illabot Creek Road, only a few hundred feet above the sea. From there, the road gently climbs to nearly 4000 feet at its end, with the Illabot Peaks Road petering out in various spurs at a similar elevation. The ride is pleasant, being gradual, mostly well-graded, and shady in the morning. As I turned from the well-maintained Creek to the brushier Peak road, a work van paused behind me, then followed, passing me as I labored uphill. The man inside asked if I was headed for Illabot, shook his head at my extra approach, and offered me a ride, which I politely declined.

After a long climb that would have been painfully narrow and brushy in a car, I followed various spurs generally left to a saddle at 4100 feet, corresponding to the “NW approach” route description on Summitpost. I locked my bike to itself, then began hiking down a clipped path on an older logging road. The clippings showed that someone still cared about this road, but they seemed to peter out in about half a mile. I turned back, thinking I might have passed a climbers’ trail, to find the man from the van headed down the same road. He was looking for the same route I was, so combined forces to head back down the road.

Where the clippings seemed to cease, we interpreted some old downed trees as “the second logpile” and headed toward the peak. Reminiscent of Bob Burd, the man pulled on a pair of gardening gloves and proceeded to thrash through the pines and brush with remarkable speed. I was hard-pressed to keep up with him in my new Dick’s Sporting Goods shoes, which both loosened up around my feet and failed to provide much traction. As the slope steepened, we hauled ourselves from bush to tree, yarding on plants and leaning back to gain traction. After plenty of this and a bit of third class mossy rock, we reached the crest of the peak’s northwest ridge.

The route description mentioned a “sloping meadow,” and we found something vaguely like that after awhile, but we slowly realized that we were not on the correct route. The ridge was a classic Cascades horror, with chossy rock blobs on top, steep sides, and dense shrubs and krummholtz everywhere. I lost track of my companion, downclimbing a couple of rotten steps before giving up on the ridge. I eventually traversed right to a notch where I could downclimb left into the bowl north of the summit, from which a chute led to the saddle west of the summit where the two posted routes supposedly meet. I might have found a faint path, but it was really just more, easier thrashing to the summit.

After the hardest 2 miles and 2000 feet I had suffered in a long time, I was thirsty and unhappy with how my day was going. I looked around at the views a bit, then descended the north side a short ways to a snowpatch, where I lay down to drink a liter of water and eat the rest of my Chex mix. Somewhat cheered, I continued northeast, then cut back with only a short section of grievous brush to descend to the north drainage.

This, clearly, was the correct route. I found a couple of meadows/bogs along the way, connected by stretches of relatively open woods. Only in the last half-mile leading back to the old logging spur did I encounter more hideous brush, with chest-high thorny berry plants growing out of uneven snags and rocks. I thrashed and cursed my way back to where the road was shown on my map, and found it to be the expected “anti-road,” a swath of dense alders. Dodging through these, I eventually found an old fire ring and evidence of clipping, which increased until I reached the spot where we had deviated from this wonderful route. At least the ride back down was fun.

The next morning I rode up North Mountain, just outside Darrington. The old lookout is still intact, and has good views across the Skagit, Sauk, and Stillagaumish Valleys, though it is unfortunately locked. The true summit lies a half-mile to the north, and used to be difficult to reach. Fortunately the town has installed a network of bro-friendly mountain bike trails with artificial jumps and such, and one of those passes within a few feet. I hiked it to tag the summit, then road back down the lookout road, being passed and dusted by the bros’ trucks as they shuttled their full-suspension downhill bikes to the top. I felt that I had exhausted my options for fun in this area.

Blum, Hagan, Bacon

Traverse from Blum


The peaks between Baker and the Pickets were an island of unexplored terrain to me. Bacon Peak in particular had drawn my interest, with its remarkable volume of glaciers for a peak barely over 7000 feet. Cut off from the rest of the range by the Baker River to the north and west, deep Goodell and Bacon Creeks to the east, and the Skagit River to the south, these peaks are difficult to reach, with one high trailhead at Watson Lakes, and other approaches generally being cross-country from below 1000 feet.

Blum Lakes trail

I had initially thought of doing just Bacon, but someone I met mentioned that there were longer options. Looking around the web, I found the Watson-Blum High Route, which runs between the Watson Lakes and Baker River trailheads, connecting four of the area’s high peaks. Most people go south to north to take advantage of the high start, but they also have two cars. With only one of me and one car, I decided to do it as a bike shuttle instead, in which case it made more sense to hike low to high. The whole process took about 17 hours: 15 for the hike and 2 for the bike. I was going fairly hard, made only one significant route-finding error, and skipped Watson Peak, so even going south to north, the traverse would be a significant day.

More trail

After an easy day out of the Watson Lakes trailhead, I locked my bike to itself, set it in some bushes, and drove around to the inlet of Baker Lake. I set my alarm for a punishing 3:15 AM, then tried to get some sleep. I knew I would have to start the off-trail approach by headlamp, but I can do such things at need, and sometimes the faint tread of a climbers’ trail is almost easier to pick out by headlamp. I started out around 4:00, hiking the broad Baker River trail, crossing the bridge, then backtracking south to just north of Blum Creek, where I plunged into the jungle on something path-like.

Baker and Shuksan

I found and lost this path for awhile, making my way around devil’s club, through lesser brush, and over and under deadfall as I approached the valley wall, keeping the creek within hearing. At one point I found a bit of flagging tied uselessly to a tree with no hint of a path nearby; at least it cheered me up by indicating that other humans had passed this way. Cutting back and forth, I eventually found a faint tread as the valley steeped. It rivalled the Crescent Creek approach in obscurity, despite having been in regular use for a long time: I saw both new flagging and old notches in logs. The trail skilfully weaves through cliff-bands lower down, then fades as the angle eases around 4000 feet. The days are getting noticeably shorter, so I made it to more open woods in time to see the morning light on Baker and Shuksan, dimmed by a dark stripe where smoke was drifting over from the rest of the West.

Blum, ledge leading right up high

I found bits of trail as I continued up the broad ridge, skirting the Blum Lakes, then crossing before Lake 5820′ to reach Blum’s northeast ridge. I grabbed some frigid water here, then hurried uphill in the shade, briefly cold between the sweaty low-elevation climb and the long, sunny traverse. I followed the ridge until it got narrow, serrated, and mossy, then dropped down to the east face to crampon up snowfields. There seem to be several routes to Blum’s summit, but an obvious grassy ledge leading right from the upper snowfield to the southwest ridge seemed the easiest. The snow became precarious as it steepened, being neither solid enough for crampon points to stick, nor soft enough to kick deep steps, so I was happy to finally reach rock. My ledge worked wonderfully, depositing me on a broad ridge a short boulder-hop and snow-walk from the summit.

Pickets from Blum

I found the an register can, battered into uselessness and perforated by multiple lightning holes. I suppose it protects the contents from marmots and mountain goats, and the triple-bagged register inside went all the way back to 2012. The summit sees a few parties per year, many doing the traverse. However, Blum is an obscure and hard-to-reach summit, so those who climb it are often doing something interesting. I noted a party continuing to Pioneer Ridge, perhaps via Berdeen Lake and Mystery, and an email correspondent climbing Blum’s north ridge, a 1500-foot buttress separating two lobes of a glacier. I also saw that someone else had signed in earlier in the day, hard to imagine since I had not heard anyone, and did not see fresh tracks in any snowfield.

Hagan spires and glaciers

Looking south, I saw the rest of the day’s objectives from their scenic, glaciated sides, with Watson looking distressingly distant. The views northeast to Baker and Shuksan continued to impress, but the view of the nearby Pickets was spoiled by smoke thick enough to smell. Being in the northwest corner of the country, I have largely been spared smoke so far this summer, but I have experienced brutal smoke in the Cascades from an easterly wind or fires in British Columbia, so my luck will eventually end.

Blum south side

I headed off down Blum’s southeast ridge, finding generally delightful travel on or near the broad ridge. Near a notch, I found and destroyed some cairns leading to the class 3-4 bypass. Popular high routes like the Ptarmigan Traverse are basically trails at this point, and this area felt like it should stay wild awhile longer. A big part of their appeal to me is the constant attention and thought necessary to choose a good path, and I want to preserve that for others. I stayed on the ridge for awhile, contoured right across snow above a large glacial lake, then continued on the ridge past where a spur heads east to Lonesome Peak.

Left bypass ledge

Peak 6800+, anchoring the north end of Hagan’s large glacier, is a more formidable obstacle. Based on others’ online trip reports, most people seem to drop around it to the west. However, I saw a potential ledge to the east and, putting my faith in Goat, followed the hoof-prints, turds, and tufts of hair across generally-safe outward-sloping dirt to a notch. This could easily have stranded me above the Hagan Glacier, but instead I found a series of steep, chossy ramps leading down and left to where I could easily cross the moat. The broad glacier was flat enough that I did not even need crampons to cross it, traversing under Hagan’s northern subpeaks to the col north of its twin summits. From this notch, I got my first view of huge and colorful Berdeen Lake, buried deep in this part of the range and unseen by all but a few adventurous souls.

Hagan true summit

According to both my map and Peakbagger, the true summit is the eastern one, reached via an easy class 2-3 scramble from the notch. However, standing on that point, the other looked to both be higher and have a cairn. It also looked much more challenging, which appealed to me at this point in the day. I sketched my way down the connecting ridge a bit, then dropped onto the right side to traverse into the notch, where I found rap garbage (and me with no knife…). From there some exposed class 3-4 climbing led up the ridge to the summit. Looking back, I can’t say for sure if this one is higher, but it is certainly more worthy.

Hagan glacier

Looking at my map, it seemed like the best route south would descend the snowy valley emanating from between the two summits, then make a descending traverse southwest to the saddle near Lake 4560′. To enter this valley, I returned to the other summit, descended its south ridge a short ways, then cut back northwest down a choss gully to the snow. Once the angle mellowed, I had a pleasant hike and boot-ski to some tarns around 5900′, where I began my descending traverse.

Bacon and Green Lake

This saddle at 4560′ is the lowpoint of the route, in both elevation and fun. As I descended, the brush got higher and thicker, and trees began to appear. The last part was a full-on forest bushwhack with cliffs, with me descending trees and blueberries hand-over hand while fighting for purchase with my worn-out trail runners. I found no sign of a trail, and few useful bits of game trails. Finally emerging at the saddle, I found a clear path leading to a well-used fire ring, which I badly wanted to destroy. Returning to the alpine on the other side was a similar battle, though less steep and vicious. There are two bumps in the ridge leading west of Green Lake to Bacon, each adding about 500 feet of elevation loss, and I resented them in my increasingly hot and tired state. The scenery was hard to beat, with beautiful Green Lake (blue, actually) below and Bacon’s retreating north glaciers ahead, but the heat was brutal, and this is the longest stretch between peaks.

Bacon summit glacier

I stayed mostly on rock climbing Bacon, then cut left on snow to pass between the northern two of its many false summits. Crossing the col, I was confronted by its startling summit glacier, a small, thick cap of ice nestled in a bowl to its northwest. I put on crampons again to make my way up the partly-bare left side, then followed the crest to the small, rocky summit. In addition to its large northeast and small northwest glaciers, Bacon holds a large southeast glacier falling to a lake above Diobsud Creek. Across that valley, another remote ridge leads from Electric Butte south.

The slog home

I returned across the northwest glacier, then began heading out the standard Bacon approach, for which I had fortunately downloaded a track. The first part was logical if painful, losing a bunch of elevation into the head of Noisy Creek. From there it reclimbs the south side, passing under some pinnacles to regain the ridge around 5100′. I would have dismissed this route as a horrid bushwhack if I had not had a track to encourage me, but it is actually not bad, largely climbing open woods and boulder-fields. The trees in some of these woods are impressively goosenecked, testifying to the brutal snowpack they must survive on these steep north-facing slopes.

Gooseneck trees

I was tired and dreading the bike back to the car, but probably would have rallied to tag Watson if I had not screwed up the route here. Finding what I thought was a boot tread on the ridge, I stopped looking at my track for awhile, only to cliff out on a subpeak. Belatedly looking at the track, I saw that the route passed along the south side of the ridge here, side-hilling under the difficulties before returning to the north near Elementary Peak. Demoralized, I retraced my steps, then descended to get back on-route, sliding and cursing as my treadless shoes failed to find any grip on the compacted pine needles. Fortunately the steep, vegetated traverse was dry, and I made it back to the saddle without any mishaps.

Warranty time?

I thought I was nearly “home,” but I was also wearing down. My shoes were beyond done for after a month of hard use (we’ll see if Salomon honors their two year warranty), and my feet had been wet for hours. The final traverse to the trail at Watson Lake was a complicated post-glacial wilderness of valleys, snowfields, and slabs that was a grind in my depleted state. Even the trails were a nuisance, with enough branches leading to campsites that at one point I had to ask some campers how to get out of here. The mosquitoes were also hellish if I stopped for more than five seconds, making me wonder why anyone would camp out here.

I was elated to find my bike where I had left it. I quickly unlocked it, then immediately started riding before the mosquitoes and biting flies got too intense. I stopped several times on the first part of the road to complete my transition to bike mode, making an adjustment, then riding a short distance to escape the bug swarm. The 3000-foot descent to the Baker Dam was much more fun on a bike than in a car, as I could dodge and weave around the potholes and runnels. From there, the ride was just work, pushing half-heartedly to minimize headlamp time, then pedaling listlessly along the dirt road by headlamp. Finally reaching the car, I propped up my bike, threw my stinking shoes on the hood, and almost instantly fell asleep.

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.

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.