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.

Big Sur tour: done

Elkhorn Slough

[by Leonie]

The final day of our tour dawned cold and blue. We knew the atmospheric river of moisture was schedule to descend on the Monterey Peninsula somewhere between 3:00 and 4:00 PM, bringing up to seven inches of rain. The storm was predicted to last at least three days. We ran out of fuel just as the water boiled for tea and coffee, packed our scant bags and pushed the bike up a hill of sand back to pavement.

Before we had pedaled 50 ft, the front shifter cable snapped. Our minds flipped through scenarios — finding a bike shop, calling Leonie’s housemate to rescue us, cursing in frustration — before settling on an elegant solution. We adjusted the limit screws to hold the front derailleur in the middle ring and decided to limp home on seven gears. We had 46 miles, quads of steel, and relatively flat terrain between us and a hot shower. No problem.

We followed a wide boulevard with a generous bike lane to the Monterey Scenic Recreation trail and enjoyed another anomalous southern wind at our backs, blowing us home. At Moss Landing we opted for a scenic detour inland, away from the twin tower power plants and Highway 1’s rush of traffic. Elkhorn Road brought us past the eponymous slough, where the immense sky and a scattered flock of snowy egrets were reflected in a placid mirror of water stretching to the horizon.

We threaded the needle of a pleasant route back to town while avoiding both steep hills and busy streets, arriving home just three hours before the storm hit, and 48 hours before a chuck of Big Sur’s Highway 1 fell into the ocean. Who knows when we will be able to ride that road again- but we are already scheming about our next tandem tour.

[Final stats by Yours Truly. — ed.]

The tour added up to about 375 miles and 27,000 feet of elevating change over 11 days, including one hiking day, two half-days due to weather, and about a full day of dirt. While not much by South American standards, I was pleased by how much ground we could cover in a winter day on a loaded tandem — roughly 45 miles. On the last day, with moderate terrain, good roads, and comfortable temperatures, we traveled almost fifty miles in just over a half-day, suggesting we could accomplish more in more conducive conditions.

Big Sur tour: to Cashagua

Rare snow on the hills

[by Leonie]

Perfect campsite!
We packed quickly for plausible deniability — we’d been camping less than 50 yards from a No Trespassing sign! The chilly air encouraged a brisk pace and oaks, meadows and ranch land rolled by, protected by miles of barbed wire. We resolved to bring wire cutters on our next central coastal bike and camp excursion.

Since Fort Hunter Liggett we’d been passing through forests and savannas dominated by oaks, the most diverse land-based ecosystems in California. Every year oaks drop millions of acorns packed with protein, carbohydrates and fat. These nutrient packages feed a myriad of animals, while others rely on oak flowers, leaves, branches, trunks and roots for food and shelter.

Ventana oak land
About 15,000 years ago, humans began living among oaks in the land modern humans call California. These original settlers shaped and managed the land for thousands of years in a system of mutual care we lack an English word to describe, though “horticulture” comes close. Selective burning, pruning and transplanting protected their homes from catastrophic fires while reducing acorn pests, improving seed germination and opening vistas for better hunting.

Europeans thought they had stumbled upon a pristine wilderness. Policies of removing people from their land, killing them with guns or disease, and outlawing their controlled burns changed the oak woodlands dramatically. In the 21st century California’s oak lands are threatened by sudden oak death, which has decimated over a million oaks in the past 30 years, an invasive beetle, and development. The varied oak habitat we had been passing through for the past three days was a shadow of its pre-Columbian or pre-human self.

Climbing north of the storm
As we discussed oaks and human impact on land, an actual shadow seemed to be descending. Clouds dropped until we felt like we were biking through a moist gray towel. Around mid-morning we passed an elderly GoreTex clad couple out for a walk; they warned us of the imminent storm and lack of camping spots over the next 50 miles. We passed through a landscape of gentrified ranches, mansions set back from the road behind monogrammed gates. The sky continued to darken.

At a crossroads just 20 miles from our previous night’s campsite we turned west on Cachagua Rd. The Esselen had several villages along Cachagua Creek; they called it Xasáuan. Spaniards began settling the area in the 1850s, and a small independent community persists in this remote rugged outpost. We figured they’d be more friendly to dirtbags camping on their lawn than one of the fancy hobby ranchers.

Three or four miles down the winding road we found an unsigned dirt road leading to a clearing. Through the trees we could make out a neighbor’s house about 200 yards distant. A chest high chain link enclosure guarded a pole holding some kind of instruments. On the edge of the clearing Cachagua Creek trickled and sang over rocks. There was a marked absence of threatening signs.

Cachagua Creek feeds into Carmel River, a 36-mile stretch of rills and pools that drains a 255 square-mile watershed. Steinbeck called it a “lovely little river” back in 1945; these days it runs dry every year to slake Monterey Peninsula’s growing thirst. About 20 years ago it was named one of the nation’s ten most endangered rivers. Two years later the Carmel River Watershed Conservancy won a State Water Board grant of almost $200,000 to improve water quality, steelhead spawning conditions, and interagency communication. Their efforts are admirable, but unless California implements meaningful conservation and reuse policies, the threat to the state’s rivers will continue.

Good morning, Carmel!
We decided to settle in and wait out the storm. You could bounce a quarter off the rain fly when we were done setting up the tent. Despite the chill in the air, we knew we could stay warm and dry overnight. After tea and cards, Sean sat on a log by the creek to read while I practiced some vigorous yoga to stay warm and work out the biking aches. Just after 4:00 the temperature dropped as the first rain began to fall.

We retreated to the tent for more cards, reading and tea. Dinner was a home-made dehydrated meal we had put together back in Santa Cruz; we cooked in the vestibule to stay dry and warm the tent. We slept soundly despite waking throughout the night when the rain reached a louder crescendo.

The next morning we lay in the tent giggling and chatting as light began to seep back into the heavy sky. Several times the sky went silent for ten minutes, and then returned with a noise like someone was flinging handfuls of buckshot at the tent. A quick peek outside revealed an inch of hail piled at the tent entrance. We determined that the best course of action was remaining tentbound until the storm had calmed for at least half an hour.

Boredom seemed to be our main problem, but cards, books, breakfast and napping filled the hours quite pleasantly. Sometime around noon we heard birds begin to sing again as the sky lightened. Half an hour later we were packed and rolling again.

[A quick catch-up by Yours Truly — ed.]

We were fortunately riding toward clearer skies down the Carmel River, so the temperatures were bearable. Carmel Valley felt like an unpleasant yuppie enclave of wine tasting shops, though it has been home to celebrities ranging from children’s book author Beverly Cleary, to Leon Panetta, to Maurice White, founder of Soul group Earth Wind & Fire. The first overpriced convenience store would not even allow us to refill our water bottles, though the Shell station was friendlier, not even complaining when we refilled our thermoses from their hot water machine, a big and irrational no-no in Covid times. I resented buying overpriced snacks at these establishments, particularly the former, though “voting” with my meager dollars is irrelevant.

Though we had originally intended to follow Carmel Valley road to Carmel and Highway 1, my offline map suggested crossing Laureles Grade on Highway G-20, and showed that doing so required only slightly more climbing over the ridge leading to the Monterey Peninsula. The road was crowded, but the climb warmed us, the grade moderate, and the view from the summit of the afternoon sun over the Bay cheered us. We descended north into a valley opening east of Monterey, taking Highway 68, staying away from the coast, and skipping the city traffic of Carmel and Monterey.

Camping on this semi-urban part of the coast is always questionable, but we lucked into about the best spot one can hope for. We stumbled onto a broad, closed road near Cal State Monterey Bay, on the edge of an “open space” crossed by a network of dirt roads used by joggers and the occasional homeless person. There we found a flat spot among the colorful ice plant, sheltered by oak brush and manzanita from the approaching storm’s winds. The rush of traffic reminded us that we were no longer in the wilderness, but at least our spot was discreet and of uncertain ownership. We cooked our last home-packed meal, prepared our last breakfast, and resolved to get an early start for a change, determined to finish before the coming major storm.

Big Sur tour: to Arroyo Seco

Road still usable

After a cold and wet night, we woke to slowly-clearing skies and snow on the higher surrounding ridges. Our route back to pavement in the Carmel Valley was steep and rough, so I had worried about the mud making it mostly unrideable, but the soil was fortunately dry enough not to hamper our progress. Still, the switchback climb up to the ridge required pushing the bike up several steeper pitches. Just past our campground, we stopped to investigate an incongruous patch of grass, and found a corroded tank fed by a gushing spring, allaying our water anxiety for the rest of the cold day. We filled all our bottles and bladders, admiring the stark mix of bare rock, distant snow, and charred death around us, then set off north.

Contemplating the apocalypse
It is hard to say whether the road would have been more or less scenic before the fire. After climbing to a narrow saddle around 2800 feet, it makes a long, gently-rolling traverse across a west-facing hillside to another saddle at 2400 feet. Though it has been closed to public motorists since 1996, most still sees some minimal maintenance by the Forest Service for fire access. However the young and precipitous Santa Lucias are hostile to roads at their best, even more so after a fire, and gravity reclaims unmaintained roads within a burn almost as quickly as chaparral does outside one. A suit by the Ventana Wilderness Alliance and others also found that road maintenance damaged the Arroyo Seco watershed below, ensuring that this road will continue to disintegrate for the foreseeable future.

Second disassembly
The spontaneous rockfall we had heard in the night continued, and was slowly reclaiming our road. While it mostly caused only the odd, easily-dodged loose rock on the well-graded roadbed, there were ten or so sections where I was incapable of or reluctant to ride the tandem and we had to push. Only two sections required some disassembly: a large tree that had fallen and partially broken apart, and a larger hillside collapse that had completely covered the road between a mine and a ferny grotto. We navigated the former by pulling the bike and Bob under the trunk separately, the latter by carrying the panniers, then piloting the bike while Leonie wrestled the attached Bob.

Ventana Wilderness is steep
As we made our cold and eerie way north, we slowly emerged from the burn. Blasted hillsides gave way to fingers of blackened tree skeletons on the north slopes, which the fires had burned less thoroughly on their descent. After seeing nothing but birds so far, and few enough of them, we startled a pair of deer, who quickly scampered up the dead slope toward safety and away from water and living vegetation. The snow was slowly melting up high, but it remained cold where we were exposed to the wind, and my hands suffered.

Forested Ventana slopes
From the second saddle, the road drops 1500 feet in about 3.5 miles. After a week of restraining the touring rig, and prior duty on some hilly rides, the misaligned front brake pads were becoming badly worn. That, plus wet ground and cold hands, made the descent, which would have been fairly easy on my normal touring bike, much more engaging. The descent brought us to the Arroyo Seco River, which finally reaches the bedrock of the Santa Lucias, carving a narrow channel connecting swimming holes that would have been tempting in the summer. We met only a solo hiker near one (closed) trailhead, the first person we had seen since the previous afternoon.

Following the cold descent, our legs were stiff and weak on the dirt rollers leading to Arroyo Seco Campground, where we finally rejoined pavement. From there, we descended to Highway G-16 along Piney Creek, then began reclimbing to the divide. Though we had covered few miles, it was getting late, and we were once again entering the land of barbed wire after two days in National Forests. We spotted a couple of National Forest campgrounds on side-roads, but lacked the will for a detour. Thus we found ourselves once again camped at a less-than-ideal spot: fifty yards from the road, near a uselessly muddy stream and a discarded couch, behind an angry and abandoned “private property” sign. At least this time it was flat.