Santa Cruz: it doesn’t suck

The closest I get to surfing

Though I spent years on the California coast before Dr. Dirtbag, I never ventured north of Malibu or south of San Jose. That has changed this winter with my spending significant time in the Santa Cruz area. While I have not been peak-bagging, I spent plenty of time outdoors as I normally do in the winter, engaged in shorter local fitness activities. Santa Cruz is about the same size as Santa Fe and, because it is bounded by the ocean and mountains, anywhere in the city is close to the periphery. The local mountains are low and undramatic, but surprisingly good for staying fit, with 2000 or so feet of relief from the ocean.

The climate, while far from tropical, is strongly moderated by the Pacific Ocean, making it possible to get out year-round. It is damp, though, making temperatures feel much colder than they do in the desert. I run in tights and mitts in the low 40s here, while I would normally wear shorts and thin gloves. Cycling is particularly hard on my hands, and I find myself wearing something more like my cross-country ski gear. It is particularly damp and cold in the redwood groves that follow most drainages, and there is a frequent inversion and occasional fog in the San Lorenzo. One can quickly go from being comfortable in short sleeves in the sun, to being deeply chilled in a “majestic” (i.e. dank and drippy) forest.

Running

The local coast is lined by roads and trails above the sea cliff, and frequently by sandy beaches below, all of which make decent flat running. There is also a network of trails in the surrounding hills, connecting local parks to form a defensive green belt. (Santa Cruz, like Boulder, has set aside surrounding undeveloped land in an effort to freeze itself as its current residents prefer and avoid being swallowed by a larger neighboring city. As it is already separated from San Jose and the Bay Area by mountains, and connected by only a single winding freeway, Highway 17, it is better-situated than Boulder, which is naturally separated from Denver by only grass and cows. Both cities have predictably expensive housing and a slightly cartoonish feel.)

I no longer have the speed I did when I last lived near the Pacific in LA and trained for road races, and doubt I will regain it, but it has nevertheless been fun to work on my flat running form at sea level. Both form and fitness should translate to the mountains in limited ways, and higher-intensity running is an efficient way to get my necessary exercise. And in the highly unlikely event that I race another ultra, I will be well on my way to adapting to that type of muscular and joint stress.

Cycling

I have ridden or raced bikes off and on for most of my life. This has often meant riding a road bike in places where there are only a couple of rides, some of them grim. For example, my normal ride in Houston began with ten straight miles along a busy multi-lane road out of the city, and ended with the same in the opposite direction; at least, on the return, I could judge the day’s pollution by whether or not I could see the skyscrapers. I still rode around 200 miles per week, enough to stay reasonably fit but not to be much good as a racer.

In contrast, Santa Cruz is a road cyclist’s paradise: Highway 1 along the coast has broad bike lanes and bearable traffic, Highland and Summit Roads parallel it along the crest of the hills, and many small residential and rural roads connect them. Thus one can ride loops of various lengths and difficulties, beginning with a climb and ending with a descent to the coast and a return via the coast, usually with a tailwind when headed south. I have so far visited Eureka Canyon, Soquel-San Jose, Mountain Charlie, Hutchinson, Zayante, Bear Creek, and Empire Grade Roads, plus the various roads connecting to Empire including Felton-Empire, Alba, Jamison, and Pine Flat. While a couple of these side roads are popular two-lane highways, many are unmarked and little wider than an asphalt driveway. With generally polite drivers and many fellow roadies, the overall cyclist vibe reminds me a bit of the Alps, though without the high peaks.

There are also both a network of fire roads and extensive single-track in the hills, though I have explored them less on my gravel bike. I have ridden fire roads in Nicene Marks and Henry Cowell, and seen many expensive full-suspension bikes both being ridden and riding on the back of people’s pickup trucks in those places and along Highway 9. One seemingly popular area is a network of bandit trails on the upper UCSC campus, which has been taken over by cyclists in the students’ absence.

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.

Big Sur tour: to Fort Hunter Liggett

Fire-exposed rock

[by Leonie]

Cooing quail pulled us out of peaceful slumber and we enjoyed cold breakfast, hot beverages and our camp chores as they rustled in the trees and grass, going about their own morning rituals. California’s state bird is highly sociable, often hanging out in multi-family coveys and apparently we were camped near one of their favorite hang outs. Their frequent vocalizations were delightful and our temporary presence didn’t seem to interrupt their activities.

The fully loaded trailer and bike handled remarkably well going down the steep hill of our abandoned forest service road. Our destination that day was another abandoned forest service road, some 45 miles distant, that would take us up the east side of the Santa Lucia Range- if we were able to navigate the closed roads and restricted access involved. Clouds darkened the sky; a storm approaching from the west. Our water bottles were almost empty and the next outpost of civilization was about 20 miles away. We set off with some trepidation.

Rain mode
Rolling terrain through oak woodlands under dry skies lightened our mood. A three mile detour brought us to Lockwood, named for Belva Lockwood, the first female candidate for president- she ran in 1884 and 1888. With a population of 379, Lockwood consists of a post office, a community center and a small store. Potato chips and a water spigot were our main interest; we filled water bottles, inhaled 800 calories of salty fried goodness, and pulled on rain gear before setting off into a light drizzle, which quickly developed into slashing horizontal rain. Stories and songs kept us cheerful as we biked through the downpour.

We passed the crossroads of Jolon, less than seven miles from Lockwood but with an average summer temperature 20 degrees cooler. The first European exploration of the Santa Lucia Mountains camped here in 1769, and it’s the setting for John Steinbeck‘s novel To A God Unknown. William Randolph Hearst bought thousands of acres surrounding Jolon in the 1920s and sold it to the US Army in 1942; it’s now part of Fort Hunter Liggett. We saw nothing but a wet crossroads, devoid of life or commerce, but apparently there’s a historic Hacienda designed by Julia Morgan somewhere in the vicinity.

Fort Hunter Liggett beckoned with grassy meadows and stately oaks, gently greening slopes and blissfully traffic free smooth roads. After a 150 miles of barbed wire and No Trespassing signs, a US Army Base looked like welcoming park land. Our route skirted the main business of the base, with occasional armored personnel carriers and a firing range.

“Dangerous” water crossing
We began to pass signs warning of possible road closures due to high water, but two river crossings barely cleared the rims. The first car we encountered warned us of a ranger up ahead who had turned him back, but when we passed the same ranger he made sure we knew the area was closed and was happy to let us continue on our merry way, biking uphill on a ridiculously loaded tandem in the rain. I guess nobody wants to mess with that kind of crazy.

Storms around us
A closed, muddy Memorial Park at the end of the pavement signaled the beginning of our 20 miles through the wilderness. Coordinated rock-hopping river-crossing past a locked gate brought us to the edge of the impact zone of the Dolan Fire, which raged through Big Sur during California’s catastrophic 2020 wildfire summer. One of almost 10,000 fires that incinerated over 4 million acres throughout the state, the Dolan fire burned only 128,000 acres and was allegedly started by a man attempting to cover up five murders. [The case is strange, complicated, and ongoing. — ed.]

We biked up a steep muddy grade through a charred post-apocalyptic hellscape. Thick brown sludge caked the tires and rivulets of churned slurry ran down the road; on the slopes above and below our narrow ribbon of road, bare mineral soil gleamed with moisture beneath blackened tree corpses, their skeletal arms still reaching for the sun though devoid of life. We biked in silent awe, mute witnesses to the impact of water and fire on steep forest.

Island of green
Three miles beyond the locked gate we saw an island of living trees, greenery glistening in the downpour. We pulled into an abandoned campground, where precious flat ground, picnic tables and stacks of firewood beckoned. Everything was soaked and disintegrating; ancient reservations were still pinned to posts, reminders of a distant past when the place probably echoed with the din of campers. We heard only the gentle rain; even birds and squirrels were silent. But the outhouse was open and stocked with fresh toilet paper, the rain abated long enough to set up a cozy dry nest, and we made dinner filled with gratitude at our relative comfort and the chance to view firsthand and up close the aftermath of California’s season of fire.

Big Sur tour: Paso Robles

Rolling hill country

It was surprisingly warm where we woke away from the ocean’s moderating influence, so we got a relatively early start finishing the climb toward Paso Robles. My pleasure at riding in just shorts and a jersey quickly turned to chills as we dropped down the other side, though, as the valleys east of the Santa Lucias seem to gather significant cold air overnight. We belatedly layered up, and met several groups of roadies riding the opposite direction in tights and booties.

Moro Bay from camp
After the initial descent, we passed through gentle valleys and rolling hills, entering central California wine country. I am not sure how the terrain is supposed to look, but it was dry and dead as we rode through, dead yellow grass interspersed with trimmed and leafless vines. Despite the abundant civilization, we began to think about water scarcity, since unlike in the more hospitable wine country of Argentina, neither vineyards nor passing motorists would be likely to fill our bottles if we asked.

We decided to stop at a store in Paso Robles, our last major civilization for the next few days, to fill up on water and get a few last-minute necessities. My clipped hair stays clean (or at least clean-looking) for a week or more in the winter, but Leonie wanted to try a recipe for “dry shampoo” made from corn starch and baking soda. The idea is to (1) rub the powder into your hair, (2) let it absorb the grease, and (3) comb it out. Steps (1) and (2) worked as advertised, but step (3) was only partially successful, leaving her hair clean but effectively dyeing the roots gray for the next several days. Online suggestions to change the natural dye color with turmeric, cinnamon, or cocoa seemed singularly ill-advised.

Pomegranate!
Clean-ish and well-stocked, we left Paso Robles on a country road toward Lake Nacimiento and San Antonio Reservoir. Leonie’s plant knowledge once again came in handy, as we soon found some wild (or “feral”?) pomegranates growing along the road. We picked a few for immediate consumption, and a few more to add color and flavor to our breakfast, then continued climbing back into the hill country. (Aside: our standard breakfasts were probably my favorite meal, a cold mix of mainly home-dried apples, granola, oats, and chia put out to soak overnight. The pomegranate seeds added color and a bit of tang to our two store-bought breakfasts of granola and oats.)

The two artificial lakes fill their eponymous river valleys, so the road climbs over one ridge, into the Nacimiento Valley, then up another ridge between it and the San Antonio River before continuing northwest near the latter. The vineyards gave out not far from Paso Robles, but the country remained sparsely populated and mostly private, with barbed wire and aggressive signage on both sides of the road. As is often the case in such territory, the frequency of American flags and comical diesel trucks increased; we even had one redneck shout “get off the road!” as he roared past, something I have not had happen to me on a bike in decades. California contains multitudes.

Nice pastoral riding
Though the locals were less than friendly, the riding here exceeded our expectations. When planning the trip, I had though of the route east of the Santa Lucias, between Cambria and the high National Forest roads, as a commute through dull inland terrain. However, while it would probably have been tedious on foot, it was enjoyable by bike. The scale of the terrain is just about right for touring speed, with near horizons occasionally opening to views of more distant peaks, and shallow valleys less than 1000 feet deep. The road winds along creeks and over gentle ridges, passing through open meadows passed gnarled, widely-spaced oaks. Though the area is less than a day’s drive from the megacities of southern and central California, and has been farmed and ranched for over a century, it feels soothing and spacious, distant from the cramped coast.

As the sun sank and our nethers became increasingly sore, our standards for what counted as a “campsite” sank, until any flat spot at least a bit off the road and not behind barbed wire would qualify. The hostility to passers-through dimmed my view of my fellow man — at least one property had a “protected by the second amendment” sign. Finally, near sunset, we found what might have been an old Forest Service road, branching off a ranch road warning that, contrary to how the law works, even “federal agents” were not allowed to enter. While I waited by the tandem, Leonie scouted the road, returning to say that, although it ended at an abandoned-looking RV, it was out of sight of the road and had some reasonably flat spots. We pushed the rig up the grade, then disassembled it under an oak. The area was not particularly flat, but at least it was not raining. We set up our tent near a covey of quail, keeping track of each other with their quiet “woop-woop” calls, and looked forward to getting back on government land.

Big Sur tour: Cambria

Marine terraces

We woke in the coast’s southernmost redwoods, and I almost enjoyed their familiar damp chill in anticipation of a warmer ride south and then inland. After a short ride, we stopped to check out Salmon Creek Falls, a popular tourist spot just a few hundred yards from the road. Judging by the amount of dry moss, the stream was lower than usual, but there was still a pleasant cascade into a pool. The surrounding rock is something blackish, easily polished by thousands of tourist hands and feet to a dangerous slickness.

Salmon Creek Falls
Returning to the tandem, we made one more small climb, then descended to the broadening coastal plain for the rest of the ride to Cambria. The Santa Lucia Mountains, which rise directly from the sea around Big Sur, are here gentler and separated from the coast by a marine terrace that holds flatter roads and placid cows. Rocky cliffs and sea stacks give way to coves and longer beaches, a seasonal resting place for migrating elephant seals, which give birth and mate again in the winter. Before we even saw them, we heard a male’s challenge over the rush of passing cars and crash of waves, a rattling call something like a machine gun or a truck’s Jake brake.

Larger colony
The beach is straight out of a nature documentary, with hundreds of seals side-by-side on the beaches, seagulls flying and walking among them to eat whatever detritus they produce. I found the scene both impressive and utterly grim. The seals are massive air-breathing sacks of blubber — females around 1500 pounds, males up to 5000, and newborn pups around 50. At sea, they can swim thousands of miles and feed enough to accumulate blubber, but they are tied to the surface by their lack of gills, and unable to reproduce or rest. On land they can mate and nurse their young, and the adults are too large to become prey, but they cannot hunt, and can move only with obvious effort, pulling with their flippers and rippling their suet just far enough to be above the waves.

Guarding the harem
Once there, they remain mostly immobile to save precious calories, flipping sand over themselves. The females nurse, bicker, and are occasionally squished by the much larger males in perfunctory copulation. The dominant males “guard” their harems by mostly lying nearby, occasionally expending the energy to engage in savage fights, roaring and biting each other in the neck. The beta males either stew in helpless sexual frustration, or occasionally make half-hearted attempts to mate with indifferent females while the alphas are distracted by their battles. Like all the ways in which genes replicate at the limits of animal survival, it is as remarkable as it is grim.

Elephant seal caption
In an hour or so of watching, we were fortunate enough to watch a protracted fight between two males at one beach, and to see hundreds of females and dozens of males at close range at another. Seal-seeing complete, we continued riding down the coast to Cambria, a tourist town at the intersection of Moro Bay and central California wine country. I would normally have little luck anywhere I was so out of place, but Leonie’s outgoing nature helped win over the locals, who directed us to the normal grocery store and a cheap-ish Mexican place.

Sunset from highway camp
We were thinking of taking the Santa Rosa Creek Road inland, but a local cyclist informed us that it would be both longer and unpleasantly steep on a fully-laden tandem, convincing us to simply take Highway 46 instead. From where we left Highway 1 south of town, we had around 1600 feet to climb to a pass. There was not enough daylight remaining to finish the climb, but we had time to do most of the work before setting up camp. Camping spots were unfortunately limited, however: we were entering the land of open fields, private property, and barbed wire with few or no public side-roads.

After dismissing one disused road to an antenna, we settled on camping on a flat part of the right-of-way, fifty yards off the shoulder and just outside someone’s fence. Half the horizon was soothing, with grassy and sparsely-wooded hills rolling down to Moro Rock and Bay. The other half was a highway climb, with trucks changing gears and cars revving their engines. We focused our attention on the better half, cooked dinner, and apparently looked too harmless and/or exhausted to harass as we slept.

Big Sur tour: Andrew Molera and Redwood Gulch

Molera surf

[Leonie will be writing some posts about our shared adventures, including this one. They will include her byline. — ed.]

In 1986, Martin Luther King Jr became the first modern private citizen to be honored with a federal holiday. Though it was created in 1986, several southern states promptly combined it with a holiday commemorating Robert E. Lee and Arizona even rescinded it! In 2000 all 50 states finally observed the third Monday in January as MLK Day.

Point Sur lighthouse
For us, MLK Day just meant a lot of traffic down the scenic Big Sur Highway. We decided to wait the day out with a hike in the balmy 70 degree January weather. A wrong turn out of Andrew Molera State Park led us to an enchanted meadow ringed with oaks where we were delighted to find picnic tables, a functioning spigot, and clean porta potties. After rinsing some clothes and setting them to dry on our enormous wheeled laundry rack, we set off up the trail.

Molera beach
We crossed the burbling Big Sur River and climbed through oaks draped with lacy lichen to a windswept ridge without seeing a single person. We rambled along a ridge cloaked in dense, brushy, and highly flammable chaparral. About a thousand feet above sea level we crossed into a stand of majestic redwoods, clinging to the moisture of a creek as they climbed the otherwise dry hills.

A panorama of wild surf stretched before us when we stopped for snacks before the descent. The heaving glittering ocean beckoned so we paused only briefly before starting down the steep eroded trail. Yucca, Yerba Santa, and Indian paintbrush grew on the trail margins; biological diversity is astounding where Southern and Northern California meet. Beyond the trail lay a dense snarl of prickly impenetrable brush: cross-country travel leads to blood and frustration in the Santa Lucia Mountains.

We crossed a mosaic of driftwood to arrive at a remote beach, where we found crashing surf and a gauntlet of swirling white water. We settled for standing ankle deep on the edge of the sea, watching waves crash, seagulls whirl, and sand erode from under our feet.

Driftwood logjam
The hike back took us along a coastal bluff, where sweeping vistas alternated with tunnels of brush. As we neared the parking lot we started crossing paths with more people, so we ducked down a side trail to avoid Covid exposure.

During the hike we talked about returning to the enchanted meadow one day to camp; when we returned to our rig at 3:30 PM to find the place abandoned we thought: why not tonight? The third day of a tour isn’t the usual time to take a mellow hike, but we were delighted to laze in the sun, read books, and drink tea while deer browsed on the edge of the clearing. Though our campsite wasn’t technically legal, the ranger who drove by twice the next morning gave us no trouble. Either we cast a cloak of invisibility or they just didn’t care. We packed, refilled our water bottles, and continued south.

Coastal rocks
We rolled down the Big Sur coast, pushed by a gentle tailwind, watching waves crash into jagged cliffs, spewing foam into the sparkling blue sky. We crossed improbable bridges, suspended hundreds of feet over trickling creeks. Traffic was blissfully infrequent and we often took the full lane for the sheer joy of banking into turns on the winding ribbon of asphalt clinging to the edge of the continent, between mountains and the wide sea.

Pico Blanco
The 140-mile long Santa Luca Range extends from Carmel in the north to the broad marine terraces of San Luis Obispo County in the south. With warm dry summers and mild Mediterranean winters, snow is rare so alpinists tend to overlook these mountains. But they form the steepest coastal slope in the contiguous US, rising from the sea in sheer cliffs cut by narrow creeks and rivers, never more than 11 miles from the ocean. Cone Peak, at 5,158 feet, is just three miles from the heaving Pacific; it’s the highest peak in proximity to the ocean in the Lower 48.

We passed the trailheads for Pico Blanco and Cone Peak without pausing, our climbing lust tempered by the atmospheric river of moisture predicted to hose California’s central coast in a week, and the hundreds of miles we’d need to cover to get home dry. Between a paper map and downloaded Caltopo we couldn’t quite figure out how to access some of the trailheads anyway. “No Trespassing” signs bristled at infrequent driveways and barbed wire lined long stretches of highway. Over 500,000 acres of Big Sur are protected by various state and federal agencies; they receive millions of visitors a year. The 1500 people lucky enough to own land along what painter Francis McComas called the “greatest meeting of land and water in the world” guard their privacy.

Old drinking fountain
Poet Henry Miller, who haunted the Big Sur coast during the 40s and 50s, wrote: “I have the very definite impression that the people of this vicinity are striving to live up to the grandeur and nobility… of the setting. They behave as if it were a privilege to live here, as if it were by an act of grace they found themselves here. The place itself… engenders a humility and reverence not frequently met with in Americans.” We were stunned into reverent silence and occasional bursts of song by the unfolding beauty all around us.

To our left rose steep chaparral cloaked hills and valleys, to the right were cliffs hundreds of feet tall dropping towards crashing waves and the vast placid expanse of the Pacific. Between these geographical barriers, the indigenous people of the Big Sur Coast, the Esselen, developed distinct cultural and linguistic patterns. One of the least numerous bands of California Natives, in close proximity to two missions, they retreated to the rugged interior when confronted by the advance of Spanish colonization, only filtering down to ranches and towns in the 1840s.

Almost 200 years later, they are finally stewards of their homeland again. In 2020, the Esselen tribe closed escrow on 1200 acres along the Little Sur River, where they hope to tend the majestic redwoods and enormous condors that call this land home. “It is with great honor that our tribe has been called by our Ancestors to become stewards of these sacred indigenous lands once again,” Tribal Commissioner Tom Little Bear Nason told CNN.

In the afternoon, winds shifted and we found ourselves battling a fierce south west wind. The famed Santa Ana winds impeded cheerful progress and we labored up each climb, desperately scanning the roadside for any feasible camping. Barbed wire and dense chaparral returned our gaze.

No, officer, not camping…
Cresting a hill, we spotted a band of lush greenery clinging to a narrow creekbed. Redwood Gulch holds some of the southernmost redwoods in the world. Sequoia sempiverens, or coast redwoods, grow from southwestern Oregon to the grove where we camped, never more than 50 miles from the ocean, from sea level to almost 3000 ft. They are some of the oldest and the tallest trees on the planet, and a worthy arboreal objective for the winter alpinist; we had earlier climbed an old growth tree in Santa Cruz that Chris Sharma used to play around on. Redwoods once covered over 2 million acres; after the ravages of clearcutting fueled by the internal combustion engine and tax breaks, fewer than 120,000 acres of redwood forest remain.

We wrestled the bike a short ways off the road and carried the rest of our gear across a dry creek bed to a flat tent platform sheltered by towering trees where the Santa Ana winds became a distant memory. A spring fed creek burbled up canyon. We set up camp and performed our evening chores in hushed awe before settling into dreamless sleep beneath the ancient giants.

Big Sur tour: to Big Sur Lighthouse

Cliffs and sea stacks

We woke to waves hitting the jetty and wet sand on all surfaces outside our tent, and quickly packed up to hide our night of flagrant law-breaking. We would spend the next few days shaking and brushing the sand out of every crevice, but at least the fog was dissipating, auguring a warmer day. After suffering a bit more Highway 1 — calmer early on a weekend morning — we turned off on Molera Road, then rediscovered the bike route on Nashua and Monte Roads. Soon thereafter, we discovered that the Monterey Bay Coastal Trail begins in the fields along Del Monte Boulevard, far from both the coast and Monterey, and were grateful for the well-paved segregated path despite the lack of traffic.

The path crossed and recrossed the highway on its way through Marina, then paralleled it along the Ford Ord Dunes State Park, a former military base that has become a protected of area of sand being overrun by colorful and invasive ice plant. Oddly, there are two bike paths in this section, and we unfortunately found ourselves on the one closer to the highway, while most others used the one closer to the dunes. The paths eventually merged in the outskirts of Monterey, where the tents of the homeless began to reappear. They are common in Santa Cruz and, I gather, the rest of the Bay Area, and seeing them again made me realize how accustomed I had become to their omnipresence.

Some red flowers
The Coastal Trail turns into a beach-walk through Monterey, teeming with tourists on a holiday weekend, and we were driven to pull up our COVID masks as I snaked the tandem through the oblivious pedestrians, dogs, and other cyclists. Monterey Bay, sheltered from the Pacific swell, is mostly lined by sandy beaches bounded by the collapsing cliffs of marine terraces, perfect for seaside commerce and recreation. Continuing around the Monterey Peninsula, we observed the gradual transition from this protected shore to one battered by the ocean’s full force. The consistent sand slowly turned to small coves separated by rocks, then bare rock and sea-stacks which broke the waves in unpredictable sprays of foam. We stopped for a cartoonishly California lunch of avocado on bread on the coast next to some red flowers, with passers-by in their winter t-shirts and the occasional vintage Volkswagen.

It rolls
Leonie had previously cut past the peninsula on Highway 1, but had heard good things about 17 Mile Road around the coast. While longer and slower, this route proved far superior to the city slog. Passing through the exclusive communities of Asilomar and Pebble Beach, it winds between the sea and exclusive golf courses, and allows only limited car traffic. This pleasant bike route ends in the exclusive but less pleasant Carmel-by-the-Sea, whose residential streets were a parking lot filled with weekend beach-goers. We regained Route 1 here, which had somewhere turned from a divided highway to a two-lane road. Though the weekend traffic was heavy, drivers were generally polite and slow, mostly sightseers rather than sports car enthusiasts.

Riding the coast
The road south of Carmel is justifiably famous, winding across steep ridges and deep canyons along the beachless coast. This was once one of the most remote places in California, and largely remains so today, connected to the state’s megacities by only a single road that is regularly washed out and closed. It was built from north to south over the course of eighteen years in the 1920s and ’30s, and this progress can be seen from a bike by the dates stamped into each of the many bridges. The most famous, Bixby Bridge, had caused a tourist traffic jam when we were there, but we were able to pass on our bike, then pull off on the narrow shoulder for photos.

Bixby Bridge
Camping was again a problem: there is no legal camping or overnight parking along the coast road, and even if we had wanted to pay, the state parks were all closed for COVID. We had hoped to take a side-trip up the Old Coast Road to hike Pico Blanco, but either our map or overreaching landowners misled us, and the road’s supposed northern terminus at the Little Sur River was angrily “POSTED NO TRESPASSING.” We missed it the first time, backtracked down a hill, then I bushwhacked down to take water from the Little Sur before reclimbing a short hill and continuing toward Point Sur.

Sunset near camp
Point Sur, a 300-foot knoll on a marine terrace, was noted by George Vancouver in 1793 and Spanish mariners before him. Its lighthouse was completed by the U.S. Lighthouse Service in 1889, over forty years before the coast highway, to protect shipping on this notoriously dangerous stretch of coast. It remains an active lighthouse, and is also open to guided tours in non-pandemic times. However, both the lighthouse and the small surrounding park were closed when we visited. Fortunately, we found a side-road just past the park where we could turn off and camp under some pines next to a fence. The spot was not quite flat, but at least it was not sandy, both traffic and nearby cows quieted soon after sunset, and no authority figures thought it worth the effort to harass us for our trespass.

Big Sur tour: to Moss Landing

Beach camping!

The days were growing imperceptibly longer, but it was still the heart of winter, and the lack of snow in the Sierra Nevada made a visit to the high mountains unappealing. However, with the same dry spell extending to the Big Sur coast, conditions were right for a short bike tour. I had never visited either the coast or the neighboring Santa Lucia Mountains, so Leonie and I seized upon a weather window for an 11-day loop down the coast to Cambria, then back up through the mountains.

I had bike toured before in the southern Sierra and Andes, while she had done much more in Ireland, Iceland, Cuba, and the Mountain West, but most of this had been solo. We briefly debated taking individual bikes, but quickly realized that riding the tandem would be feasible and probably more fun. Considering our existing gear and our 30-year-old $400 tandem (thanks, Terry!), we determined that between Leonie’s front panniers and my Bob trailer, we could carry camping and hiking equipment plus a week food. A quick drive around the neighborhood with the unloaded tandem-Bob showed that it was at least somewhat road-worthy — good enough!

We made a week’s worth of meals from Leonie’s dried food pantry the night before, put out some pseudo-kimchi for our return, then headed south along the Monterey Bay shortly after noon, hoping to camp… somewhere. The weather was sunny and pleasant as we wound through town, trying to avoid major hills and failing to do so around Capitola. A steel tandem with a trailer and around 80 pounds of food and gear has a lot of momentum, which can be problematic going both up and down. The rig slows to a crawl almost immediately going up, but I learned to shift to the lowest gear quickly, conserving my anaerobic strength for where it was truly necessary. Going down, the old caliper brakes proved to have enough stopping power, and the bike’s sheer length and bulk seemed to prevent the trailer-induced speed wobbles that had occasionally terrified me in South America.

Long, but not a train
The Pacific Coast bike route is mostly signed, but we lost the signs somewhere south of town in some farmland. We briefly explored some decommissioned railroad tracks, wound through a neighborhood, missed a right turn, and ended up at a gas station on Highway 1. Fortifying ourselves with potato chips (one of the best things about bike touring is the guilt-free garbage food), we rode past the “no bikes or pedestrians” sign onto the divided highway, figuring that no cop would waste his time stopping a confused couple on a ridiculous tandem, who clearly would rather be riding anywhere else than on a highway.

Moss Landing power plant
Nearing Moss Landing, we descended into the double estuary of the Pajaro and Salinas Rivers and their cold fog. The day quickly turned from pleasant and sunny to frigid and damp, which combined with the constant truck traffic and lack of obvious camping to put me in an anxious mood. At the first opportunity, we pulled into Moss Beach, riding past the indistinct masts in a harbor and a long line of parked cars and signs making it clear that one should not walk in most places, and most certainly should not camp in any. So of course we pushed the tandem under the “no walking” rope and set up our tent in a depression hidden from the surfers and beach-walkers.

Camping on the beach sounds picturesque or romantic in the abstract, but in practice it is mostly just cold and gritty. We tried to keep the sand out of the tent and our bags as much as possible, but inevitably some snuck inside clinging to our socks and every other damp bit of gear. Dinner came early, and sleep soon after despite the lighthouse, crashing surf, foghorn, and vague threat of punishment for our flagrant law-breaking. Waking in the middle of the night, I realized we had camped across from the power plant, whose lights in the fog reminded me of the city in Blade Runner. It was an unfortunately urban start to a wilderness bike adventure, but our hastily-assembled gear had performed well, and the scenery would only improve.