Sunday, July 5, 2020

Trans North California 2020

Mendocino Woodlands, one of my favorite parts of the ride 

In the Mendocino Woodlands

The Trans North California bikepacking route, developed by Doug Frederick, is a 600km route from the Nevada/California border to the Pacific Ocean in Mendocino (about 200km longer than the Tour de Los Padres). TNC Homepage 
My last ride on the full route was in 2015, so it was time for a return - especially since there won't be any bike riding in Europe this year (Now would be the month to ride across Germany, a route I really like: Trans Germany

Good time windows to ride the full Trans North California route are elusive. The route starts in Verdi (near Reno) and climbs up into an area just a bit north of Truckee that has very high annual snowfall. Before June, the mountains are likely  impassable with snow. The middle section is near sea level and average day temperature in the central valley 35 C (96 F) in the summer. So October/November, when peak temperatures are down and there isn't snow in the mountains yet? That used to be Doug's plan, but it didn't work reliably because California's third annual season is fire:  
In 2018, the Ranch Fire was blazing through Mendocino National Forest in October and burned burned 1600 km2 (~400,000 acres) along the route (and further east and north, the Camp Fire destroyed the town of Paradise at the same time). In 2017, 2 smaller fires suddenly popped up along the route in October and also led to closure/evacuation orders. 

June seemed promising this year with moderate temperatures even in the central valley. My trusted steel Niner has been put to pasture, even the third fork has been rebuilt a few times and yet doesn't work great, wheels were on the last leg. I bought a used titanium Seven and I love it. Feels very similar to the steel Niner or Mariachi (of which we have 2), but is built up with much nicer components and also a bit lighter. Still the old-fashioned rear spacing (135mm) and I don't give up my front derailleur either (so continue running 2x10). 

At the beginning of the route at the Nevada/California border. 

There was a group start and race this year as well Trackleaders: transnorcal20, but I started on my own on an afternoon. I also no longer have a Spot tracker, gave that up a few years ago because I really dislike that company. I was briefly forced 
by family members to re-subscribe and that only caused additional annoyance, so I never will become another Spot customer. 

The route starts with an immediate climb, and not an easy one. It isn't that long, it isn't that steep, it isn't that high up in the mountains. But still not easy. Maybe because I am not acclimatized and it goes to the highest points of the total route right then. 

Around Stampede Reservoir, early on the route

The first few hours are mainly dirt road riding, but rocky and loose, a recipe for saddle sores (caused initially by chafing) and numb hands. I started in the afternoon because I wanted to camp still in the high mountains and because I remember that the first day of the route is hard on hands and bottom, so better to spread that out. The Eastern Sierra stretch is not my favorite terrain, dry, and very similar to Southern California mountains. Much of the afternoon is on Henness Pass Road, with a few detours in between. 

When I reached Henness Pass, clouds were coming in and it got surprisingly cold. I put on all my layers and this was still afternoon - but now came a road descent to Jackson Meadows. At Jackson Meadows, the sun was out again and I warmed up. 

Jackson Meadows Reservoir

At Jackson Meadows Reservoir, which is at my back. The Yuba river fills and empties it.  

Last time I filtered water from the reservoir, which is a bit awkward because the Sawyer water filter system works better with a flowing source. Now I noticed that there were several campgrounds that had piped water. It wasn't clear why they were closed, no covid signs, so it may still have been the annual winter closure why the gates were locked. But the water hydrants were working. I took that as a good sign and went around the reservoir and stayed on the far end for the night. Compared to the planned wild camping, this was very luxurious: Piped water, picnic table, fire ring, bear-proof metal storage for food. Probably a very crowded area as soon as the gates are opened, but that night there was just me. 

The next morning was lovely, the first longer climb is still early in the morning when it is cool. 
Crossing the not-so-mighty Middle Yuba river. Not North or South or East or West or Upper or Lower, just the Middle.

By starting mid-day and camping at Jackson Meadows, I reach one of the highlights of the whole route still fresh and can enjoy the lovely trails around Forest City.  
Smooth flowing single track before Forest City, can't find better trails that that

Those trails are always worth riding

The Forest City trails end with a climb back up to Henness Pass road and the next 100km will be trending downhill for a net loss of 1500m into the central valley.
Bullards Bar Reservoir

I had no good strategy for the central valley and was concerned about the heat. But the last weather forecast I saw put a nail into it: 41 C (107 F) and there was no way I would even try to ride. Kathy picked me up and instead of camping I stayed in an airconditioned hotel room in Davis. She shuttled me to the other side the next morning. 

Willow Creek Trail, a motorcycle route, but smooth flowing forest trail, in the Mendocino National Forest

Eel River

Lovely single track around Lake Mendocino

Anya joined me on the other highlight of the route, which is the last 35 mile stretch from Comptche to Mendocino. The final stretch is easily underestimated because it is all at low elevation and short. However, there are many sharp ups and downs, mostly single track. Those 35 miles are slow and take about 5 hours of riding time. I really think it is worth camping just before them than trying to push through in the evening or even at night. Many riders seem to skip some or even most of the section because they just want to be done (the direct route from Comptche to Mendocino is just about 15 miles pavement miles). 

The real route is much better than staying on pavement. There is a private forest owned by the Conservation Fund shortly after Comptche. Doug got permission to use it. This year, there was a change because of scheduled logging in some parts of the forest. But the alternative was maybe even better and another highlight that deserves to be documented: The road in the Conservation Fund forest ends at the Big River and there is thick vegetation along the river. Usually hard to find your way and in any event would involve bushwhacking. But Doug already did all the bushwhacking for us, a freshly cleared trail across Big River:

Freshly cleared trail!

No bushwhacking needed on our end to cross the Big River
Big River isn't really THAT big. 

What surprises me about TCF forest is the similarity to Germany. Much of the riding on the TransGermany feels like riding the TCF forest roads. 

Then comes a maybe half hour climb out of the TCF  forest and on the single tracks in the redwoods (the Mendocino Woodlands).  

Lots of steep ups and downs

The Woodland forest has a very magical feel to it. It also can be very confusing. This was my third time there and the first time I actually found exactly all the trails that Doug had planned. 
After puttering around at the bottom, there is another hard climb at Manly Gulch. Just about 300 m gain, but hard 300m. On top, you need to make the right turn (namely right). I have missed that before... But a right turn connects to paved Little Lake Road, which goes to Mendocino. Many riders have given up here and continued on the road to Mendocino. The intended route is a bit trickier as it goes off the road quickly, first some trails to the right, then to the left (we got lost briefly there again). If you are tired, hungry, thirsty, best to stay on the road. The trail is mildly technical, many sharp kicks, and on the descent some very steep sections (in fact, so steep that I decided to walk). 

Once down at the bottom, in fact very close to where we came by an hour or two earlier, we pick up the river trail for another hour along Big River into Mendocino.  

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Years 6 of the Tour de Los Padres Bikepacking Route

Boulder Canyon Trail is HARD work going up
Boulder Canyon Trail is a hard climb from Ozena!

The Tour de Los Padres, a multi-day bikepacking route in Southern California scouted by Erin Carroll has moved from being a newcomer to an established event. 2020 is its 6th year! I wrote up reports for the first two years, but not since. 2014 TDLP report  2015 Second TDLP
Until this year, it was a point-to-point bikepacking route from Frazier Park to Santa Barbara mostly through the Los Padres National forest (with excursion into the Carrizo Plain and the Temblor Range). For 2020, Erin created a 400+ km loop. Los Padres 2020 loop  

Covid-19 ended any plans for a group event or grand depart for 2020. In fact, during the most promising time, the "shelter in place" order discouraged any travel that would require going to stores. However, backcountry trails and camps were open and Obin and I went for an overnighter to check out the new route parts in clockwise direction from Frazier Park to Santa Barbara. 

New Trails for 2020

There was still a lot of snow in April and we did not go to the top of Mt Pinos (in any event, not a new trail, but a great single track). Even the paved road to Mt Pinos was closed at the bottom. 

Instead, we took the horse trail, connected with Lockwood Valley road, and then onto the dirt roads/trail that were new to us. The nice surprise was that the gates to the dirt roads were locked, no motorized traffic. That presumably was still the winter closure (there were no Covid signs or alerts anywhere in that area). In any event, the time of year to do this stretch is before it is opened to ATVs, which is probably May 1. 

Lockwood Creek
Lockwood creek, shortly afterwards starts a very steep rocky climb, the Miller Jeep Trail

Overall a fairly rocky stretch with very steep ups and downs and we took a break at the top. This whole section is open to motos at other times of the year, so not smooth single track but rough jeep trail.  

I liked the second half a lot, the Yellowjacket Trail. It is a surprise, looks like there is no way out without substantial climbing, but then there is a hidden way. Also plenty of water around here at this time of year even though this has the feeling of a dry section otherwise. Still slow going, but it isn't long before we get spit out onto Lockwood Valley road and that is a long pavement stretch, up to Ozena Fire Station. At the fire station, we get off onto real hiking-type single track, the Boulder Canyon Trail. It starts nice, but becomes a very tough push. Unfortunately, we also managed to start this in the afternoon on a fairly warm day. 
Up Boulder Canyon Trail

Break time, which is needed as this climb takes several hours! I suspect it is the single hardest climb on the route in the clockwise direction. Even though it looks green, water is getting sparse. Very different from the previous stretch, which looks dry and yet has water everywhere. There is water at the bottom in the creek, but then it gets sparse. There is supposedly McGuire spring part way up and not far from the trail, but friends who went hiking a few weeks later said it was terrible (we didn't look for it ourselves). 

The top had snow, but no water. This connects to Reyes Peak and there is a road. The car parking campgrounds were closed, here because of Covid rather than seasonal closure. It was getting dark and very windy. And after a hot afternoon, now we were cold! We dropped down a bit to Chorro Springs, which was more sheltered and also had water. No longer flowing, just a pool, but the water was still fine. Certainly good enough for the night.
Camping at Chorro Grande

But we rolled down the Chorro Grande trail early in the morning to have breakfast at Oak, which has better water - a nice running creek. 
Chorro Grande trail early in the morning

Chorro Grande Trail

Chorro Grande ends on Highway 33. We saw some cars parked there, but only one hiker near the road. Otherwise, we hadn't seen anybody since leaving pavement the previous afternoon. While this is a long stretch on a road, it also goes very fast this direction (presumably a little bit slower the other direction, but it wouldn't be much of a climb) and it was pretty in the morning and almost traffic-free. 

Near Rose Valley, the climbing starts again. Not easy, but nothing like Boulder Canyon. 

Eventually, we are up on Nordhoff Ridge and then comes the spectacular descent into Ojai, mostly Gridley Trail

The afternoon got somewhat frustrating. It was an unusually hot day, somehow we had picked about the hottest day in April and in one of the hottest sections of the route. Just getting around Ojai (we didn't go into the town, but stayed around the trails around it) was tough - and I also managed to bend my derailleur. It got worse.

Our plan was to camp in the upper Santa Ynez area and the next morning do Romero to Santa Barbara and get picked there. There is a paved road to the Matilija trailhead, but as we got there, a grumpy local yelled at us, claiming this is closed to bicycles and there is no way through. Tempers were running high there (temperature and Covid?), he was also complaining about cars being parked, people in the creek. As we stood there (I also tried to straighten out my derailleur), two sheriff cars arrived. They waved friendly at us, apparently these two cyclists weren't the problem (it might have been nude bathers?), but we decided to better get away from there and returned on pavement to get picked up in Ojai a day early. 

So not entirely successful, but still good to be out during strange times. 

Friday, July 3, 2020

Catching up on 2019 Tour de Los Padres ride report

In the Carrizo Plain 

The Tour de Los Padres route is never easy and funky weather in 2019 made a diverse route even more unusually diverse. 3 days of drying out in heat, 1 day of cold soaking. The average would have been great! But the variation less so. I got to SB around 7 pm on Monday, very cold and wet, just a day after I had been wishing for cold and wetness while counting miles for shade and water at Chokecherry. 

As in previous years, the main route was a point-to-point, starting in Frazier Park and ending in Santa Barbara and going through the Carrizo Plain. I joined the group start, or at least the shuttle to Frazier Park and the group dinner the night before. However, I don't like to stay in a motel, nor in town, so I tend to climb up the dirt road on the backside of Mt Pinos at night and camp on top. I don't roll back down to town in the morning for the group start, though, and according to Erin as a consequence declares me to "hold the record for the most course deviations over the last 6 years, while never actually having to "bail out"!  
The fast riders pass me usually around Ventucopa - as Brian Lucido and Gregg Dunham did this year. Oh, here they come already (at the Pistachio Company in Ventucopa, the green bike is mine):
No fooling around Brian, Gregg is just behind you. 
No fooling around here, Gregg. Brian already left. 

The Pistachio Company is the last reliable water for a long, long time. In fact, it wasn't until about 20 hours later that I found water again, then a rather unattractive cow trough. 

On I roll, up on Highway 33 until Erin finds a very funky way to get into the Carrizo Plain. Not the regular route (which would be annoying: longer on a busy highway, then a dirt road), no, something involving fence hopping, hike a bike, then a harder climb (but certainly worth it). I was wondering where Blake Bockius is, usually he is with the front pack. But this is a hot day, which slows down old people and Blake is almost as old as I am. Sure enough, it wasn't until the Carrizo Plain, seeminly hours later (but maybe just one) that he came by. 
Blake is still much faster than me

The Carrizo Plain is bounded by two mountain ranges, the Temblor, which is to the northeast, and the Caliente, which is to the southwest, and is cleaved by the San Andreas Fault. The fault is often photographed here because movements show up clearly. There is an exhibit along Buckhorn road, which we take. 

I was pretty wiped and camped in the Carrizo Plain well before Soda Lake. Although I've camped in here before, repeatedly, I apparently missed a key resident before. It is the home of the Giant Kangaroo Rat! Some Giant Kangaroo Rats live elsewhere, in small pockets elsewhere in the the San Joaquin valley, but mostly they are here. And I got to see many of them. They are kind of cute, nicer than regular rats, and not really that giant. But their hopping around at night (on two legs, they are like kangaroos in that respect) can get a bit unnerving. 

The next morning is usually nice. There is a fairly hard climb up into the Caliente Range, but it is always pretty. The afternoon, once the sun is at full force and the temperatures are up, are a different story. Especially once you run out of water. It is hard to find. 

The dry stretches help to appreciate the challenges travelers in the Southwest had to overcome in the past - without GPS, waypoints to water, and slower on foot or wagon than we are on bicycles. In my motorcycle blog posts in Mojave, I collected quotes from the 1850 (also a wet winter) travelers across the Mojave desert (Manly and Rogers party, the Jayhawkers) , who suffered much worse and some didn't make it. Comparing our outdoor experience with that from 150 years ago helps to appreciate how easy life is these days even when it feels hard!

"There was now before us a particularly bad stretch of the country as it would probably take us four or five days to get over it, and there was only one water hole in the entire distance. This one was quite salty, so much so that on our return trip the horses refused to drink it, and the little white one died the next day." William Lewis Manly (1894), Death Valley in '49, Ch. 11

TDLP, even with camping, never has more than 30 hours or so without reliable water - and we know where those are. 

On top of the Caliente Range in the morning - but the next sets of canyons will take all afternoon

And the afternoon never is fun. It does get hot in the Caliente Range. And there isn't much water (or at least not very attractive water) until Gifford Springs. It was strangely full, even overflowing, and I got a shower while filling up my water bottles - you can see the water splashing down on the side

No up on the other side and even though the temperatures have cooled down, the day in the sun took its toll. I found a nice campsite off Sierra Madre road, maybe halfway up the long climb. 

Day 3 was the usual, much of it along Sierra Madre road. Could be nice, but this time too hot and too dry. It reminded me of Manly's book about crossing the Mojave:

"Our thirst began to be something terrible to endure. We were so nearly worn out that we tried to eat a little meat, but the mouth would not moisten it enough so we could swallow and we had to reject it. It seemed as if we were going to die with food in our hand because we could not eat it. We talked a little and the burden of it was a fear that we could not endure the terrible thirst a while longer." William Lewis Manly (1894), Death Valley in '49, Ch. 10

Now, I didn't suffer that much. I never ran completely out of water, but it happened to Gregg I believe, who was so thirsty that he couldn't eat. 

Pretty views from Sierra Madre Road in the morning

It was another long dry day, too hot and too dry to be enjoyable. But as I reached the highest point of the day, near Big Pine Summit, there was lightning, now the goal was to get down quickly. In other years, I stopped for a hike up to the mountain top, but this was clearly not advisable this year. 

Around sunset, a thunderstorm was coming in

The next morning was very different. It was cold and damp and the surface has become so muddy that I even had to walk some downhill stretches as the tires got too clogged with mud. Fortunately, these were short stretches, but frustrating anyway. Couldn't we just get a middle between yesterday and today? 

Rocky roads cause slashed tires

This hadn't happened to me before on a trip, so maybe slashing a tire was overdue. I had spare tubes and a tire boot (the gash would have been too big without closing it up) and I got going within 15 minutes or so. But cold and unpleasant 15 minutes. 

The big dirt road was destroyed during a fire a few years ago and mustard weed have taken over. Usually, such gentle bushwhacking is fine, maybe even enjoyable. Not today: Those weeds were cold and wet and made the descent miserable. 

But eventually the descent comes to an end. There is the fun Camuesa Connector trail and then it is time to cross the Santa Ynez river. The mightiest Santa Ynez flow I've ever seen, but it still is less than knee height. 

There is one long climb left after the river, then there could be the lovely Romero single track downhill. However, my rear tire was too fragile for single track riding and I took a shortcut via Gibraltar road, which is a paved road. Less interesting, but then I had never ridden it and I've gone Romero up and down many times. But Romero is the better way!