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Santa Monica, California, United States

Saturday, August 12, 2023

Cottonwood Lakes in late July

Along the South Fork of Cottonwood Creek

July 26 was my first hike this year in the high mountains of the Eastern Sierras, more than a month later than in previous years. The Sierras received an unusual amount of snow this year and summer is coming very late in the high mountains. Even the end of July turned out to be too early to get over some passes or get to the really high mountains (I overly optimistically thought I could get up to Mt Langley). 

Looks still very summer-like at this unnumbered lake, with Mt. Langley (4277m or 14032 feet) behind it

Cottonwood Lakes and Cottonwood Pass are one of the closest trailheads to Los Angeles, the road goes from Lone Pine. Also quite popular, but not as crazily overrun as Mt. Whitney and I think much prettier. The day I went, still about half the permits for overnight backcountry were available.

As I was driving up the road from Lone Pine, I saw a big lake. Yes, the long gone Owens Lake is back this year. For 100 years, Owens Lake has been an alkali flat with small brine puddles after LA started to divert the water from the Owens Valley. The lake had disappeared by 1926. But this year, Owens Lake flooded and looks like the large lake it used to be. 
Owens Lake is actually a lake in 2023, not an alkali flat

After about 2 hours of hiking, I was high enough to encounter snow, this is at Lake #3

I finally made camp between lakes 4 and 5, nobody else at either one of the lakes. No mosquitoes, I would not even have needed the inner tent (I didn't use the rain fly at all). I encountered a few further down in the swampy area, but unremarkable. This year is also a month later for them. 

camp at lakes 4/5. 
View from my campsite. Old Army Pass in the background is still snowed in

It was obvious that Old Army Pass would not be manageable without winter gear. The picture doesn't quite give justice, but that is even before the real climb, not much above the lake yet. 

So the next morning I hiked back along lake 3, then on the New Army Pass trail past Long Lake and High Lake. That's where I saw a few groups, I think the majority wanted to cross the pass to get on the John Muir trail, but turned back. There was a well equipped group with ropes and ice axes who claimed it was impossible to get to the top of the pass. Mmh, that required a first hand look. 

There was a slightly snowy area and some snow bridges that were about to cave, still before Long Lake (where I left my pack), and nothing difficult. Snow was pretty hard, so no post-holing. 
Lots of pink snow this year, I also had noticed it in Colorado the previous month. That is algae growth and is kind of new to me. Or have I always overlooked it? In any event, nothing difficult here either:
Army Pass Point is the mountain top in the background
More pink snow elsewhere

Getting closer, not much further to the top

Now I could see the problem: An overhanging snow cornice blocks the top part of the trail.

Instead of trying to tackle it, I got off the route and climbed rocks to the right of the snowy area. 
View from the top of New Army Pass

But it was clear that pushing onward would not be advisable: Mt Langley is another 600m higher. So I went back and hiked out. 

at the top of New Army Pass

I returned along the South Fork of Cottonwood Creek. The whole area is lovely, but that stretch it particularly impressive.

Along South Fork Cottonwood Creek Trail, with Cirque Peak (3930m) on the left.

A snow bridge that already develops treacherous holes

Saturday, May 6, 2023

Marin Bikepacking Loop

Descending towards Samuel Taylor State Park

Anya moved to the small town of Fairfax in Marin County last fall. She lives at the trailhead into the Mt Tamalpais watershed, but it is still just a short walk to (a very small) downtown. She can even take trails for much of the way to work (teaching high school math at the Marin Academy), but there is a price to be paid for that: Everything off-pavement is very steep. For flat riding, you have to stay in the (narrow) valley on pavement. 

Quick to get into redwoods, but always steep
The afternoon I arrived we went for dinner in the next town, San Anselmo, and took trails there. After dinner, we took the easy paved way back. We went to a concert in Mill Valley that evening, but did not use the mountain bikes for that: Mill Valley is only 11 km via trails from her house, but that is 600 meters up and then down again (so the uphill part averages over 10%).  11 km may sound like a half hour bike ride, but with 600 m climb it becomes closer to 1 1/2 hours. Keep that in mind for the route description later. Like the Schwarzwald in Germany, Marin is much hillier than one expects. 
Marin is considered the birthplace of mountain biking and there is a mountain bike museum downtown. There are also lot of single track trails, but almost all are off limits for biking. Mountain bikes mostly have to stay on fire or dirt roads (just like in Southern Germany) with only a few trails open. Tamarancho is a 13 km, purpose-built single track mountain bike loop, a bit over 20 km total from Anya's house.

This time, we wanted to do a longer ride and took a route that Emily Bei Cheng scouted out and calls it the "North Bay Overnighter". It is about 130 km with 3000 m of climbing and she considers it a 2-3 day bikepacking loop. The map shows it starting/ending at the vista point/turnout north of Golden Gate Bridge. We started and ended at Anya's house, of course (the route goes past it). Mostly dirt roads, some a bit more rutted or rocky (more like jeep trails), but the whole route is entirely rideable - if you have the stamina. Realistically, I think there is quite of bit pushing because it hits 20% grades regularly. 

The first set of climbs out of Fairfax on Eldridge Grade takes us up towards Mt. Tamalpais East Peak. It does not quite go the top here, which is only about 750m away directly (but still 250 m higher). A few hiking trails go up straight (East Peak Trail, Indian Fire Trail), those are really steep, 30%. Anya also coaches the school's running teams and they often run here. Usually on fire roads, but there is the occasional challenge workout going up directly. 

Towards Baltimore Canyon, we get out of the forested hills and have a panoramic view of San Francisco Bay. From here on, the route was new for Anya, too. Of course, first we go all the way downhill before starting the long next climb. 

On the map below, we started near the little spur where it says Pam's Blue Ridge. The end of the spur is downtown Fairfax (Pam's Blue Ridge is quite a bit higher). Now it was late morning and we were getting to the ocean side of the loop. The particularly high traffic area near Mill Valley (where 101 and highway 1 split) is actually traffic free for bicycles: A bike/hiking trail far separated from the freeway or highway 1. There is a little bit on the road to Tennessee Valley Road, but since this dead ends at the trailhead, not that many cars.

Pushing our way out of Tennessee Valley
Tennessee Valley itself goes to the Ocean and isn't steep, but we have to climb out of there and that is really steep. The route goes quite a bit more inland, but now it was past lunchtime and we took a shortcut descent to Muir Beach. 
Logistically, this is an easy route. We had packed a few slices of Pizza as snacks during the day, but had restaurant food for lunch and dinner. 

Fish and chips at the Pelican Inn in Muir Beach

Good to have a break at Muir Beach because next comes the longest climb of the route. A quick single track push, then some road, then a long trail climb up the ocean side of Mt Tam State Park, which ends at Pantoll Campground. 

short push out of Muir Beach
trail climb into Mt Tam state park, ends at Pantoll

A rare thing: Pleasant road riding
After Pantoll campground comes the longest stretch of pavement of the loop. Pavement stretches on almost all other bikepacking routes are unavoidable, but unpleasant. This one is actually very nice and after Rock Spring Trailhead mostly car free (at this point, cars tend to continue driving to the top of Mt Tam).  And having an easy rolling surface with gentle gradients is very welcome after the previous climbing section. 

The pavement ends at the intersection with Fairfax-Bolinas Road. At this point, we could have taken a right turn and roll down the road back to Fairfax and would have been back at the start of our day within an hour (where we had left 7 hours earlier). The route continues north on Bolinas Ridge Trail and the next couple of hours hours were my favorite part. It is also the emptiest. The rest of the day (until we got to Samuel Taylor state park), we did not see anybody. And the next morning, once out of the state park, was similarly empty. 

Urgently needed break, finishing our last slices of pizza in the late afternoon

Bolinas Ridge trail is a wooded area for a long time, then opens into grass land, some with cows. While pretty, cows really make for bumpy riding. The ground often gets soft and cows sink in. Once dried out, the surface may look smooth from a distance, but it rides worse than cobble stone. 

Bumpy Cow Terrain
Finally out the cow area, much smoother descent towards Samuel Taylor State Park

We camped at the walk-in site for bikers/hikers and I did a quick extra loop into Lagunitas for take-out dinner. It is a 10 km roundtrip, but flat. Lagunitas has one restaurant, Arti's Indian Cafe, also one small store (closed by then, about 7 pm). We very much enjoyed our Indian food for dinner - and breakfast the next morning.
A few water crossings, creeks feeding Kent Lake

The next morning started with an easy roll on a trail away from the road (better than expected, I thought we would be on Sir Francis Drake). Then a climb up San Geronimo Ridge. Fairly steep, so definitely some pushing. There is an extensive network of dirt roads, giving many opportunities to shorten or extend the trip. The mapped route drops down from Hunt Camp/Green Hill to Kent Lake. It is pretty and remote (we didn't see anybody), but that involves a substantial descent and what we thought was the most grueling climb of the route back up again to get to Pine Mountain. I would recommend staying on the ridge and taking the slightly shorter and more direct route beween Hunt Camp and Pine Mountain. 

Pine Mountain! Done with climbing

We thought the hardest climb was from Kent Lake to Pine Mountain

After Pine Mountain, it is essentially all downhill back to Fairfax. Some pretty rocky and washed out, but nothing difficult.  

Back home, about 30 hours later

The Marin Museum of Bicycling is in downtown Fairfax. Really nice exhibits, with a particular focus on mountain biking that started in the area - and maybe partly the club house of the 1970s racers that became manufacturers - Breeze, Fisher, Ritchey, Kelly. Joe Breeze (Breezer bikers) gave us a 90 minute tour, Charlie Kelly stopped by during our visit.  Kelly had one of the first mountain bike companies with Tom Ritchey and Gary Fisher, unsuccessfully they tried to trademark the name "MountainBike". Eventually the company became Fisher bikes, Ritchey started another company. 

Joe Breeze with one of his road frames

One of the first 10 Breezers - possibly the first new frames and parts made specifically for mountain biking. But not with the original (and better designed) fork. Joe says the diagonal was not necessary and would have saved work and weight - but he did the calculations later. It still looks cool and certainly made the frames unique.  

The museum is particularly strong on mountain bike history, but it has a lot on everything on cycling history. And with an expert like Joe Breeze showing you around, there probably is no better way to learn about bicycles anywhere! 
Multiple gears without derailleurs required moving the wheel to keep the chain tight, the shift lever (pointing forward, just below the brake on the rear wheel) also ratchets the wheel back or up as on this Bianchi. With one hand behind your back (the small photo shows the rider shifting during a race - Gino Bartali on the Col de Galibier 1948)