Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Mountain Biking Across Northern California: Reno to Mendocino

Mendocino Woodland State Park
Probably my last multi-day ride for the year, but it was a very good one: The TransNorth California Route from the Nevada border to Mendocino, very close to 400 miles and with two major (and one minor) mountain ranges to cross. The highlights were several stretches of single track, my two favorite ones being Forest City (largely a ghost town, trails are all there is) on day one and the redwoods at the end. Both exceeded my expectations. The low points were loose, rocky dirt roads, hard on your body and not fun, which account for a big chunk of the total miles. As with most long rides, the high points were better than expected and the low points worse, yet often they are not far apart in time or distance. It never is a mediocre way to spend the weekend. 
At Jackson Meadows Reservoir, which is at my back. The Yuba river fills and empties it.  

This one-way route was scouted by Doug Frederick who lives in Napa and has ridden it a few time himself. Developing good routes over long distances is never easy, junk miles are almost always inevitable. What makes routes worthwhile is having great parts and Doug certainly found some of those. His website is here: http://transnorthcalifornia.blogspot.com

Doug suggested Oct 10 as the start for a backpacking race from the Nevada border and there was a little article in Bikepackers Magazine: http://bikepackersmagazine.com/2015-trans-north-california/

I visited Obin in Davis before the race and he and his girl friend Shayla drove me to Reno, or rather the Boomtown Casino in Verdi, where we stayed. Those casinos are truly depressing places, although the rooms were nice. The next morning, we headed to the start before sunrise.  
Obin, Shayla, and I before the start, just getting light. I think Doug took the picture. 
 A small group gathered before 7 and Doug had decorated the Nevada-California border with a BMC flag to mark the start and to signal how serious a race this is going to be! 




Somewhere Doug wrote that there were 18 starters, but I think it was more like 10 actually showed up. I like small group sizes better rather than mass starts anyway and 10-20 is about perfect. This route could digest many more as it stays on dirt roads and single track doesn't happen until late afternoon. 

lining up for the start
Blake Bockius and Kurt Sandiforth were the two fast guys and and aimed to break 48 hours on the route, finishing Monday morning. That would be very impressive and requires riding through both nights as well as keeping up a pretty high pace, but both knew the route and have the legs. 


My trusted steel Niner, a veteran of many bike packing trips,
but almost everything has been replaced at least once




I expected that with one night riding, the route would be manageable in under 72 hours, but the last stretch involves single track in the redwoods, which I really wanted to see during the day. So I planned for finishing Tuesday afternoon instead.  Plans, of course, rarely work out, but this one did. Weather forecast was looking good, so I decided at the last moment to leave the tarp in the car, which gave me enough space to also ditch the backpack. I hate carrying one. 

The race starts with an immediate climb, and not an easy one. On the plus side, it is cool that early in the morning and it is just after breakfast. On the minus side, not much time to acclimatize and we climbed to the highest points of the total route right then. Just like at Los Padres and I felt the same way as climbing Mt Pinos, just not doing well, bit dizzy, stomach upset. I didn't like riding the rocky loose dirt road. I think everybody passed me on the descent, so I wasn't bombing down and still felt really beaten up. 

About 20 or so miles in, smooth gravel here, but a big dirt road.
The first day is mainly dirt road riding, but rocky and loose, a recipe for saddle sores (caused initially by chafing) and numb hands. The first day was harder on my hands and bottom than any stretch on the Colorado Trail, which has the reputation as being rough (but then you get off the bike a lot more often). The Eastern Sierra stretch was not my favorite terrain, dry, and very similar to Southern California mountains. Most of the day is on Henness Pass Road, with a few detours in between. 


Jackson Meadow Reservoir. Very windy and filtering water was
trickier than one would think


But just when I was about to write off day 1 as a dud , there was a turnoff and the beginning of spectacular single-track. Nicely flowing, in a forest. That's why I'm doing this! Within a few minutes, my mood had dramatically improved. 
Smooth flowing single track before Forest City, can't find better trails that that

Those trails are always worth riding

By the time I reached Forest City, I was out of water. Somewhere there would be a faucet, but I couldn't find it immediately and I didn't want to waste the remaining daylight searching for it. There was at least another hour of single track left that should not be missed. Afterwards, it would not be much further to Camptonville. I was still on single track by the time it was dark and near the end must have missed a turn and ended up in what probably was a dry river bed. I had to get off and walk the bike for a stretch. I saw the lights of other riders very close, two groups of two, one pair was riding, the other took a break, while I pushed my bike. But it didn't take long and we all seemed to converge to about the same point where there was a road - back on Henness Pass Road. On some climbs, I caught up to Danny Kaukola and Peter Brown, but promptly lost them again when the road turned downhill. And because it was mainly downhill to Camptonville, I was the last rider of the day to arrive at Burgee Dave's restaurant, probably around 8.30. Except for 2 riders who went through Camptonville much earlier, all others were at the restaurant. I was surprised to see Kurt Sandiforth, but his attempt at breaking 48 hours ended when his derailleur was torn off the bike. 

It was less than 100 miles for the day and I felt very tired and exhausted and about to change my plans for riding through the night. Maybe just a couple of hours after dinner to the reservoir and camp at the reservoir would be enough for the day? I took my time at Burgee Dave's, had water and a beer and some fish and chips and a salad. Then another beer and then another one and then I felt recovered and ready for a long night. Back to the original plan. 

In fact, for the rest of the night, I felt a lot better than I did in the morning and liked being on the move. The only downside was very slow speed. Not because of low energy, but because of low visibility and safety concerns. I walked a lot and during the day would probably have ridden most or all of those sections. So it wasn't until about 6 in the morning when I arrived in Oroville,  several hours slower than doing the same stretch during the day. But I enjoyed riding at night and I avoided all the heavy daytime traffic on roads around Oroville. There were some miles on paved road, small, and may not be great during the day, depending on traffic. In the middle of the night, I had the roads all to myself and after midnight probably had a stretch of 5 hours without seeing anybody. 

Cars are the most dangerous thing, although I was about to change my mind at least for a while. There is a Wildlife Preserve past Oroville, which I expected to be a peaceful place on a Sunday morning at dawn. While we were warned about goat heads that could puncture tires, I'd say you're more likely to slip on spent ammunition casings in the wildlife area than puncture your tires. Constant gunfire from all sides. I saw one guy dropping into a ditch as I rode by. I presume he tried to hide from me, which suggests that at least he thought he was doing something illegal with his weapons. I waved at him and rode on quickly, he sheepishly waved back. A few other guys with guns reacted more normally. But I sure did not feel safe and cranked up my speed through the wildlife area. 

My main reason for riding through the night was avoiding the Central Valley during mid-day. As I was planning my trip, this was the stretch I dreaded the most. The Central Valley is awfully hot agricultural wasteland (and without irrigation would just be a desert) barely above sea level. Yet early in the morning with pleasant temperatures and no traffic, it was an enjoyable ride. No complaints at all about the central valley this morning. No more gunfire either.
Crossing the Central Valley, it looked like that for a few hours
It is all pavement, I felt fresh and could push those pedals, so miles go by quickly, and I made it to the other side by noon. The only stretch with heavier traffic was the bridge across the Sacramento River. I stopped at a convenience store in Maxwell for some cold drinks and ice cream (there isn't anything else to stop for in Maxwell) and started  climbing out of the valley. 

Now came a planning failure: The  idea of riding through the night was to beat the heat in the Central Valley and get back into high elevation in the Mendocino National Forest by early afternoon.  Goat Mountain, the first mountain after the central valley is around  6000 feet, the Central Valley at 100. But it takes much longer to get out of the valley than I expected: First there are some foothill climbs fully exposed in the sun, the Devil's Elbow, so that is 2000 feet of climbing (and descending) without any shade and now it is already 2 pm and hot. After Devil's Elbow, there is a nice restaurant, though. Then, instead of getting up into the trees, Goat Mountain road meanders in an endless canyon with full blast sun, taking up the rest of the afternoon. So I was cooked all afternoon anyway. Lots of traffic on goat mountain road in the canyon, mainly pickup trucks loaded with other motor vehicles. This area is popular with off-roaders.   

The sun had set by the time I was in the forest again. The hot afternoon in combination with riding through the night was getting to me and I was moving really slowly. Joe Dengler zoomed past me and even more astonishingly said that he slept at the Bullards Bar Reservoir and in that case must have made up 5 hours during the day and I was not going slow until the evening. 

I called in an early night, before 10 or so, about 2/3rds up Goat Mountain, at around 4000 feet. Lovely campsite in the pine trees, but rather buggy. No biting insects, but constantly buzzing flies and other bugs hopping around, which made for a more restless night, a bit like the grass bugs situation in the Black Forest: http://rolandsturm.blogspot.com/2015/07/mountain-bike-schwaebische-alb-and.html  Very different from the mountains in Southern California where no bug protection is needed for a quiet night. Danny Kaukola rolled by as I  slept, but somehow I woke up right then and saw him standing a bit further up the road. As he told me later, having caught up with me at that point gave him the boost to keep going for a few more hours that night.  I didn't see him again until the finish as he finished in under 72 hours. 

I started well before dawn to finish the rest of the Goat Mountain climb and had breakfast on top during sunrise. 
It's getting light

On the top at sunrise
The descent continued the theme of loose rocky dirt roads/jeep trails, but it didn't bother me at all. In fact, I enjoyed riding that morning, very different from 48 hours earlier, although I don't think the road was any better here than on day one. This is an OHV through route, so it could get annoying on a weekend, but this was Monday morning and I didn't see any motor vehicles until the afternoon and even then only street legal ones. 
 After spending hours climbing Goat Mountain, we lost most of the altitude again. Obstacles like this may have kept OHV traffic at bay. At the bottom was a river where I refilled my water.

There was no way I could make it to Mendocino that day, so I took it easier that day with side exploration and long breaks. There were some interesting side trails that could make good connections here. But my main issue is with the first day prior to Forest city and the long canyon of Goat Mt Road with many cars and motos. The trails I saw today wouldn't help with those sections. I rode a stretch of the trail in the next picture, Willow Creek, out and back for some bonus miles. Not part of the route, but a lovely flowing single track. Normally, OHV routes get chewed up because motors have enough power to cause a lot of damage quickly, so lots of sand and exposed rocks - no fun for bicycles. Willow Creek, however, was great. In fact, all the easy mototrails looked good (but not the ones marked medium or hard).  

Willow Creek Trail, a motorcycle route, but smooth flowing forest trail
It was getting hot in lower elevations and I took a swim in the Eel River. Actual swimming, not just wading. The river is fairly shallow this time of the year and after years of drought, but still deep enough to swim. 
Eel River
Then back on pavement into Potter Valley and after a very brief, but unpleasant, stretch on busy highway 20, Lake Mendocino. Not a real lake, but a reservoir as all the bigger bodies of water on the route so far. Rather unexpectedly to me, there was a long stretch of single track trail along the lake. I had expected to get into heavy traffic on the 101 corridor, but this made for a nice afternoon ride: 
Lovely single track around Lake Mendocino in the late afternoon
Lake Mendocino was showing the effects of the drought
It was dark when I finished the trails around Lake Mendocino and crossed the dam at the south end. Now back to pavement and traffic, crossing the town of Ukiah, and climbing up on the other side. I had lost my good rear light (just had a tiny Chinese blinky), so I turned my headlamp around as a second rear light, but wanted to buy another one before continuing in traffic. I found one at a sporting goods store in Ukiah and then faced the more limited dinner alternatives around there: McDonald's, gas station, or Subway. I went with McDonald's, functional for the ride and the only bad meal I had on the whole trip. Ukiah was not where I wanted to spend the night, so on into the night! The final mountain range on the route started immediately after Ukiah, but it was only a 2000 foot climb, so this is 1/3 or less compared to the previous ranges. Traffic disappeared as soon as I left town (also helps that it was a dirt road) and after 20 minutes I didn't see any cars until I got got pavement the next morning. There were no great camping spots, but the side of the road worked just fine, a little past the top. It was quite warm and I slept on top of my sleeping bag. 

In the morning, the temperatures were pleasant, but as I descended, it got colder and colder. I put on layer after layer and when I reached the bottom near Comptche, there was frost on the ground and I was cold despite being as bundled up as I could. A 2000 foot descent and a temperature drop of 20 degrees! I've encountered the cold valley/warm mountains situation on other trips, but this may have been the most extreme one. I also had the only mechanical issue as my rear brake pads wore completely out on the descent and it was screeching metal-on-metal. Would have been a 2 minute repair to change pads, except I dropped the new cotter pin into a pile of leaves with cold fingers and couldn't find it for a while. I warmed up in the small store in Comptche and then on to the last part of the ride, which was very nice (though lots of ups and downs, all short, but not easy). 

I don't think there is anybody who doesn't like redwood forests and now there are a few hours in the redwoods. I actually expected to encounter some redwood forests earlier, but none in the Sierra or Mendocino National Forest on this route. I also picked up a crushed can of Red Bull, which looked like it didn't belong there. Most likely it was from a mountain biker and indeed it was: Danny lost it at night. 


Lots of steep ups and downs

I managed to lose the trail again
By the early afternoon, I finished the last section in the redwood forest and as I was on the home stretch, I met Doug and Jesse Stanley (a Mendocino local) who knew from trackleaders where I was approximately. We rode to Mendocino together and the finish is just before the bridge where the river meets the ocean. I was the 3rd finisher, Blake Bockius, was more than a day ahead and just barely missed his 48 hour goal (by 10 minutes). Danny Kaukola finished early in the morning before me. Isaac Chilton and Joe Dengler, who at one point were ahead of me, had quit. 
The Finish! Doug later placed his BMC flag there to make it more official!






The more astonishing part is that everybody else still on the route was going to finish over the next few hours. People were more bunched together on day 4 than on day 2.  Except for Blake, all finishers were in town that evening. Here was the finish line a few hours later, by then I was taking a nap in the hotel: 


One peculiar Mendocino feature are water towers. Presumably they used to be real water towers, but now the original ones (and many more fake new ones) are viewing platforms. Jesse lives in one and I got a text from Doug "We're on top of the water tower". Yes, but which one? Oh, here they are: 







I'm on the way up

Sunset at Mendocino from the water tower
 I was prepared to start riding back to Davis the next day, about 180 miles. That's where my car was. But Doug was driving to Napa and had room for Danny and me in his RV, so that saved a lot of road miles, especially the most unpleasant ones between the 101 corridor and the Napa valley. Lots of traffic there, often no shoulder. Napa valley is unfriendly for bikes. What you often see recommended for bikes is the "Silverado Trail", a busy highway with a bike lane, and that is the best you can do in the Napa valley.    
Morning in Mendocino

Danny and I rode together most of the day. We only had a brief stretch on the Silverado trail highway before we turned into the mountains and the hardest part was the first climb out of Napa. There were some more climbs before Berryessa Lake, but they were gentler than I had remembered them from a previous ride in that area. After Berryessa Lake, it is downhill and back in the central valley. We split up when I turned left along Putah Creek to Davis and Danny kept going straight to Vacaville. It was a hot afternoon, definitely central valley again, so I was glad to get into Davis at about 6pm.

I had a good year as far as bike trips were concerned. This was the 5th multi-day tour this year and a terrific one to end the season. 



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