MT. TAM, MILL VALLEY >> PIGEON POINT
Sunrise-coffees on our sun-soaked terrace at the West Point Inn were something else…
Clayton, Paul and I had arrived in the dark the night before, after climbing the hand-built Mt. Tamalpais Railroad Grade, so our first NorCal views over the San Francisco Bay, Marin Headlands and Pacific Ocean the next morning were special. The famous fog flooded the bays, shrouding the City’s financial district towers and the winding west coastline that we were about to ride south.
It’s hard coming to California – a state that is 770 miles long and 250 miles wide – for such a short period of time. Looking to the east Yosemite, Tahoe, Joshua Tree, and Death Valley lay waiting, as well as ace touring destinations like the Baja peninsula and the deserts/mountains of Arizona. But, realistically, these are all far far away and each make separate bikepacking trips – we’d have to rein it in, and come back again. So we kept it simple: we’d arrive in San Francisco, borrow a couple of local brand Marin’s new 2018 Four Corners bikes, bags from local bag-maker Kyle at Outershell, and ride 200km south to Santa Cruz via the Pacific coast roads and trails of the Santa Cruz Mountains. On our first night we’d try a Hipcamp tipi site, the second night we’d bivvy out in Big Basin State Park somewhere, and then we’d Airbnb on the last night…
Joining Paul and I were Erik, a local Bay Area bike traveller and advocate who would take photos for us, and Clayton from WTB. Given our #15KphClub vibe, Erik thought he’d bring his 4×5 film camera that used a lens he handmade himself from dollar bills and surplus glass elements. So, look out for a few of those old-looking photos dotted through the Journal. The film is high contrast lithographic stock, chosen for it’s old, 1800’s look and feel.
“…our first NorCal views over the San Francisco Bay, Marin Headlands and Pacific Ocean were special. The famous fog flooded the bay, shrouding the City’s Financial District towers and the winding west coastline that we were about to ride south…”
“…even with a thoroughly reliable driver and trustworthy car … Pedro Mountain Road is in such poor condition that anyone going this way is simply inviting disaster”
After a fun ol’ descent off Mt. Tam, our first stop was Wilderness Trail Bikes’ (WTB) HQ in Mill Valley, to meet up with Erik and edit/re-pack the bikes, before joining all the commuters on the cycle path along the bay, through Sausolito, towards the City. It wasn’t supposed to be so warm and sunny at this time of year, in rainy season – we’d brought a load of wet and cold weather gear but it was too warm to even try our ace new Kitsbow Icon Shirts. First world problems. Before crossing The Golden Gate Bridge, we headed up to check out the Hawk Hill Military Bunkers/Forts – an impressive network of gunpits, magazines, and storage rooms – built into the high points at The Golden Gate, in WW2, for an enemy that never came (a similar story to the bunkers of the Alpes-Maritimes we toured in 2016). Defending the San Francisco Bay Area from sea attacks wasn’t needed; focus turned to the skies. If you find yourself here, ride up, even for the vantage-point views…
The military theme continued on the other side of the bridge as we rode through The Presidio – a fortified area since New Spain established themselves there in the late C18th. This hilly, forested part of town has since been decommissioned and transferred to the National Park Service which made for pleasant riding, before skirting the suburbs of big eclectic houses and joining the Pacific Highway, where folk, surfboards in arms, ran to catch mid-morning surf. Some life here. From the Sutro Bath Ruins, we pretty much hugged the coast, riding sandy coastal cycle lanes & roads until we reached Pacifica where we headed inland on the funky Old Pedro Mountain Road.
Heading into the hills on the old railroad trails that wound their way up to near 300m is where the trip really began for me – we’d escaped, and were now riding part of a network of old roads that crossed Pedro Mountain and the McNee Ranch State Park, whose headland previously blocked passage to coastal travellers. These trails are a sweet playground for cyclists, and we pretty much had them to ourselves. The remnants of these dusty roads stayed narrow, steep and windy; definitely not suitable for the traffic they were originally built for, but they knew that by 1913: “even with a thoroughly reliable driver and trustworthy car … Pedro Mountain Road is in such poor condition that anyone going this way is simply inviting disaster.” [Motoring Mag]. As dusk fell, we stuck around to enjoy views over The Pacific, and the skiddable sunset descents to Half Moon Bay, where we stopped for a tasty crab roll dinner and some local Half Moon Bay Brewery beers to take to our Hipcamp Tipi Ranch, above Pigeon Point Lighthouse…
PIGEON POINT >> JAY TRAIL CAMP [Big Basin State Park]
We had arrived in the dark…again…so opening the tipi up to the faded pastel hues of a Pacific sunrise was another treat; nothing between Japan and us but the chimenea and decking we’d sat around until late last night. The first job was to get the fire going for hot drinks and to cook our special Huevos Rancheros camp breakfast that Clayton had rather expertly sought in Pescadero – the last real supply stop of the ride, as we were now heading inland into the forests and hills. It’s worth noting that, although the distances aren’t huge, there aren’t many watering holes / re-supply points in these parts (unless you’re on the coast road) so be prepared and stock up when you see stuff.
Cooking up a big batch of this traditional rural Mexcian farm brunch meal felt apt on our wild ranch. No labouring for us, but this hearty breakfast would fuel us up the fire roads from sea level, to the high points of the Butano and Big Basin State Parks. This area formed part of the Santa Cruz Mountains, in turn part of the Pacific Coast ranges, for which the San Andreas Fault runs along or near the ridge-line throughout. Their highest peak is Loma Prieta (1154m); Eagle Rock – location of the coolest looking fire lookout tower going, and where we were headed – is the fifth highest (758m)…
…a traditional breakfast / brunch dish on rural Mexican farms
|Salsa / Hot Sauce|
|Luxuries: Lime, Refried Beans, Avocado|
“Cooking up Huevos Rancheros – a traditional rural Mexcian farm brunch meal – felt apt on our wild ranch. No labouring for us, but this hearty breakfast would fuel us up the fire roads to the high points of Butano and Big Basin State Parks“
“Imagine a time when the whole peninsula from San Francisco to San Jose shall become one great city; then picture, at its very doorstep, this magnificent domain of redwood forests and running streams, the breathing place of millions of cramped and crowded denizens of the city”
First up for us was the Butano Fire Road – a dusty trail that gently climbs its way up through a shaded river valley before opening up to offer vast views of the famous Redwood Forests. There wasn’t another sole around, but for one dude who snuck past us on a custom Seven ti gravel bike. I could see Paul’s face sigh with envy. A lot of these Parks’ trails are closed to bikes, so poach at the Park and your risk, but for those like us on gravel touring bikes, it leaves a super network of challenging fire roads to ride. Marin’s Four Corners bikes were great for everything, even the chunkier stuff as we reached the Big Basin Park. The good thing about most of these fire roads is that the climbing is fairly gentle – 5-8% – which can’t be said for the other rideable trails in the Park, where stretches ramped up to 20%+. Fun though, and there is no doubt the complete build spec on the Four Corners – a tidy 30t x 34t gear and WTB’s ace Resolute 42c tyres – helped us out.
The Redwoods of southern Santa Cruz were first ‘discovered’ during the 1769 Portola Expedition – the first recorded Spanish (or any European) land entry and exploration of the present-day state of California – whose explorers camped in the Big Basin Park environs. But, it wasn’t until the end of the C19th that the forests began to gain international appreciation, and it’s easy to see why – some of the giants are 15m across, near on 100m tall, and up to 2,500 years old. Appreciation, however, needed to turn to preservation as San Francisco boomed, and in 1900 the Sempervirens Club formed to protect these old growth forests from logging. “Imagine a time when the whole peninsula from San Francisco to San Jose shall become one great city; then picture, at its very doorstep, this magnificent domain of redwood forests and running streams, the breathing place of millions of cramped and crowded denizens of the city.” [Carrie Stevens Walter, Sempervirens Club]. In 1902, this Big Basin Redwoods Park was the first to be established, and has the honour of being California’s oldest state park. Butano State Park – over 4,000 acres of canyons and uplands, some of which we’d just ridden – followed in 1957, along with Castle Rock and Portola. Today, these Parks make great, accessible playgrounds for cyclists and hikers.
The Butano Fire Road soon turned to the Olmo Fire Road, at some point, when we checked the map and got excited about the ‘Abandoned Landing Strip’ marked ahead. We were thinking 360° views, derelict buildings and control towers. But…nothing – it’s now just a small gravel clearing that cuts across the trail. The route and views made up for it though – we were now riding high and about to hit the chunkier, steeper Middle Ridge and Gazos Creek Trails that would take us into the top of Big Basin…
Marin County is regarded as the birthplace of mountain bike culture. Marin Bikes was founded in 1986 by Bob Buckley, who found himself immersed in the sport and dreaming of a better bicycle after racing down Mt Tamalpais. Teaming up with local enthusiasts, Buckley founded Marin Bikes to create affordable, quality bikes inspired by the burgeoning scene and ever-expanding trail network in the surrounding hills. The very hills that we started this tour…
The Four Corners is Marin’s dedicated adventure cycling / bikepacking bike “built for the adventure rider looking to explore deep off of the beaten path, sleep outdoors, and be ready for whatever pavement, dirt road, or light singletrack is around the next corner.” Paul and I couldn’t have ridden a more suitable bike for this tour, really. Yes, they are slightly heavier than a higher-end bike but Marin’s attention to comfortable, accessible touring details and the complete build specs made up for it.
Their crazy tall head-tubes were ace for a couple of reasons: plenty of room for stowing luggage without worrying about tyre-rub, the super comfy riding position and improved bike handling. A slightly flared bar also helped us give it some beans safely on the downhills, and stow a slightly wider handlebar roll, whilst a couple of other details also made the bike an attractive touring machine: the generous 6 x braze-ons (that we didn’t make use of, but would super useful); the standover clearance given the top tube geometry; full Chromoly frames and forks; disc brakes; the comfy 42c WTB Resolute tyres; and the Shimano Sora triple groupset which was perfect for our loaded setups. Any more loaded touring and you might want to go smaller than 30t on the front / bigger than 34t on the back, but is that what this bike is really for?!
The Four Corners is a comfy, fun bike to ride over all terrains, equally at home loaded up with touring/bikepacking bags as it is at home on the daily commute. The complete bike (minus Brooks Cambium saddle and crankbrothers Candy pedals) is around £850.00 – yes, really – and is available now.
|FRAME/FORKS||Double Butted CrMo (Utilitour)|
|RIMS||Marin Aluminum, Double Wall, Disc|
|HUBS||Forged Aluminum Alloy, 6-Bolt Disc, 32H (Front & Rear)|
|SPOKES||14g Black Stainless Steel|
|TYRES||WTB Resolutes 700x42C (XS – 650B). Clearance for 29×2″|
|GROUPSET||Shimano Sora Crankset (50/39/30T), Cassette (11-34T), Shifters (3×9), Derailleurs, Shimano Hollowtech II BB|
|BRAKES||Tektro Spyre-C Road Mechanical Disc, 160mm Rotor (Front & Rear)|
|BARS||Marin Butted Alloy, Compact 12º Flared Drop|
|SADDLE||Brooks Cambium C17 (All Weather)|
|PEDALS||crankbrothers Candy 2|
Satin Black / Gloss Blue
FSA No.8D, Sealed Cartridge Bearings
|BOSSES / MOUNTS||
Seperate Fender and Rack Mounts (Front & Rear). Six Cage Mounts: forks (2), seat-tube (1), down-tube (3)
The Resolute 42 is WTB’s ultimate all-weather gravel tyre – one perfect tread pattern for all your rides. Truly all-season in nature, they call it their “set-it-and-forget-it tyre that keeps on keepin’ on”. The tanwalls look ace, too. We only really got to ride them in hot dry conditions on this trip but they assure us that the Resolute 42s performs well in all conditions which means there is no need to swap tyres for different weather. They’re available in 650b (440g) or 700c (460g), or as stock parts on the Marin Four Corners 2018 complete bike. Yeeew…
The Candys are crankbrothers’ most versatile pedal – clipless with a decent-sized platform make them ideal for bikepacking, general touring, cyclocross and gravel. We have the say, they are the smoothest pedals to clip (slide) out of; pretty standard on the clip in. There are five pedals in the Candy collection – the higher the number, the higher the spec. The Candy 2 – that come in this forest green and a dark grey – are a mix of alluminium, alloy and stamped stainless steel, with brass cleats that need fitting to your shoes. With such a low profile though, even riding with flat shoes/sandals is alright, if needed. One of the things people say and like about their pedals is that they’re ace at shedding mud and dirt. We can vouch for that somewhat, having used them on boggy moors and wet/wild forest trails on our recent Desert of Wales trip, but have yet to ride anywhere real real dirty. There’s still time…If you’re not into clipping-in on tour, definitely check out their Double Shot (one side cleat, one side flat) and Stamp collections…
The Klics, are crankbrothers latest line in pumps; we’ve been using their Sterlings for many years. These are good looking, efficient pumps – with a hidden hose that slots inside the pump body (keeping it clean and the overall pump weight down to a measly 115g), all magnetised for ease of use on the road. We were using the Klic HP Gauge on this trip, needing it a few times, especially for re-pumping tyres we’d deflated for the chunkier off-road sections. You can get them with CO2 adapters too. For tyres bigger than 45c, and geenral off-road touring at lower pressures, you could be better off with the Klic HV ‘High Volume’ pump…
As we neared the Big Basin Park Visitor Centre, we started seeing hikers and hearing the purring of V8 engines pulling into the car park. The Parks’ proximity to cities mean they can get busy, but at this time of year it wasn’t too crowded and we were able to pitch up at one of the ‘ride in’ Camps – Jay Trail. In these Californian State Parks, you’ll need to book, get a permit, and sign something to say you’ll be ‘crumb clean’ to stop Jays & Ravens thriving, and protect the small birds. You can head to more remote, no frills Camps like Sunset or Lane Trail Camps, but for us on this trip, busy made it interesting. As we rolled bivvy bags out in our little clearing amongst giant Redwood trees, we got chatting to our new neighbours who were keen to ask about kit, bikes and bikepacking. And, we got to ask them about their travels, and living in California. Pretty much everyone else was hiking the Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail, a popular 29.5 mi (47.5 km) hike from a high ridge down through the Parks, to Waddell Creek. There is a store on site, but it shut early at this time of year so luckily for us we had some old gnocci, cheese and tomato sauce that we cooked over our firepit. Caitlin, if you ever find and read this – thanks again for the gas canister.
While the last drops of the Bourbon passed around, we let the fire die down and attempted some long exposure photos, before hitting the bivvy bags early doors. It felt kinda good to be living to daylight hours again – the joys of a simple life on the road. Bivvying out, under the stars and giant redwood canopies, was the moment I’d looked forward to since first planning the tour…
“Bivvying out, under the stars and giant redwood canopies, was the moment I’d looked forward to since first planning the tour…”
JAY TRAIL CAMP >> SANTA CRUZ
The Eagle Rock Fire Lookout Tower (758m) was the beacon we’d been aiming for since leaving Mill Valley. I think we’d first seen it on Pauls’ friend, Jake’s, Instagram – abandoned and graffiti ridden, nestled on a remote high outcrop with 360° views – we’d have to check it out.
A year or so before this trip, forest fires had raged through the Santa Cruz Mountains – some here, but with more devastation and displacement further north. Whilst we weren’t able to get to these areas, heading to this abandoned lookout would offer us some perspective of the scale of these fires and, at 748m, the opportunity to close the tour on a high. On a map, the Eagle Rock Trail up to it, from Big Basin looked a challenge but the tower was also just off Empire Grade, a quiet-ish tarmac road that would descend us straight into Santa Cruz. So, following camp coffees and a grits breakfast, we had a slog-of-an-off-road-climb for a few kms, before a break at the lookout tower, and then an easy downhill to much-anticipated brunch and beers.
We ended up pausing on Eagle Rock for over an hour – it was hard to leave such a great spot – not least because Erik wanted to take some 4×5 camera photos. We were finally at a great vantage spot to see over all the forests: to the north and west was the Pacific Ocean, merging with the hazy blue skies; to the east the highest peak in the Santa Cruz Mountains, Loma Prieta, loomed. Otherwise it was layers of dense forest as far as could see…
“The Eagle Rock Fire Lookout Tower (758m) was the beacon we’d been aiming for since leaving Mill Valley … abandoned and graffiti ridden, nestled on a remote high outcrop with 360° views”
I’m not a quick descender (guilty…) but the long ol’ descent down Empire Grade into Santa Cruz was a descender’s delight, and felt well earned after all the climbing. A bit more time spare and we’d have definitely stopped to join the downhill mountain bikers crossing the road to get to the Upper Campus trails. This was the heart of Santa Cruz mountain biking and somewhere we need to go back to explore – from what I saw and heard, the Mountain Bikers of Santa Cruz organisation seems to be doing a great job for trail advocacy and promotion.
In a flash we’d ridden the 20km-ish into Santa Cruz, just in time for the start of Superbowl Sunday. All that was left was to meet Jake (of Eagle Rock Tower Insta inspiration fame) for a couple of ciders and beers at Sante Adairius Rustic Ales, where he told us he runs an orchard and lives in an Airstream in the SC Mountains – the dream, right? We’d then jump on the bus to San Jose, and then the CalTrain back into San Francisco.
Until next time, California…
|Handelbar Roll, Drawcord Handlebar Bag (Outershell), Half-Framebag (Outershell), Expedition Seatpack (Outershell), Dry Bag Set, Bungee Cord|
|EATING / DRINKING|
|Water Bottle(s), Water Filter, Mug, Spork, Field Knife, Canister Stove, Titan Pot, Stovetop Percolator, Helix Coffee Maker, Fresh Ground Coffee (Peets), Hipflask, Riding Snacks|
|Bivvy Bag (Rab), Sleeping Bag (Thermarest), Sleeping Mat (Thermarest), Inflatable Pillow (Exped), Warm Socks|
|Riding Clothing (Kitsbow), Off-the-bike kicks (Bedrock Sandals), Lights, Helmet, Pump (crankbrothers), Multi-tool (crankbrothers), Tyre Levers (crankbrothers), Spare Inner Tube/Sealant, Tape, Zip Ties|
|Headtorch, Solar Inflatable Light, Lighter, Firelighter, Rubbish Bag, Tissues, Spare Batteries & USB Battery Pack, Compass, Penknife|
Thanks to Marin Bikes, WTB, crankbrothers, Brooks England, Thermarest and Kitsbow for helping us arrive with zero kit, and leave with these fond touring memories. We’ll be back.