First Bikepacking Overnight: San Bernardino National Forest
Awhile back I started researching different types of riding, and soon discovered bikepacking when I ran into a guy at an event who sells gear for that activity. He and his wife actually rode the Continental Divide on mountain bikes.
This, of course, led me to the Internet to find out all I could about bikepacking, which wasn’t too much. But I found it so interesting; it made me think back to my days in the Marine Corps, with all the adventure and camaraderie. I started talking to my buddies about bikepacking and they expressed a general interest in it. So, I loaded my wife and myself into the car to scout out some locations.
To test the waters, a couple of my faithful riding buddies, Hegie and Wes, decided to join me on an “epic” pre-ride just to calibrate the difficulty level for the rest of the gang. Call it poor timing on Mother Nature’s part (or on our part), but we ended up walking in snow up to our knees, pushing the bikes, and close to hypothermic. We weren’t able to complete the ride due to the fact that we were cold and miserable, and it was getting dark.
Being the persistent nut that I am, I knew it could be done under better circumstances. I started ordering my gear, researching techniques and tips, and finally marked my calendar: June 22, 2012. Then I put the word out, with a few takers -- who, in the end, all fell out like dominoes. So it was just me riding and, driving to the campsite, my diehard posse: My lovely wife, Tiffany, and my furry sons, Shadow and Jax.
I packed my gear, which consisted of a sleeping bag, a tent, a compact stove, a small mess kit, and some food for the journey. I initially was going to ride my single speed to minimize weight, but my gear ended up weighing only 20.5 pounds, and I was able to load it onto my Cannondale Flash. Everything was a go and, of course, with all the excitement, I couldn’t sleep -- but then ended up sleeping through the alarm!
Finally, at 7:25 a.m., I bid adieu to the homestead and began pedaling. What a beautiful morning for a ride! Nice and cool, with a light morning fog. It was just what I needed to help out on my epic, 30-mile uphill. I was riding along, feeling incredible; people were waving … almost like my own personal send-off.
The plan was for Tiffany to head out later, with the dogs in tow, in the loaded SUV. Her first stop, ice for the cooler. Then the ranger station for a fire permit. Next, the bumpy fire road up to the yellow post site atop Thomas Mountain. There she would set up camp and patiently wait.
I made it to the base of Baustisa Canyon Road, where I saw my photo op. Those who know me would tell you that I am a bit self-absorbed and love pictures of myself -- not only for me to look at, but for show-and-tell just like in kindergarten.
"Welcome to the San Bernardino National Forest."
I pulled out my tripod and took a few pictures, then continued on. I started to see quite a few fire trucks, and hoped there wasn’t a fire. Luckily, it turned out that the crews were just clearing brush. They waved; I smiled and rode on. Maybe a mile or two down the road, out of the bush jumped this crazy-looking guy who had nothing on but what appeared to be a loincloth. He was about thirty feet from me and he said, “Mister! Hey mister! Stop! Do you got any water? I haven’t had any water all day.” Since it was only around 8:20 a.m., all day couldn't have been too long. Plus, there's a prison in the area. Who knows, he could have been an escapee! I told the poor guy that I had to ration my own water and didn’t have any for him, but would let the fire crew know that he was in need of some water. But he proceeded to follow me, and he told me a story about being jumped and dumped out there. Whoa! I pushed harder to put distance between him and me.
Soon the surfaced streets came to an end. Alas, the real fun began!
All of the sudden, the morning fog dissipated and the good ol’ Southern California sun reared it’s head, blasting down on me. Even in the lowest gears I started to feel like I was pushing lead. It was hill after hill after hill. Imagine sixteen climbs in row. That was my life for the next six-plus hours. Boy, did I gravely miscalculate my route’s difficulty. But if I could get through this, I would be a God … a Mountain God! I was on no time clock and knew I would have all the time I needed to recover at camp -- and that’s what kept me going.
Nature is an incredible thing. Outside of “Tarzan,” as we later named the loincloth man, things started to cross my path that led to awe and introspection. It was so serene and peaceful. The lizards were quick runners and almost the size of small cats. Amazing, colorful butterflies like I’d never before seen (but I wasn’t quick enough to the camera, so my mental pictures are all I have). The views were so spectacular! From the road I could see the Palomar Observatory; open fields and valleys; breathtaking mountains all around. Yet the isolation was a little intimidating; I began to think about my comrades and wish they had made the journey with me.
Just as quickly as the personal reflection hit, these thoughts occurred: "What am I doing out here, in the middle of nowhere with just me and my bike? And damn, it’s hot! My legs hurt. Hot! Freakin’ hot, and this bike just keeps getting harder to move."
But there was no turning back. I said to myself, I am going to finish this thing or search and rescue will be recovering my body, because I never surrender! My philosophy is, if you think it you must do it. So I pressed on, remembering that I had done harder things in the past.
Funny thing is, the worst and best part was doing this ride by myself. I thought that I was doing something not many people can claim to have done, but it would’ve been nice to have shared the experience with someone. I pressed on, knowing it was growing late and that my wife was probably getting worried ... and that I needed to get to camp because guess what I forgot to pack -- a flashlight!
I could finally see the area that I needed to get to, but looks can be deceiving. The thoughts of Tiffany and the dogs running to greet me and and welcome me to a camp chair, and a cold beverage, were what kept my spirits high. I started to get into a more heavily wooded area. I heard a loud noise come from the brush. I thought, mountain lion. Please, no! I stopped, dismounted, and kept quiet to see how this would play out. Well, it turned out to be a herd of deer, running. There were five or six of them.
I got back on my bike and continued. Maybe a mile up the road I found out what the deer were running from: About fifty feet in front of me I watched a huge bobcat walk across the road. It looked like it had attitude. I got off the bike, put it in front of me (ready to toss it at him if I needed to), and made myself look big (imagine that!). The bobcat looked at me with a dirty look, like, "This my 'hood; you best keep moving." Then he walked into the forest. I slowly walked my bike, keeping it between me the forest, and kept looking all around until I felt safe. Then I got back on the bike and started riding as fast I as I could, like the devil was on my tail.
I was about 5 miles from camp when I had another rare human encounter. A motorcycle rider coming down the hill stopped to ask if I was alright, and did I need him to call ranger or anything. I told him I was fine (I’m doing this on purpose … for fun!) and was just going up to the camping area. I guess I must have looked pretty haggard or something for him to express concern. Apparently, he was much nicer to me than I was to Tarzan.
It seemed like it took forever to get to the top of the mountain, where camp was to be. I wasn’t sure which campsite my wife was at, since sites were available on a first-come, first-served basis. Part of me hoped that she hadn't gotten the yellow post site at the top of the mountain, even though that had been our first choice. By this time my legs were rubber and I was exhausted. I was pushing the bike as I passed the top of the Ramona Trail, which is another journey for another day (which will come). Then, through the clearing, I saw my wife and dogs. Tiffany cheered and, to get the dogs rallied, yelled, “Papa’s here!” I got back on my bike, excited to be just feet away from the finish. The Boys met me halfway, and Tiffany snapped a quick shot with her cell phone and greeted me with a high-five. She had a cold washcloth ready, and an ice-cold beverage was quickly served. I spent the next hour giving her the details the adventure. I mixed four scoops of Recoverite with water in my big water bottle, hoping it would help my screaming muscles.
Tiffany told me about her adventure on setting up camp. She’d had trouble with the fly on the tent. So, I proceeded to fix that while she got out the chips and dip. I made a welcoming campfire, over which we cooked hotdogs for dinner.
After that we talked, watched the sun set, and made s’mores.
Once the sun had set, it turned downright cold. Being the native Southern Californian my wife is, she had brought no warm clothes; luckily, I had packed a few windbreakers in my gear. I was super tired; the cold air with only a little warmth from the campfire gave me a good excuse to turn in early. Of course, the wind was howling, and the air mattress had a hole in it and slowly deflated while we tried to sleep. We found how truly hard the ground is.
Morning came. Tiffany had slept on her shoulder wrong, and couldn’t lift her arm to help break camp. I forfeited the ride downhill to pack up camp and drive us home. Since we'd actually been car camping, I didn’t use any of the gear I brought on the bike -- but at least I'd gone through all the motions. So now I'll try to convince my buddies that, when we all do it together, bikepacking will be an unforgettable adventure.
All in all, it was well worth the sweat, the tired rubbery legs, the bobcat, and even Tarzan. Are you in? I look forward to it. See you on the trail!
Tips for this adventure: You can view a map of my route here. One thing I learned is that I definitely need a sleeping pad under my sleeping bag. I will give my compact one a whirl on the next go-round. I also need to bring a sweatshirt and some sort of lightweight pants for camp. Chili! And hot cocoa too! And a separate pair of shoes (not flip-flops) to keep my feet warm around camp. Oh yeah, bug spray! The bugs and flies on the trail were pretty bad. I will just have to go on another bikepacking trip to hammer all this stuff out.
Favorite Bike Shop: The Hub Cyclery in Idyllwild.