Christmas Eve Campout at Steep Ravine Hot Springs
No tinsel or collapsible trees for us! Last Christmas Eve, friends and I dispensed with the holiday trappings and went camping instead.
We were a motley crew -- mountain bikes, minibikes, trailers, an Xtracycle carrying baguettes, and myself on the racy Cannondale tandem with my stoker Marc. We rode across the Golden Gate and stopped for a quick lunch in Mill Valley. There we picked up a twelfth rider -- vegan Violet and her four-month-old puppy, Chicharro. Violet was taking her first bike tour with the pup in a backpack.
After a leisurely coffee and bagel stop at the Depot Cafe, we pedaled up through the narrow, redwooded neighborhoods of Mill Valley to Muir Woods. Following the winding coastal bluffs of Highway 1, in short order -- just 20 miles out from the Golden Gate -- we found our camp at Steep Ravine.
After a quick tent-pitch, we made our way to the hot springs at Steep Ravine by following a narrow, rocky trail along the beach. The hot springs are exposed only during low tides of -1 foot or more, giving only 50 or 60 days a year available for soaking. The winter solstice coincided with a new moon last year, bringing us an extraordinary -1.5 foot low tide at sunset.
You can also create your own hot-spring pools on the beach. Just follow your nose to the rotten-egg smell and start trenching.
The low tide stranded an armada of starfish on the rocks. While we were marveling at them, the waves came in and stranded Bridget, Marc, and me in turn atop a barnacle- and mussel-covered outcropping. Caught off guard but undaunted, we clambered back to higher ground.
Marc checks out crustaceans and echinoderms exposed by the low tide.
Marc is blind -- and a rock climber, yogi, and massage therapist. Watching him make his way over boulders and ledges made me tingle vicariously with Spidey sense. This was the first time I had seen Marc in action off the bike. I've heard all sorts of badass tales while riding tandem with him, me in the front as pilot and Marc putting out power in the back as stoker. What I didn't know was that he could kneel, balance, and step with the measured patience of a gymnast. Within minutes, we developed a verbal routine for getting across the boulder field.
"You've got a ledge at head level, on the left." Marc put a hand out to feel out the rock. "Okay, now a butt scoot over a drop, about three feet."
The hot springs "grotto" at Steep Ravine is a combination natural and manmade feature. During low tide, locals downscale the bluffs to the spring. Using a section of fire hose, they siphon off the cold water that sinks to the bottom of the pool, and pull out any large rocks tossed in by the waves.
Reaching the grotto at sunset, we found it filled with at least 30 naked bodies. Many had the sinewy, sunbaked look of dedicated vagrants. I waded in and was directed into the womb of the grotto, where I found fellow campers Brooke, Becker, and Aviv. The water is shoulder deep within this narrow tunnel. We dug our feet into the sand underfoot, warmed by gentle geothermal heat. A local named Sam distributed tangerine sections and directed us to utter "Three OMs and a silent OM." We obliged with several loud karmic emissions -- but alas, in substandard harmony and unison.
Well steeped in hippie stew, the crew headed back to camp for supper. Thanks to Katie, who donkey-loaded a double burner propane stove on a BOB trailer, we closed the night with a neverending Christmas feast. There were baguettes with marshmallows, pesto with pasta, butternut squash soup, Christmas gumbo made with gluten-free roux, and two different types of brownies.
Brooke shows off California winter fashions. Down vest, long johns, and, of course, cut-off jeans.
After dreaming of sugar plum fairies and hot spring hippies, we awoke to a bright and beautiful Christmas morning ... and a lot of leftovers.
Tip for this adventure: Ask a local, or just follow your nose to the hot springs, located at the base of the beach bluffs just north of the campground at Steep Ravine. Steep Ravine is a small, wild hot springs. It is not a resort. Please be respectful during your visit, introduce yourself to the folks who maintain it, and consider bringing only a friend or two, in order to help keep the hot springs a friendly place for future visitors. Good luck, and bring a towel!
Favorite local bike shop: The Spoke Cyclery in Oakland.