A Pushwacker’s Guide to Peppermint Falls in the Sequoia National Forest

There’s an old saying: “wherever your relationship is going, it’ll get there faster on a _____ ride.” Whether it’s a bicycle tour, mountain bike, group, or tandem ride, new relationships often encounter stress that can either solidify or deteriorate your bond. Acknowledging this, I planned out Cari’s first bikepacking, or rather bicycle camping trip together with a certain degree of trepidation. Knowing Cari’s background of extensive backpacking, I planned out a quick, but somewhat difficult ride for us to undertake in the Sequoia National Forest.

Let me backpedal a bit here and give you a brief synopsis of Cari’s background. In her 20 years of backpacking, she’s undertaken a series of difficult multi-day trips throughout the Western United States. She’s hiked Whitney, Half Dome, Rae Lakes, Lost Coast and various other undertakings that are far from beginner. When she and I first started dating, she had a commuter bike but other than riding around Los Angeles, she had very little experience, especially on dirt. I explained the premise behind bicycle camping, touring and bikepacking, with the differences in each outlined. “You basically carry everything you need on your bike, rather than your back, and you can cover more ground on various terrain…” She seemed to gravitate towards bikepacking since the idea of dealing with cars isn’t all that appealing to a backcountry explorer. I agreed and began planning.

Initially, I had one ride planned in the Eastern Sierras but this time of year meant it could still be snowing at 10,000′, so I began looking a little further south before landing in the Sequoias – one of my favorite parts of California.

... like a rollercoaster!

Kyle, Sean, Ty and I had been through the Peppermint Falls area and its neighboring mountain bike trails outside of Camp Nelson before. I remember being in Ty’s truck while we were moving from spot to spot thinking how awesome it’d be to do a bicycle tour through the area. Three years later and here I was, planning this very trip.

National Parks in California officially open during various parts of the spring. Some as soon as March, others not until May. Everything I found online said this area would be open when we were planning on visiting, so that made things easy. (We’ll come back to this point later…)

My route was simple, totaling about 40 miles and 4,500′, split into two days. Day one would begin at Upper Peppermint Falls Campground, then we’d hop on M-90, take a detour at Dome Rock before hopping back on M-90 to 22S02 and 22S82 towards Lower Peppermint Falls Campground. The second day, we’d descend for a bit on 22S82 before hitting 22S83, a fire road that splits off onto 21S70, a piece of steep doubletrack with various switchbacks. Simple enough. On paper.

Roll me a jammer, baby.

The day before our ride, we drove my pickup to Upper Peppermint and camped. Doing so let our bodies adjust to the elevation, of roughly around 7,500′, and made it possible for an early start. We cooked our dinner as we watched the clouds roll in, completely encasing us in a deep, thick fog. Adding to the visual haziness was our freshly rolled joint, which we sparked up and watched nature puff its chest. Knowing we’d have a long day ahead of us, we closed the zipper on our tent and passed out. Going to asleep in a thick cloud, we were surprised at the bright sunshine the next morning, coating our campsite in a golden glow as the dew baked off our tent and the tarp I placed over our bikes, protecting them from moisture.

Knolling - minus our food, which Cari was carrying.

Coffee first, then breakfast before our equipment check and the construction of four peanut butter sandwiches. A half-assed attempt at knolling took place, sans food (which stayed in the cooler until we departed) and I showed Cari how to load her bike evenly. All was going as planned so we pedaled out of the campsite and towards Dome Rock, an overlook of sorts where I was hoping for a vista of the remainder of our route. We sat and watched the clouds retreat to the southwest and began discussing the day’s ride. Cari is more than comfortable descending on sealed roads, it was the dirt and gravel that give her some anxiety. I knew the main fire road of the day was smooth the last time we were on it but had no idea what condition it’d be in after a long, wet winter. There’s no point in worrying or discussing the unknown, so we got back on the road…

Everything went smoothly. The road was in great condition, offering various vistas before gently gesturing us onto the last road for the day.

Cari's NFE, loaded.

The climb up to camp was a long haul and was a lot longer than I remember it being in a car. We sat and spun uphill before hitting the entrance to the Lower Peppermint Campground, only to find a closed gate. My internet research said it’d be open on May 1st, but as long as potable water was available, we’d be fine and could camp at the lower primitive sites. With hesitation, I went to the first spigot and turned it on. Out came clear, cold water. I sighed in relief and filled my bottles, before tasting the water. Big mistake. The water tasted like straight chlorine with a metallic aftertaste. One by one we checked the spigots and they each delivered the same taste. Bummer. We’d have to boil our water to remove the metallic tint.

Drop!

With bottles filled with the worst tasting water ever, we rolled down to what’s called the “tea cups” in Peppermint Falls, a cascading creek with pools of water, usually calm enough to swim in, but not after all the snow we had this past winter. The pools were as rough as rapids and with the last fall cascading to a 100′ drop, it wasn’t worth even attempting to take a quick dunk. As the sun set, we set up camp and went on a sunset hike before cooking dinner and turning in for the night.

The next morning...

Something wasn’t right the next day. I just had a bad feeling, but refused to acknowledge it out loud. Instead, we cooked and cleaned up camp before heading back on our way. The route was simple, yet steep with various switchbacks and a lot of elevation gain. All research I had done showed the roads to be in good condition and luckily, both 22S83 and 21S70 were closed to vehicular traffic so we wouldn’t have to worry about unexpected vehicles on a narrow mountain road. After hopping the gate, we pedaled along the meandering road, stopping for moments to check out the swimming holes and enjoying the morning sun.

Heading back to Dome Rock. Well, sorta.

After a half hour or so of pedaling, we hit a split in the road. It was our time to turn off the smooth, graded dirt and haul up the doubletrack back to the M-90. Here’s where things went awry. Cari liked the look of the fire road we were on and all my maps showed that it technically went to the same destination, although I hadn’t fact-checked any of this. I agreed the current road looked better maintained but knew it’d have a steep tail if we were to gain all 3,500′ we’d lost the day before.

Oh man... Here it goes.

Shortly after we opted out of the planned route, things got bad. Fallen trees, pushwacking thicket and before long, the road ended in a giant washout. There were still shotgun casings and boot tracks on the ground, so I knew the road had to continue on. We couldn’t turn around however. At this point, we had been riding for 4 hours and there wouldn’t be enough time left in the day to go back the way we came and proceed on the previous day’s route in reverse. Plus, we were now running low on water. Meanwhile, my phone and map assured me the road continued, just up around the bend.

Switchback after switchback we were delivered with a truncated trail, forcing us to scramble up the mountainside to the next hairpin, the only remaining part of a once beautiful fire road. Pine saplings turned to full-grown Manzanita plants and soon, the trail was indistinguishable. At one point, we connected to a nice, wide fire road but that too disintegrated into a creek bed. That’s when I looked down at what I thought were boot prints. Turns out, they were bear tracks and the giant piles of bear shit proved that we were on a bear trail now. Without sounding too alarmed, I suggested we pick up the pace. My phone’s GPS said we were only a half mile from the road and I thought we could pushwack through within the hour.

Three hours later and we’d been lost for five. It was four o’clock. I’d spotted a bear below us as we stumbled upon a den with skeletal remains and a large tree stump that looked like a bear scratching post. Alarmed, we pushed on faster, further exhausting our bodies and our water reserves. We resorted to drinking snow melt water straight from a creek and had gone through most of our food. If it had been me by myself I would have handled the situation a bit differently, but knowing I was responsible for Cari as well I began thinking of those worst case scenarios. “We’d leave our bikes, drop a pin on my map and hitchhike back to the truck before returning for them the next morning…”

Cari, through all of this, remained calm and collected. We even cracked jokes from time to time, or remarked how good the ice-cold drinks in the cooler would taste. Maybe it was the small talk, or the “fuck its” but time seemed to go by a lot faster when we weren’t stressed the fuck out. After numerous mountain side scrambles, and mid-Manzanita tug-of-war battles with our bikes, we made it to a fire road that we recognized from the day before. We were back at Dome Rock after six hours of battling nature by pushwacking through a bear trail. We were both so wrecked that the slow climb back to the camp site was greeted with leg, back and neck cramps. At one my point my left arm had locked up completely, T-Rex style.

Back at camp, the only cold bev we had!

Back at our base camp I threw open the truck’s camper shell, pulled out the cooler and began consuming the food and water we had been fantasizing about for the past 3 hours. We’d seen a few ticks on our bodies throughout the day, so we searched each other and showered with our camp towels before putting cleaner clothes on and packed our bikes up onto the truck. Surprisingly, the demeanor was positive and our spirits high. We joked about how scratched our legs were and how we should have taken the deer antlers. I remarked that I was so concerned for Cari’s safety that I barely took any photos of the whole ordeal.

The truck started up on the first crank and we hopped back onto the 190 to begin our journey home, welcoming the vibrations of missed text messages and phone calls as we re-entered civilization.

190

So, as I was saying before – trips like this either make or break relationships. Boyfriend, girlfriend, dudes, gals, whatever. Friends or lovers, stressful days on the bike can drive schisms between people, or better yet, create even stronger bonds. I suppose it’s all dependent on the friendship’s foundation. Cari’s first bicycle camping trip had become one of my worst days on the bike and that’s saying a lot. We’d both been through the shit and I had a new found respect for the Manzanita plant. Yet, the reality is, it could have been a lot worse. In the end, we learned about how to solve a problem together and keep a positive attitude. Two things essential for any relationship.

Take whatever you will from this, but know that when you plan a trip, make sure the roads are still there and try to do as much reconnaissance as possible, both online and in-person. You’re more than welcome to try this route out, or a permutation of it. Oh and when the shit hits the fan, keep taking photos and take the damned deer antlers with you!

  • Billy Arlew

    Thank you for this fantastic write up! Open communication is crucial for these sorts of endeavors :)

  • Jonathan Neve

    This is pretty dang good stuff, John!

  • Mike Kimbro

    Oh man, I so would’ve gotten divorced by this. Great post!

  • Peter Ryan Amend

    I did a trail 90 trip in this same area, and everything that could go wrong – did. Fun to see a good write up of this area, Sequoia has some great rides.

  • Tom Greek

    Sounds like a challenging, fun trip. Nothing better than a cold cooler after being lost and making it back. Well, a cool mountain lake is pretty good too…
    One thing, despite the presence of bear tracks and scat, I wonder if you happened upon a Mountain Lion daybed. They tend to eat a lot more deer than CA black bear and they are definitely in that area. Check this:
    http://wdfw.wa.gov/living/cougars.html

    • yeah, it probably was a cougar’s hangout.

  • photo evidence from the Manzanita “tug of war”

    • ncoffeeneur

      Good thing those Stahls are made to last.

  • PNT

    LOVE IT! this is the best way to spend time with your partner!

  • James Walton

    Great story. Congrats to both of you!

  • ez

    I’ve been burned my Google Maps and other online map sources before.

    I’ll relate a similarly harrowing tale, as succinctly as I can, if only for my own purposes of commiseration.

    About four years ago, a friend and I planned a pre-Halloween excursion on road bikes that involved riding from Denver to the Chatfield Reservoir, up Deer Creek and High Grade (many will be familiar with the Schoolhouse that has cookies, Gatorade, water, and Advil that accepts donation for a Women’s shelter at the top). That part of the route I’ve done countless times, and is one of the longer climbs around the Front Range. Instead of taking the road (or one of many) Northward, we had planned to descend South to the South Platte River, where a gravel road follows the course of the river.

  • Andy Long

    *correction “Here’s where things went awry.*” -Sgt grammar Nazi

  • ez

    I’ve been burned my Google Maps and other online map sources before… which is why I bought an 810 and often recompile maps for it now.

    I have quite a few similar stories, but one stands out as being particularly reckless. An October pre-Halloween ride after some snowfall, which involved lots of climbing, gravel roads by a river (rednecks fishing, a weird biker bar in the middle of nowhere, all epic in their own way), that, of course, went awry. We thought we had found a “secret” road on a few maps, a few miles off of a gravel road near a USFS work camp. We took this route, though the sun was setting, and descended for six miles or so through bottom bracket deep snow… on road bikes with 25mm slicks. Of course, the maps lied and there was no “secret” road and instead we hiked for hours, breaking cleats, cages, losing bottles, and such before we found some single track, also covered in mud, ice, and snow. It was well past sundown and we ended up finding a road we knew, and amidst the howls of coyotes and other wildlife sounds, we raced back in darkness.

    It was cold. It was stupid. And one wreck would have been bad news. We should have turned around and climbed through the snow to a road we knew, but the promise of a new road was too strong to resist. Of course, this was all probably exacerbated by the shots we had at the biker bar.

    (If you’re from the Denver area this route would roughly be: Deer Creek -> High Grade -> Pleasant Park -> Running Deer -> Foxton -> Pine Valley -> bad decisions)

    If you’re going to try new roads, best be damn sure you’re ready for the worst.

    (Mini epilogue: I’ve ridden in that area a few times since that trip, and on a hardtail I did find some single track that cuts off of the road about a mile before the “secret” path… that shit just doesn’t exist anymore.)

    • Trevor Martin

      This route is easily one of my favorites in Denver, as I am relatively new to the area and without a car. Is Pleasant Park also known as the “cookie oasis”?

      • ez

        That’s the one! They don’t always have cookies though… but there is always, at least, Gatorade and water. I try to drop a $20 in the box every other ride. If you don’t want to drop to the South Platte (the descent is kind of just tight and steep, lots of braking), there’s another option just down the hill. Normally, I just go to Evergreen, but if you take that first right, you can hit the City View road. Kind of a rolling descent over a wee bit of gravel and busted up macadam, but worth it for the views of the skyline.

  • Majaco

    I can remember a few times going to Sequoia and the camps were closed when they were supposed to be open.

  • Brian Sims

    Rad trip report John!

    Reminds me of the time we got turned back by snow on the ACA Utah Cliffs Loop and ended up inside the gates of a ranch raising bull for the bull riding circuit. These are the unplanned adventures you never forget. Good times!

    • Yeah, I have a few of those filters, including the camo one. They just got misplaced in my move.

  • These diverse longer form pieces are what makes this site the best. Keep it up guys.

  • Dell Todd

    Adventure begins when certainty is removed! Awesome adventure and writeup. I hope it’s not too soon for Cari to begin planning the next trip!

  • Harrison Shotzbarger

    Seems like a good time, but definitely don’t take the deer antlers (glad you didn’t!). Gotta be a responsible visitor to the backcountry and practice good LNT ethics (#4). How cool was it to see the antlers? Everyone should be able to have that experience, and that’s not necessarily possible if people take stuff out with them. Also, there are small critters and bugs that feed on the antlers and their presence in the ecosystem plays a part we might not see directly, but may value down the line. Not trying to rant, but just trying to educate readers and do my part and as educator. Get out there and have fun in the woods, just know there’s an ethic to it ;)

    https://lnt.org/learn/7-principles

  • Isaiah Kramer

    Man, doing stuff with yer partner is what it’s all about. It always increases the difficulty/accountability/responsibility of an adventure but always is so rewarding. Really cool to read this very personal report–right on!

  • mjsenz

    One of the best write-ups I’ve seen on your wonderful site. I sometimes share your posts (abridged for language) with my 6th grade students. They’ll enjoy this one. I’m doing what I can to increase their stoke for cycling. We had an Amgen TOC party in my class after school yesterday, watching the crazy climb up Gibraltar.

    I’ll also be the first to say it – Marry that girl! Sorry, someone had to go there…

  • Grandpa

    Nothing like a good ole tick check!

  • Had kind of a similar experience on the first bikepacking trip I went on with Kelley. It was very hot, and VERY buggy in NH, where we had biked to. We did 100 miles over two days, which was a pretty impressive distance for Kelley, and we wild camped in a state park once we got there.

    It’s all about morale. Those little jokes you’re cracking on the way through the toughest part, that’s the MOST important part of being responsible for a new tour-mate, in my opinion. The backpacking experience helps, but just lightening the mood and reflecting confidence has done more for me than any amount of planning. All trips go awry- it’s the nature of doing cool shit in the woods. The question is how you handle it.

    This sounds like a textbook example of a good trip to me!

  • Five Sticker Rides

    Very excellent write-up as usual John. I hope Cari is keen for another trip soon. Ross.

  • Will Ashe

    Great report and photos, John. Quick question..how do you find the single door on the Fly Creek as opposed to a two door tent, specifically for two people? Thanks.

  • Carson

    Oh man that totally looks like a tick on Cari’s calf in the photo where she’s hiking over the downed tree.

    Took my ex bikepacking for one night last year. The ticks were her least favorite part, everything else was bearable/enjoyable.

  • I want to go bikepacking with you guys sometime!

  • charlesojones

    I missed this when first posted. Fun story.