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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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!