Bikepacking with BMXers on Cross Bikes in the Santa Cruz Mountains
Photos by Brian Barnhart, words by Brian Barnhart, Bill Arlew, and Sam Pederson
Introduction by Brian Barnhart
As much as I love bikepacking, I just don’t do it enough. Living in Santa Cruz, it is so easy to surf, BMX, hike or mountain bike, and then spend the night at home. I can’t complain about the accessibility. But when I got a group text about scheduling a long weekend of bikepacking, I was in! The group got narrowed down to two guys I had never met, but I knew we would bond over the experience.
After some planning and a few bike mods, the morning came to pedal into the mountains. The three of us got acquainted sharing singletrack and fire roads, and discussing our packing setups along the way. Billy and Sam had an exciting route planned, now it was time to put it to the test. Three days of riding and two nights of camping in Castle Rock State Park and Butano State Park respectively.
Our bikes and packs created a bond within our group, and also with folks that we talked to along the way. We shared an enthusiasm for being in the middle of nowhere, pedaling our way in and finding our way out. The recently drenched forest was alive with newts, banana slugs, and vegetation, and at night a campfire gave it warmth. We challenged our bodies and were rewarded with endless views and mysterious fog topped mountains. The descents flew by at exhilarating rates, full attention given to every bump, rock, tree, angle and edge. And the flat terrain provided a time to relax and appreciate it all.
We rode hard, and sometimes walked hard when the grade got too steep. We came out better riders and more prepared for next trip. We found that feeling we all crave when we are off our bikes. It happens when the conditions are just right, and our brains narrow our thoughts down to what is happening right now. For us it was climbing steep hills then bombing down the other side through redwoods, chalky bluffs, open meadows, and coastal roadways. Being cold and wet, then warming up as the time and miles passed. Stimulated by scenic overload, quiet of deep forest, and the scent of untouched wilderness we smiled all the way home.
Reportage by Billy Arlew
As I was getting ready to go on this bicycle adventure, my wife joked that I might be just as satisfied by planning the trip as actually going on it. It’s true that maps, gear, bikes, and food all captivate my mind. I love finding routes that maximize singletrack, planning delicious meal stops along the way, picking my favorite pieces of gear and meticulously strapping them onto my bike. The hardest part of all this is picking a date and actually doing the damn thing. Enter the group text – 6 or 7 phone numbers I didn’t recognize, a whole bunch of maybe’s, and finally three people were committed: Me, Sam and another dude named Brian, who neither of us had met. I’d heard he rode BMX though, so I was sure we’d all get along. During the week of distracted office work leading up to the trip, Sam and I chatted furiously online, swapping Strava routes and links to others’ ride reports. Ray Hosler from Bay Area Bike Rides offered great advice from his days riding dirt roads in the Santa Cruz Mountains with Jobst Brandt. These guys had ridden this stuff more than 30 years ago on steel road bikes. It felt good to be building on such a rich tradition of getting in over our heads.
The night before the trip, Sam and I stayed up until 2 AM packing and repacking our bikes, making sure everything was in its right place. In the morning we met Brian for the first time, and instantly knew this was going to be a radical trip. We all had pretty much the same setup: flat bar converted cyclocross bikes with the biggest tires we could fit. Even our gear was packed remarkably similarly – up high and without panniers. This was going to be shreddy.
It wasn’t long before our tires hit dirt. After all, the trip’s M.O. was to ride singletrack over fire road and fire road over paved road. We decided to head up to UCSC like we would any other ride. After a quick stop at the Buddha fort and some photos, we were down Leaf trail and into Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, home of some amazing old-growth redwoods. We messed around for a while, then had to crush a couple road miles on Hwy 9 to get to Boulder Creek. I could tell the guys were rushing to get it over with, but my legs were quivering as I struggled to hold their wheel. I’d been off the bike for a month healing some knee stitches, and I wasn’t quite up to speed yet. To catch a quick breather, I motioned to pull off the highway – I’d never been to the Ben Lomond Skatepark! Since I’d caught my breath, I figured I might as well do a couple laps around the park. I hit the tabletops and carved the bowl with all of my bikepacking gear, ahahah! My bike wasn’t as flexy as I thought it would be, but oh boy don’t get off line! That place is slippery.
By the time we hit Boulder Creek, we were ready for food. Burritos were an easy answer for lunch, but Sam and I were also planning to stock up for dinner. Brian had smartly packed dry food the night before, so he waited patiently outside while Sam and I wandered around New Leaf Market for what felt like forever, trying to decide what we’d want to eat 3,000 vertical feet later. A six pack of Ballast Point, sausages, sweet rolls, potato salad, and chocolate sounded about right – it was to be a feast!! Oh and yeah, grab some whiskey too! Outside again, that whole bike rack bike loading game became a true bikepacking bike packing conundrum. Good thing I had a basket and a big porteur bag! I agreed to max out my super front-loader, and we set off.
A few minutes later, right when we turned off Hwy 9, a switch flipped. We were finally venturing into territory unfamiliar to any of us. The road quickly turned to gravel and we were rubbernecking our way along a creek in the lush redwoods. We found a public park with relics of old dirtbike trails and hit a couple berms for fun. We had instructions to turn right at an ashram, and not wanting to disturb anybody, we accidentally zipped right past it. Pretty soon we were walking our bikes – it was really, really steep and all the road signs said to keep out – silent meditation community ahead. So we pushed our bikes even more quietly and stopped talking altogether. Seemed respectful enough. After at least half an hour, a dead end at the top of a terrible hill crushed our meditative spirits and we had to turn around. Backtracking down the steep fire road was tenuous for me – I was taking extra care not to piss off the six-pack in my front bag. I thought it was going to be a nice slow uphill all the way to the campsite! I got my wish I guess, because after we took the OTHER turn at the ashram, the road went uphill for what felt like at least 4 HOURS. Again we were pushing our bikes about as much as we were riding them, but this time we were rewarded with amazing views. The dirt road followed an exposed chaparral ridgeline with a view to Monterey around one corner, and to Pescadero around the next corner. Photo ops abounded as the light slowly faded. We stayed together the entire climb, just taking our time and basking in the sun like lizards.
Near the top of the climb we came upon the mirage of an apple tree. Instantly we dropped our bikes and ran into the field to gorge ourselves on the sweet fruit! We were shaking the tree and filling the front of our shirts like children when Brian spotted a persimmon tree and danced across the field to harvest it. Eating those apples in that field felt like a fairy tale, so simple and free, but with a tinge of danger. Something about forbidden fruit or poison apples – I think dogs were barking… Anyway, no more than 30 seconds after we’d remounted, with apples practically falling out of our pockets and bags, we saw the only car we’d seen in hours! Breathlessly we watched him pass, his windows rolled up, scowling super hard at us. Holy shit that was sketchy! I looked over at Brian with wide eyes and we sprinted off! To our surprise Sam was waiting for us right around the corner! After 15 or so miles on a dirt road, we’d encountered an angry home-owner just 200 feet before we were back on “public” land.
Our overnight camp was a few road miles away, so we flipped on our lights and pacelined to the turn-off. Castle Rock Trail Camp is a mile off the highway down a ripping fire road. What a sublime way to arrive at camp! We were full of adrenaline and pumped to be exactly where we were. Brian and Sam set up their tents while I cracked beers and started making food. We feasted as planned, still basking in the glory of the day’s epic views and looking forward to the next day’s descent.
I woke up abruptly at 5AM the next morning, very confused. I was half inside my tent, half outside my tent, with my face in the dirt and a sore throat from hours of awkward snoring. I felt terrible. By the grace of Sam, there were two full water bottles next to me. Shortly thereafter, both were empty. Best choice I made that day was to chug those bottles. Inflating my air mattress, erecting my tent, and passing out for another few hours were also good choices.
Remember that hill-bomb down into camp the night before? Well let’s just say it made for a nice warm up the next morning. As we climbed up the fire road I sweat out most of the previous night’s poor decisions, and by the top I was ready to shred again. We crossed Skyline Boulevard and headed straight onto singletrack. Our tires wouldn’t hit another public road for 12 hours, as we would follow the Skyline singletrack to a secret Truck Trail, and on down some more singletrack to the Old Haul Road. The truck trail was extremely steep and loose, but fun and relatively unridden as far as we could tell. Things got really good when it narrowed back to singletrack: I was out front, the trail hardly discernable at times, snapping through fallen branches and twigs. It was clear no one had been up this way in quite some time – especially not bikes. We descended through grassland and chaparral, along live oaks and bay laurel trees, and ultimately into the dense redwood valleys below.
A brief moment of sketchiness gripped us as we emerged from our forbidden singletrack onto the park’s broken asphalt. Luckily no one was around so we broke for lunch and inspected our bikes after the epic 3500’ downhill we’d just blasted. Even after all the amazing riding we’d done that day, we were still planning on a 1500 foot singletrack climb and descent which would take us up to Butano ridge and down to our campsite in Butano State Park. Old Haul Rd. was the perfect cooldown for our adrenaline-filled neural systems, and then, just as we were expecting to find our singletrack connector, another feeling of sketchiness grabbed hold of us as we rolled up to 5 empty Park Ranger trucks. They were all parked right at the entrance to the trail we were going to take! None of us wanted to find out why they were there, so we just decided to keep on going as any law-abiding cyclist in their right mind would have.
Considering this change of plans, and knowing we had just skipped an extra 1500 feet of climbing, we decided to explore some of the low-lying singletrack near the Old Haul Road. We were swooping and whooping, taking every trail option, and even crossing a few creeks. Was this really our life now? Would we always wander these mountains with our possessions strapped to our bikes? As we munched our foraged apples from the day before, it really felt like we could. This time we spent diverted from our original route was some of the most memorable of the trip. We were rolling with the punches, we had all the time in the world – we had achieved that bike touring flow-state after only one night.
At a certain point the sun waved goodbye and the carelessness of the day was replaced by the strong urge to set up camp for the night. We ripped down the 6 road miles to Pescadero and stocked up for dinner and the next morning’s breakfast. There was a bit of heartbreak when we found out the fabled Arcangeli Sourdough Artichoke Herb Bread that we’d been looking forward to all day was in fact not Vegan. It didn’t stop Sam and I from buying a loaf, but I won’t forget the look on Brian’s face when we read the bread had butter in it. We rounded out our snacks with vegan-approved chips and dip and limped over to the taqueria for our second Mexican meal of the trip. We swapped stories with some locals and each changed into our night gear in the gas station bathroom. We had couple more miles of cold, dark road riding before we’d arrive at camp. We finally arrived around 9PM, paid the very kind camp host, and strapped two bags of firewood to our bikes. Fire! We didn’t have any the night before and oh what a difference it made. Our campsite was protected from the other car campers so it was quiet, and each of our tents were nestled at the base of our own massive redwood tree.
It was pretty amazing to wake up at the base of a gigantic redwood. It was also nice to wake up all the way in my tent, cozy and hydrated, unlike the morning before. I made some #coffeeoutside for energy and some #topramenoutside for strength, while the others hung around the fire and broke camp. It was a very relaxed thing we were doing, especially compared to the 3-family campground-compound that was being loaded into a fleet of SUVs next door. I always love seeing bike campers juxtaposed against car campers. As we left the park we spotted some singletrack and thought it might connect us to Gazos Creek Fire Road without hitting any pavement. After chasing some hikers up a steep fire road, they confirmed we were in fact on the wrong path. We felt like heading back toward Cloverdale Rd, but my phone was able to download a PDF trail map of the park and I identified a cool-looking singletrack connector none of us knew about. So we continued onward and upward past the hikers and as soon as we split off from the fire road we were in a Rivendell-esque fairyland of moss and pine. We knew we were not supposed to be there, but maybe if we just moved quickly enough, no one would see us…. Of course that’s when we heard a ranger truck out on the fire road, but luckily we ducked out of sight and they didn’t see us…just barely! We proceeded onto our newfound connector trail and boy was it good! Almost all downhill and so beautiful! There were valley views, a myriad of ecosystems, and one of the biggest, baddest trees any of us had ever seen. At the bottom it was at least 12 feet across and 40 feet around, but about 8 feet up it split into 5 or 6 separate trunks which were each big in their own right. We spent a while soaking up it’s majesty, taking pictures, snacking, climbing, etc.
Eventually we connected with the Gazos Creek Fire Road and up up up we went. It was stunning in the rain: the leaves on the trees were glistening and ground was bright orange with redwood duff. Chalk Mountain (Road) was to be Sunday’s highlight and having only heard about it but not ridden it, we had little idea of what was in store. The day’s rainclouds were hanging heavy in between the ridges of the mountains, and our fire road was cut through a unique range of exposed shale ridgelines amidst an otherwise very dense redwood forest. The exposed hilltops provided us with stunning 360 degree vistas. It felt like we were riding on the moon! We grunted up mountain after mountain, growing weary but not really wanting it to end. We wanted to make Sisyphus proud!
As luck would have it, we made it to Chalk Mountain at exactly 4:20. From there, the next 20 minutes were an uninterrupted fire road descent to Highway One, where the pavement awaited us. I think I avoided approximately 1,352 newts on this descent at an average speed of 28 miles an hour! Mother nature rewarded us for swerving and bunny-hopping around her little newt babies by serving up a spectacular sunset. From Highway One we saw the rays reflecting off the waves and we switched on our lights for the 20 mile ride back into Santa Cruz. A lot of locals do this part of the ride – 11 miles out to Davenport and back. For us though, it was the cooldown from a weekend-long mind-blowing experiment in singletrack. Still glowing from our journey, we opted for the farm roads along the PCH, and even decided to ride the bluff trails outside Santa Cruz so that we’d adhere to our ride’s singletrack M.O. Our very last bit of trail took us through Natural Bridges State Park. Lights ablaze, toes cold and spirits high, then an OH SHIT moment: a flashlight and a ranger attached to it! She was a bit flabbergasted by the three guys romping through her park at 9 PM with all their camping gear. Were they homeless? A strange twist of fate, after three days of riding questionably legal trails, to be were confronted by law enforcement less than a mile from home. She let us off with a stern warning and we laughed it off as we rode West Cliff Drive into town, cherishing that last bit of natural beauty before heading back into our rectangular dwellings with central heat. We finished our trip with soggy feet and warm hearts, just like any other ride. Only.. more so.
Reportage by Sam Pederson
They say that when you die, your entire life flashes before your eyes and the most vivid moments stand out to you. If this is true, I imagine that my bikepacking adventures will be a major standout. They are anomalies in my life, where everyday worries are replaced by a much more awesome set of concerns: how to get from point A to B, and how to do it in the raddest way possible. For a short time, my only priority is to try to satisfy my wanderlust, and I almost feel like a different person entirely.
I got into bikepacking because it combines many things I love: mountain biking, bike touring and backpacking. Bikepacking allows me to go farther than I could ever go on foot. Bike tours (on the road) are fun, but ride singletrack to camp, and you add the shred factor. I am a lifelong BMX rider and regardless of what type of bike I’m on, my natural inclination is to jib. What is to jib?
From Urban Dictionary:
“Verb. To jib. Jibbing. The act of maneuvering a bicycle, skateboard, snowboard or skis in tricky manner on top of and around a structure such as a stump, rocks, stairs, railings, rooftops, etc. When you are playing around, showing off, jumping, flipping, hopping, etc you are jibbing.”
My earliest experiences on a bike were just wandering around the neighborhood on my BMX, jumping curbs. That’s why I was so excited to organize a bikepacking trip with some of my BMX brethren. I knew it would be much more than just a bike tour. It was a large group initially, but in the end it was three guys: Billy, Brian, and myself. Billy and I had zero hesitation about spending two nights and three days with Brian, who we had never met, because we had a lot of friends in common. And we knew that Brian, with his BMX background, would bring the right mentality to the trail. As the date drew nearer, we shared route ideas. We were all willing to bend the rules a bit and ride some illegal trails, as long as they were out of the way, where we’d be unlikely to see anyone. We all valued singletrack over fire road, and fire road over paved roads.
We emailed each other links to sights, and read trail reviews. Conditions in the Santa Cruz mountains were as dry and as dusty as I’ve ever seen them, but then about a week before the trip, something amazing happened: rain. Not just rain, but a good soaking. Temperatures were cool, so the rain didn’t dry out. We had hero dirt. This opened up possibilities for us. The Santa Cruz Mountains are known for towering, evergreen redwood forests, with loamy soil. But hidden in the mountains are a number of lesser known yet equally amazing set of environments known as the Santa Cruz Sandhills. 15 million years ago, the entire region was under the sea, and these Sandhills are actually ancient seabeds.
In the Sandhills, there are no Redwoods, Oaks or ferns, because they can’t grow in the sandy soil. Instead, there are pines, chaparral, manzanita, desert shrubs, and various odd looking plants. The soil varies from half-loam to chunky “kitty litter” to white and golden sand. It’s barely rideable in the summer, because it’s too loose. But in the winter, the sand becomes packed down, fast and tacky. Perfect for riding after a good rain. This sealed the deal: yes, we would explore redwood forests, but with winter conditions, we were also going to ride some sand.
I won’t go into all of the details of our route, because that’s a secret. All I will say is that it exceeded my expectations in every way. We were awestruck by the sights, sounds and smells of a forest coming alive after months of drought and heat. We stopped for tacos and picked up fresh, organic food along the way. We foraged for apples. We got lost in the woods, and then found our way out. We saw an amazing old growth redwood that we all agreed was the most amazing tree we had ever seen. We dodged newts and banana slugs around almost every corner.
We rode our bikes all day, and saw very few people along the way, because we chose the route less traveled. We passed through many environments: Everything from lush redwood forests to oak woodlands to dry Sandhills to coastal bluffs. We went from sea level to three thousand feet, then back to sea level again. We climbed over 13,000 feet and descended the same amount. We couldn’t help but carve every berm, pump every roller, and jib off of any jump we could find along the way. We pushed the limits of our fully loaded, rigid bikes, and even stopped to session spots. These are my most fond moments of the trip.
At those moments, it didn’t matter that I was riding a fully rigid, fully loaded bike. It didn’t matter that I am a grown man and adult responsibilities were long forgotten. I was just a kid again, with a couple of other kids, out on a mission to wander around on our bikes, see awesome things, and get rad. We came home with vivid memories that will be with us for a lifetime, and maybe even flash before our eyes at the end.