Ruta de Los Padres: Four Days Bikepacking the Sierra Madre and San Rafael Mountains

“We’re cultivating this weekend, a few weeks earlier than we normally do. It’s getting drier every year, and harder to grow grapes in a dry farm system”. This passing statement tickled somewhere on my brain stem as Steve’s words seeped in and we all gazed up at the Sierra Madres. I wondered if the mountains too might be getting drier every year just like down below at Condors Hope, the 20-acre ranch situated at the opening of Bates Canyon, the gateway into our four-day bikepacking mission.

Two years ago, nearly to the day, my friends Erin, Campbell, Ian, and I all came down to Condors Hope to embark on a similar long weekend trip to explore and experience the landscapes, otherwise referred to as the high steep broken mountains, that had, at the time, just been reopened to oil and gas leasing by the Trump administration. We returned from that trip two weeks before the world shut down from COVID, and well, you pretty much know the rest of that story.

Fast forward to early 2021, and Ian had put me in touch with his friend Christopher Blevins who was working on establishing a Fastest Known Time (FKT) of the Los Padres Traverse, an 80-something mile 11k ft of ascent route through these mountains. He and I connected a bit about our ride from a year earlier and I put him in touch with Erin who wrote the colorful account of our trip, and Robbie and Steve, two professors of mine from college and the owners of Condors Hope Ranch. Christopher ultimately completed his FKT and with it, a great video project that weaves in much more story than a simple bike ride.

This part of California is beautiful, serene, and rugged and is worthy of a pedaled traverse. What follows is a trip report to provide an overview of our route, ridden in four days, and offer a route condition report, if at a snapshot in time, for the course. It’s not a course to do unprepared, but with planning and prep you can have a beautiful time biking in these high steep broken mountains.

Day 1 – “The Break In” – Condors Hope Ranch to (almost) Alamar Camp – 41 miles, 7300 ft

The birds were the first ones up and alerted me to the morning. The bird songs penetrated the ear plugs, beanie, and sleeping bag blocking my ears and eyes from the dawn sun and morning chorus. I took my earplugs out and listened, hearing a different chorus of farts, loud sleeping mats, and the ignition of the first camp stove over at the picnic table. “Ahhh, it’s bikepacking” I thought to myself as I reached over my shoulder and let the air out of my own equally loud sleeping mat. Last minute packing, coffee, and topping off water got us to weigh in time promptly at 9am, ahead of schedule. Whenever we remember to, we bring a scale with us to the start of these trips to do a bike weigh in. Alex came in featherweight at 64 pounds, with food for four days and five liters of water. Our heavyweight champ was Josh, coming in at 81 pounds (plus a 3.5 pound camera).

We shoved off from Condors Hope, waving goodbye to Robbie and Steve and Cora (the dog). As Cora’s barks faded into the distance, and our gears clicked into our 46s or 50s respectively, we turned onto Foothill Rd to start our 8 mile, 3000 ft ascent to Sierra Madre Ridge. Bates Canyon has a quality of entering a portal, it’s unassuming on the approach but once you’re in, it’s like you’re riding deep into the world.

The pace was steady but spirited, everyone with fresh legs and decent rest coming into the trip. I was only familiar with part of the route we were setting out to do so I relished the familiar start to the course and pedaled with excitement thinking about the unknown depths we were destined for. We made great time up to Sierra Madre Ridge and ogled at the views that greeted us at the top, looking into the expansive San Rafael Wilderness. Our morning burritos were burning off so we pulled up right below McPherson Peak, and planted ourselves on the edge of the ridge, legs dangling into wilderness while almond butter, hot sauce, tuna packets, and leftover burritos came out. We were 10 miles away from our first water refill, at Montgomery Spring. We had cameled up (when you fill all your vessels) with water at Condors Hope at the start of the day but it was dry and warm and we were going through water steadily and I told everyone to drink up since we had two water stops for the day. We traversed the ridge on a ribbon of graduated sandstone heading towards Painted Rock and Montgomery Spring, bellies and hearts full.

Then the trip offered its first dose of reality. We dropped down a small singletrack and came up to Montgomery Spring, only to find an oil slick quagmire of mud and cow shit warming in the afternoon sun under a dry pipe. I did a quick double take to make sure I had my bearings right. Yep, this is it, it’s just not running. I said a couple of nonverbal expressions to myself, laced in fear and frustration, but kept my external composure and said to the guys “OK, Chokecherry Spring it is, that’s a more reliable spring”. We took the opportunity to explore Painted Rock, but my mind was 20 miles away, trying to manifest a gushing spring. Two minutes of pedaling back on course, and the full extent of Lions Canyon came into view. With midday sun, the rock was washed out and the cavernous pockets were harder to find with a visual scan, but the uniqueness of the canyon still left its mark.

With a steady stream of cortisol now coursing through my system, with intrusive thoughts of dry springs and drier mountains ahead, I tried plotting plan c. I think we’d have to press on, to find the next closest water instead of turning around to Condors Hope. With the very real threat of no water ahead, we next encountered road conditions that slowed us down quite a bit. A cow-trampled fire road that was muddy the week before, had sun-baked into a road that could only be described as a taint hammer. Even on hardtails, with 2.4s, this road beat us down for an hour with little relief. Once it was behind us we entered a fluffy substrate that had expanded from freezing the nights before and was now a soft bed of dirt pillows begging us to lie down and cut our losses than progress with any kind of efficiency. We were still the fortunate ones, however, because as we rode that section of the route we saw dry mud tracks and footprints that appeared to be from some poor souls who had endeavored a passage the weekend before. That would have been us too the week before if we hadn’t pushed our trip a week out, since a brief but strong winter storm dumped rain and snow in these mountains, turning the trail to slippery and apparently unrideable conditions.

We pulled up to Chokecherry Spring, aka the AfterBurner Inn, right at sunset. Water! The spring pipe was leaking, but if it wasn’t for the trough below it, we would have been hosed. We filtered out of the corner of the trough with no algae and cameled up, not knowing where our next water was going to come from. The air temp was plummeting at this point and layers were springing out of bags.

Within 15 minutes of departing the spring, I pulled up to Mike keeled over dry heaving and spitting. He had taken one too many pedal strokes and was in the overexertion hole. We walked for a while and then I hopped back on the bike to pedal ahead and see where the rest of the crew was. Josh was up ahead, freezing and so ready to end the day, that he pulled over and as a definitive sign of being done took his chamois off and put on his down pants. A few minutes later I came up on everyone, hanging out on a flat-ish pullout off the fireroad that looked like our camp for the night.
The temperature was dropping steadily and everyone got their tents set up and stoves going for whatever variation of freeze dried chicken risotto was on deck for the night. As for Mike, it was a miso soup and sleep in your bike shorts kind of night.

Day 2 – “Arriving” – (almost) Alamar Camp to Big Caliente Hot Springs – 48 miles, 5100 ft

We awoke to buttery sunshine and clear skies, magnitudes of quiet, and ripples of green, brown, and beige earth undulating in several directions. We assessed ourselves and determined the nuun tablets, miso, and risotto had done their jobs. We were sore from day one but we were breaking in, topped off, and ready for more riding. As we packed up, Kyle found an iphone on the ground and stashed it away, determined to find its owner when the trip was all over. [Quick fast forward, the owner was from Watsonville and had toured down to Ventura via Sierra Madre Ridge, he was reconnected to his phone a week later.] We climbed Big Pine Mountain for breakfast, riding through sun beams in between remaining snow patches and doing our best to avoid the hundreds of sugar pine cones covering the trail. As we crested the high point of the trip around 6300 ft. riding through a small concentration of pine forest clustered around Big Pine Mountain, we plunged 2000 ft. down in four miles on the south side of the mountain back into chaparral.

On our ripping descent, we pulled off at Bluff Camp, right along Indian Creek, to inspect the water scene. There were two spigots in the picnic area and we all cameled up again. As I was topping off my last bottle, the spigot I was at ran dry. I looked over at Kyle at the other spigot and it was still running so I figured it was just isolated. Then a minute later, just as the seven of us had finished filling five liters of water each, the second spigot ran dry. We couldn’t figure out exactly what had happened, maybe the tank was empty or there was a pump that needed to be refilled, but we were grateful nonetheless at the volumetric serendipity that offered 25 liters of water to fill us back up before running out. We agreed we should fill up to capacity at every chance we got from then on. Our next water stop turned into a rooftop lunch party at a backcountry rain catchment tank. We filtered water, and sat under the noon sun, sprawling out to rest our bones and refuel. Maybe as a necessary repayment for hauling 3 pounds of camera, Josh and Mike both carried gouda cheese, avocado, and salami, eating decadently while we heated our ramen and freeze dried beans.

Then, came the magnum opus of the route. We had all heard about the Santa Cruz Trail, the epic backcountry singletrack that defies your depth perception. From the start of the trail, we could only see the sheer relief of where we were headed with a vague suggestion of a trail snaking through the steep chaparral. And then, one by one, we descended. Tight turns, loose sand and scree, and some hairpins too sharp to make with loaded bikes characterized the beginning of the trail. We were etching ourselves on less than two feet of trail originally carved out by the Chumash hundreds of years ago, descending contours lines and whipping past lupines, California poppies, bush poppies, salvias, and other splashes of color. I tried to look down a couple times only to immediately experience the lurch of nearly riding off the edge. Nothing else could compete for our attention during that hour of descending. The only regret from this day is that we turned left on 19 Oaks Connector Trail and skipped the last couple miles of Santa Cruz Trail for what we thought would be a good shortcut, through what appeared to be a cool riparian zone. Turns out all of 19 Oaks Connector Trail was uphill, sorry guys.

Fortunately, the route offered us a magic carpet ride on Camuesa Road through stands of giant cottonwoods and a narrow rock canyon along the Santa Ynez River. Except for the two ATV riders in jean shorts and t-shirts, we were the only ones on the trail.

As we made our final turn for the day on Agua Caliente Rd. to head toward Big Caliente Hot Spring, I pulled up at the rear of the group and watched our tired crew pedaling up the canyon. Mike’s shirt looked like the bathtub rings of the Salton Sea we had pedaled by during our trip a couple winters prior. We were all tired and salty and ready to stop for the day, but our sinews were with the program by now. We had fully arrived into the bike packing state of mind, after 9000 ft of descending through steep rugged mountains.

Seven sore, tired, and dirtied bodies soaked in the hot spring that night by the big palm as the sweat soaked clothes slowly iced over for the night, freezing into whatever crumpled form they were left in.

Day 3 – “The Vision Quest” – Big Caliente Hot Springs to The Place – 70 miles, 9400 ft

It was daylight savings Saturday night so we set our alarms for early wake up to avoid losing a precious hour of the day. Day three was going to be our biggest day of climbing for the trip and we had a hard deadline of 7pm to reach “The Place” before they closed. We had budgeted our food for the trip around a proper dinner/breakfast from The Place so we were all running accordingly lean on food going into the day. It’s always a balancing act between bringing too much and too little on these trips to maximize weight and pack savings while bringing enough freeze dried pad Thai and snickers bars to fuel you to the finish line. We rolled away from Big Caliente with most of our clothes on, it was a frosty morning. We had 4000 ft of climbing and 20 miles on deck for the first part of our day, so we wanted to get an early jump on it.

Mike had never quite reemerged from the hole he dug on day one, so he was moving slow. The rest of the guys were spinning on up the climb and out in front. I hung toward the back trying to stay closer to Mike and keep tabs on him, while stopping to check out the flowers and soak it all in. I had lost sight of the guys ahead and Mike behind so I kept going until I rounded a corner and saw what appeared to be a mirage. Was I hallucinating? I looked ahead to see the rest of the crew holding beers and hanging out by two trucks with 10 people standing around. We’d been pretty much alone for the last 2.5 days so this was an unexpected scene.

Sure enough, we happened to pull over the crest of the climb right as the “Get It Done Crew” were emerging from a four day camping and trail work stint on the Ocean View Trail, a backcountry trail that dates back 100 years. According to the Ojai Valley Land Conservancy, the trail was built around 1903 by Ojai forest rangers, including Bob Clark and George Bald. Clark and Bald were among some of the most colorful and accomplished mountain men of the time, and Bald’s son, Howard, was the first forest ranger for the Ojai Ranger District. Today, the trail is stewarded by groups like The Get It Done Crew, a self described loose knit group of trail volunteers dedicated to the maintenance and preservation of trails in the Ojai Valley, and the crew leader Mike Gourley seemed every bit as real as those cold beers they handed us. We swapped stories and I think both groups were equally stoked to see the other out there, communing with the dirt. When they asked where we were going from there I showed them the route, and looks of surprise and puzzlement came over their faces. “You’re going over Old Man Mountain? And Monte Arido? Are you planning on hiking with your bikes?” I thought to myself, I never go hiking without my bike.

They were people that clearly knew the area, so we heeded their advice to avoid what sounded like a diabolical hike-a-bike and likely impassable trail and took the go around option. With Mike asking for a ride and knowing we had a lot more climbing and miles to cover, it seemed like the best option. Dirt descent and then pavement up and over? Should be a cake walk…

We dropped 2000 ft of ripping fire road, along the southern border of the Matillja Wilderness (our third wilderness area we’d passed by so far) until we reached Highway 33. Right as we were pulling up along the highway for lunch, the truck Mike was riding in rolled up, the timing was impeccable. We sat next to some dumpsters on a little highway pullout to cook up some ramen, risotto, or strogonoff, taking stock for what the rest of the day had in store for us. The mood was salty but lighthearted, all we had were pavement miles left before we’d be eating burgers and drinking cold beer at The Place, our food and camping stop for the night. I turned on my phone and found a bar of service to see that we had 45 miles to go to The Place, roughly 23 extra miles on top of the original day’s route.

We started cruising up a silky smooth paved highway with early afternoon sun beating down, it was toasty but not overly so. Our first climb was 2500 ft of non stop up. Josh and I pulled over at a campground general store in search of water, only to find two spigots that had signs above reading “contaminated”. Josh went inside to buy some water and I transferred what I had left in my downtube bottle into my frame bag bladder. We got back on the road and came up on Mike 20 minutes later, he was salty, hunched, and holding a thumb out. He was cooked, and planned to hitch a ride as far as he could. Josh and I kept going, looking at a ribbon of highway curling and stretching on ahead up and up and up. At some point we found the rest of the guys, huddled in some small shade and hands reaching into quickly dwindling snack stashes. We took stock of our energy, time of day, and how many miles we had left. None of us knew how much more climbing the go around would be but after two hours of up we were all hoping it was close to the end. Another remarkably impeccable drop off found Mike jumping out of the back of another truck. This time, he’d been picked up by people who were headed in the opposite direction but felt they had to help. They probably covered an extra 20 miles out and back to get Mike up to us.

Then, resident strong man and modern day popeye, Alex Work, told Mike to offload some gear and give it to Alex to lighten Mike’s bike. Alex grabbed Mike’s seat bag and strapped it on top of his handlebar bag, creating a double decker pile of bags, straps, and random clothes. We got back on the road and crested the climb, starting a welcome descent, and thinking we were golden. Mark made a passing comment at some point after recognizing he’d done a car rally on this road and said “oh we’re not done with climbing” but I didn’t dwell too much on it, we must be pretty close to the top.
This is when reality gave us our next big dose. A strong headwind had cropped up and the route started going up again, what we didn’t know was he had 15 more miles of climbing and headwind ahead of us. As most of us seem to do during headwinds, our optimism, spirit, and energy slowly erode with every pedal stroke. I had pulled over at some point with Josh to diagnose a loud creak on his bike, only adding to the misery of the conditions. He got going again and I pulled over to pee and grab a layer. The sun was still out but the wind was sharp and chilling, I palmed a mouthful of cashews and chugged some water, I was starting to wear down myself. I was riding solo in the back of the group at this point so I put on some tunes on my little clip speaker and put the volume all the way up, it wasn’t loud enough to hear over the wind gusts but I didn’t care, I needed something to stimulate my brain other than headwind and tired legs.

I knew we were in trouble when I caught up to Josh, and he said something to the effect of “this fucking wind is fucking killing me, I’m fucking feeling it man”. For anyone who knows Josh, say fucking that much is completely normal, but being tired on a bike ride is not. Josh is the kind of guy who will half wheel you, talking the entire time, up a climb, while you’re gasping for air trying to figure out how to make your mouth bigger to heave more oxygen into your lungs. At this point in the day, we were all riding by ourselves, spaced out over a mile or more and in our individual suffering caves running whatever internal monologue of regret, expletives, dream food, and other random thoughts that tend to occupy your mind when you’re on the edge of bike packing bonk (a particular type of bonk you get when you’re several days in). I pedaled ahead of Josh, feeling a little more go in my legs than him. I was staring at my front tire when I heard a bellow in the wind and looked up to see Alex peeing on the side of the road. I hadn’t even noticed his bike lying in the dirt pullout five feet away from me. I would later find out that it was during this pee break that Alex had the unmistakable realization that he was barreling for bonk town. Alex had the unfortunate feature of a double decker front bag which Josh later coined the “hostess bread truck”, so Alex had arguably the worst conceivable bag setup for the headwind conditions we were riding in. In his moment of realization, he told me he had an all hands on deck meeting with himself and took stock of his food supplies left and made some strategic caloric volleys to battle the bonkers back down from whence they came…it worked, just barely.

I gave a half hearted head nod and kept slogging, trying to stay low to do something for the headwind. I came up next to Kyle, who was out of the saddle pushing his XL Tallboy full squish bike like a champ, and he lamented the facts saying “one pedal at a time eh?” I nodded and kept going. In the distance, I saw Mark, and I could tell long before reaching him what kind of state he was in. I’ve ridden thousands of miles with Mark over the years and invariably his riding gestalt is well paced and springy. He’s the dad of two kids, runs a successful business, and manages to stay in better shape than most of us who have half those responsibilities. He was turning the pedals over like he was riding in molasses, and when I got up to him I laughed and said “diabolical” to which he responded in an uncharacteristically serious tone “don’t say that word Matt, don’t you say it”. What I came to find out later is that a few minutes after I rode off from Mark, he came to a stop on the side of the road, and just stood there. It wasn’t until Josh and Alex rolled up and asked Mark if he was okay that he answered “No, I am not okay, if I had phone service I’d call for a bail out right now, I’m done”. Then it was an all hands on deck moment and bags were scoured for the last calories to get Mark back from the brink. During the emergency feed session, a shiny Ford Raptor pulled up in the road and out of the window a guy asked “Hey, are you the group riding from Condors Hope?”Josh and Alex nodded yes. Then Mark looked up and started to ask a question, “can I get a riiiii, um, a riiiide?” and the guy asked if he needed to call in backup since he was driving the other direction. Mark just looked down and said nevermind. The three of them got back on the road and Alex then pulled a move that he had done with me back in 2016, on day two of the Stagecoach 400, when I was suffering from heat exhaustion and falling asleep while biking, he starting singing and didn’t quit for 45 minutes, all to keep Mark going.

I kept riding, finding the cashews were kicking in by this point, and found Mike a little ways ahead. Mike was pedaling well and when I got to him, he was tired but alert and making some good strides. I started talking about the burgers, beer, French fries, and milkshakes that were just down the road and imagining how good they would taste. Each food I mentioned, Mike went from saying yes to yelling YES! as if each image of food amounted to that much more energy and enthusiasm for the moment. I finally caught the front, and found Troy steadily plugging along on his new green Onko Rinkus El Borracho bikepacking unit, finally realizing seven years of bike packing on a bike specially made for him and this type of riding. He grunted a bit and asked when the climb was over and I couldn’t give him an answer other than “hopefully soon, Troy”. As I rode along with Troy for a couple minutes, I glanced down at my watch and looked up at the low hanging sun, it was 5:45. The Place was going to be closing in an hour and fifteen minutes. At that point I realized I had to just keep going. I looked over at Troy and said “Hey Troy, I’m going to ride as hard as I can for as long as I can to try to get to The Place before they close, will you tell the guys I’m going to do that?” he nodded and said “Go Matthew”.

What followed was approximately a 50 minute individual time trial where I put my head down and pedaled until every fiber in my being was on fire. While the wind and fatigue was getting to me, the thought of not reaching the place for a warm meal, and more importantly, letting the guys down on this route I put together was just not an option. I finally crested Pine Mountain Summit around 5100 feet and then started pedaling downhill into the headwind. What I would later come to find out is that the summit is where the guys regrouped and ate every last pickle, gummy worm, and PROBAR they had left trying to find enough reserve to make the final stretch. I finally started to see some structures in view and when I passed by the sign for Ventucopa, population 92, I knew I had made it. I pulled up to The Place at 6:35pm, and nearly crashed my bike right into the front of the building. I dismounted and walked on rubbery legs with white spots flashing in my visual field. I was altered. As I was pulling my wallet out to go inside, I looked up to see another salty bike packer with jorts and a mustache, and said some vaguely intelligible comment about a big ride and hunger and lots of other guys and headwinds and then just headed indoors.

I sat at the bar and ordered the tallest beer they had and looked at the menu, not comprehending what I was looking at. I tried to explain where I had come from and that there were six other guys on their way and that we’d be ordering 14 meals and lots of beer at a minimum. She gave me a kind smile and said, you can order right up until we close at 7pm. The two other bike packers, Emmanuel and Matt, were finally eating lunch at 6:45, a signal for what kind of day they had.

Then, one by one, I saw the rest of the crew peeling off the road. Everyone managed to make it by 6:55pm. We hugged each other like some major life event had just happened. It’s ridiculous, but I think in some ways, we just felt like heroes. We all dug deep that day to make it to The Place, and for Mark, he dug too deep. As we all settled in at the bar, ordering food and beer and recounting all the trials from the day, Mark sat at the end of the bar with a plate full of food and beer but just sat with his head on one hand and a 7UP in the other. At some point, Mark got up and said “Alex, I need you to set up my tent and put me to bed”. He hadn’t touched his food and I knew he was deep in bonkland. I went out with Alex and Mark and helped set up his tent, getting his clothes out and wrapping him up in his sleeping bag, and a space blanket to warm him up. We put his sandwich out by his tent and let him nod off, he needed to warm up and let the 7UP do its job.

In hindsight, we probably would have been just fine if we hadn’t made it to the place by close. We could have shared our remaining freeze dried meals and snacks, and probably would have been hungry but ultimately ok. But in that moment, The Place was everything.

We ate, drank, and watched the shooting stars from the picnic table outside The Place. They don’t officially advertise this but The Place will let you camp out if you’re a customer of theirs and it’s one of the best campgrounds for miles.

Day 4 – “Back to the ranch” – The Place to Condors Hope Ranch – 37 miles, 1200 ft

It was the kind of day where you had a tailwind and it was slightly downhill the whole way, the sun and wind were in perfect alignment where our skin stayed warm and the wind was ambient. The hunger and thirst and bonk and tired muscles all faded into some grainy memory.

As we paralleled Highway 166 riding west on Foothill Rd, we looked up and saw Lion’s Canyon, this time from the valley floor. Just three days prior we had pedaled past that pocketed overlook, looking down at the distant valley floor, none of us realizing at the time we’d be looking back up at ourselves after more ups and downs than any of us could have anticipated. Smiles and the hum of knobby tires on pavement greeted that moment, while a Red Tailed Hawk escorted us along the road.

In total, the route was completed in four days. Approximately 23 hours of ride time, ~196 miles, and ~23,000 feet of climbing.