Once I finished the John Muir Trail (much more about that here) this summer, I figured that the only way to celebrate 25 days of hiking was to go mountain biking for two weeks. This is the story of those weeks.
It was nighttime - way past JMT bedtime - by the time my boyfriend, Audun, arrived in Mammoth. He had an absolutely heroic drive, picking up the rental car at the airport in San Francisco directly after flying in from Norway with both of our bicycles, and then driving 6 hours to Mammoth through the night Norway time. He is the only person I know who could do that. I had had one day of respite from the JMT, and spent it eating and walking around Mammoth, looking up good bike routes.
The next morning, me, Audun, Zoe, Mom and Dad went out for an enormous breakfast at the Stove before the rest of the family headed to San Fransisco for the flight home. The Stove's a popular place, so we had to wait in line. The result was that I was super hungry by the time we sat down, and order one of the biggest breakfasts on the menu. I have the appetite of a small wolf, I thought as I tucked in. My stomach was not on board with my brain however, and a half an hour later I had a serious tummy ache that lasted for the rest of the day. I simple wasn’t used to that much rich food after a month on the trail!
Despite the late start, Audun and I got in two laps on the Mammoth Rock Trail, Strava data here.
The day was hazy, actually smoky, because of the proximity of some forest fires, so we didn’t get the spectacular view of the Sierras we could have had. But Mammoth Rock Trail provided good, mellow, mountain biking fun - the perfect start to the many days of biking our trip would contain.
Audun under Mammoth Rock
The next day, we forked over 50 bucks for lift tickets, and explored the paradise of the Mammoth Bike Park. Unlike most of bike parks I’ve ridden in, it wasn’t super downhill-oriented. There were even stretches of trail that were meant to be ridden uphill! For once I was happy not to be riding a bike with 200 mm of travel...
On Juniper Trail (I think)
Audun rides a super-double-black-diamond pro segment, or whatever the rating system called it.
I was also surprised by the rating system for the trails. In Norway, it’s usually just green, blue, red and black. At Mammoth there was no red, but there was black diamond, double black diamond and pro, which made it sound like all of these trails would be really hard. After trying first a blue, then a black diamond, then a double black diamond, I started to feel like the system was a bit inflated.
I was even more surprised to learn I had ridden a ‘pro’ stretch of trail - just a steep ramp at the end of some technical singletrack. The grading was definitely soft in on some trails, but maybe not on this one:
Audun goes off the big jump.
Luckily there was a chicken run!
We then drove north to Tahoe, hoping to get away from the fire smog and test some legendary trails. In retrospect, Tahoe was our favorite biking of the whole trip. The trails were technical, but graded so that most of the riding was fun uphill as well as down. They climbed up through beautiful forests to sweeping alpine vistas, and were devoid of hikers.
Headed up to Armstrong Pass the first day in Tahoe.
Our first day in Tahoe, we biked up to Armstrong Pass and over to a challenging downhill trail called Mr Toad’s, Strava data here. I was in a daring mood, and biked down a bunch of technical pitches that I usually would have stopped, inspected and probably chicken out on. Clocking in 1200 vertical meters starting at 2000 meters was a hard day, but we agreed to put in one more day of riding in the marvellous terrain.
Audun along the alpine meadow above Armstrong Pass
The second day in Tahoe, we biked up to Star Lake and around Freel Pass to Armstrong Pass, and then down the same way we had biked up the first day (Strava data here). Soon after heading out, we had the choice between biking up a trail or a dirt road. Thinking to conserve energy, we opted for the dirt road. This turned out to be a mistake. The road did long, steep rollers with grades of close to 25%. My legs burned, and I only managed to bike the whole road because it flattened out enough occasionally to stop and have a breather.
The riding grew fun when we finally got on a trail, but I was glad when we finally topped out at Star Lake. I was starting to feel our fourth day in a row biking!
Poising at Star Lake before the obligatory alpine lake skinny dip.
The trail continued slightly uphill under Freel Peak, and then headed down in some exposed singletrack to Armstrong Pass. I had to work hard to stay on my bike. Although I wouldn’t have minded narrow trail if I was walking, riding a bike sometimes make feel like I’m perched on a pedestal, about to tip off. Maybe some day it will feel natural!
The trail final flattens out and I relaxed
After our last ride in Tahoe, we headed out to drive across Nevada to Utah. We kept looking for a place to eat dinner, hoping to find a charming diner in one of the black-dot towns on our road map. The towns just got smaller and smaller the further we got into Nevada. We finally had to drive past Walker Lake, where we had planned to camp, to go into Hawthorne, which was our last real prayer of finding food. Driving into the tiny town that hosts a military base of some sort, we were both praying for any-any sign of food. We saw the golden arches from the outskirts in town and cheered. I have never been so glad to see a McDonalds. Luckily we didn’t have to eat there, as Hawthorne also hosted a Pizza Factory (we toss ‘em - they’re awesome!)
We pulled into the BLM campsite along Walker Lake well after dark, and spent a fitfull but cheap night there listening to semitrucks blaze down the interstate. In the morning we woke up to a spectacular view of the lake:
The 3 dollar campsite at Walker Lake.
…but also realized we could have camped further away from the main road and closer to the lake’s shore. Too bad!
We spent the whole next day driving across relentless Nevada, stopping to buy beaf jerky from a talkative guy in Beatty, outside of Death Valley. We pulled through St George, Utah, and stopped just long enough to dig up a mountain bike guide book to the area and some food.
This is what all of Nevada looks like from a car. I’m not kidding.
We finally reached our destination for the day, Zion National Park, but the park campground was full, so we spent the night at a kitchy B&B in Rockville. The next day would be a rest day from biking, we decided. We would go hiking in the Narrows in Zion. After reading all the information pamphlets that said one must have special canyoneering shoes and a special walking stick to hike in the Narrows, we decided to disregard all of that sage advice and see how far we could get in our Tevas.
Further than most people, it turned out.
Audun in the Narrows. Note the people correctly outfitted with walking sticks in the background.
The first part of the Narrows was basically a zoo, but if you were willing to hike for longer than 30 minutes you can get past the crowds. Then you can feel the silence of the towering canyon walls that extend hundreds of feet above you. Some people do backpacking trips all the way through the Narrows, but I was happy to just do a day hike. Since you can't see further than the next bend in the river, the whole experience very quickly starts to feel like a trip to nowhere. And if you a person with OK balance and tolerance for semi-cold water, you don’t need fancy canyoneering shoes and a stick.
The next day we decided to get up early to try and beat the heat at Gooseberry Mesa outside of Zion. Of course, this was the day when the alarms we set didn’t go off properly, and I woke up with a start a half an hour after we had planned to get up. We packed up quickly and drove off the Mesa, following the instructions in our handy guidebook. And then the driving became extreme.
The road turned from asphalt to dirt and became deeply rutted and pitted. Still a few miles away from destination, we came to a section of road so steep it took two tries to get up it in our underpowered Ford Compass. This is when we realized why everyone drives pick-ups around here. Our mini-SUV just wasn’t cutting it. But on a hope and a prayer, we made it to the parking lot and were able to indulge in the winding slickrock trails of Gooseberry Mesa (Strava data here).
Audun enjoys the view of the edge of the Mesa.
The trails were truly disorienting, twisting to and fro until you couldn’t figure out where you had come from or what direction you were looking. Once I got used to the idea that yes, my tires would stick to the slick-in-appearences rock, I had good time.
Audun rounds another crazy rock formation.
Although the mesa was a cool place to ride for a day, I decided I like rides where you don’t go round and round in circles, but where you actually get to the top of something.
Me on the slickrock.
The day heated up quickly, and by 11 o’clock we left the Mesa to drive out to Bryce Canyon. We arrived at the Canyon in time for a nice hike. Again, the goal was to get just a little bit further than most tourists, and if you are willing to hike for more than 30 minutes, you are quickly alone on the trails.
If you’re not familiar with Bryce Canyon, it’s famous for these crazy hoodoos, towering red rock formations that form in alternating frost and thaw cycles:
Audun and a Hoodoo.
Unfortunately, you’re not allow to ride mountain bikes in National Parks. Luckily for us, our guidebook let us in on an amazing secret. You can bike among the Hoodoos - in Red Canyon just outside the National Park!
If Tahoe was our favorite trails, Red Canyon was the most spectacular (Strava data here). After driving for 20 minutes from the campground at Bryce, we pedalled up a dirt road which quickly became an undulating trail through the forest. The trail swooped in and out of tiny valleys in the landscape, climbing and descending in roller coaster fashion. Finally, the trail climbed a bit more and we could see the hoodoo landscape we had come for.
Audun flies past a hoodoo formation.
We saw no one all day, except a group of horse packers. It’s funny how people flock the National Parks, when in this case the National Forest just outside was nearly as spectacular!
I am a tiny spec on the ridgeline. Check out that landscape!
After Red Canyon, we made a quick pilgrimage to the Grand Canyon. Next time I go there, I’ll finally get around to doing a Rim-to-Rim. No time on this trip!
Posing on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.
The next day, we headed back to California, driving through Las Vegas and then into Death Valley. We took one of the back entrances in to Death Valley and drove a long ways through the heat. When we stopped at the Ashford Mill Ruins, it was 114 degrees F, which is basically sauna temperature!
I’m so glad we have air conditioning!
We had decided to spend the night in Owens Valley, and settled on Bishop. During the car ride, I was flipping through the guidebook I had bought in Mammoth, and discovered that you could actually bike to the top of Californias third highest mountain, White Mountain Peak (14252 ft or 4344 m). We being the people that we are, we both immediately went: Let’s do THAT! The only condition was good weather - I didn’t want to be stuck in a thunderstorm at 14000 feet!
Upon gaining internet access at the Hostel California in Bishop (which is, by the way, the BEST place to stay if you are in the area), we discovered that there was virtually no chance of thunderstorms the next day in the forecast. We were at the right place, on the right day - it was on.
We got up early to swing by the grocery store and feasted on the Breakfast of Champions - Egg McMuffins. It was a ways to drive to the trailhead - after all, you can start riding at over 11 000 feet! The road grew increasingly rudimentary as we gained altitude, winding its way up through the ancient bristlecone forest. The ancient bristlecones are some of the oldest trees in the world, and they look like wizened old men. The whole landscape had an enchanted forest feel to it, from the white earth that gives the mountain range its name to the hazy valley far below.
For the last couple of miles, the road grew so narrow and rocky Audun wasn’t sure our poor car could do it. He tried anyway, and everything was going well until the tire pressure light went on. Yes, we had a flat tire at nearly 11 000 feet, 50 miles from the nearest service station. It was not a good moment. We spotted a car a little ways up the road, and decided to go and see if they could help us.
The guy in the car turned out to be this guy - Lloyd, an experienced MTB racer and photographer, out to test some cameras. Used to travelling backroads as he was, he had a patch kit, and we managed to stop the leak in the tire and reinflate it using a bicycle pump. The moment when the tire started holding are again was one of the best moments on the whole trip. We had wasted some time fixing the tire, but still had time to make the top, if the weather held.
Lloyd also decide to join us in biking up White Mountain Peak (something he’s done, from the valley floor, before). Lloyd was an interesting guy, with lots of opinions, especially about National Parks, and a really sweet-looking Moots bike. He regaled us with tales of snow striking on White Mountain Peak in July, and run ins with the Park Service.
The only reason you’re allowed to bike up White Mountain Peak is because it’s exempt from the wilderness zone by virtue of the research station in the area. At the beginning of the climb we rode past the Barcroft research station, which looks like a human settlement on Mars:
Audun at the Barcroft station
Lloyd was crazy fit. After riding up the first portion with us, he decide to jaunt out ahead so he would have time to test the cameras he was comparing. I had been lagging behind a little, and Audun told me Lloyd thought I couldn’t make it, that the altitude would be too much.
And I was feeling the altitude. I thought I would be acclimatized, it being only a little over a week since I jogged to the top of Mt Whitney. But biking and hiking are two completely different sports, as it turns out, and my quads were consuming enough oxygen to make me seriously dizzy at regular intervals. But I would get to the top, even if I had to push my bike the rest of the stinking way!
Headed up White Mountain Peak, the view sprawling tall the way to Nevada.
I did have to push my bike a bunch, but I pedalled everything I possibly could - it was a matter of pride. Audun, damn him, road almost the whole way, only stopping at intervals to catch his breath and wait for me. The ‘road’ grew increasingly rough, steep and technical until it was only slightly flatter than the broken chunks of rock around it. I was hurting, bad, and just wanted to get to the top. All the same, I couldn’t help but enjoy the spectacular day and sweep views of the Owens Valley to the west and Nevada to the east.
Finally, a little hut appeared above us, the Barcroft Station’s weather station on top, and the final push was upon us. Upon arriving on top, we met a hiker who turned out to be a Norwegian. Small world!
On top of White Mountain Peak!
The top of the descent was rough and difficult, but all rideable. At least there was an excuse to have pushed my bike all of that way - I got a free ride down!
Enjoying the descent, with White Mountain peak prominent in the background.
White Mountain Peak isn’t a ride I would recommend for the sake of the riding, as the road isn’t the funnest riding, but it was an incredible experience, and (for me) a challenge. Strava data here.
After a relaxing night at the Hostel California, it was time to head back towards San Fran. On the way, we stopped outside of Yosemite and road up to the ghost town of Bennettville and then up to Saddlebag Lake. I was destroyed from White Mountain Peak though, so we cut the ride pretty short. Strava data here.
Audun tried to ride into the abandoned mine at Bennettville, but unfortunately it was closed.
We got one more day of riding in in Santa Cruz (Strava data here). We road in Demo Forest, which had great, challenging trails, but I missed the sweeping views of our other days riding. So many places, so few days - this trip was an incredible combination of a road trip with a ton of riding, and the perfect way to cap off my Epic Summer Vacation. Then it was back to the real world and starting my PhD, which is a completely different adventure.
- The Wild Bazilchuk