Bikepacking, National Parks

Bikepacking Redwood National Park


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Our giddiness on arriving at Redwood National Park vanished as soon as we stepped out of the car at Elk Prairie.  The grass was still covered in dew despite the fact that the noon sun was blazing hot and the air was so thick you could cut it with a knife.  As we begrudgingly loaded our gear into our bikepacking bags and backpacks I stripped down to shorts and a sports bra, my skin was covered in a salty sweat.  After forcing down some lunch I peeled a jersey over my sticky body, wiped the sweat from my face and we set out on our bikes.

Fortunately, after a few painful pedal strokes (my legs were still aching from my Cyclocross race the day before) we were in the shade and the temperature dropped significantly.  We rode for a few miles covered by the lush green canopy of a redwood grove; it was a nice change of scenery for us.  After a while we passed by a touring rider on a loaded down road bike.  He was riding from Tucson (wow!) and had a tiny dog named Charlie in a basket on the front of his bike.  The first 11 miles passed pretty quickly and before long we were on the 101.

I had been nervous about riding on the 101, but in order to see all the parts of the park it was a necessary evil.  However, it turned out to be a lot less scary than I anticipated.  For the most part we had a safe shoulder and traffic was minimal.  I had also expected that there would be a lot more RVs and trailers speeding along the 101 since we were in a National Park, however much to my surprise there were very few.  Actually, Redwood was not much like a National Park at all.  Due to the fact that park is a combination of three state parks and the surrounding area, we rode past things like hotels, casinos, gas stations and stores, nothing you would normally expect to see on a normal National Park through street.

Once on the 101 we had a nice downhill and pancake flat stretch of highway where we stopped to see some unusual sights, such as golden bear statues, a drive-thru tree and a colossal Paul Bunyan.  Again the tackiness is not a common sight in National Parks, but it kept the ride interesting.  After the amusement park like attractions were behind us the trees broke away and we got our first view of the ocean, I remember whispering to myself “That is so freaking cool!”  The waves were crashing around jagged sea stacks as we started a brutal climb up the 101 – three and half miles at five percent grade to be precise, not exactly something you want to be conquering on sixty pound bike and tired legs.  We slowly slogged our way up the hill like a pair of old snails on vacation.  The views of the ocean were inspiring, but I was deep in the pain cave now.  Finally after six miles (and almost an hour) we maxed out at 1200 feet of elevation and got to descend back to sea level in Crescent City.

“What is that noise?” Ryan asked as we coasted towards Crescent City, “Oh I think that was my Garmin” I mumbled sleepily, like I was being awoken from a dream. “No,” Ryan said “it’s like a low humming.”  “No idea.” I replied as we pedaled on.  A few minutes later I finally heard the Crescent City fog horn which continued incessantly blasting for the next forty five minutes or so.  I was shocked I hadn’t heard anything before then, I needed to get some calories, salt and caffeine and fast.  Luckily we arrived at a gas station a few minutes later and restocked on food and water, I snapped a selfie to let my Mom know we were safe and was slightly appalled at how disheveled I looked.  Fortunately, we would be arriving at camp soon and I could get a good night’s sleep.

Soon after leaving Crescent City we got to the unpaved portion of Howland Hill Road for our first stretch of dirt!   As we crossed back inside the parks boundaries we were greeted with another absurd ascent.  It was so steep (11%) that I stammered “I can’t” as I slid off the saddle to push my bike up over the switchbacks.  The grade quickly lessened and after a few more minutes we were suddenly surrounded by massive redwoods.  The grandeur and magnificence of the redwoods immediately silenced us as we craned our necks skyward and tried to pedal as quietly as possible, it was as if we were tiptoeing into church during a prayer and were trying not to make a sound.  Huge smiles spread across our faces as we were rejuvenated by the trees surrounding us.  Soon we arrived at the Little Bald Hills Trailhead, one of the few trails mountain bikes are permitted on in the national park system.  At this point we were 44 miles and five hours into our journey and had about an hour until the sun would set.  It was only three and half miles to the backcountry camp we intended to stay at, but the trail rose approximately 1600 feet over the short distance.  If we had more time we would have definitely started climbing, but given that were already exhausted and had limited day light left we opted to continue on towards Jedediah Smith campground.  Getting there required that we cross over to the other side of the river and ride for five more miles on pavement.  This turned out to be a great choice because the campground was one of the greatest campgrounds I have ever stayed at.  It had immaculate bathrooms, showers and we even got to buy some firewood and enjoy the evening around a campfire, a bikepacking first for us – as we obviously do not haul firewood with us on bikepacking trips!

At some point that night I woke up to the sound of screaming.  I opened my eyes and tried to listen for the noise, but heard only silence and then suddenly, there it was again, and again.  Was it a small child crying, I wondered to myself.  I kept listening trying to decipher what the sound was.  I rolled over and tried fall back asleep, but the screeching persisted for the next half hour, like an audio track played in a haunted house.  By now I was awake and had to pee, luckily the screams sounded further away than when I first heard them, as I unzipped the tent and started to crawl out Ryan woke up.  And then there it was, another grating shriek in the distance, “somebody isn’t happy!” Ryan whispered, “I don’t think that’s a somebody,” I responded, both silently realizing there was a chatty mountain lion somewhere close by.

When morning came we ate a quick breakfast of oatmeal, packed up the gear, bundled up and rode back to Crescent City.  We took a winding, redwood lined, paved road back to town and then pedaled toward Enderts Beach and the trailhead for the Last Chance section of the Coastal Trail.   We climbed up to a coastal bluff overlooking the ocean where the trail meanders along a cliff side with impressive and vertigo inducing views of the ocean below.  After about a mile the trail rapidly climbs up and away from the coast and into the forest.  With the sound of waves crashing in the background we began climbing into the trees and away from the beach below.  After trying to pedal for a while it became necessary to walk and push our bikes.  “If I remember correctly the trail should flatten out after a mile or two,” I reassured Ryan, trying to convince myself that the arduous climb (at 13% grade) would end soon.  Finally the trail leveled off and began following an old logging road.  The landscape was wild and rugged and the only sounds were birds chirping, waves crashing and my own labored breathing as I gasped for air. It was hard to believe that just one hundred years earlier the sights and sounds would have been falling trees and engines roaring as trucks crested the hills and exhaust filled air.  As I continued to ride I was grateful for the conservationists from the Save the Redwoods League for having the courage to fight for protection of this beautiful coastline.

Though the trail followed an old road, it was so overgrown it could hardly be called single track.  We rode through six feet tall ferns, ducked under and climbed over fallen trees and dodged huge branches strewn about the trail.  Ryan wove through the thick undergrowth like a squirrel cheerfully scampering about familiar stomping grounds .  As for myself, I somehow managed to get a two foot long stick lodged in my wheel like an extra spoke.  “Oh crap, Ryaaaannn…I have a problem” I shouted ahead.  The flying squirrel skirted back down the trail and we removed the stick before it punctured my tire or ripped one of the actual spokes out, crisis adverted.  After seven tough miles on the coastal trail, I felt like an angry cat had mistaken me for a scratching post and  we were back on the 101.

We stopped for a leisurely break for lunch at Woodland Villa Market where we scarfed down a large veggie pizza and sipped ice cold sodas from condensation covered glasses.  After lunch we crossed south of the river, left the 101 and rode for another four miles on pavement before getting back on the coastal trail  Thankfully,  this stretch of trail actually came close to resembling an over grown road and the miles passed easily.  After forty plus miles, seven hours and the coastal trial behind us we came upon the Ossagon Trail for one final descent down to the Gold Bluff Beach Trail, just seven short miles separated us from our coveted campsite on the beach.  The initial descent down the Ossagon Trail was fast and flowy like every great segment of single track should be, then we came to our first creek crossing and crossed into the trail from hell.

Mosquitoes immediately swarmed around us as we tried to find the trail among the tall marshy grass.  It felt like the humidity exponentially increased now that we were no longer under the trees, the air was so thick you could chew it.  Ryan quickly realized we weren’t on the trail and we backtracked a few hundred feet to our last turn.  Unfortunately, the mosquitoes came with us and were joined by another army of the annoying bugs once we got back on the trail.  They formed a visible cloud around us, like we were Pig Pen from The Peanuts, the only chance of relief was riding faster, but the trail kept crossing swampy mud pits and fallen trees.  Each time we had to dismount I attempted to swat the little devils off of my face and arms.  “You look like you have a disease,” Ryan said, my arms now covered in cherry sized welts to complement the scratches from earlier.

“Look a waterfall! Take a picture,” Ryan shouted.  I reluctantly pulled up and asked him to hold my bike while I fumbled through my pack for the camera.  Holding both of the bikes Ryan was now defenseless against the blood thirsty suckers.  Unable to bear the torture any longer he screamed “HURRY UP!” as I slowly stuffed the camera back in my bag while slapping the mosquitoes on my arms and legs.  The obstacles finally eased up and we rode faster to keep the bugs away, until we came upon a herd of twelve Roosevelt Elk.  The elk are common around Gold Bluffs Beach so I wasn’t surprised to see them, I was however surprised at their large stature.  A little ways past the herd were two even larger males with impressive antlers.  One of the males was eating right next to the trail and wanted to enjoy his meal undisturbed. Every time we got closer he looked up and stopped me in my tracks.  We tried to go get away from the elk and rode off trail, which just led to more mosquitoes and dead ends.  Finally I got up the nerve to pedal past him and then we were on the home stretch to the Gold Bluff Beach campground.

Once at the campground we set up camp and had an amazing dinner on the beach as we watched the fog role in.  Fog is one of the important parts of the ecosystem in this area, providing moisture to the mighty redwoods even during periods of drought. After dinner we sat around the campfire with Mike, a homeless guy we met at the hike & bike campsite, he was hiking from San Francisco to Oregon.  Mike and I tried to dry our socks on the warm rocks are the campfire.  Mike wanted to swap stories, but we really had nothing exciting to share in comparison to all of his recent experiences.  He didn’t seem to mind talking though, so we smiled and listened as the day drew to a close.

As morning came we woke up early and said good bye to Mike and wished him well on his journey.   We rode along a dirt road that followed the driftwood littered beach and then snaked it’s way back into trees.  Bright green ferns and bushes lined the road and trail as we zipped right along, the surroundings here were like a tropical rain forest.  After a quick seven miles we made a pit stop at the Elk Prairie campground to set up camp for our last night in the park.  After ditching our gear and lightening the load we rode to one of the last trails in the park that allows mountain bikes, the Lost Man Creek Trail.  The most impressive part of the trail was the climb, it was relentless.  We gained 2000 feet of elevation in ten miles, climbing over twigs, sticks and pine cones.  The scenery on the other hand was less exciting than everything else we had already seen in Redwood National Park.  Exhausted and in need of some rest and relaxation we opted to forgo our side trip to Tall Trees Grove and started back towards camp once we arrived at the end of the trail and the intersection of Little Bald Hills Road.  On the way back I convinced Ryan to stop at the Lady Bird Johnson Grove for a short hike around the grove.  It was a nice change of pace and walking beneath the trees gave us a new perspective and their magnitude.

Back at camp we enjoyed a snack with the company of an annoying jay that kept flying right at my head trying to steal my food, much to Ryan’s amusement.  Afterwards we took another hike to the Big Tree and slowly meandered back to our campsite along various trails in the Prairie Creek area.  At some point during the weekend Ryan commented on the accelerated evidence of growth and decay around us.  It was true everything in the forest was either in a state of growth or decay, which when you think about it is a lot like everything in life.  It was a great reminder for us to make daily decisions that promote personal growth.

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