Big Bear, Big Fail

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Standing there with tears streaming down my wife’s face while horseflies and mosquitoes mercilessly attacked us I had a decision to make: do we press on towards the campsite or do we hit the metaphorical abort button?  The only problem was turning back meant a five mile climb, with most of that being hike a bike.  Where was this chapter in the Bikepacking guidebook?  When do you decide to call it quits and throw in the towel?  I made the call, whether right or wrong, to abort and we started the hike back up the mountain while the bugs continued their warfare.

Rewind a week…looking at our training schedule we had two long back to back training days in the upcoming weekend and I thought to myself what a great opportunity to do some bikepacking and get out of the inferno that is Phoenix in the summer.  After a very brief search for cooler temperatures I stumbled upon Big Bear Lake, CA.  Neither Danielle nor I had been there before, but some friends had mentioned it’s a spectacular place.  I started scouting out some routes and was surprised to find a good mix of jeep roads and trails.  I floated the idea past Danielle and she was on-board, but a stressful and busy week for her at work meant the planning and preparation was up to me.

Not knowing the area well I started the search with where to stay.  I found a campsite with open reservations (Barton Flats CG) and booked it.  Now with the place to lay our heads taken care of I started the route planning.  Scouring Strava global heat maps and RideWithGPS a route was formed and a pretty good one…or so I thought.  It had a good mix of easier singletrack and some jeep roads.  Even better was the fact that a lot of the jeep roads paralleled the singletrack so we could easily modify the route to choose one more than the other depending on how we were feeling.  I even mapped out a few resupply options at Oaks Diner in Angelus Oaks and the Summit Haus at the top of Big Bear Ski Resort.  Some reliable streams thrown in and I thought this was one amazing route.  The only Achilles heel was a long steep descent down Clarks Grade, an intermediate jeep road according to a few trail maps I found online.  I figured an intermediate jeep road meant some rocks and steep grades, but nothing too bad.  A low quality video of the road on YouTube from a couple years back reaffirmed my suspicions, rocky but doable.  With the route solidified the bikes were given a quick tune up, bags packed and we were on the road Friday afternoon headed out of town.

We got a quick night’s sleep in a motel at Big Bear and were up and ready for a good day of pedaling.  After a mediocre omelet breakfast at a little diner we parked our car at Bear Valley Bikes (I called ahead and made sure this was ok).  We loaded up the gear and we were off starting up a well maintained paved/gravel road.  At the top we were greeted with amazing views of the lake, large boulder formations and shade from all the large pine trees around.  We even rode some singletrack by the Champion Lodgepole Pine, one of the largest in the world.  Things were a little slower than I was hoping, but we were enjoying the new scenery and taking lots of photos.  We finally made it to the jeep road I was worried about.  There was a large group of jeeps gathered at the top and we sneaked on by and started our decent.  It was rocky and steep as expected, but also very loose.  A lot of the corners were washed away and sandy.  This led to some more hike a bike than I had anticipated and a lot more than Danielle had thought.  As we continued our descent the bugs starting showing up and getting worse and worse.  We made it almost to our next turn (another unknown jeep road) when the breakdown happened.  A rough week at work, more HAB than she wanted for a training day, and the relentless biting of the bugs, Danielle had had enough.  I knew the trail would get easier eventually, but what about those bugs.  They were bad, a different kind of hell.  That’s when the decision was made to abort.

We pointed our bikes back up the steep hill and tried to ride, but the loose and rocky terrain made it impossible for our fully loaded bikes, not to mention the higher altitude making it harder to breathe.  So we slowly hiked back up the mountain still surrounded by a cloud of bugs.  We ran into the jeep club we had passed earlier and realized they were there doing trail work on the road, it was cool to see them giving back.  We pressed on up the road while our water reserves were dwindling and the blisters started to form on our heels, but thankfully the higher we climbed the fewer bugs there were.  Eventually we made it to the top and saw the sign for the road we just took and emblazoned on it was a large black diamond.  Sadly we had missed this sign when we snaked by all the jeeps.  Maybe we would have re-routed if we had seen it, but that wouldn’t have removed the swarm of bugs waiting for us towards the bottom of the mountain where our campsite was located.  Not sure if we laughed at our misfortune or just didn’t care as we were tired and fatigued so we took the shortest route back to the car.  We slowly loaded the bikes back into the car not knowing what to do since we didn’t have a Plan B.  One thing was certain though, we both needed some food and water badly.  Some food at an Indian restaurant hit the spot while we figured out our next move.  We decided to find a hotel and rest up for a ride the following day (unloaded thankfully).  Unfortunately, the Kenda Cup and a triathlon were in town so finding a place was difficult, but eventually we found a place to lay our heads and it was early to bed for us.

The next day we ditched the bags and just went for a ride on and around the mountain.  It was great to just pedal and enjoy the cooler weather and great scenery.  We even made it to the Summit Haus for a mid-ride break of Pepsi and potato chips.  After a good day of training we were spent and we both said the riding up there was tough enough without all the gear.  No wonder our prior day had been so difficult.

As we drove out of the mountains and back into the oven we talked about our failed attempt in great detail.  Both of us can be very competitive and putting a DNF (did not finish) on the calendar is a tough pill to swallow…even if it was just for fun.  It all boiled down to what our expectations were for the weekend.  I was looking forward to a leisurely weekend with a little training thrown in while Danielle was expecting just the opposite.  So when the ride wasn’t meeting her expectations it was hard for her to handle.  Meanwhile when the call was made to abort, that was hard for me to handle, that meant no camping or leisure.  While the weekend did not go to plan in any sense of the word, we learned a valuable lesson that when traveling with a partner or group it’s important to set expectations and communicate them.  You would think after years together we would have figured this out, but like I mentioned earlier Danielle had a crazy work week and our time together was limited which meant our communication wasn’t in peak form.  Therefore, when I planned the weekend it was planned to my agenda and not hers.

Even when the plan fails there is always an opportunity to learn.  So I will carry these lessons forward as we continue to plan more expeditions, but also in our marriage and my relationship with others.  Communicating can help alleviate many hurdles, sometimes it just takes a swarm of flies and mosquitoes to remind you.


  • I feel like I’m reverse stalking you…I grew up near there.

    Check out Joshua Tree National Park. This time of year has its special charms for the hard core desert rats, but most prefer (and won’t die–not necessarily a figure of speech) in the late fall through early spring times.


    • Haha great minds think alike. It is crazy how we seem to be following in your footsteps somewhat. We have been to JTNP a couple times, but never in the summer. I imagine its quite desolate there this time of year.


      • There is a Ryan Mtn. there, but I don’t know, anymore, if the trail to it is “feet only”. The Park has had a lot of usage regulation changes since I was living there.


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