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“What the hell am I doing?”, I thought to myself, as I stared at the thick layer of ice on my windshield. I fumbled around the car looking for something to scrape the ice with. “My friends in Tahoe would be laughing at me right now”. All I could find was an empty water bottle. I poured the remaining water onto the windshield, folded the bottle in half, and scraped for a few minutes. My hands started to go numb and I cursed out loud.
Only a stones throw away was the warmth and comfort of my girlfriend, who was blissfully sleeping in our bed, cuddled up to our dog. But my car was loaded up with camping gear, and my bike was already on the rack. I had lots of layers, firewood and a cooler of good food and beer. Cold be damned, I was going to camp. More importantly, I was going to ride.
I do a lot of camping, but I tend to run cold and prefer camping in warm weather. Temperatures were below 30 degrees, which is really not a big deal in most parts of the country, but in Santa Cruz, a California beach town with an annual average temperature of 70 degrees, it might as well have been below zero. My friends and family asked “Why in the world would you camp in this weather?”. “Why not wait until the spring or summer?” I didn’t really have an answer, other than the fact that my two weeks off work were nearly over, and I hadn’t camped at all during that time. I wanted to sleep outside, to ride somewhere new, and have an epic weekend with my friend Josh and our new friend Alex, who we recently met on a ride in Soquel Demonstration Forest.
To a mountain biker, there’s something special about riding a trail for the first time. You don’t know what to expect. Risk and reward around every corner, new views, new trees, new terrain. A new trail is an adventure.
With that in mind, I cranked up the heat in my car and drove a couple of hours to Josh’s place in the East Bay Hills. We quickly packed up the car and drove to our destination: Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, Sonoma county, right in the heart of California wine country. The drive in on highway 12 was picturesque, passing SF bay wetlands, green hills, and vineyards. We stared at the peaks in the distance and wondered where we’d be riding.
Just as we passed Sonoma, I realized that I forgot my bike shoes, so we stopped at a shop, where I begrudgingly bought a new pair. I guess two pairs of clipless shoes are better than none.
As we got closer to the campground, my feeling of dread started to come back. It was still less than 30 degrees out, and we were driving up a country road, quickly gaining elevation. Sugarloaf’s campground sits at 1,200 feet, between Napa and Sonoma counties. As we entered the campground, all of my fears dissipated. I didn’t care if I was going to be cold; I was just excited to be in such a beautiful place. It’s a large campground in a meadow, surrounded by rolling green hills dotted with Oak, Laurel and Redwood groves. There’s even an observatory for late night stargazing, which we sadly didn’t take advantage of. Something for next time.
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Our campground was a nice secluded side near a flowing river, with a hill behind us, and the large meadow in front. I quickly pulled out my camping clothes and started to layer up. Given that I run cold, I knew that it was a race against time to stay warm. The trick was to not let myself get cold in the first place. I used a couple layers of light Merino wool, thick wool socks, a balaclava and a jacket. I found a nice spot between a couple of Laurel trees to pitch my tent. The sun started to shine and it warmed up immediately, so I ended up losing a few layers. It was still cold, by Santa Cruz standards.
Our new friend Alex arrived. He’s an interesting guy, a Parisian who spent time in the US growing up, and recently moved to the San Francisco to found a tech startup. He’s easygoing, down to earth, full of great stories, and a total shredder on the bike. Like us, he’s not the fastest climber, but he can descend just about any kind of trail and loves to ride, ride ride. We got everything set up for camp and then drove to our riding destination: Annadel State Park.
“Annadel State Park is a state park of California in the United States. It is situated at the northern edge of Sonoma Valley and is adjacent to Spring Lake Regional Park in Santa Rosa. It offers many recreational activities within its 5,092-acre (2,061 ha) property.
The rock formations of Annadel have played central role in its history: its volcanic origins, the Native American use of obsidian, the early 1900s mining of cobblestones, and modern hikers' appreciation of its volcanic rock outcrops.”
For mountain bikers, the rocks define Annadel. Climbs are tougher, pedal strikes are frequent, and the best way to descend seems to be with speed, determination and constant momentum. Baby heads be damned, just point your wheel straight and hang on.
We parked our cars at the main gate and started pedaling our “all mountain” rigs. We felt slightly out of place, with our burly bikes, baggy shorts, pads and goggles. Most of the people there seemed to be riding short travel, cross country bikes, with spandex shorts and jerseys.
After consulting our map, and talking to some locals, we found that our original plan was sub-optimal given the conditions we’d be riding in. It had recently rained and a few of the trails had large puddles. Some nice locals directed us to a new route: up Richardson fire road, Canyon trail to the Marsh Trail, then down a couple of the crown jewels of the park: the South Burma and North Burma downhills.
We climbed the fire road with relative ease, seeing a few deer, turkey vultures and hawks, passing under the shade of bay laurels and redwoods. From there, we made our way around Lake Ilsanjo, a beautiful, serene lake, and toward the Canyon trail. We somehow missed the trail, but spotted a great looking trail off to our left. Steep, rocky, rutted…right up our alley. We looked at each other and all knew that we had to give that trail a shot.
About a ½ mile into the trail, we ran into some hikers, who told us we were going way our of our way. Discouraged, we walked back up the trail, backtracked slightly and then found Canyon trail. We ran into a few flocks of wild turkeys on this trail. From here we got onto the Marsh trail, and we started to climb. It wasn’t the steepest climb I’ve ever done, but there were rocks littering nearly all of the trail, and I didn’t’ know when it would end, so it felt like a challenge. We stuck together so we could chat, and I remember getting into some interesting philosophical discussions…lots of brainpower in this crew. We finished Marsh with a fast descent into the beautiful Buick meadow, with lush Douglas forests in the distance. We stopped for a snack and to chat with a couple who were finishing up a ride. They told us about some steep, gnarly, illegally built trails that drop you into Sonoma. We kept a mental note of this for next time.
I remember really noticing the dirt at Annadel. It’s quite a bit different from what I’m used to riding in Santa Cruz or Tahoe. More like red clay, mixed with sandstone, rocks everywhere.
“The entirety of Annadel was below the ocean floor as recently as twelve million years ago, around which time massive uplift and volcanic action formed the massif which comprises the park of today. Elevations in Annadel range from about 360 to 1,880 feet (110 to 570 m) above sea level. Sandstone is the dominant rock type, as a remnant of the ancient sea floor. Slopes within Annadel commonly range from 15 to 30 percent, but it is not uncommon to encounter slopes up to 70 percent on steep slopes above drainages which are covered in douglas fir forest. One of the major soil associations within the park is Goulding cobbly clay loam, which contains roughly 25 percent cobblestones with some basaltic exposures, evidence of the volcanic origins of the Sonoma Mountains. Typical soil depths are 35 to 50 centimetres (14 to 20 in). Much of the soil type in the Yulupa Creek riparian zone consists of Laniger loam, with rhyolite outcrops, another relic of the igneous history.”
Loam is something that mountain bikers love, and this park definitely has some nice, tacky, smooth trails. But as soon as you start getting used to smooth, you hit another rock garden. It gets dry and dusty in the summer, but it had recently rained, so the trails were quite tacky, with occasional slick mucky spots and creek crossings thrown in. Plenty to keep us on our toes.
Once we got to the top of South Burma, I stepped aside to let Alex take the lead on the downhill. I knew I would barely be able to keep up with this guy. Suddenly everything changed. What was just minutes before a quiet, slow bike ride up a mountain, where we could hear only the sounds of the forest, turned into a fast, adrenaline fueled descent. South Burma vacillates between smooth, flowy singletrack, and chunky rock gardens.
Again, from Wikipedia:
“In the late 19th century, sheep and cattle grazing was superseded by quarry uses. There was considerable demand for cobblestone material when many west coast cities were being developed, and especially in the reconstruction of San Francisco after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake… Demand for cobblestone subsided around the year 1920, since owners of the newly invented automobile expected a smoother ride than that derived from cobblestone streets.”
A cobblestone mine, no wonder there were rocks everywhere. This is definitely no smooth ride.
Having Alex in front of me helped me pick my lines. He wasn’t exactly dodging the rocks, in fact he was aiming straight for a lot of them, bump jumping them and popping into the air. It seemed like every time I slowed down for the rocks, my wrists regretted it. Speed was my friend. Soon I was just riding “point and shoot” style, blasting through the rock gardens with as much speed as I could get. Being the only clipless rider in the crew, I took advantage of my setup, using the clips to unweight myself through each rock garden. As soon as I made it through the section, I’d go heavy on my pedals and try to get as much speed as possible for the next set of rocks. Pretty soon, I was almost able to keep up with Alex…but not quite. Josh was right behind me, on his slack, squishy Giant Reign. This was a great crew to ride with!
At the bottom of the trail, we were pumped and ready for more. With Josh as our route leader, we were faced with a choice of going down North Burma, at which point our ride would be over, or climbing back up the Marsh trail so we could hit South Burma again. For us, fans of the epic ride, the choice was easy: head back up to the top.
The second climb up was easier, but we knew that we were running out of light, so everyone picked up the pace. I rode my Santa Cruz Nomad like a downhill bike up the hill, keeping my speed up, standing up to pedal and get speed so that I could get up the rock gardens without walking. Having such a low bike, I had a few pedal strikes, but quickly got into a rhythm of pedal, stop, pedal, and hammered up the hill.
Once at the top, the guys wanted to stop for a breather. I’m rarely the one who puts the kibosh on these things, but I knew that we were running out of light. The sun had started to set, and we were on an east-facing slope. We jammed down South Burma with more speed this time, blowing through the rocks and feeling confident knowing what was behind every corner. From there, we got onto North Burma.
North Burma is a fast, flowy, windy (and of course, rocky) singletrack. Alex again had the sick lines, jumping off as many rocks as possible. We started out really flying, but it was getting dark fast, and we had to slow down. Finally, we fired up our lights only to find out that it was totally unnecessary, because the trail was almost over.
As we rode home along the mellow singletrack and service roads leading back to the car, I admired all of the different types of trees we passed. Ancient oak trees, Laurels…pines, even a few groves of Redwoods. It looks very different than the Santa Cruz Mountains, and it was enhanced with the “magic light” of dusk. Adventure was had.
According to Strava, this ride was 19 miles and 2,558 feet of climbing. Somehow it felt longer to me, and I know that has a lot to do with the rocky terrain we were riding. At the end of the day, I felt great, with only my legs being tired. I knew we had the right bikes for the job. Sure, we may not have climbed up as fast as the cross country guys, but our wrists were happy, and we were able to haul. Max speed: 31.1 MPH. Not bad for nearly all singletrack.
After stopping for extra firewood and a few supplies, we headed back to camp. It was cold, and I wanted to shower and get into my warm clothes. I hustled across the campground to the showers, showered off, and got into my layers. Merino wool under layer and liner socks, thick wool socks, pants, Patagonia capiline 5 top layer and down jacket, scarf, balaclava, gloves and beanie. I left nothing exposed to the elements. Better to start with too many clothes rather than too little.
Back at camp the fire was already roaring. I brought along a mini keg of Rogue IPA, and Josh brought his usual gnarly strong dark beers. We cooked steaks and sausages over the fire and shared a big salad. We were lucky enough to have a full moon that night, and I remember barely needing my headlamp. Libations went on into the late night, and we had great conversations by our raging fire. I was warm enough to eventually shed many layers. Our fire was a rager, I remember remarking that it was warmer than sitting in the sun on a warm summer day.
As is often the case, I was last man standing and was dreading going back to my tent. But I knew I was better prepared than my last camping trip. One of the keys to keeping warm in a frost is insulation. Josh taught me a great trick on this trip: Place a car sun shade underneath your sleeping pad. It will then reflect any warmth you have back up onto you. I also had a blanket under my pad and an extra sleeping bag under my bag. Plenty of insulation. I layered back up and went back to my tent. I knew the trick was to not let myself get cold, so I threw an extra pair of socks on.
Soon I was snoring away in my sleeping bag. What woke me up was the fact that I had too many layers on. I was too warm, so I knew I was on the right track. I got decent, but not perfect sleep that night.
The next morning, we had a German breakfast: hard boiled eggs, coffee and charcuterie. We packed up and said goodbye to our temporary home, ready for another day of riding. But it wasn’t until noon that we left the camp. We were off to a late start.
On day two, we explored the back side of Annadel. We had been told of a great route by our good friend Duncan Scott Davidson: Park in the lot off Lawndale road, and climb up the Shultz trail to the ridge. That would put us back on top of the Burmas, with any number of choices for downhills. The crown jewel was to be riding down the Lawndale trail, which would take us back to our car. Supposed to be a great downhill.
Shultz is a nice little climb, mostly moderate, and forested. Eventually you hit the ridge trail, which is exposed, shifting between grasslands and dry Manzanita. Right at this point the climb became more difficult, but soon it gave way to a flowy, moderate downhill which took us pretty close to the top of South Burma. We hit South Burma with full confidence, blowing through each rock garden with speed. We thought about hitting North Burma all the way to the bottom, and climbing back, but we knew we’d be low on daylight. We opted to play it safe and start heading toward the Lawndale trail. Soon we were back climbing back up the Marsh trail and to our bench in Buick meadow, where we stopped for a snack.
This time, instead of bombing down South Burma, we climbed back up onto the ridge and into one of the most beautiful parts of the park. Big old oak trees giving way to lush green meadows, Douglas Fir forests, and dry, sunny Chaparral. We made a few wrong turns, consulted the map, and were soon on the Lawndale trail.
Lawndale starts out as a mostly flat, rocky fire road, but after a short stint, turns into a narrow, flowy singletrack that goes downhill for a few miles. It’s mostly forested, with some sections opening up to breathtaking, wide-open views of the Sonoma Valley below.
Alex pulled way ahead of both of us on this trail, and eventually I fell into the flow. I focused on the corners, leaning the bike hard, pushing a little weight into the forks, but trying to keep my body neutral. Before I knew it, I was out of the forest and blasting down the rocky, rutted, dry, desert-like final stretches of the trail. And then it was over, we were at the car.
18.2 miles, 2,377 feet of elevation, max speed 32 mph, and I wanted more. But there was no time for more riding, just time to share a beer with our new friend Alex and talk about some potential future plans.
We stopped at a great sit-down Mexican restaurant on the way home, in Sonoma called Rancho Viejo. They serve Yucatan style southern Mexican and it was a real treat. Fresh California ingredients and cooked to perfection. Food tastes better when you’ve worked a bit for it.
It’s nice living in paradise.
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In the tradition of Chris, lessons learned and reminders:
1) It’s easier to hit rock gardens at speed, especially if you have the right bike.
2) Ride the fork as much as you can, especially if you have something big.
3) Unweight yourself in rock gardens. But go pedal heavy on all other parts of the downhill.
4) Insulation is key to staying warm in a frost. The car sun shade and extra blankets under me did the trick.
5) Don’t let yourself get cold in the first place. Stay ahead of the cold and shed layers as needed.
6) Annadel State Park has some great riding!