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"Epic gravel trails, beautiful mountains and sunny weather"
Bikepacking Adventure Films
Tom
Cycling366

Introduction

When I booked this bikepacking trip, I had a sudden realisation that I’d never actually left Europe. I had never felt hard done by by this fact – Europe is a wonderfully diverse place and I’ve loved exploring the countries I have been to so far, but this realisation sparked a thought process that I am now well and truly running with in 2023: “You can’t call yourself a true adventurer until you’ve left the comfort and familiarity of your own back yard”

 

Now I can’t seriously claim that sunny, English-speaking California is a huge leap into the unknown, but it felt like the obvious starting point for me to dip my toes. Not only because I love dry heat when bikepacking (in honesty I hate cold damp conditions for long periods of time), but also because I had a close school friend who’d moved into Silicon Valley with his wife to work as a researcher at Stanford University, who I hadn’t seen in ages and wanted to spend some time with.

 

This part of California has some epic, compact, dry gravel trails and wonderful scenery. The mountains are tough but nothing as insane as the Alps or Pyrenees – so I’d say they’re easily manageable for most levels of fitness. The landscape is made up of rolling hills and mountains as well as the iconic Giant Sequoia Redwood forests – which gives it a very Moon of Endor vibe. It’s mostly dry, but under the clouds, it can get a little damp and chilly.

 

Silicon Valley is the valley that runs between San Francisco and the Bay Area towards San Jose, with cities like Palo Alto and Mountain View in between. It’s famous for its tech startups and is home to the likes of Tesla and Apple. The climate is very different to anything I have experienced before. The Bay Area tends to be very foggy, shrouded in cloud that rolls in from the Pacific Ocean, and as a result, it tends to be much colder and wetter than the cities further inland. When I was in San Jose, it was up to 10 degrees warmer than San Francisco which is only 50 miles away. 

The Logistics

If you’re travelling to the US from the UK, you need to fill out an ESTA travel form before you are allowed in. I found the process of filling it out quite amusing, with YES/NO questions like “Do you take drugs?” or “Do you plan to engage in criminal activity?” as if criminals are incapable of lying… It’s a relatively quick process and I got a verdict back within a few days. It does cost a nominal amount to apply, but without it, you have no chance at the border.

 

I flew from London Heathrow to San Francisco International airport with British Airways, as that was the only airport I could get direct flights from. I took my Cannondale Topstone gravel bike inside my trusty bike box. British Airways have a 23kg baggage allowance as standard, which means if you’ve got a very light setup, you can take your bike on the flight for free! I had to pay a surcharge but that’s the price I pay for taking all the camera equipment with me.


I ALWAYS take my own bike nowadays.

 I don’t like renting bikes abroad, having done it several times! The issues I have are:

A) I’m scared stiff of crashing/damaging it and paying an exorbitant fee

B) The bikes rarely fit me comfortably

C) I don’t know if my bikepacking setup will fit

D) I use Osymetric oval chainrings, which I love the feel of, and obviously nobody stocks those! 

E) I hate the panic I have when descending at speed, and I have to try and remember quickly which brake lever operates the front/rear brake to avoid losing the back wheel or flying over the handlebars. In the UK, we have a reversed set up to many other countries, which after 10+ years I’ve got very used to! 

I arrived at San Francisco International Airport to a message from my mate who was picking me up, which said something along the lines of “You’ll know which car I am in”. A few moments later I was greeted to the sound of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born in the USA’ blasting out the rolled down windows of an old 4×4 SUV. Sure enough, it was my mate, who was also wearing Ray Ban’s at 10 o’clock at night, just to add to the American stereotype a little more. He gave me a lift down to his place in Campbell where I spent some time with him and his wife, which was awesome. The added bonus of having a contact in another country, is you can ask to store your bike box at their house. Storing luggage can be a bit of a costly and awkward experience, so wherever possible, I try to leave it in a convenient safe space that allows flexibility, like a hotel or friend’s house.

The Route

I started my route by catching the CalTrain from San Jose to San Bruno. The CalTrains are leaps and bounds ahead of the trains in the UK, with an entire dedicated carriage for bikes. No need to book, just get on and strap it up.

 

At San Bruno, I planned on riding up to the Sweeney Ridge Trail before heading back down towards the Pacific Ocean at El Granada. The plan then was to ride along the coast to Half Moon Bay, before riding back up the mountains to the Purisma Creek Trail, where I planned on wild camping. Camping isn’t allowed in this area, but I’m well versed at finding discreet locations where I can be gone by the morning leaving no trace, so I wasn’t worried.

 

Unfortunately, things don’t always go to plan, and I ran into a large locked gate at the top of the Sweeney Ridge, which led me to replan my route. The only other option I could find was to cycle all the way back down to Pacifica and ride along the coast. This would have added a huge amount of mileage, so in the end, I rode back down to San Bruno and caught the train back to my mate’s house, with a view to rejoin the route where I should have been the following day. 


Here’s the route for day 1: https://www.mapmyride.com/routes/view/5141844334

 

Day 2 I had the destination of Boulder Creek as my end point. I’d booked to stay at a camping lodge in a caravan park (or trailer park if you’re American) called Masood’s Lodge. Because I film my adventures, I tend to need to charge up my devices after a day or so, so I’d planned to stay here to recharge after the previous day’s planned wild camp. I caught the train to Palo Alto, rode up to Portola Valley and over the Old La Honda Road, which felt very European with its Alpine switchbacks and narrow (for America) roads. I then rode down the Skyline Boulevard, which was surprisingly empty, to La Honda, where I refuelled at a fancy service station with its own deli. There are loads of campsites near this valley that you can see on Google maps if you fancied a stop off near here.

The cruise down to Boulder Creek was great, apart from the final few miles on the main road. The cars, who had previously been very courteous and had given me plenty of space when overtaking, seemed to have been provoked into a stampede. Large (ridiculously large by European standards) pickup trucks overtook at 70mph with very little space, which left me pretty relieved to have made it, when I did finally arrive into Boulder Creek. Boulder Creek is a stop off town on the way to Big Basin Redwood State Park, a bit like Fort William is to the western side of Scotland and the Nevis Range so there are a lot of outdoor shops and bars as well as a local convenience shop, which I took advantage of to stock up for the night.

 

I always try the local junk food and snacks when in another country, and found myself eating a whole bag of Flamin Hot Cheetos (that were literally the reddest things I’d ever seen), as well as a whole box of Honey Pops with milk. The food in America is like UK food on steroids. Colours, smells, flavourings and quantities are just more in every way. One thing I loved about American food that has been ruined in the UK thanks to politicians wanting to be ‘seen’ tackling obesity, is the sugary fizzy drinks – or sodas as the Americans call it. The Fanta and Sprite of the US taste like they used to in the UK, properly sweet with real sugar. The huge amount of sweeteners in place of real sugars added to UK fizzy drinks make them undrinkable in my opinion – and surely it’s much worse to drink the sweetener chemicals than it is to drink sugar… 

 

The lodge I stayed in was a lovely, rustic wooden cabin with all the amenities you’d need. It was suitable for at least 4 people, right by the river with a little terrace that overlooked it. I had no issues taking my bike in, which was perfect.


Here’s the route for day 2: https://www.mapmyride.com/routes/view/5145078796


Day 3, my route was taking me back over the mountains to a campsite I’d found on Google Maps – The Black Mountain Backpacker’s Camp. I’d noticed that there were some Scottish town names around this area and decided to map the route around these. I love bikepacking in Scotland and felt it would be worth my time to see them! I set off towards a village named Ben Lomond, after the mountain that overlooks the famous bonny banks of Loch Lomond just North of Glasgow. Funnily enough, there is also a reservoir near the town called Loch Lomond, which doesn’t at all resemble the aforementioned place! After cycling past the Loch area, I headed out to Zayante on the East Zayante Road, a lovely, narrow winding road that follows a small river called the Zayante Creek. It was nicely set in dappled shade, thanks to the redwoods and it was very quiet – a great place to ride! This road takes you up the summits, where you can see the warm glow of the sun over Silicon Valley on a clear day. 

I rejoined the smooth tarmac of the Skyline Boulevard before eventually coming off to follow the Skyline Ridge Trail – a walking and cycling route that runs somewhat parallel to the boulevard. It’s reasonably rough and undulating, but it’s well worth checking out if you’re running gravel or MTB tyres. The Black Mountain Backpacker’s camp is just off the Monte Bello Preserve and was well signposted, but to my frustratiom at the time, it took riding up several very steep hills to get to. I was very exhausted by this time but I suppose I should have expected it to be high up with a name like Black Mountain Backpacker’s Camp!  

 

There weren’t a huge amount of amenities on this day’s route, I found myself running very low on water towards the end of the day as I approached the campsite, which I think fuelled my fatigue in all honesty. I was getting the dreaded ‘bonk’ and every pedal stroke felt harder than it should. To my amazement, I cycled past a lonely but stunning house towards the top of the mountain, where there was an outside tap right by the front gate. I imagine it was for watering the plants, and I’m not even sure it was potable, but it was like discovering an oasis in the desert. I filled up all of my bottles and downed one of them at once.

 

The Black Mountain Backpacker’s Camp was a chilled, rustic campsite set in a clearing by the golden grass at the top of the ridge. The only amenity there was a compostable toilet, which had no running water, so I was especially thankful for that pit stop earlier. You do need a permit to camp there, even though nobody came to check mine, which costs a few dollars. You can get a permit for several people at once if you’re planning a group trip on the Black Mountain Backpacker’s Camp website: https://www.openspace.org/where-to-go/permits/camping

 

The campsite is split into zones, which aren’t allocated, so it’s just a case of choosing the best one! There are some dried logs and concrete tables to use for picnicking as well as some bear storage cabinets to keep your belongings safe from scavengers. Bears aren’t found in this area of California, but there are coyotes and mountain lions to be aware of! I happened to be the only person staying at the camp that night, which was surprising, given how stunning some of the surrounding trails were!

 

Because of the fact the fog settles in the Bay Area overnight, and the fact this campsite was so high up in comparison, I got to see some stunning cloud inversions the following morning and I caught a terrific starlapse in the night. It was also completely silent. I don’t know if that was because of the stillness of the wind, or the cloud cover muffling the sound of the towns and cities below, but I had one of the best night’s sleeps in a tent I’d ever had that night: quiet, dry and warm – perfect!


Here’s the route for day 3: https://www.mapmyride.com/routes/view/5145435535

 

The following morning I had booked to stay in a hotel in San Francisco to do a bit of general touristing, so I packed up, and cruised down into Silicon Valley to catch the CalTrain from Palo Alto to San Francisco station. It was all down hill, with stunning switchback sweeping bends as I descended into the cloud ball below.