Bay Area bikepacking trip to the beach and redwoods

Bay Area bikepacking trip to the beach and redwoods

The 2020 fire season in California was brutal. Many of the trails near the Bay Area that I’ve hiked in the winter went up in smoke. The fire in the Santa Cruz mountains meant that the alternate routes I planned before my last bikepacking trip through Pacifica, Half Moon Bay, and Big Basin were no longer options.

With the ongoing corona pandemic, I wanted to plan a trip I could do solo with minimal human interaction. I also wanted to avoid using public transport this time around. 

Looking at the fire history map, heading towards Santa Cruz and the southern part of the Santa Cruz mountains seemed like the most promising option. 

A map showing large burn areas to the east and west of the SF Bay Area.
The 2020 fire season burned large areas around the Bay Area.

The route

I planned the route to mostly use bike paths, doubletrack, and roads with less traffic. Starting from north San Jose, the route I took was: 

Guadalupe Creek Trail – Los Gatos Creek Trail – Los Gatos – Alma Spring Road – Old Santa Cruz Highway – Summit Road – Soquel San Jose Rd – Soquel – Capitola – New Brighton State Beach – Aptos – Forest of Nisene Marks State Park – Aptos Creek Fire Road – Sumit Road – Mt. Madonna County Park – Mt. Madonna Road – Redwood Retreat Road – Watsonville Road – Little Llagas Creek Trail – Morgan Hill – Monterrey Road – Cochrane Road – Coyote Creek Trail – Tully Road – Highway 87 Bike Path – Guadalupe Creek Trail.

San Jose to New Brighton State Beach

46 miles. 2,900 ft elevation gain.

A bike with bikepacking bags
The Cutthroat loaded and ready for adventure

The sunset is before 5 pm in December. Which meant I wanted to get a somewhat early start to avoid riding in the dark. 

I rolled off just after 9:30. The first 30 miles would be easy going on mostly flat bike paths to Los Gatos. 

A bike path with tall buildings in the distance.
Passing Downtown San Jose
A bike path under the 87 in San Jose
The Highway 87 underpass

It had been almost ten months since the last time I rode south of the airport on the Guadalupe Creek trail. The impact of Covid was devastating to see. The sporadic homeless encampments had grown into a full-blown shantytown of makeshift structures, tents, and beat-up cars. Fires were spewing out noxious fumes of burning trash. A man with no pants was sitting along the trail, eating breakfast.  

The Guadalupe Trail ends on West Virginia Street. I continued along Willow Street through Willow Glen to connect with the Los Gatos Creek trail. The Los Gatos Creek Trail passes through a couple of small parks with lakes. There were restrooms and a water bottle filling station at Vasona Lake County Park. 

A calm lake with reeds in the foreground.
Vasona Lake
A double cheeseburger, fries, and drink on a table outside.
Bike Fuel

I stopped in Los Gatos for a double cheeseburger and fries to power me up to the summit. 

It’s a 1,700 ft climb from Los Gatos to Summit Road. After a short flat section along the creek, the path starts climbing steeply up to Lexington Reservoir. That double cheeseburger may have been a mistake. 

A man riding a bike next to a "hill" warning sign.
The first part of the climb is steep enough to warrant a warning sign
A reservoir with low water.
The water in Lexington Reservoir was low before winter rains

Fortunately, the ride levels out for a while along the reservoir before picking up again when you get to the Old Santa Cruz Highway. The road is wide and lightly-trafficked, shaded by redwoods. 

A paved road on a mountainside with trees on both sides.
Alma Bridge Road

Finally, on Summit Road, I continued to the store to fill up on water. From there, it was all downhill for the rest of the day. 

The Soquel San Jose Road was a joy to ride down. Smooth pavement and few cars. Most of the way down, the grade was just right: enough to keep me rolling with good speed, but not steep enough that I would have had to ride my breaks. 

I made it to Soquel earlier than I had thought, so I decided to head over to Discretion Brewing for an after-ride beer before going to the beach to set up camp. Their socially distant beer garden was a perfect place to sit and enjoy the warm December afternoon. 

A beer glass, mask, and sun glasses on a table.
A discreet IPA at Discretion Brewing

It was about a 15-minute ride to New Brighton beach along busy streets. I paid for a bike-in site and a bundle of firewood. There were four bike camping sites, and I was the only biker there. I picked a spot and set up camp just as the sun was setting. I sat by the fire a while, listening to an audiobook, before heading to bed. The RV campers kept making loud noises until well after midnight. 

A gravel bike leaning against a table with a tent in the foreground and the Pacific Ocean in the background.
The bike campground was the closest one to the beach.
A late sunset over a calm sea with trees in the foreground.
Sunset over the Pacific

Aptos to Mt. Madonna County Park

31 miles. 4,600 ft elevation gain. 

I woke up just before dawn. I made coffee and watched the calm ocean, waiting for the sun to reach my campsite. It was going to be a short day, so I was in no hurry. 

After a lazy breakfast, I tore down camp and got going. My first stop was the New Leaf Market in Aptos to get some lunch and snacks for the long ride back up the mountain. I opted for a turkey-bacon-avocado sandwich on sourdough for later and a hot, freshly brewed coffee to enjoy before heading into Nisene Marks. 

A courtyard with a lawn surrounded by benches.
A sunny spot for a coffee while packing up lunch for the day.
A gravel road through redwood trees.
Aptos Creek Fire road

The temperature must have dropped by 20 degrees on the short ride from the sunny courtyard outside New Leaf. The thick redwood canopy still held on to the cold moisture of the night. I pulled on my windbreaker and started climbing. 

The Aptos Creek Fire Road is popular with mountain bikers and hikers. But the farther I got from the gate, the fewer people I saw. E-bikes whirred past me occasionally, and despite my gear load, I managed to pass a few bikers heading up the seemingly neverending incline. 

I found a level area just off the trail, beneath redwoods. A small sliver of sunlight found its way through the tall trees and warming the air. 

A water bottle and a sandwich in a wrapper sitting on a bed of redwood duff.
Lunchtime!

As I sat there savoring my sandwich, I noticed a faint odor that grew more prominent. Maybe someone had taken a dump somewhere nearby? To my horror, I realized the smell was coming from my shoe. It turned out that the “mud” I thought I had stepped in when taking a leak earlier hadn’t been mud at all, but actual shit. Right on a side trail. Goddamnit. 

After some swearwords, and a cleanup operation featuring sticks, redwood needles, and napkins, I was back on the bike.

The dark coniferous forest slowly began to give way to a more airy deciduous forest providing occasional views toward the ocean. Most riders seemed to end their ride at an overlook with benches, about 8 miles into the climb. I continued. 

People sitting at an overlook with views of the distant ocean.
Sand Point Overlook

The climb got steeper once again after the overlook. At one point, I was close to getting off the bike, but I was able to push through. Three miles after the outlook, the trail crests at the intersection of the Flow Trail. I took a break at the benches overlooking Monterey Bay. A dark mass of clouds making its way ashore, chilling the air. 

Monterey Bay in the distance behind a forest.
Monterey Bay from Santa Rosalia Overlook

I still had 1,000 ft to climb for the day. But first, 750 ft of downhill. The descent was easy enough, and I quickly found myself at a paved intersection. The final two miles to Summit Road were a constant 8-10% incline on a small, winding road. 

A fence with a "Trespassers will be composted" sign.
California hill folk take care of trespassers in an environmentally friendly way.
Green hills in the foreground, Monterey Bay in the background.
Views of Watsonville and Monterey Bay from the climb up to Summit Road

Once I was on Summit Road, it was mostly downhill to Mt. Madonna County Park. I rode to the entry gate and checked into my campsite. Mt. Madonna doesn’t have walk-up camping, so make sure you reserve a camp online before heading out. 

A dirt road through green bushes.
The road alternated between pavement and gravel
Green hills under a cloudy sky
Views from Summit Road

I had selected the campsite farthest away from the gate as possible in hopes of finding some quiet. No such luck. Almost all the sites were occupied. Music was blaring. Most disregarded the ban on fires and wood collection. Instead, they were whacking away like woodpeckers with their hatchets to get fuel. 

The campsite I had selected had a table, food locker, and hard, lumpy ground. I opted to go and set up my tent a bit deeper in the woods on a flat, soft bed of redwood needles. The trees above would also help me sleep warmer and avoid condensation. 

On the left: a bike leaning against a table. On the right: a pickup and a camper.
Two different approaches to camping

I cooked up some dinner, then went into my tent to read. I fell asleep before 9, occasionally waking up to the sounds of people chopping down the forest. 

Mt. Madonna to San Jose

51 miles. 1,350 ft elevation gain. 

It was still misty when I woke up. Sleeping under the redwoods had been a good idea – all my gear was still dry. 

The sky began to clear up as I ate breakfast. Today would be a easy day back home, only downhill after I backtrack a mile back to the backroad from Mt Madonna to Redwood Retreat Road. 

A golden field surrounded by trees and lingering fog.
The morning fog lifting on top of Mt. Madonna
Gravel path through redwoods
Mt. Madonna Road is a narrow gravel road through Redwoods

Mt Madonna Road was a narrow gravel road that snaked through redwoods, oak trees, and finally through fields and vineyards. The temperature plunged as I dropped into the thick marine layer blanketing the valley. It was barely above freezing at the bottom, and my glasses kept misting up with the dense fog. 

Forest disappearing into a thick fog.
The fog was still thick once I started descending
A vineyard with brown leaves under a dark and gloomy sky.
Gloomy skies over a vineyard.

I rode through vineyards and farms along Watsonville Road. My next stop was downtown Morgan Hill to get a cup of warm coffee and a breakfast burrito. 

A bike leaning against a tree next to a bench outside a Mexican restaurant.
Breakfast 2: The burrito
A bike path through a field of yellow grass under a gray sky and fog.
Coyote Creek Trail was gray and drab this time of year

Fueled up, I continued towards Coyote Creek Trail. The trail is almost 20 miles long. Except for a detour through Coyote, it was nice to be off car roads. The landscape was still dry. A couple of days of rain in November had not been enough yet to begin turning the hills green. 

Closer to San Jose, I once again found myself riding through homeless encampments. The stretch between Capitol Expressway and the airport is probably best avoided after dark. 

I got home a little after one, a perfect time for lunch. 

Gear

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