From left to right Matt, myself, Alex, & Chris
November 3rd was a date I had on my calendar for months. It was the date set for my first bikepacking trip that was to encompass the mountainous perimeter of big bear lake in California. Three coworkers/friends and myself had committed to our two night 3 day bikepacking journey. We parked our cars at big bear cycles at about 12:00 pm and after packing our bags, setting up our bikes, Derek Hermon the owner of Big Bear bikes told us to reconsider our proposed route.
Since I didn’t know anything about mountain biking in the area I deferred to his experience on the matter. Derek quickly drafted up route on a map he sold at his shop, and for $8.00 we were off on what would be presumably the first of many bikepacking adventures to come. I at the time already had a sneaking suspicion that this would become somewhat of an obsession. I can assuredly say I was right.
“your probably going to bring to much your first time” I read online from sites like bikepacker.com and bikepacking.com was accurate. I had by far the heaviest bike. I rationalized it having said “I’m just packing as if I was doing a trip in Washington.” Even with that catch-all validating my steel frame, sweet roll, framebag, seat bag, extension pocket, and two fork-mounted bottle cages, I had an amazing time. I could have left a few articles of clothing, some lens filters, ditched my bike jersey (didn’t wear it once), & maybe gone with a smaller stove. Woulda’, coulda’, shoulda’
We started our assent up some paved roads and quickly broke away onto the fire roads which from my previous experiences had all been fairly manageable. Everything led me to believe that to be the case until we took our turns from skyline and started down Radford ridge. I honestly hadn’t seen the appeal for bikepacking in regards to suspension, until I was left aching after Radford Ridge. I was fully loaded, zero suspension, and was working with a bike more suited for gravel roads than the apocalyptic minefield that my good-ol-buddy Radford had presented to me. I had to go much slower and pick my lines much more carefuly in comparison to the rest of my group whom were hootin’ and hawlerin’ with delight.
After our grueling (for me) descent down Radford Ridge We came to Converse Forest Service Station where a nice man gave us some fresh water. Having been in LA for a little over a year I have forgotten the slower pace and more genuine nature of conversation that occurs when speaking to mountain town locals. He was interested in our bike setups and I told him about bikepacking.com and forewarned him of it’s inescapable rabbit hole magnetism. I wouldn’t be surprised that hes on there as we speak. After we set out to find our camp for the evening, we did a slight decent along the wall of a canyon called Front Line road. Having settled on what we presume to have been the best spot we ate a crap load of food, and looked at some stars, and passed out.
18.0 mi 2,326 ft 2:34:01 time
Strava data here
The second day we were greeted by a beautiful sunrise, we drank coffee, ate some food, Chris tried to make pancakes in my Jet Boil Mini-Mo but failed, and we packed up our stuff and went on our way. The only real single track we did was the Santa Ana River Trail and Derek told us about some hairpin turns and let me tell you they they were moderately treacherous.Here’s a video I found of someone riding it from the opposite direction. I assure you those corners are way tighter than they appear with this wide angle go pro lens. Matt later told me that he was impressed with how I handled my self riding that with bar-end shifters and drops, and no suspension.
I think he said something to the degree of, “I would have been sh*$ing myself in a couple of those sections”
which made me feel better about how slow I was riding in comparison to the rest of the group. I was envious of the rest of the team but it was a challenge, and as mentioned before it was still fun.
After our single track extravaganza we opted to cut back to Seven Oaks on a paved road to quest for beer and ice cream. Unfortunately, the quaint general store was closed. We ate across the street however next to a river. We met a friendly older gentleman who’s name escapes me, chitchatted a bit and braced ourselves for our climb up Clark’s grade to our proposed destination bluff lake.
Now from our vantage point at the end of Seven Oaks Road, Clark’s grade doesn’t seem like such a monumental undertaking. I assure you, both myself and every member of our band of merry men were not so merry after grinding up that grade for what felt like two and a half hours of pain. I wished I had some wider tires on my bike with some deeper tread, I think it would have helped the exhausting sand-traps that littered the fire-roads as we ascended up this merciless monster. Every time I got shook from my bike from a loss of traction, it was very difficult to get back up and get moving again. Matt however was a hill climbing machine and smoked all of us. He told me that he gets into a meditative place and just goes. Something I learned about my Novara Mazama: Despite what my bike lacks in suspension department on the down hill, it excels in at hill climbs on the uphill. Not having any suspension means no loss of energy, and a hill like Clark’s Grade demands that in buckets.
As the sun was starting to set, Matt and I neared the summit Skyline Trail and collapsed on the ground. I was astonished as to how cold the air had become in just a short time. As Matt and I layered up, Alex and Chris joined us on our final decent towards bluff lake. I’ve ridden my bike in the dark many-a-time, but never with that kind of weight, or in that kind of temperature, or with that level of fatigue. I left my Cygolite bike light at home (a mistake), with the understanding that the likelihood of night riding was going to be limited to non existent. Boy do I wish I had that light for those downhills. I had a 160 Lumen black diamond headlamp while good for conventional use, left me feeling like a gigantic bolder could leap out at me at any moment while whizzing through the dark. I laid my bike down once due to a bed of pine cones, and made peace with the powers that be a couple of times on that decent. Thanks to Matt for riding behind me with his Night Rider light giving me some peace of mind on that decent to the lake.
Bluff Lake is a wildlife reserve which we didn’t know about until we got there, regardless we found a cozy spot to camp in a governmental no-mans land just on the outside of the gate. I slept harder than I ever thought possible, not before however congratulating my comrades as to how awesome and exhausting that stretch was. In retrospect, the one thing I wish I had was some sort of insulation for my damn feet up there at that higher elevation. I opted to only bring my cycling shoes because of weight and space restrictions. Both of the places we camped at were into the low 30’s the second night we slept at 7500′ elev. Also, cheese I should have brought more dry style cheese. I could have consumed an entire block of dry extra sharp cheddar all by my lonesome but was coerced to share.
24.4 mi 3973 ft 4:13:39 time
Strava data here
That morning I felt Like I was the king of the world, I got up early charged up my camera, drank some coffee and just cruzed around the lake. We stumbled upon some old cabins, the remnants of a fireplace and chimney, and I got some great shots of the group in this field as the sun was peaking over the trees. Out of nowhere Nat appeared. Nat told us he worked forest service up near bluff lake and does some volunteer ski patrol stuff in the winter. He told us hes also setting up a beer bread delivery service on electric bike to his some 100 proposed customers. He also told us he was a coder, an ex financial analyst, and had done a bike tour in his day. In my book this guy could give the dos equis man a run for his money. After a fond farewell we hopped on our bikes and began a steep decent back to civilization. a quick five mile ride down hill 90% of the way back to big bear bikes to grab the car and find some pizza and bear that we had all been craving so desperately.
5.4 mi 256 ft 28:58 time
Strava data here
In summation, this trip was amazing. I loved every minute of it. I highly recommend anyone with an interest in cycling and a love of backpacking this is great way to combine the two and cover a lot of ground and enjoy an area on a tighter time line. Big Bear bikepacking is a great place to test your gear and not feel like your to far from civilization as well. Thanks to Matt, Alex, & Chris for coming with me also!