Pines to Palms

Dodging black ice and climbing even higher up into the snowcapped peaks above town, we rolled out of Idyllwild following just behind the pack of seasoned endurance riders seemingly shot out of the cannon that is the grand depart of the Stagecoach 400. Their faint but fresh tire tracks would guide us for those first dirt miles and give us assurances when it seemed we were possibly off track.


Icy roads turned to frozen dirt as we plateaued at the highest point on the route. It was at this moment that a sense of excitement overcame us as we knew this would be the highest and coldest part of the ride and, in general terms, it was all downhill from here to the warmth and beauty of the desert floor below.



It was also here that the magnitude of the ride ahead really settled in for me. Having completed the Stagecoach 400 once before, I had an idea of the hardships that were to come and the known obstacles we would encounter ahead. I did my best to play it cool while slowly preparing my riding partner for some of the more challenging bits.


My good friend Chris was ready to drop everything and join me on this ride without knowing much about it. Like everything else in life, he charged straight at it hungry for the raw experience of it all. Chris is an adventurer of the highest caliber, and I had a strong sense of relief knowing he was with me all the way no matter what.


Unlike my last ride on this route, we would be going in the opposite direction, and we would be finishing in San Diego rather than continuing onward to climb back up into the mountains after reaching the ocean. We had set up a shuttle and left his car in Ocean Beach some 250 miles away. The notion of a point-to-point ride of this magnitude with no bailout option is a little daunting but compared to the suffering of the complete route in wintery conditions this would be a leisure ride.


With the early morning sun on our faces and the wind at our backs, we sailed down the singletrack descending out of the mountains. This section of trail had been in hibernation and recovery after a major fire had burned through the area some years ago. It was a treat to ride here again as these nearly lost and forgotten sections are some of the fastest flowtech trails in this area. The bikes were performing flawlessly and we were getting warmed up to shred the miles ahead



As we leveled out after the first big elevation drop, we were faced with the inevitability of what would become the main theme of the ride - water, lots and lots of water! The first few crossings were manageable, and we thought we might have gotten out without wet feet but just as Brendan had promised at the riders’ meeting – “there will be wet feet”. We forged through the overflow at full speed so as not to get washed away down the raging river. Feet thoroughly soaked!


It was slow going for the next stretch as we slogged through some flat and saturated sections of trail and fireroad that paralleled the highway. Once onto pavement again it felt as if we had kicked into overdrive and the miles disappeared behind us quickly with the hum of tires singing sweet melodies of near perfect cadence.


Our first dabble onto the CHRT (California Hiking and Riding Trail) was a welcome break from the road miles as it was all downhill singletrack in the direction we were traveling. Back onto pavement for a stretch and then a quick stop at Sunshine Market for snacks and drinks. We made good time getting back to dirt and were relieved to see the desert valley below as the view opened up at the top of Coyote Canyon. Dropping into the rugged desert wash and crisscrossing through to find the hardpack sections of sand, we floated down canyon to Bailey’s cabin for a mandatory snack break and strategic beverage stop.



This is where I would tell Chris a little more about “The Willows”. I knew it would be wetter than usual and likely way overgrown given the amount of water flowing in the desert this spring. We had just enough time to attempt to punch through before it got dark. He agreed to the challenge unknowing the true nature of this part of the route. Basically, the desert turns to swamp and the trail becomes a river which is choked out by the thickest brush and ultra lush palm trees that soak up precious water as it flows through the tightest part of the canyon. At least we were traveling in the downriver direction.


We punched through with plenty of daylight and were treated to the sights and smells of the beginning stages of the super bloom. The desert unfolded before us with full sensory immersion as we raced each other down the sandy double track descending towards Borrego Springs and the burritos that awaited us below.





Day two started with long road miles and strong headwinds after a moment of awe in the sculpture gardens near our camp. Onward deeper into the desert we turned up into Fish Creek wash and began the slow uphill grind through deep sand for what seemed like forever. We slogged through the sandbox, occasionally treated to faster rolling sections of the wash where the recent high water had turned it to concrete.


The recently re-released Hayduke bikes that we rode were a fine choice for this adventure as they seemed to excel at every different type of terrain we would encounter. The desert sand was less painful due to the float of the 29x2.8” tires and the road miles passed with ease while the singletrack was just as enjoyable as it would have been on any unloaded trailbike. These bikes were built for adventures just like this!

Up and out of reach from flash flood potential, we pitched our tents overlooking the endless sandy wash that we had spent most of the afternoon climbing. The next day would bring more of the same plus a bonus excursion up into the slot canyons where we got boxed out and had to backtrack to get back on route. Drinking water calculations came eerily close to danger that day as we limped back into “civilization” just in time to fill our reservoirs before the vultures started circling.


It was around this time that we started to feel a shift in the weather. We had heard rumors of an incoming storm cycle and we knew that we would be headed directly into it. The question became more about timing - where and when would we make our push into the foul weather?


We decided to stop short of the big climb (Oriflamme Canyon Road) that would take us back up and over the mountains towards the ocean. If we hadn’t hunkered down under the porch of a laundry room at an RV Park, we would’ve been totally exposed and at the mercy of some nasty weather up in the mountains that night. Despite having to sleep with one eye open due to the sketchy nocturnal nature of some residents of the adjacent trailer park, we made it safely through the night and didn’t lose our bikes or any gear.


As we made our way up into the mountains that day, we encountered more water which was likely amplified by the past night’s heavy rain and thunderstorm. The dirt road approaching the base of the big climb was basically underwater and we rode through axle deep water crossings until the road became the river and then we were just riding upriver in the water against the current. Wet feet again!


Once we ascended to the steeper part of the climb the road became dry again. We climbed up and over the mountain to a point on the route where it would cross the highway along the ridge of the Laguna Mountains. It was at that spot that I had stashed a cache of snacks and beverages under an oak tree. It was a welcome boost to our levels and morale as we celebrated the completion of what would be the biggest climb of the ride.

This is where the weather really started to affect our ride as the original route was amended at the last minute due to impassable conditions higher up over the mountain. So, we stuck to the adapted route which kept us out of harm’s way and off the snow covered and muddy trails up high. We got some great re-route suggestions from the ride organizers and decided to cut out even more trails due to incredibly unfavorable and impassable conditions.


This put us into the town of Alpine just before the next big wave of the storm came through. Chris and I decided to get a hotel room for the night since it was forecasted to be another wet and stormy night. The national weather service warning announcements on TV were all the assurance we needed to know we had made the right decision.


That weather advisory was in effect until around noon the next day. We had a late checkout and we pushed it even further to let the bulk of the storm pass. The storm lifted as we rode out and we were gifted with sunshine and perfect trail conditions for most of the rest of the ride. We got caught in a light rain as we rolled past the battleships down at the waterfront and up into the Ocean Beach neighborhood to our destination. The next wave of the storm hit hard as we were scrambling to put our bikes away, barely dodging the worst of the weather!


Celebrating the successful journey, we stood in the middle of the street looking down to the ocean and felt an overwhelming sense of accomplishment having just ridden nearly 250 miles from the highest mountain down into the desert below and then pushed back up over the mountains to the shores of the mighty Pacific Ocean. What a wild ride! From pines to palms, we covered some hard miles, saw some amazing things, and dodged the wintery weather. It was a true Stagecoach adventure!



In the days after our ride, I asked Chris if he had any words to contribute to this Journal entry. This is what he had to say, and I couldn’t have said it any better myself. –

“What I find most appealing about this type of ride is, it invokes a sense of perspective. We are thought of as "tough" for riding long distances for multiple days through unforgiving environments; but in reality, we are soft. We pack specifically to ensure optimal caloric intake and adequate hydration from sources far removed from the natural world. We have high tech insulative solutions for every type of weather and climate. We pinpoint re-supply locations and plan entire days around hitting those marks. We connect to dozens of satellites orbiting around the earth at thousands of miles per hour to ensure we don't REALLY get to experience the true indifference of a land that doesn't care if you live or die. We are 21st century visitors racing to briefly survive in a place that was once permanently home to those who were an integral part of nature, not just a spectator of it. I am perfectly aware that I don't belong way the hell out in the middle of nowhere, at least not physically. Though mentally I am left with a sense of respect and perspective that can't be realized in many other ways.”

Our adventure was not over yet as we would have to drive back up to Idyllwild to retrieve the other vehicle. Much to our surprise, we were greeted with about 10” of freshly fallen snow surrounding the van and effectively burying it. Thankfully, with the help of an unknown spectator who laid down some tracks for us to drive onto, we got the van out without too much trouble. We were just thankful that we weren’t riding our bikes back up into the snowstorm that day. That would have been a different story entirely…