Thursday, April 27, 2017

Bike California, Day 1: San Mateo to Samuel Taylor State Park

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The official Orr Springs route has its starting point at the Golden Gate Bridge. I pondered taking the BART train for most of the way there to avoid mediocre riding through endless suburbs. But after some consultation with my hosts, I concluded that the ride to get to the bridge may actually be nice for the most part, especially when taking a slightly longer route. With a hastily handwritten cue sheet in my handlebar bag, I headed out at 8:17 am.
I have reached the ocean!

The route indeed turned out to be pretty nice, probably helped by it being Saturday morning with light traffic. After following the Caltrain/BART route into San Bruno, I reached the South San Francisco Centennial Way. This is a nicely paved bike trail that, as I later learned, runs on top of the BART tube. Where the trail ended, I encountered the first of what would be many more climbs. Chestnut Avenue is a straight shot up toward the San Bruno mountains, until it intersects with Hillside Avenue. When planning the route, I had suspicions that Hillside, showing up as a major connector road, may be unpleasant, but it actually turned out to be beautiful. There was a good bike lane/shoulder, and the road takes you through a long stretch of scenic cemeteries.

Plenty of surfers in the water
I got slightly lost on my way to the ocean and had to squeeze my bike through a narrow fence opening at a pedestrian connector, but eventually I got back on track and reached the beach near the appropriately named “Great Highway.” I spent some minutes watching the surfers and then continued along the coastline. The multi-use path along Great Highway is very bumpy, but fortunately the highway itself was closed off to cars that morning. Getting from the beach to the Golden Gate Bridge involved some pretty brutal climbs, but it also provided a nice mix of riding through an urban environment and then through the Presidio park.

Looking toward downtown on Clement Street
View of the Marin Headlands from the Presidio
The start of the Orr Springs route
Tourists afoot and on their “Blazing Saddles” rental bikes of course were swarming everywhere on and around the bridge. Fortunately on the weekend the western path of the bridge is open and limited to only cyclists, making riding across actually enjoyable.

On the Marin side of the bridge
Once in Marin County, the Orr Springs route follows Highway 1 out of Sausalito. I had been warned about there usually being a lot of car traffic on that route, especially on the weekend. To avoid that I tried to retrace my steps from a day ride during a San Francisco visit one-and-a-half years ago. I really enjoyed that route back then, but alas, I couldn't figure it out again. The route I took instead had some great section as well (see photo below), but there were also segments with hard climbing and lots of car traffic. By the time I got to the top, at the intersection with Panoramic Highway and Muir Woods Road, I was soaked in sweat.
Beautiful residential street in Mill Valley
I knew that Highway 1 was closed off in the segment going down to Muir Beach due to construction, requiring a detour either via Muir Woods (less climbing) or Panoramic Highway (more climbing). So I wasn't surprised to see a detour sign at the intersection. Apparently I also didn't read it too closely before starting the descent down Muir Woods Road. However, something on that sign must have triggered doubt deep in my reptile brain and I decided to pull over after the first few downhill turns. I pulled out my cell phone to double-check that I was not mistaken about which parts of Highway 1 were open and which ones were closed. But of course, being on the other side of the mountain, I no longer had cell reception. And so I just continued down the hill, together with a steady stream of weekend tourists going to and from Muir Woods. The descent was fun and twisty, with me actually managing to scrape my panniers on the ground in one of the switchbacks. I guess there are certain disadvantages to use rear panniers in the front...
Looking back and catching my breath on steep Edgewood Avenue

Past the entrance to Muir Woods, traffic volumes dropped quickly. I rationalized that away, thinking that with one section of Highway 1 being closed off, most people in cars would just take Panoramic Highway instead. I encountered a bunch of sad looking runners who, as I later learned were the back-end of an ultra running event. Well, soon enough I would look just as sad: At the intersection with Highway 1, there it was: ROAD CLOSED. LOCAL ACCESS ONLY. In both directions.
Back at the entrance to Muir Woods

I considered just continuing anyway, in hopes that on a bike I may be able to pass the closure. But having seen enough pictures of really big landslides on other parts of the coastal highway, however, that didn't seem like a great idea. Around I turned. At Muir Woods—which is where the serious climbing begins—I made a quick stop to ask one of the rangers about the closure. After all, my legs were somewhat tired at this point, and not only would I have to get back up to where I'd come from, but the route on Panoramic Highway would continue climbing for a good bit before going back down to the ocean. The ranger couldn't tell me much more than that the closure was because of a slide and that she didn't think I'd be able to pass on a bike. Oh well.

The climbing was tough and had lots of annoying car traffic. And yet, the sunshine and beautiful scenery more than made up for it. About an hour later I reached the highest point of the day at Pan Toll campground. I was in desperate need of a break, calories, and electrolytes. I had plenty of Clif Bars left for the calories, and the campground vending machine had some sort of sports drink to take care of the electrolytes. Just to make sure that I wouldn't encounter any further surprises along the road, I inquired with the volunteer at the campground registration about the status of the route from here on and whether Samuel Taylor State Park was open and had hike-bike sites. She gave the thumbs-up on the route and offered to call the park. Nobody picked up there, but she confirmed that they did have hike-bike sites and that she had no reason to believe the camping wasn't open. She also offered me a campsite right here. But with a few hours of daylight left and the worst of the climbing was behind me, I declined.

Double espresso in Stinson Beach. The barista seemed a little stoned...
The descent to Stinson Beach was sublime. It's over six kilometers (3.8 mi) of twisty downhill with stunning vistas of tall trees, endless beaches, and the Pacific Ocean. At the bottom is a small beach community where I stopped for an espresso and a bottle of V8. North of Stinson Beach the Coastal Highway is truly coastal: For a few miles I rode right at the edge of the water, on a road that had hardly any traffic. Some seals lazing on sand banks further enhanced the scenery.

After a few short ups and downs when the route turned inland, I reached the tiny community of Olema. This was where I would have to turn off the coastal highway to get to my camping spot for the night. Olema consists only of a few houses, but there is a little deli as well as a campground right in town. Riding to Samuel Taylor State Park would be all uphill, and so I considered just staying here, or at least getting my dinner supplies at the deli. But the deli's selection was rather upscale and the campground looked expensive and geared toward RV campers. So I decided to keep going on Highway 1 into the next town, Point Reyes Station. The Orr Springs cue sheet promised a supermarket and a renowned bakery there, and it was only another few miles.

This was well worth it. At Bovine Bakery I had a tasty vegan minestrone and at the supermarket across the street I bought pasta, an avocado and two large beers for dinner. Daylight had started to run out at this point, and so I started on the final few miles to my camp site. The climb from Olema turned out to be not too bad, or maybe it was just the beautiful scenery in the soft evening light that made me forget about my tired legs.

The ranger station was already closed when I arrived, and there was a sign that the campground was full. As full as the regular campground was, the hike/bike site was completely unoccupied. I set up my tent under the massive redwood trees and right next to Lagunitas Creek. The avocado and a pound of pasta with tomato sauce and two cans of Sierra Nevada Torpedo made for a very satisfying ending to a long day of riding.

[Continue to Day 2]

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