A Big Sur moment at Carmel Highlands.
And you thought bikes weren’t allowed in wilderness areas. They aren’t, but the forest service allows bicycles on Indians Road, which heads through the Ventana Wilderness Area in Los Padres National Forest — 98,000 acres of some of the wildest, most scenic California coastal mountains imaginable.
While I am late to the party, I finally made it, April 17-18, with several riders, two of whom rode extensively with Jobst Brandt on a ride similar to the one we took.
Jobst rode here in 2007 and 2008, and finally his last ride in 2010 (age 75), toward the end of his illustrious cycling days spanning more than 55 years.
After trying various loops, John Woodfill, the primary ride sponsor, settled on a route that starts in Carmel Valley and ends at the Hacienda Lodge on day one (92 miles), a former hideaway of William Randolph Hurst, now located inside the Hunter Liggett Military Reservation, the largest Army reserve at 160,000 acres.
Day two (71 miles) took us on Indians Road over the rugged Santa Lucia Range and down to Arroyo Seco Road, then up Carmel Valley and back to our starting point.
While we are by no means the first cyclists to ride here, we may well be the some of the last. Landslides closed the road in 1994 and it’s now only open to hikers, equestrians and cyclists. I give it another 5-10 years before it becomes impassible by bike, assuming we have some wet winters.
Off to a good start
Our ride started around 9:45 a.m. after a drive from the Bay Area. Clear skies and moderate temperatures made for short-sleeve jersey riding. The ride to Hwy 1 on the busy Carmel Valley Road can be avoided for several miles by taking a left onto Rancho San Carlos Road and continuing on South Bank Trail and Palo Corona Trail to Hwy 1, avoiding several miles of traffic (had I only known).
Hwy 1, even on a Friday morning, has plenty of traffic, but it comes with the territory this time of year when tourists enjoy the fog-free coast, whale sightings and spectacular wildflowers. The high surf and strong wave action this day made for some inspiring views of the rocky shoreline below. While there wasn’t much of a tailwind, atypical for this time of year, at least there wasn’t a headwind.
The coast road stays in view of the ocean most of the time, with the inland excursion to Big Sur and Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park being the lone exception.
Along the way you’ll enjoy some scenic bridge crossings over deep canyons cut by creeks flowing from the insanely steep mountains on your left. The iconic Bixby Bridge 13 miles south of Carmel never disappoints on a clear day, nor the look-alike Rocky Creek Bridge. Dozens of visitors milled about taking photos, selfie sticks now de rigueur. It was a far cry from 2011 when we had this stretch of Hwy 1 virtually to ourselves due to road closures.
At Big Sur we regrouped and had some food and drink from the local grocery store. Then the flats started. Ned Black had a flat and then another (bad tube). To assuage our bad luck we stopped at the Loma Vista Big Sur Restaurant next to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park for more food, before continuing a short distance to the 700-foot summit, our highest point on Hwy 1.
Bob Walmsley enjoys the view on the Pacific Coast.
Bob Walmsley and I traded off riding out front as the miles ticked by at a rapid clip despite the many ups and downs.
At Lucia we gathered once again, outdoing one another for who purchased the most expensive item from the only store around. There’s also a small hotel and restaurant for the well-heeled traveler. At 4 p.m. we still had plenty of time to reach the Hacienda lodge before dark.
Here’s one way to keep rocks off the road. South of Lucia.
South of Lucia we came across one of the more remarkable road projects in California, a tunnel that’s only about 300 feet long and shaped like a square house. Pitkins Curve
has seen many landslides, and a rock shed was the state’s elegant, if unconventional, solution.
Four miles from Lucia we turned left up Nacimiento-Fergusson Road to begin an arduous climb to the summit at 2,664 feet. The first 1.5 miles is the steepest, with one section of 14 percent. After that the grade becomes a more manageable 8-12 percent, with a more level section halfway up. The last mile is a continuous 10 percent grade, but there is little traffic.
On a day like today with clear skies and mild temperatures, the climb didn’t seem so bad, especially with the ocean views for half the distance. On the way we passed a motorist burning wood next to the road, a truly bizarre activity this time of day, around 4:30 p.m. Burn pits are in evidence in many locations with ocean views two thousand feet below, no doubt a popular spot to enjoy a warm summer night under the stars.
Nice view four miles up on the Nacimiento-Fergusson Road.
We sped down the eastern slope of Nacimiento-Fergusson, a twisty road that’s narrow and not conducive to building up speed. In a few miles we entered the drainage for the Nacimiento River. This is one of the more scenic roads in the area under a canopy of trees and a burbling creek on the right, all the more so as the sun began its descent and things cooled off on the warmer eastern slope of the Santa Lucia range.
We exited the canyon and entered the base (entry station closed here) to be welcomed by a broad grassy valley covered with giant oaks. It’s ideal terrain for military training, but the 60-ton M1 Abrams tanks (too heavy for the area bridges) that used to rumble over the hills are a thing of the past due to environmental restrictions.
A nice tailwind pushed us on the downhill to the base, crossing the metal grating bridge over the creek that feeds into Lake San Antonio nearby.
After a left onto Mission Road we entered the military base where we showed our ID as military personnel ran our names through a security database (presumably).
Hacienda lodge gives riders a respite.
It’s a short ride to the hotel, a bright white mission-style building with Spanish tile roof perched on a hill. But first we headed to the PX for some food and drink, frequented mostly by military personnel.
Shangri-la in the wilderness
At the hotel we were greeted warmly by a manager who helped us find our keys in a lockbox, for which there was a combination provided in the email.
At $50 a room, complete with a queen-size bed, microwave, coffee maker, satellite flat-panel TV and fridge stocked with our morning breakfast, there wasn’t much to complain about! These less expensive private rooms came with a shared bathroom and shower, but the water was plentiful and hot.
For a sit-down meal the only place on the base — the hotel restaurant is now just a bar — is the nearby bowling alley, which serves delicious pizza, beer and soda. Highly recommended, but at 7 p.m. it was already too cool to eat outdoors on the patio and the mosquitoes buzzed with delight over having us for dinner.
Sleep came easily after covering 92 miles, climbing 7,470 feet, in nine hours.
Day 2 begins with Reveille
Around 7 a.m. we heard the sound of Reveille, but we were already up and about. After eating our breakfast we headed out around 8:10 a.m., clear skies and temps in the mid 40s, but within 30 minutes it would be short-sleeve jersey weather.
John Woodfill and Ned Black discuss next steps on Milpitas Road before the descent.
Heading north on Mission Road we passed the Mission San Antonio de Padua, founded in 1771. It became the foundation for a thriving community of 1,200 residents, but by the 1840s it had fallen into ruin.
We saw a reconstructed mission modeled after the original, but it still looks old.
We could have headed straight onto Del Venturi Road, but John had pioneered Milpitas Road and chose that as our route, a wide dirt road that took us gently uphill most of the way before a brisk descent back to Del Venturi Road.
As we approached a grove of trees we saw a large tan military vehicle parked and a solider outside waving us back. We immediately made an about-face.
However, to our good fortune an officer in a pickup truck following had radioed ahead and cleared us to pass a military exercise being held by Navy Seabees, who use this landlocked area to test their collective motto of Construimus, Battuimus or “We Build, We Fight.” Who knew?
Basically they spend time in the field practicing building structures while under fire. We saw numerous places where this activity was underway. One soldier warned us that they work with tear gas on occasion and need to close the public road.
While most of the roads on the base are “public” they can be closed at any time for military activities.
After repairing a couple of flats, we continued on the mostly smooth dirt road and entered Del Venturi just beyond the San Antonio River ford, which can be quite high after a rain. It can also be slippery.
Del Venturi Road climbs gradually through an oak-covered valley.
We continued ever higher into the hills at a gradual climb through a spectacular valley filled with giant oaks. The scenery only got better as we passed exposed sandstone formations. I fully expected to see Captain Kirk and the Gorn battling it out because it looks just like the Vasquez Rocks in southern California.
We stopped to enjoy the scenery before plunging steeply down the paved road to the wooded Santa Lucia Memorial Park Campground. It was here that Ned took a spill when his wheel caught a rut in the dirt road. Fortunately he suffered nothing more than a sore hand and cuts on his right knee.
John leads the way through the Roosevelt Creek narrows.
The Indians Road route is not so clear here, but we knew to take a right and cross Roosevelt Creek, with water up to the bottom bracket. A narrow canyon greeted us as we continued climbing away from the creek ever higher.
The road wasn’t all that bad, with the occasional loose spots and gravel to keep your attention.
At the final campground, Escondido, we turned right and started the real climbing, going around a closed gate in about a quarter-mile. Immediately ahead there’s a water tank where water can be tapped.
Testing our gears on Indians Road. Start of the steep stuff.
This began the steepest section of Indians Road for climbing, with some sections of 13 percent, loose and rocky. To make things harder, tall brush grows either side of the road, severely limiting your maneuvering.
I had to put a foot down in a couple of sections, but otherwise managed to keep riding at a slow pace.
Yucca plants seem to like it here.
At the 2,800-foot level at the end of the steep climbing, we stopped under some shade to regroup and check ourselves for ticks. We found plenty, probably the ubiquitous Pacific Coast tick. Between us we must have removed 15 ticks and there would be more to come as we stopped farther along.
But there was still more fun riding ahead. At 2,800 feet near the summit the road mellows out and goes straight across a high plateau where public works can be seen in the form of nicely done rock culverts.
Ned revels in the zen of tube patching.
As the road heads back into the mountain’s crevasses it twists and turns around every corner, narrowing to 10 feet in places where there are thousand-foot vertical drops. On top of this the road is littered with scree that demands your full attention.
Flats, flats, flats
As we began a gradual descent Ned flatted once again (a half-dozen flats in all). I stayed behind and helped with repairs while John and Bob continued on. When we didn’t show up at the infamous Adit slide they walked back minus bikes to see what was up.
Ned masters the Adit slide.
Once repairs were complete Ned and I joined Bob and John at the slide where a bike portage is essential. It’s only 30 feet of narrow trail, but it’s a steep pitch of about 20 percent. The best way to get over is to push your bike from behind on the left side. Or have someone else do it, which is what happened in my case.
Adit slide close up. What’s all the fuss?
At the north end of the slide there’s a spring in a rocky hollow where water drips constantly. At the base of the cave you’ll find some Stream orchids, the California state orchid. We refreshed ourselves and Bob filled his water bottle. Temperatures at this point were on the toasty side in the mid-80s.
While we didn’t see any rattlesnakes, we did come across a beautiful horned toad. It quickly left the road and hid in the bushes, but in full view of us. I was more accustomed to seeing a much less colorful version, so it was a special treat to see one so colorful.
We continued downhill on the rocky spoor hoping that we wouldn’t slash a tire or take a spill. Jobst slashed a tire on one ride, but had a spare. The descent was continuous at about 8-10 percent and not too bad for a road bike.
At the bottom we crossed a fork of the Santa Lucia Creek. As a final reminder that this is a challenging ride, we climbed 200 feet in 0.4 miles, grade about 13 percent. Then we hit pavement and the ride took on a new complexion.
At the Arroyo Seco Campground we found the water fountain, but a big sign said water needed to be boiled. Ned offered some iodine pills, so we had water for the long climb back to Carmel Valley 35 miles distant over a 2,200-foot mountain.
It was already 2 p.m. and we had covered a mere 35 miles. One 5-mile section took 1:16, stops included.
As we climbed out of the Arroyo Seco River drainage in the baking heat, it was our good fortune to find the Country Store open this year. We went inside to discover they had air conditioning and some interesting antiques for sale, but more importantly they had lots of cold Gatorade for the ride ahead. We traded stories with the store owner; dressed in cowboy hat and boots, he looked like someone out of the Wild West.
Filled with delicious cold fluids, we turned left shortly on E. Carmel Valley Road and began an 11-mile climb through some spectacular countryside with almost no traffic.
The climb begins gradually and steepens near the summit, but it’s never more than 10 percent. At the summit I continued on alone and enjoyed the long descent, one of the best in the region. The country road passes secluded creeks and dense trees as it winds down toward the Pacific Coast.
All the better, cool ocean air had made it into the valley, setting us up for a delightful ride in the late-afternoon sun.
At 5 p.m., 71 miles later (17 miles of dirt) we finished our ride and grabbed a bite to eat at the Carmel Valley grocery store, which makes some of the best sandwiches around.
Indians Road with its alluring scenery has high potential for things to go wrong. Be prepared. Bill Bushnell took his recumbent on the same route with a friend in fall 2009. They had their own kind of adventure ride, and a good time was had by all.