The Southern Cal Rambler - San Diego to Los Angeles

Back on U.S. soil, Didier meets me at the San Diego airport clean cut and scrubbed of the Peruvian dirt we shared together several months back. A few email exchanges and kombuchas later, Compadre Cass meets us and the three of us head out to explore some of SoCal’s finest desert riding.  We spend the night in Campo, the southern terminus of the PCT, waiting out a storm.  Morning brings clear skies and a deadpan warning from a local to be careful about the "1700 canabalistic ISIS Kurds pouring across the border who were in a real bad way having survived a nuke strike in Mexico." Ok, then. We should probably get moving...   

Just a bit northeast of Campo lies Carrizo Canyon and the start of a lovely stretch of abandoned railway.  Originally laid down in the early 1900’s to connect San Diego to eastern cities, this section earned the moniker “The Impossible Railroad” as numerous trestles and tunnels were needed to thread track through twelve miles of remote and uncompromising terrain. 

First stop - abandoned cars tagged inside and out.

Trading stories, photographing each other, feeding off different perspectives on the surrounding landscape, or simply listening to some one else crunch along up ahead - it's good to be riding with partners again after a long stretch of solo riding.    

Sadly, MJ, the Bolivian Yungas slayer, didn't stick around for the reunion tour. Cinco it is.

Single track and some long dark tunnels wind us out deeper into the canyon. 

The highlight of the section is without a doubt this engineering gem wrapping across Goat Canyon. A 1932 earthquake collapsed the main tunnel and washed out the track, necessitating an alternate solution.  The resulting 600 foot long and 180 ft high trestle spanning the canyon is the longest and tallest curved wooden trestle in the States.

The latticework of dark timbers set against the surrounding desert grey is stunning.

Deep shadows and crisp light mark days end as we set up camp along the southern edge of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.  

Unfortunately, Didier has to peel off and heads back to San Diego the following day as Cass and I push on and enjoy some washy, plus sized riding through Canyon Sin Nombre.

Scraggily Ocotillo's up on the plateau dot the landscape in all directions.

One of the things I like most about the Desert Southwest is the expansive scale and those moments where you can truly appreciate the immensity of this this pale blue dot we call home. 

Chasing the setting sun, we arrive in Borrego Springs in time to take in a few of local artist Richard Breceda's roadside pieces.  Spread out around the valley floor, the steel works include prehistoric mammals, elephants, scorpions and a 350-foot-long dragon headed serpent. 

 

Apart from sculptures, Borrego Springs is a hotbed of tourist activity when the wildflower bloom occurs. We're a few days early for the full bloom, but there are a number of early birds popping up just outside of town in Coyote Canyon. 

The flowering tips of the Ocotillo.

The Fishhook, which rings the top of barrel cacti. This one getting ready to bloom.

The Desert Chicory.

And the Desert Lily.

With our wildflower checklist complete, we push on towards Salton City picking up some sandy miles along Truckhaven Trail to break up a bit of paved riding.

Under afternoon skies, we duck down into one of the many washes littered throughout the area and come upon a spectacular series of lunar mud formations just outside of Salton City.

We spend the night amongst tricked out "jeeper's" pouring into Salton City for the Tierra Del Sol Desert Safari.

One of the things about being Stateside is I can more easily understand side conversations taking place around me.  "You fishing out them Muslims?" asks one jeep banger to a Border Patrol Agent while I order a breakfast burrito. Welcome to Trumplandia. We should deport your dumb ass, dude.  

From Salton City we head south and pick up the soon to be minted Stagecoach 500 (an alternate additional leg to the Stagecoach 400). A quick detour for the infamous Westmorland Date Shake is an automatic.  Medjool dates, vanilla ice cream and almond milk blended deliciousness. I plow through two shakes with little hesitation. 

A series of levee roads run us through gridded farm land out along the southern edge of the Salton Sea.  Long a place I've wanted to visit, the Salton Sea has a continually unfolding history.  

Over millions of years, the Colorado River naturally flowed in and out of the valley every 400-500 years. With no outlet, the valley would alternate between a fresh water lake, an increasingly saline lake, and a bone-dry basin. In the early 1900’s, water from the Colorado was redirected into the valley through a series of engineered canals to establish a farming economy. Like all things that result from humankind's attempt to control nature, the mighty Colorado breached the engineered canals in a 1905 runoff and inundated the basin for two years creating the Salton Sink, before the "leak" could be plugged.  In the late 50’s a rebranding effort changed the name to Salton Sea and established the area as a resort getaway for Los Angeles. A series of resorts were built on both sides of the lake that saw the likes of Frank Sinatra roaming the shores in its heyday. 

Since the 60's, high salinity levels and agricultural runoff has turned the Sea into an ever- increasing toxic soup bringing about the demise of the resort culture.  With the potential of toxic dust affecting neighboring cities should the lake be allowed to dry up naturally, there has been an ongoing campaign since the 90's to “Save Salton Sea.”  With water rights at the forefront of the battle, let’s just say it’s complicated and one more poignant reminder that Nature Bats Last.

Mad Maxian roads.

An abandoned hotspring marks one of many leftovers from the glory years.  

One can never get enough of that desert sign typography.

Rounding the bottom of the Sea, we head for Slab City's Salvation Mountain as the golden hour settles in.  

First rays of light the following morning award us from our perch on the bluff.

Slab City is where Christopher Mccandless kicked off his nomadic adventures in the movie Into the Wild.  Set in the Sonoran Desert, its name is taken from the concrete slabs remaining from the abandoned WWII Marine Corp Barracks of Camp Dunlap. Some come to escape the “Man” while others come for a free place to live before the summer heat cranks up.  When the “snowbirds” (those who stay only for the winter) leave the number of year round “slabbers” drops to around 100 hearty residents.  Without running water, an electrical or a sewage system, The Slabs is about as close to an anarchist community as I’ve seen with two governing rules: (1) be nice and (2) don’t get in anyone else’s business. 

As we cruise around the following morning, we spy a Slabber taking in the morning view from a lounge chair on top of this beautifully muraled water tank that he's claimed for his home. I imagine a Thunderdome set up beneath with Tina barking out "Two men enter, one man leave!"

Repent!

It's hard to get anywhere in Slab City with camera in hand.

After a brief visit at the library and the outdoor performance stage, the Range, we head towards the art installation East Jesus on the far side of town. 

Never passing up an opportunity, we chat it up with one of the "Slabbers"  along the way who says he’s preparing himself mentally for the months of 120+ degree temps to come. Puerto Rican by descent and ex-military, all I can focus on are the size of his gigantic hands gripping the top of the fence and his dreads as he educates us about some flag conspiracy theory.

Cass deftly diverts the theoretical musings towards things more concrete like water and temperature, allowing a less abrupt escape.

East Jesus is the commercial brother of Salvation Mountain.

I think they should re-do this for Señor shithead's reign.

One of my favorites. 

Worried I might just stay, we make a break for it along the canal road out of town and wind our way up along the eastern edge of the Salton Sea.

From certain vantage points, the water looks beautiful, belying its slow death.

Night-ops bring us to the other side of Coachella and sets us up perfectly for a morning climb up through Berdoo Canyon into the far edge of Joshua Tree National Park. 

It's hard not to want to jump off the bike and wander amongst all of the fantastic rock formations.

I swear Cass' ULTAMID 2 zipper is programmed to open up at 5:45 am.  There are obvious benefits though...

After a gusty and freezing night at Jumbo Rocks campground, it's an all layers on and frozen finger tips kind of morning as we noodle out amongst Suessian trees under crystal clear skies.

El Gordo feeling the love.

Ahh those rocks.

Out of the park we head up through Pioneertown with an obligatory beer stop at Pappy & Harriet's Pioneertown Palace; a classic spot that has hosted the likes of Mr. Russell for generations.

The following day we head up Burns Canyon Road towards Big Bear amongst gnarled and more grandfatherly like Joshua trees.

Cinco stopping to pay respects to this fallen old-timer. 

After a few days of relaxing in Big Bear, we leave the desert wanderings behind and head back out.

Paralleling the PCT, we cut through an old burn area outside of Fawnskin on head swiveling deserted jeep track.

A definite perk of being back in the States is the Kimchi burrito.

Reminding me of the Tahoe Rim Trail, we enjoy some afternoon flowy stuff amongst the peppered granite and earthy smells of pine trees and sage.

Cinco picking his way down Devils Slide just outside of Lake Arrowhead.

The following day we head up and over Cleghorn Mountain.  From the top, the southern edge of Angeles National Forest reveals itself with the San Gabriel Mountain's rugged folds and Mount Baldy's snow capped peak beyond .  Standing in stark contrast, the crisp lines of train tracks and freeways snake along below.

Hesitant to leave, each descending kilometer heightens the drone of the freeway. After a quick resupply we head for quieter roads and make our way up to Lytle Creek.

Morning brings a steady climb up towards the snowy backside of Mount Baldy.

Cinco threading the thining line of dirt.

And to think I thought I'd left behind the hike-a-bikes in Ecuador...

After a few miles of slushy off-camber slogging, we duck under the ski inbounds sign and emerge amongst a throng of weekenders enjoying the waning days of a stout snow season.

With our Mount Baldy efforts a quick thing of the past after a few hairpin turns, the following day has us strap on the climbing legs once again for close to 2000 m of grinding.

California's unprecedented story season ensures it's not easy.

Topping out, we descend along the old Lowe Railway a bit before calling it a day at one of my now favorite campsites. Listening to the drone of LA breathing below as the city lights came alive is a memory that will be forever etched in my memory. Goodnight LA.

ROUTE:

In short, this route is a fantastic early spring or late fall ride. Each day saw spectacular cultural and natural highlights stitched together along quiet dirt roads with just a few stretches of pavement.  

Look for a Cass route summary at Bikepacking.com in the near future for GPS files, pertinent route info, and a sure to be much better stack of photos.