3.1.10: Blue Autumn Skies of California – Mountain BIking In The Soquel Demonstration Forest

Blue Autumn Skies of California

In The Soquel Demonstration Forest on 17 November 2013

Read About Our Ride In The Henry Cowell Redwoods
overviewThe Santa Cruz Mountains separate San Jose from Santa Cruz.  These rugged mountains have few way through, from the Santa Clara Valley to the Sea.  Highway 17 is one of the few routes.  Many State and County Parks dot the mountains.  The Soquel Demonstration Forest is on land that was, once, part of a Spanish Land Grant, although it is unclear who granted the Spanish Crown original title.   The Forest is home to several highly regarded mountain biking trails.  The Forest passed to the people of California in 1988, and is now used by the California Department of Forestry (CDF) to experiment with timber harvests and regrowth, making the forest a renewable resource.
Highland Road provides the only motorized entrance to the Forest.  Highway 17 / Summit Road connects to the north end of Highland Road.  Corralitos / Eureka Canyon connects to the south end of Highland Road.  A ride may gain entrance, from the south, by cycling north from Aptos, through the Forest of Nicene Marks, a very steep climb.

blank I first learned of the Forest from a friend, when I worked for an Aerospace Company.  Paul was an avid mountain biker, far more advanced than I was.  I often picked his brain about the sport.  He told of a place he volunteered, along with other like-minded bikers.  They were in good standing with the local rangers, and allowed to build mountain biking trails, with special “fun” things like jumps and drops for mountain bikers.  His group was so well-regarded that, during one of the endless California budget crises when the Governor furloughed the CDF, the group assumed responsibility for keeping track of goings on in the Park until the professionals returned to duty.
blank Marian and I, on am earlier trip, three week before, when we rode from Lexington Reservoir to Buzzard Lagoon Road, with our last stretch on Highland Road.  We passed the bridge leading to Hihn Road in the Forest.  Having ridden in the Forest in the past, we decided to ride it again.  On the earlier ride, we rode another trail, perhaps the Sulfur Springs Trail.  This time, we decided to ride the Corral Trail. blank Our Plan blank rideWe designed our 10.6 mile loop to do the bulk of our climbing, at the beginning, on the edge of the Forest.  We wanted to descend, on the trails, down through the Forest.  Afterwards, we would climb over the watershed back to Highland Road, starting and finishing at the bridge connecting Highland Road to Hihn Mill Road (N 37°04.917′; W 121°51.038′).  We rode southeast on the crumbling Highland Road, retracing part of our ride from Lexington Reservoir to Buzzard Lagoon Road.  Where Buzzard Lagoon Road, the Ormsby Cutoff and Eureka Canyon Road intersected, we turned right on the dirt, riding up Buzzard Lagoon Road.  From there, we turned on Aptos Creek Fire Road until we got to benches at the trail head to the Ridge Trail.  Taking single track, we rode the Ridge Trail to the top of Corral Trail.  We went down the very steep single track, to the Sulfur Springs Road, and the bottom of our ride.  Then, we climbed up Hihn Mill Road to Highland Road.
blank elevationOur oute through the Soquel Demonstration Forrest required over 1500 feet of climbing  The first climb up the bridge on Highland Road to Santa Rosalia Mountain was about 1000 feet.  The second climb along Hihn Mill Road was about 400 feet, with another 100 feet spread through the ride.  Almost all of our descent was on single track trails, deep in the Forest.
blank blank Turn-By-Turn Directions blank 0.0 Miles – STRAIGHT on Highland Road
blank 2.1 Miles – RIGHT on Buzzard Lagoon Road
blank 3.1 Miles – RIGHT on Aptos Creek Fire Road
blank 5.4 Miles – RIGHT on Ridge Trail
blank 5.9 Miles – RIGHT on Corral Trail
blank 7.8 Miles – RIGHT on Sulfur Springs Road
blank 8.2 Miles – RIGHT on Hihns Mill Road
blank 10.6 Miles – END at Highland Road
blank Our Ride
blank b (1)Our third Mountain Bike Ride, in 2013, came on a whim.  Our training routine prescribed weights and training rides during the week, and long rides on Saturday.  Thursday morning came.  On the spur of the moment, we decided mountain biking seemed more appealing than lifting weights (which we did the following day).  The sky was overcast, and the temperature chilly.  We loaded our bikes, and hoped it was just the Marine Layer and not the start of the Wet Season.  Driving up Highway 17, near Lexington Reservoir, the overcast began to burn off.  By the time we turned onto Summit Road, the sky was blue and the sun shone brightly.  We compared driving vs riding Highland Road.  It was a stretch to say we drove no faster, but our speed was little different. blank
116Highland Road Trail Head (0.0 miles):  At the trail head, we pulled in next to the only other vehicle.  We moved quietly, hushed by the spell cast by deep forest on both sides of the road.  It was Thursday morning, so we expected few people.  We pedaled up Highland Road, south-east, toward Buzzard Lagoon Road.
We compared this ride with our tour training ride three weeks before.  I started with the hope the climb would be easier, but I wasn’t sure how different it was.  We rode different bikes.  Our mountain bikes were lighter, unburdened by sixty pounds of sand, but the knobby tires rolled less smoothly than the Surly touring tires.  On that earlier day we had climbed 2000 feet before reaching this point.  Yet, on this day, our legs were heavy from three days of strenuous exercise.  In the end, it really did not matter.  My mind simply wandered where it wished.
b (2)Buzzard Lagoon Road (2.1 miles):  We rode the paved Highland Road to Buzzard Lagoon road, and took to the dirt.  We had climbed 250 of the 1000 feet to the top.  We often joke about quaint road names.  Buzzard Lagoon certainly drew our attention.  From there, our imaginations filled in the blanks.
A short distance up Buzzard Lagoon Road, we noticed a sign, announcing a road closure ahead.  We hoped it was wrong, or that it did not apply to mountain biking.  Outsiders often see bikers as anarchists, refusing to follow the rules.  What the observers fail to appreciate is that bikers go where they go, using only their strength and will to get there.  The rider must overcome all obstacles thrown at them by nature and man.  Sometimes, a gate is just one more obstacle to overcome.  Does that make it right?  Perhaps not.  But in a land where motorists are incapable of stopping at stop signs or setting their smart phones aside, the motorist is hardly in  position to cast the first stone.
On that quiet, tree studded road, we breathed harder as the grade tilted up, often about 8%.  The road, sometimes in deep shadows, other times in bright sunlight was well graded.  Surprised, through our labored breathing, we heard the crunch tires of a car climbing up behind us.  I turned, expected to see a CDF truck, not two women in a Prius.  They searched for hiking trails.  Not familiar with the route, we were unable to help them.  Marian observed that, if we ever get a new Prius, we will never drive it on that kind of road.
b (3)Aptos Creek Fire Road (5.3 miles):  We turned off Buzzard Lagoon Road to Aptos Creek Fire Road.  The road immediately, narrowed.  It was less well maintained, and the road surface less amenable to riding.  We noticed deep ruts, easily avoided, at several points.  The forest canopy opened, at irregular intervals, suffering sunlight to reach the forest floor.  When we were not pedaling hard, we noticed the silence.  Further along, we came upon the Prius, empty.  Presumably, the women sat off on their adventure.  We never saw them again. blank
b (4)The grade increased, and the ride became much more technical.  The trees were shorter, allowing sunlight to mix with deep shadows.  Gravel gave way to deeply eroded sandstone.  Crevices ran down the road.  We needed no imagination to picture this road as a stream bed in heavy rains.  With care, we picked our way up the road.  Sometimes, earlier riders had left tracks pointing to the preferred line, and we followed them.  It was easy to see how an unwitting rider could take a line that would lead into miniature ravines which would trap them, and force them to either go to heroic measures to ride, or dismount.
This climb was far different from earlier climbing.  Not only did I have to contend with the slope, I needed to focus on where and how I rode.  The climb distracted me from my physical effort.  I did my best to ride through the challenges.  Still, at one or two points, the bike jumped, twisted and turned, and bucked me off my bike list a wild mustang.  Rather than attempt the difficult restart on a steep, broken slope, I chose to push up a few dozen yards to an easier place to continue the ride.
b (5)We continued to climb, legs burning.  The forest opened even more, and we rode in sunlight as much as we rode in the shadows.  The sky was startlingly blue.  It had that special blue that comes to California only in late Autumn, before the rains come.  I tried to remember what came next.  Marian thought it became rougher.  She was right.  We came to a place where the cracks and gullies ran, not only down the road, but cut across the road as well.  The sandstone became a patchwork design, with no easy path through, and obstacles at every point. blank
The challenge was clear, inviting me to ride the road, if I could.  I accepted.  Rather than pause, I chose to ride until the road forced me to stop.  Ignoring my labored breathing, and protesting legs, I took full advantage of my dual suspension.  A few riding techniques returned, and I pedaled through dips, balanced on the edge of little gullies, and pressed on.  At each turn, I expected to reach a crest, or something so steep that I could no longer ride.  Instead, the road stretched out before me, and I stopped expecting anything.  Finally, after a final turn, I arrived at  the top, astonished that the climb was over.  Catching my breath, it never occurred to me to celebrate with a fist pump.
We reached the crest, and welcomed the rollers.  I was on the lookout for the turn-off to the Ridge Trail.  On a prior ride, years before, Marian and I rode past the unmarked turn-off, and continued down the road, which would have taken us three steep miles down to the Sandy Point Lookout, almost 1000 feet below us.  Fortunately, we discovered our error before going too far, and easily retraced our steps. blank
b (6)I need not have feared.  The turn-off was well-marked with a sign clearly marking the trail head.  Also, two new benches overlooked the ocean.  We stopped and reward ourselves with a Luna Bar.  From our vantage point, we look out, across Monterey Bay, to the Monterey Headlands, some 30 miles distant.  The Pacific Ocean, covered in fog, looked like glass, or a snow field.  Somehow, a magic castle might hide in that scene.  For a fleeting moment, I remembered when we toured from San Jose to Monterey in 2012.
While we admired the vista, a twenty-something guy came up, pulled off his ear buds, in his own words, carbed up. Very focused on his ride, he smiled, but spoke little. We watched him prepare for the next part of his ride.  He cinched and buckled down anything loose, clearly preparing for an arduous descent.  With a wave, he disappeared into the trees. There are many differences between touring cyclists and mountain cyclists. Touring cyclists are often more outgoing, happy to break up their ride and share a few moments with fellow travelers.  Mountain cyclists often seem more reserved, eager to be on with their ride.
b (7)Ridge Trail (5.3 miles): Then it was our turn.  We designed our ride so we would climb early in the ride, up the fire roads.  We wanted to do most of our descent on the trails deep in the forest.  With that in mind, we mounted and followed the earlier rider into the forest.  Inside, the sunlight struggled mightily to penetrate the deep shadows.  We finally reached single track.  Marian expressed  concern.  My wife amazes me.  I never see any woman, her age, on a bike, doing what we do.  While worried, she refused to back down and return on the roads.  The trail we were on reminded of the trails along Skyline Road on the north side of Highway 9.  Occasionally, logs or other obstacles lay across the trail, clearly allowed to stay as a challenge to cyclists.  Often, we could see a less traveled path around the obstacles.  We usually took it.
blank b (8)Corral Trail (5.9 miles):  We arrived at the top of the Corral Trail.  When I planned our route a few hours before, I remembered there were at least four trails in the Forest.  Some were easier than others.  I could not remember which trail we had taken on an earlier visit, but thought it was the Sulfur Springs Trail.  I decided to take a different trail, and picked the Corral Trail.  It was the first off-shoot from the Ridge Trail.  It seemed a bit shorter than others, which meant it would probably be steep.  I also remembered Paul talk about creating obstacle courses, and hoped the Corral Trail was not one of them.
blank b (9)At first, the trail seemed little different that the Ridge Trail.  Soon, however, we began to see structures along the trail.  These would sometimes be a log blocking part of the trail, or a ramp inviting a rider to jump.  Usually, there would be two tracks. We chose the easier path.  Not only were my bike handling skills rusty, I had never trained for that kind of riding.  I was not read to risk a serious fall in the deepest part of the forests.  No chopper could ever land.  No four-wheel drive could ever reach us.  So, we exercised caution.
blank We were deep in the forest.  The forest canopy blocked direct sunlight.  I took off my sunglasses to better see into the shadows.  We working our way down the side of the mountain.  The north slope fell steeply way, heavily wooded.  We seemed far from civilization.  Our only companions were squirrels loping along, bushy tails as long as their bodies.  We saw only one other biker on this section, a twenty-something woman who zipped on past us. blank The trail sloped down, alarmingly, and we came to a series of switchbacks, with sharp, tight turns.  Happily, the trail was largely dirt, with few rocks.  I knew I rode too slowly to safely make the jumps.  Yet,  I was insufficiently skilled to ride at speed.  The landings below the jumps also worried me.  Often, just beyond the landings, were steep slopes or heavy trees blocking the way.  The Forest would not forgive a mistake.
blank I walked down the steeper parts.  No longer burdened with concentrating to stay upright, I had time to appreciate the beauty and wonder of the Forest.  The thick trees and heavy undergrowth swallowed all sound, save for rustling in the trees.  We hoped they were our friendly squirrels, and not something larger.  I felt at peace, one with nature and the forest.  Far from a paved road, or even a rugged fire road, I earned a glimpse of a California few people ever see.  To do so would require that they earn it, something the twitter crowd cannot grasp. blank Finally off the single track, we congratulated ourselves for having survived to tell the tale.  To the right, the fire road ended in a tangle of fallen timber and new growth, perhaps part of a renewal of harvested timber.  To the left, the narrow road continued down the hill.  However much I wanted to go faster, I resisted the temptation.  I almost paid a very high price for a moment’s inattention.  On a curve, I nearly rode off the road, and down some steep slope.  The slope was still so steep that my bike would jump up to 15 MPH in only a few seconds, if I released my brakes.  I made a greater effort to control my speed, and keep away from the edge of the road. blank Sulfur Springs Road (7.8 miles):  We continued to descend, eventually reaching the Sulfur Springs Road.  We heard chain saws ahead of us.  At first, I thought them some distance away.  Then, we came around a bend, and found two dozen men cutting trees back and clearing brush away.  They cheerfully greeted us, and moved branches so we could pass through them.  One recognized my bike, a vintage GT I-Drive, and I thanked him for it.  Only after we cleared the work party did I realize their orange jump suits came, courtesy of the California Department of Corrections.  That made me wonder exactly in what context my fan had admired my bike.  We met our twenty-something guy headed up the trail as we passed through the party.  He recognized us and waved.  Perhaps he intended to ride up Sulfur Springs Road.
blank Hihn Mill Road (8.2 miles):  We reached the Hihn Mill Road and turned toward Highland Road.  I knew we needed to climb to reach the road, and vaguely remembered our earlier ride.  For the next several miles, we climbed about 400 feet.  The dirt road was well maintained.  We were grateful we saw nothing like we had just ridden on Aptos Creek Fire Road. blank Pleasantly tired, I let my mind wander, devoting just enough attention to keep my legs turning, grinding out the distance.  Compared to the Corral Trail, the wonderful magic of the forest seemed dimmer, a little less green, a little less peaceful, a little less endearing.  We met no one, coming or going.  We reached signs announcing that we were entering land owned by the Redwood Empire Lumber Company.  The signs sternly ordered us to remain on the road and not stray off into the forest, for the next half mile.  Happily it went quickly, as it was all down-hill.  We crossed the private land, back to the Soquel Demonstration Forest parking lot.  From there, we dropped down, and crossed the bridge, back to our truck. blank b (10)Highland Road (10.6 miles):  We were back to our starting point.  Only one other truck was in sight, and it was different than the one we had parked next to.  A rider gearing up ignored us, focused on his upcoming ride.  He had either a camera or a light on his helmet.  It was after 2:30, and we wondered how far he would ride.  In mid November, the sun sets early, and the shadows were already wicked, hiding rocks and drops and other bad things.
blank Our Thoughts blank We enjoyed this ride, and will return, in the future, to try some of the other trails in the Soquel Demonstration Forest.  We were vindicated in our decision to climb up Highland, Buzzard Lagoon and Aptos Creek Fire roads, and spend our descent on the trails in the Forest.  The single track was fun, but we were not ready for the Corral Trail obstacle course.  If I want to successfully ride such things, I need to practice.  Life is short and I have many other interests.  I’m not sure if I am willing to risk the broken bones my friend,  Paul, is willing to do.  Still, how many 62 year old men and a woman who isn’t, in the Soquel Demonstration Forest.
blank _ Read about our 2013 Adventures

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Filed under Cycle Touring, Cycle Training, Mountain Biking, Travel

Let us know what you thought, we'd love to know. Thanks - Pat and Marian

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