Northern California Epic Mountain Bike Trip

Last Thursday I had an early morning, direct flight to Oakland International Airport to visit my cousin, Shane Bryant.  When I walked out of baggage claim, Shane was waiting for me with the bikes already loaded on the car.  We immediately started driving to El Corte de Madera Creek Open Space, which is known to local mountain bikers as “Skeggs Point” because that’s where you park.

Shane Bryant and James Knott drive to Skeggs Point

My cousin, Shane Bryant, was my tour guide for my time in Northern California. He picked me up at the airport with bikes already loaded and we headed immediately to Skeggs Point.

My goal was to have an epic mountain bike adventure away from my usual Ohio singletrack – and maybe hit a few cool breweries along the way.

We had 3 days of riding planned where we would hit 5 trail systems around Northern California – Skeggs Point, China Camp, Camp Tamarancho, Mount Tamalpais, and Downieville.  We also hoped to hit some breweries, including Russian River, a personal favorite, to refuel after our big days of riding.

Shane doesn’t ride his bike very often, but he runs a lot – and by a lot, I mean he does ultra-marathon trail runs.  Even though he hadn’t been pedaling much, he had an amazing amount of fitness and stamina.  He sent me a list of trails ahead of time and I did a little research about them, but it was really hard to tell what I was getting myself into.  I just decided not to overthink it and to let my tour guide keep me out of trouble.

Skeggs Point

Skeggs Point GPS Map

GPS Map of our ride at El Corte de Madera Creek Open Space Preserve. We parked at the arrow on the map, known as Skeggs Point.

Elevation Chart for Skeggs Point

The only downside for parking at Skeggs Point is that it is on top of the mountain and everything in the park is downslope from you. That means no matter how tired you are, you’re going to have to finish your ride with a challenging climb back to the car.

My bike for the trip was a rental, a Trek Superfly 6 with a lot more gears and suspension than I am used to.  It cost $55 for the first day and $30 for each additional day.  It was perfect because it had a very similar feel to my XC race bike back home, the Superfly SS …especially after I added my own grips and pedals.

This bike is on sale now at Breakaway Cycling in Delaware, Ohio.  Order one today!

Trek Superfly 6

My rental bike was a Trek Superfly 6. It was a hardtail 2×10 set-up with a fork lock-out button on the handlebars. It handled everything that I could throw at it.

When we entered into the forest for my first California riding experience it was clear immediately that we weren’t in Ohio anymore.  The redwoods towered above us.  The area had been logged, so these weren’t old growth trees, they were second growth trees, but they were still magnificent.

Redwood tree at Skeggs Point

Redwood powers activate!

Many of the trails were cut right into the side of the hills, so there was a lot more exposure than I was used to.  There were so many places where a loss of focus might mean sliding down a steep hill, or worse yet, falling off a cliff.  It took practice on the downhill switchbacks to keep my eyes focused on the trail and not to the deathly drop-off I was turning away from, but eventually I got the hang of it.

Overall though, the singletrack was sweet.  A lot of the trails were smooth and fast with great flow, occasionally interrupted by a rocky, rooted technical feature.  Neither one of us had been here before, so we were guessing which trails were the best to take.  I’m not sure if we hit the best ones or the worst ones, but we stuck mostly to the perimeter of the area and got a wide variety of terrain.

James Knott descends at Skeggs Point

This root-covered downhill was challenging. It’s hard to capture that “oh crap” feeling I was having, but trust me it was there.  This was my third attempt to go down.  On my second time I went over the bars and had to take a moment to collect my thoughts.

Occasionally the singletrack was broken up by fire roads, and on average it felt like we were flowing down on trails and climbing up on fire roads.  …and there was a lot of climbing to do.  Way more than I am used to.  In Ohio, on a good ride I can hope to get about 100 vertical feet for every mile.  We were averaging about 200 feet per mile.  Initially, we weren’t logging as many miles as I had hoped we would, but these were challenging miles.  There was rarely any casual coasting on flat land.  We were either chugging slowly up one hill or flying down another.

Super fun.

But, Shane told me that the 5 trails we would hit would all be different.  He was right.  Nothing we hit after this was similar.  It was a great way to start the adventure.

China Camp

We grabbed lunch at Subway, which was the least “local” thing we did for the entire trip, but we really needed sustenance.  We dropped off my stuff at Shane’s house and then we headed for our second trail of the day – China Camp.

GPS Map of mountain bike ride at China Camp

GPS Map from our ride at China Camp. There are great views from the top of the hill.

Elevation Chart for the ride at China Camp

Elevation Chart from our ride at China Camp. I love climbing these mountains. It’s such a satisfying feeling to work hard to get to the top and know that you’ve “earned” a fast and fun downhill back to the car.

Shane picked this one for two reasons.  It’s his local trail – he could ride to it if we wanted – and it has great views.  He set expectations low, because the singletrack wasn’t as technical and there was a decent amount of fire roads involved.  When we got there, a high school cross country meet was happening and we had to modify our plan a little to get around the runners.

This time we were parked at the bottom of the hill and our goal was to climb to the top of the mountain.  I had a secret goal, that I hadn’t confided to my cousin yet, of climbing 10,000 feet over the course of our three day trip.  We knocked out 3000 feet on our morning ride and we were preparing to go up again.  I was starting to be optimistic that we might hit the goal.

We started to climb the trail up.  It was mostly smooth and a little wide.  It is also used by hikers and runners and it wasn’t overly technical, but it was a great workout.  There were no big redwoods.  The trail was surrounded by forest, but it was dry and dusty and the trees were shorter.  Towards the top, there were some fire roads to climb and when we reached the peak we could see Mount Tam off in the distance.  We would be riding there tomorrow.  We took a few photos and then did a little detour to include some singletrack that was tighter and more technical, that isn’t part of the official China Camp loop.

James Knott at China Camp

From the summit at China Camp, we could see Mount Tam, which is the birthplace of mountain biking. We were planning to climb Mount Tam the next day.

James Knott at China Camp

We found a little detour that I don’t think is part of the official China Camp loop. Good times.

When we rejoined the loop, we had several miles of wide smooth downhill singletrack.  I was taking it easy, just because I wasn’t really sure what was around each turn, but you could really open up the throttle and catch a lot of speed if you wanted.  I can’t think of a single downhill in Ohio that is as long as this.  It felt like it went on forever.  And, after all the climbing we had on the first day (5100 feet), it was nice to have a reprieve from pedaling.  I just enjoyed taking in the scenery and hitting the banked turns that were naturally built into the hillside.

Singletrack at China Camp

The ride down from the summit included a lot of fast, wide singletrack. It was mostly smooth and not too technical, but it was a lot of fun.

Wild turkey crosses the trail

We saw a flock of wild turkeys.

Did I mention that this was super fun?

When we got back to the car, we decided to go see the actual “China Camp” that the trail was named after.  It was a small shrimping village where Chinese immigrants would catch and sell shrimp.  It was neat to see the old, rustic, buildings, but Shane and I were hungry and thirsty.  We didn’t hang out long.

China Camp

The actual China Camp – a former shrimping village that was settled by Chinese immigrants.

We stopped by Shane’s for a shower and then headed to Marin Brewing Company near his house.  This place has been open since 1989, way before the craft beer explosion, and felt like an integral part of the local scene.  I enjoyed trying a sampler of several beers, but it was their 3 Flowers IPA that I was truly in the mood for.  I had the “24 Hour Special”, which had beans, rice and chicken with salsa and felt like the perfect recovery meal after a hard day of riding.

Marin Brewing Company

We stopped by Marin Brewing Company. I had a beer sampler and the “24 Hour Special”. It was great for refueling after a a big day.

After that, with the jet lag and all, I collapsed into my comfy bed and rested up for another big day of riding.

Camp Tamarancho

When we woke up it was pretty foggy out, so Shane called an audible.  We planned to go to Mount Tam, but we decided to go to Camp Tamarancho first because the fog would obstruct the views at Mount Tam.  We’d hit that later.

Camp Tamarancho is private land owned and managed by the Marin Council of the Boy Scouts of America.  It is located in the hills above Fairfax, California and we parked in a neighborhood below the trail when we got there.  Riders are supposed to purchase a $5 permit to ride there.  Trust me.  This is money well spent.

James Knott at Camp Tamarancho

The trail head at Camp Tamarancho. It’s a 7.8 mile loop.

The ride began with 600 vertical feet of climbing up an asphalt road just to reach the trail.  Once again – trust me.  It’s worth the effort.  Of all the places we rode, this was one of the most technical, not that it was frustratingly hard by any means, it just kept you on your toes and made you think about it and work for it.  It was obvious that the people that built this trail were passionate about mountain biking.  This was not a hiking trail that was repurposed by bikers, it was purpose-built, or at the very least, that’s how it felt.  A lot of the trail was built into hillsides, with steep drop-offs.  It was mostly forested, but also opened up at certain points to reveal amazing mountain vistas.

James Knott mountain bikes at Camp Tamarancho

The forested trail at Tamarancho opens up to reveal cool mountain vistas.

There were some neat rock formations, some of them I didn’t nail on the first time, so I went back to try again with a new line.  There were also some challenging roots to navigate.  One of them brought my bike to a halt and threw me over the bars for the second time this trip.

James Knott rides the rock gardens at Camp Tamarancho

Several rock formations created interesting technical challenges.

At one point half way though, we reached a skills park with man-made catwalks and skinnies.  We played around on them for about 10 minutes and challenged ourselves a little.  But, at this same time, we had also reached the infamous “flow trail” – known as the “Endor Trail”.  This half-mile 300 foot drop should be called the “Big Smiles” trail because you can’t help but smile when you are going down.  There are tons of berms and opportunities to pump your bike for momentum.  Even though I had fun, I know I didn’t utilize this trail to it’s full potential.  You could easily catch some big air and get way more speed than I did if you tried, but I was playing it safe.  “Ride it. Don’t slide it.”  After our first trip down, we decided it was so much fun, that we climbed 300 feet again so that we could do it a second time.  So worth it.

Skills park at Camp Tamarancho

There was a skills park located next to the flow trail at Camp Tamarancho

By the time we got back to the car, we had a total of 12 miles and 2000 feet of climbing, but I felt more tired than I would have expected.  This trail makes you work – but in a good way.  I think every mountain biker needs to hit this one.  It’s great.

We needed to restock some energy for our next at adventure at Mount Tam, so we stopped in Fairfax at Avatars Punjabi Burrito for Indian Burritos.  So delicious.  Loved it.  Recommend it.  I was ready for more.

Indian burrito from Avatars Punjabi Burrito

Indian burrito from Avatars Punjabi Burrito. Yum!

Mount Tamalpais

GPS Map of Mount Tam

GPS Map of our ride up Mount Tam and through the Highlands.

Elevation Chart for Mount Tam

Elevation Chart for our ride up Mount Tam. That big steep cliff at mile 6 is where I accidentally turned my Garmin off.

I was definitely excited to hit “Mount Tam” as the locals call it.  This is where Gary Fisher and his buddies “invented” the sport of mountain biking.  They would take their old clunkers up Mount Tam and race down.  Then they got into building bikes just for this purpose and that is the general story of how mountain biking was born.  I’d recommend watching the movie “Klunkerz” to learn more about it.  It’s a very fascinating movie.

The thing about Mount Tam though is that most trails are off-limits to mountain bikers.  Bikes are only allowed on the fire roads leading up to the summit.  So, once again we parked in a residential neighborhood near the base of the mountain and began our journey riding through the streets to get there.

But, even though the trail is not a technical, singletrack trail, it is still a cool ride – especially for a flatlander like me.  We climbed 2500 feet to the summit and about half way up the views started to get really cool.  We could see the city’s skyscrapers on the San Francisco Bay off in the distance and towns scattered about at the base of the mountain.  There were beautiful views of nature and birds floating down the mountain sides.  Breathtaking.

Mountain bike on Mount Tam

Climbing Mount Tam is a great physical challenge full of tons of great views.

Even though I had gears for the journey, I wanted to singlespeed it – partially for training, but mostly because my butt was starting to chafe after all the seated pedaling I had done so far on the trip.  I’m not used to it.  I figured out which gear was closest to mine back home and tried to stay in it.  I stood while I pedaled the whole way.  I sat occasionally to get a drink or take in a view, but for the most part, I stood about 90 percent of the time.  It was a great challenge and I wish I had hills like this all the time to train on.  I’d much rather climb up this once, than do 30 repeats up the only hill by my house back home.

James Knott mountain bikes at Mount Tam

Climbing the fire roads to the peak of Mount Tam.

I think it took us about 90 minutes of continuous climbing to reach the top, but honestly I lost track.  At one point, I accidentally turned off my Garmin, so a lot of the data was lost.  What I can tell you was that we took a nice long breather when we reached the lookout point at the top.  It was a great feeling that we had all that climbing in the bank and lots of fast downhills on the way back.

The view from Mount Tam

The view from the lookout point on top of Mount Tam.

But, what I didn’t realize at this point, was that this was only the beginning of the day’s journey.  Shane had more adventures planned for us.  We were going back a different way so that we could explore the Headlands and the Tennessee Valley.  (Forgive me if I’m not completely accurate here.  I honestly was just following Shane and a little unsure of where I was.  I just knew that I was enjoying the ride and all the great views it offered.)

James Knott in California

I have no idea where I’m at. If Shane had left me at this point I would have been eaten by condors.

We went down on the other side of the mountain.  It started with fast descents down paved roads that made tears form in the corner of your eyes.  We stopped to check out some cool views and landmarks.  Then, when we reached the bottom, we found a trailhead and started climbing.  These mountains weren’t forested, they were covered in grass and scrub brush.  We were getting closer to the ocean and you could tell that the wind was picking up and we were more exposed to the weather.  For a short period of time I went from hot and sweaty to downright chilly.  It was crazy to me that these vast stretches of open land were so close to one of the most expensive cities in America.  What a valuable resource!

Sidney B. Cushing Memorial Amphitheatre

Sidney B. Cushing Memorial Amphitheatre: This amphitheater on Mount Tam has to be one of the coolest places to see a concert. Wilco was setting up to play when we stopped by.

With almost 6000 feet of climbing for the day, we were starting to wear down.  Shane had more riding planned with more climbing, but we were now officially out of food and water.  We decided we had to cut our ride short, but even that meant we had another hour of riding to get back to the car.  We found a bike path that traveled through Marin County and I was really grateful that it was flat.  We casually rode back to the car and I learned that Tupac was from Marin County.  So hard core.

We went home to shower and then headed to Santa Rosa, California with Shane’s girlfriend Laura to visit Russian River Brewing Company.  Could this day be any more epic?  I first tasted Pliny the Elder, which is Russian River’s double IPA, when I was shooting an episode of my podcast, Better Beer Authority.  It was the first beer to receive a 10 on the show and I was in love.  Going to this brewery had been on my to-do list for several years.  I was downright giddy.

I started off with a pint of fresh Pliny the Elder on tap and it was so delicious.  I could have easily drank that all night and been happy.  But, I wanted to see what else they had, so we ordered a sampler with one of EVERYTHING THEY HAD ON TAP to split for the table.  It was the largest sampler I’ve ever ordered.  It deserves a picture.

Beer nerd heaven with Shane and Laura. Yum!

I’m in beer nerd heaven with Shane and Laura. Yum!

After some beer and pizza we headed back to Shane’s house to rest up for the next day.  It was an early morning wake up call for the long drive to Downieville.

Downieville

I’m not sure I would have gone to Downieville if I had just read the description that I found on-line.  It talked about paying for a shuttle to go to the top of the mountain and riding back down.  Was this really what Shane was taking me to do?  It sounded like something for some serious downhillers, not for a XC guy like myself.  But, as I had done the whole trip, I put my faith in Shane.  I’m glad I did.  I would’ve really missed out if I hadn’t gone here.

GPS Map of Downieville

GPS map of our 2nd run at Downieville – 16 miles and almost all of it is downhill!

Elevation Chart from Downvieville.

Elevation Chart from our second run at Downieville. Do you see why they call this a downhill course?

Downieville, California is a very small town in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.  As far as I could tell it was only there for one reason – mountain biking.  There were bikes all over the town and shuttle companies to carry mountain bikers to the top of the mountain.  Several small shops and restaurants catered to hungry mountain bikers.

The “Downieville Downhill”, is a series of 4 trails that drop from an elevation of 7000 feet to 3000 feet.  There is almost 5000 feet of descent compared to 700 feet of climbing.  You do have to pedal your bike from time to time, but you also get to do a lot of coasting.

Laura dropped us off at the top of the trail while she went off on her own trail running adventures  (She really crushed it on her run, but that’s a completely different story).  I was honestly nervous when I read the sign at the trail head.

Warning sign at the beginning of the Downieville Downhill.

Warning sign at the beginning of the Downieville Downhill.  Gulp.

James Knott at the Downieville Trailhead

Getting ready to start the trail at Downieville. For the record, I was the dorkiest mountain biker in town. I had spandex and high-vis socks while everyone else was in baggies. I was riding a hardtail while everyone else was sporting beefy full-suspension rigs. I didn’t exactly fit in.  That didn’t matter though.  Shane and I were still some of the faster riders on the trail.  Only about 5 or 6 guys passed us compared to the 50 people we actually passed in almost 30 miles of riding.

The Sunrise trail started off almost like a flow trail with smoother curves and banked turns.  There were rocks, but nothing too bad.

“Is that it?” I thought.  This is fun, but pretty easy.  4 miles in we got our first sample of what Downieville could dish out.  A short steep rocky downhill that made me hit my brakes.  It was unnerving.  I decided to walk my bike down it and up a correspondingly steep uphill that followed 50 feet later.

Another rider came through and stopped to wait for his wife.

Downieville Mountain Bike Trail

This was that “other rider” coming through the “tricky” downhill. I don’t feel like this photo does it justice. I did ride it in front of a bunch of newbs on my second run and they were amazed by my greatness.

“Is most of the trail like the first 4 miles?” I asked, “It seemed pretty smooth and easy.”

“Oh no.  It gets much harder.  Rockier.  You’ll see,” he replied.

What was ahead?  I was nervous.

Almost immediately after he said that, we encountered several rock gardens.  The whole character of the trail started to change.  We were on the “Butcher Trail.”  Instead of nice flowing curves around bank turns, we were weaving between boulders and dropping off small ledges through downhill rock gardens.  These were some of the more intense rocks I had been through mountain biking and my mind was slowly getting conditioned to them as the new norm.  This was going to be great training for the downhills in my final two races of the season in Ohio.

Despite my newfound comfort in the rocks, I came to yet another rock garden that caused me to stop.  It looked so fun, but I could not see a safe line in the rubble.  I walked through part of it and was able to ride the second half.  I had this feeling I could do it.  I really wanted a second crack at some of these things.  Luckily, I would get that chance…

Downhill rock garden on the Butcher Trail.

I wasn’t adventurous enough to conquer this rock garden on the first run, but on the second run I made it through. All the rock gardens are slightly downhill, so you at least have momentum in your favor.

After a few more miles we came to a bridge at the bottom of a hill.  Then the trail began climbing up.  What?!?  We have to pedal?!?  I’m tired of pedaling.  I like this downhill stuff.

It was a steep climb though and we passed a bunch of bikers who were hiking it.  We were at the junction that led to the “Third Divide Trail”.  I’ve read that this is the fastest section of the trail and I believe it.  We were screaming down the hills, which tended to be a lot straighter and steeper.  My forearms ached from the death grip I had on my brakes.  I was definitely worried that I wouldn’t be able to slow down for a sharp curve and that I might launch into the woods.  It was both scary and exhilarating at the same time.  When we reached the road at the end of this trail, I had to take a moment to catch my breath and let my adrenaline come back down to normal levels.

James Knott by Downieville sign

Mountain bike humor: It’s easy to navigate the trail. There aren’t a lot of intersections and all the trails seem to lead back to Downieville eventually.  This photo illustrates my dork garb and my nerd sense of humor at the same time.

The final section of trail is called “First Divide Trail” and it is much different than the rest of the trail.  It is flatter and a lot of it is cut along a cliff that overlooks a river.  It has some very steep drop offs and some of the rocky turns feel like they are pushing you precariously close to the edge.  This section is almost 4 miles long and is much flatter and more relaxed than the rest of the trail.

First Divide Trail: Notice the full-faced helmet and body armor. After crashing twice, I cannot argue against wearing the protective gear.

First Divide Trail: Notice the full-faced helmet and body armor. After crashing twice, I cannot argue against wearing the protective gear.  It would have saved me a little lost blood.

Eventually, you get back to Downieville and you have to ride back into town.  With stops, it took us a little over two hours to reach the bottom.  Shane and I were grinning from ear to ear when we got back into town.

“You wanna go again?”  Shane asked.

“I’m game.  Where’s the shuttle?” I replied.

For $20 a van carried us up the mountain for 45 minutes and we started over.

Shuttle vans to the top of the mountain.

Shuttle vans to the top of the mountain.

This time I was much more aggressive and faster, since I knew what to expect.  I rode most of the rocks that I had walked on the first run.  It was intense and amazing.  This time though we took the “Second Divide Trail” instead of the Third Divide Trail. It was a nice change and the two trails are completely different.  Second Divide is longer and more mellow, but not mellow enough to save me from myself.

After 3 intense days of riding I was getting worn down.  My bike handling was starting to deteriorate and my decisions weren’t quite as sharp.  Twice I went over the bars.  Once I luckily had a soft landing on a flat rock that didn’t really hurt too much.  The second time though, my front tire got caught on a root and when I was landing the handlebar of my bike stabbed me right in the ovaries.  Freak that hurt! (As I write this, 10 days later, it still hurts.  In fact, I had to take a few days off and I’m worried that it might affect my race speed for the rest of the season.  How will I stay with Brad now?  Argggghhh!)

Second Divide Trail at Downieville

This is the root that took me out. My tire hit it and turned to the side.  If I had more energy this would probably not have been a problem at all.  The handlebars stabbed me to the left of the groin and I’m still feeling it. Ouch.

Shane didn’t hear it happen and kept riding.  I stood alone in the woods for a minute or two to collect my thoughts.  At this point, I was ready to call it a day, but I still had 6 or 7 more miles back to the town.  I gingerly started riding again, but with a little less abandon.  I walked a few of the obstacles that I would have normally ridden.  I survived the rest of the journey intact and started to look forward to sitting in town with no more pedaling.

James Knott mountain bikes in Downieville, CA

The view from Downieville is amazing. I don’t think I’d want to live here because it’s so remote, but I’d love to visit often. What a cool community.

Back in Downieville we ate at a cool taqueria called “La Cocina De Oro.”  A burrito grande and a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale never tasted so good.

I was tired and weary, but happy as heck.  The last three days were some of the most epic moments of riding I have ever experienced.  I pushed myself to new limits and experienced trails that were so different from what I was used to.  I would do it again in a heartbeat.

I could not pick a favorite trail because I liked them all for different reasons.  Thanks to my cousin Shane for being such a great tour guide.  Free flight.  No hotel.  No rental car.  Just gas, bike rental and beer money.  The stoke per dollar was amazingly high on my Northern California mountain bike adventure and this is one of the best vacations I’ve ever had.

Let’s do it all again!

Side note: I’m thinking about going to Park City, Utah in the spring.  Should I go here or somewhere else?  Where would you go if you could do an epic mountain bike adventure?  Let me know in the comment section.

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