“Everybody goes armed here. If a man has no shirt to his back he will have his knife in his belt.”
- Phocion Way, San Antonio to San Diego Mail Line Passenger, 1858 [http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=25066]
|The Stagecoach 400 bikepacking route. The blue is the first 225 miles, the route for which I signed up to ride.|
Times have certainly changed in the 157 years since Phocian Way passaged what is now known as the Great Southern Overland Stage Route, America’s first transcontinental mail service that stretched from San Francisco down to San Diego and across to San Antonio, New Orleans and ultimately the Atlantic Coast. In a four-day journey from April 11th to 14th, I toured a segment of this route, by mountain bike, with my friend Kyle Karlson - a 225-mile long journey from Idyllwild, CA to San Diego known as the Stagecoach 400 (the route continues back to Idyllwild for a nearly 400 mile loop).
In Phocion’s time, a journey across the western frontier was riddled with danger. Each passenger that was to embark on a stagecoach through the Southern California desert was advised to,
“provide himself with a Sharp’s rifle, (not carbine,) with accoutrements and one hundred cartridges, a navy sized Colts revolver and two pounds of balls, a belt and holster, knife and sheath; a pair of thick boots and woolen pants; half a dozen pairs thick cotton socks; three under shirts, there brown linen do; three woolen over shirts, a wide awake hat, a cheap sack coat, a soldiers overcoat, one pair of blankets in summer and two in winter; a piece of India rubber cloth for blankets; a pair of gauntlets… and three or four towels. Such money as he takes should be in silver or small gold.”
- San Diego Herald, November 21, 1857 [http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=25066]
Hostile Indians and gold-hungry bandits were the least of our concern, and thankfully we did not need to pack thick boots and multiple towels for the ride. In fact, our personal sleeping gear - tent, quilt and mattress - weighed in at under six pounds. But I imagine that the desert, in its arid, dusty, and charming way, and the steep rocky canyons that we summited, have remained, for the most part, unchanged, unscathed by manifest destiny. Water, food, vigilant planning, and a foolhardy sense of adventure were all of the essence to us as it was to Phocion Way. And so it was that we began our ride: 21st century mountain bikers riding into a 19th century cowboy-western.
Day 1: Idyllwild to Ocotillo Wells - 75 miles, +2792 ft / -7881 ft, 13 hrs
|Idyllwild, CA - start of the Stagecoach route|
We began our trek around 7:30am in the quaint mountain town of Idyllwild at a brisk elevation of 5400 ft. It was a short uphill on road before we hit a long winding stretch of downhill on a dirt road with great views of the surrounding hills and desert valley below where we were headed. The dirt road gave way to single track and a fun rocky downhill on the Jim Truck Trail before meeting up with the road to Anza. Anza, located in the flat of the valley, was much hotter and we stopped at Sunshine Market for a water refill and Gatorade. We were going strong and making good time since everything up to this point had been down, but mentally we were prepared for what we had been told was one of the most tiring sections of the route.
|Approaching Coyote Canyon, Anza-Borrego Desert|
|Coyote Canyon, Anza-Borrego Desert|
We descended into Coyote Canyon, a dry sandy and exposed wash speckled with rocks, boulders, and a host of prickly plants (Ocotillos, chollas, creosote bushes, and prickly pear cactus) that makes up the northern section of the Anza Borrego Desert. The lizards and little critters scampering along on the sand were our only companions for this 22 mile trek. We deflated our tires down to 20-22 psi, which helped us float on the packed or unbroken sandy patches. Even then some sections were too loose for pedaling, forcing us to dismount and hike. And then, when I was least expecting it…
Literally, a stream in the desert! A natural spring surrounded by lush green plants, palm trees and willows, which our trail went straight through. Suddenly we had been transported to a jungle and I was biking through mud and water up to our wheel hubs. My socks and shoes were soaked and it felt great. This lasted for about a mile before we were back to the sandy grind.
By mile 56 we were back in civilization scarfing down burritos and slurping horchata in Borrego Springs while knocking loose the sand in our shoes. Twenty more miles of road with a tailwind in our favor sped us to the Leapin’ Lizard RV Park in Ocotillo Wells (elevation 150 ft), where we lodged in the comfort of our own rented RV unit, affectionately named, “Lucy.” Our host, Deborah, was as hospitable as a mother to her children, providing us with two jugs of cold distilled water and a sheet on which to place our bikes inside the RV. We settled in and then hobbled over to the “Iron Door,” a local bar highly recommended by, well, the locals of the area. It was a simple, dim-lit place with a pool table, a couple plain tables, a bar that served up microwaved hotdogs, bud and bud light, and thousands of dollars of decade-old one-dollar bills taped to the walls and ceilings, each with signatures and handwritten notes, both affectionate and vulgar, of Ocotillo’s passers-byes. Half a drink through our visit I was falling asleep and my knees were aching and stiff, so we retired to Lucy.
Day 2: Ocotillo Wells to Agua Caliente - 38 miles, +2421 ft / -1338 ft, 8 hrs
Our breakfast consisted of a freeze-dried blueberry granola (better than it sounds, actually), a cinnamon bun and hostess cupcakes. We soaked our shirts in water since the rising sun was already warm and left the Lucy RV at 8am. Today was another hot day in the desert as we passed through Fish Creek Wash. The name is deceiving; the “creek” dried up ages ago, but it used to drain water from the surrounding mountains to the Salton sea. Now it’s a barren sandy canyon that splits the mountains into two ranges, the Vallecito Mountains to the west and the Fish Creek Mountains to the east. Nevertheless, the canyon was beautiful.
|Entrance to Fish Creek Wash|
Biking the wash was strenuous but not as difficult as we’d anticipated. In fact, for the first few miles we were going the same speed as a caravan of off road trucks trailing behind us. After we passed the Fish Creek Campsite we were mostly on our own. We passed the Wind Caves and the Elephant Knees rock formations and met up with the road that took us to Agua Caliente where we relaxed in the hot springs and pitched our tents for the night.
|Campsite at Agua Caliente|
|The sign reads "Airport ->" Yes, really.|
Agua Caliente’s sole resupply store was run by a man named Mark. Mark was a very chill guy who’s been living in the desert for the past nine years. He took us to the back of the store where he lives and showed us his homemade hot tub, homemade laser and plans for making his own greenhouse for growing veggies.
Day 3: Agua Caliente to Oakzanita - 44 miles, +6153 ft / -3475 ft, 12 hrs
Oriflamme. It sounds like something out of Lord of the Rings and it sure felt like we were climbing up Mordor. The trail up Oriflamme Canyon is exposed and rugged and the grade actually peaks at 21.6%. We were already tired from the past two days of sand.
|Oriflamme Canyon - the picture doesn't do it justice|
It was hours of hike-a-bike. In the map below you can see the blue line is the old stagecoach route that was used to deliver mail to San Diego. Agua Caliente is close to Vallecito. We road the same route to El Puerto and Box Canyon but where the route takes a sharp right around Granite Mountain, we took a sharp left to Oriflamme (not labelled) and ended in the Cuyamaca mountain range (shown southwest of Box Canyon). In fact, back in the 1800s, for expedient mail delivery (i.e. 38 days from San Antonio to San Diego) stagecoaches would take the Oriflamme route - it was a shorter but much more difficult route to San Diego.
|Southern Emigrant Trail: section of the stagecoach route connecting San Antonio and San Diego [http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=25066]|
Plenty of water, snacks, and bluegrass music helped me get through Oriflamme. On the other side of the ridge we were welcomed by green grass and wildflowers - apparently wind and rain don’t prefer to venture past Oriflamme either. The climate and landscape changed dramatically from here on out. The temperature was more moderate and the trails were harder packed dirt with plenty of shade once we entered the Cleveland National Forrest. Along the ridge we could see miles and miles of rolling green hills.
|Crossing the Pacific Crest Trail after reaching the top of Oriflamme|
|A view of the Cleveland National Forrest|
We made it to Oakzanita about half an hour after nightfall. It was chilly and the dew was gathering on our packs rapidly so we hustled to pick out a campsite and hit the hot showers and the hot tub - yes, there was actually a hot tub. We were living in luxury.
Day 4: Oakzanita to San Diego - 67 miles, +2724 ft / -6425 ft, 11 hrs
Having used up nearly all my food the previous day, Kyle and I were craving a hearty breakfast. We headed for Descanzo where I ate a breakfast burrito, hash browns, scrambled eggs, chips & salsa, and horchata at Veronica’s Kitchen. Ten miles later and we were in Alpine, back to commercial and residential life. I distinctly remember passing a man weedwacking his landscaped lawn. He was taming nature. The desert had tamed us.
We ate again at Alpine Brewery and completely stuffed ourselves. Once I was able to mount the bike again we continued. The rest of the journey was a cycle of paved road, dirt road, single track, repeat, until we reach San Diego where we awkwardly passed hoards of joggers through a large downtown park. It was nightfall by the time we reached Coronado Island - mile 225 - I had arrived!