Camping

Experiencing Big Sur, Jul 2019

Big Sur is a massive coastal mountain range that occupies the central coast of California. Situated between Carmel and San Simeon, it is bordered to the east by the Santa Lucia Mountains and the west by the Pacific Ocean. As our California adventures took us further and further south, Big Sur started to inhabit our imaginations. A glimpse of the Santa Lucia foothills while cycling River Road in Monterey wine country–so secluded and peaceful, and green and inviting, yet misty and mysterious–motivated us to finally make the trip.

Perhaps the most iconic image of Big Sur is of the two lane highway, State Route 1 (aka “California 1”), which snakes along Santa Lucia’s green-sheathed mountainside and offers spectacular views of misty forestscapes terminating abruptly at seaside cliffs. A scenic route like no other, it connects San Francisco Bay Area to LA.

View of the Pacific Ocean from Santa Lucia Range along Nacimiento-Fergusson Road

We decided to schedule our trip for the 4th of July long weekend, but, as it was June by the time we started planning, most of the campgrounds in Big Sur were already booked full. We were lucky to find an open site at Memorial Park campground, in Los Padres National Forest, but it was available for only one night, so, in order to extend our trip, we decided to give roadside camping a try.

View from the summit of Nacimiento-Fergusson Road

The views from the summit of Santa Lucia Range along Nacimiento-Fergusson Road are spectacular (a little too spectacular if you’re afraid of heights, like I am).

Roadside camping is permitted along designated sections of Nacimiento-Fergusson Road. The road follows a saw-tooth pattern of twists and turns eastward from California 1 to Highway 101 and the Salinas Valley. It is the same route that 19th-century homesteaders, residing on the north coast of Santa Lucia Range, used to transport cattle to the markets of Central Valley, and was then, as it is now, the only road within the forest boundaries that crossed the mountains.

The sections of the road where roadside camping is permitted are clearly marked. We selected a spot on the eastern side of the summit where the road follows a trout-filled stream, aptly named Nacimiento River, canopied by Ponderosa Pine, Oak, Madrone and Sycamore trees. Parking on the gravel shoulder, we walked and rock-hopped our gear to a natural clearing on the other side of the stream.

We had stocked up on picaridin mosquito repellent just in case, but the mosquitoes weren’t bad at all; at least, they were nothing these Florida-hardened campers couldn’t handle.

It was an idyllic little spot. There were so few cars on the road, which was hidden on the other side of the stream, that it was easy to forget that there was a road there at all.

That night we experienced the Milky Way like we’d never experienced it before. Stars blanketed the sky. We felt as though we could reach up and dip our fingers in it, like a giant vat of glitter.

The next day we stopped briefly at San Antonio Mission on the way to Memorial Park. Built in 1771, San Antonio Mission is one of the oldest missions in California, and includes a museum, as well as original aqueducts and a Native American graveyard, but the heat was sweltering so we didn’t stay long.

The facade is original and made of adobe bricks.

The route also took us through Fort Hunter Liggett. I chuckled at a warning posted on the gate that led into the 165,000 acre training ground, that advised visitors to leave their marijuana behind. It was strange to think that the law spontaneously changed as we drove through that gate. (Apologies for not taking a photo; it was just so darn hot that we missed several good photo opportunities.)

This westerly view of Nacimiento-Fergusson Road looks back at Santa Lucia mountains from just inside the Fort Hunter Liggett gate; the oak woodland on the northern side of the road seemed to have recently experienced a controlled burn.

The landscape also changed when we passed through the gate. We saw huge rocky outcrops, oak woodland, grasslands with fields of multi-colored grasses, waist high, like in John Muir’s descriptions of California, and pinyon-juniper woodland.

Pinyon-juniper woodland with rocky outcrop

Pinyon-juniper woodland

Throughout the drive from our stream-side campsite to Memorial Park, we shared the road with only one other car, which we saw near Hunter Liggett base. We tried to stop at the base, but were summarily turned away. Google Maps shows a grocery store inside the base, and we thought it possible they would sell us some supplies. But “Make a u-turn, sir,” was the only thing the well-armed officer guarding the entrance had to say to us. Many small, uneven, dirt roads branched from the road around the base, with signs cautioning drivers to not deviate from the road for fear of setting off the live mines buried there.

Our campsite at Memorial Park

Don Bain’s 360 Panoramas website explains the history of Memorial Park: “When the California missions were secularized by the Mexican government in 1834, the lands were transferred to private hands and the mission economy declined rapidly. The indigenous people living at Mission San Antonio moved north a few miles and settled here, a place that ever since has been called simply ‘The Indians.’ Although it has always been part of Los Padres National Forest, it is also known as Santa Lucia Memorial Park.” There are eight campsites, no electricity and no cell service.

Brian Wall, at Kings River Life Magazine, has some interesting things to say about Memorial Park, perhaps the most salient of which proved to be a statement that “Most of the campers who end up here aren’t looking to roost, but rather to explore.” Our campsite neighbors were academics–UCLA on one side and UC Berkeley on the other. Amazingly, and true to Brian Wall’s statement, the folk from UCLA had the fortitude to spend the day hiking, despite the scorching heat. We wanted to follow their example, but it was just too darn hot. Happily, some other campers told us about a nearby swimming hole formed by the Arroyo Seco River.

The path to the swimming hole was not marked, so we clambered and slid over many a giant boulder before successfully reaching this little nirvana.

The water was cold and clear, so clear that we could see the naughty little fish that suddenly attracted our attention by nibbling on our legs. Refreshed, we spent the remainder of the day sipping whisky, reading and lounging, heckled only occasionally by an unruly pack of scrub jays who seemed to regard us as intruders. We even found the energy to take a short bike ride. Overall it was a wonderful experience, and one that we hope to repeat; perhaps next time we’ll stay on shady Santa Lucia Ridge and cycle the summit.

Resources Consulted:
Big Sur Chamber of Commerce
Camping at “The Indians,” by Brian Wall (Kings River Life Magazine)
Historical Overview of Los Padres National Forest, by E.R. Blakley and Karen Barnette (July, 1985)
Insect Repellent Buying Guide, Consumer Reports
Los Padres National Forest Plants, USDA Forest Service
Memorial Campground, Los Padres National Forest, recreation.gov
Memorial Park Campground, Los Padres National Forest, USDA Forest Service
Nacimiento-Fergusson Road (Wikipedia)
Santa Lucia Memorial Park at The Indians, by Don Bain
U.S. Army Garrison Fort Hunter Liggett, Department of the Army

Memorial Day on Mount Shasta, May 2019

Mount Shasta jumped to the top of our list of places to explore when we stumbled across Bubba Suess’s blog, “Hike Mt Shasta”. “Hike Mt Shasta” seems to cover anything you could possibly want to know about exploring the Mount Shasta region. We decided to make the trip on the next long weekend, which happened to be Memorial Day.

To break the trip up a little, we stopped in Redding, site of the historic Carr Fire. Redding burned for over a month between July and August 2018, with 100-foot-wide fire tornadoes that generated gases reaching temperatures of 2,700 degrees and winds up to 165 mph. One of the areas to sustain the most damage was Whiskeytown National Recreational Area.

By May 2019, Whiskeytown’s Oak Bottom Campground had reopened with a warning on its website that “The Carr Fire has increased risks to visitors; falling trees, broken and hanging limbs, burned out stump holes, abandoned mine features, and loose rocks remain in much of the burned area. Remember to watch the ground you walk on, as well as above you.”

Despite the warning and 81 F (27 C) heat, the campground was booked full. The sites were small, but folk were courteous and quiet.

Being new to California, bear lockers were new to us

Oliver at the camp site

Shortly after setting up, the sky turned pink. Checking the weather, we learned that a giant storm was gathering, with the possibility of hail and tornadoes, 8 miles (13 km) to the west of us in Redding.

Mallards with a purpose

The hail pinged off the tent in a rather exciting way, but the storm was short-lived, and by morning the rain had dried up.

Whiskeytown Lake is actually a reservoir, created in 1963 to divert water from the Trinity River basin to the Sacramento River, named for the village of Whiskeytown, which, ironically, was inundated as a result of the reservoir.

A tour of the lake was a tour of Carr Fire burn scars — of charred land returning to life.

CA-299 highway is visible on the left in this photo

I was impressed by how well these Canada Geese blended in with the shadow of the overhanging bank. From a distance the camouflaging effect caused them to almost disappear.

Judge Francis Carr Power House

I regret that we didn’t stop to take photos along the I-5. The highway to Mt Shasta is a great, green corridor following an old railway line through sweeping canyons thick with pine trees. And the 170 million year old, 6000-feet tall granite spires known as Castle Crags are a sight to behold, even when viewed from the highway. Castle Crags State Park is definitely on our list of places to explore.

Railway towns dot the route. Dunsmuir is one such. It was originally called Pusher after the pusher locomotives that pushed freight trains over the steep mountains to the north of Dunsmuir. The town was later renamed Dunsmuir after a Canadian coal baron, in exchange for money to build a municipal fountain (San Francisco Chronicle).

We soaked in the scenery over a beer at Dunsmuir Brewery Works, a popular spot with lots of outdoor seating and a good selection of craft brews.

campsite setting

In Mount Shasta we stayed at Reynolds Resort on Lake Siskiyou. There were so few campers that it felt like we had the park to ourselves.

We spent all our time cycling on and around the Lake Siskiyou Trail. Wagon Creek Arm Bridge was out, making it impossible to make the full circuit, despite valiant attempts to portage our bikes through the freezing cold water.

In the distance Mount Shastina towers over Lake Siskiyou Bridge. Mount Shastina is the the highest of Mount Shasta’s four cones.

Some requisite facts about Mount Shasta: The United States Geological Survey rates it as a very high-threat volcano; its last eruption was in 1786; it erupts every 600 years; it is about 593,000 years old; it is made up of four overlapping volcanic cones named Shastina, Misery, Hotlum and Sargents Ridge.

Despite being Memorial Day weekend, there was hardly any traffic on the trail.

It was the perfect ride for taking in the scenery — paved paths and double-track dirt trails with almost no ascent.

The only part of the trail that presented any challenge was the Chalet Trail alternate route (seen above), which was way too narrow for my liking at about a foot (30 cm) wide in some places.

Lake Siskiyou Bridge

Our terminus on the other side of the absent Wagon Creek Arm Bridge.

On our way home we stopped at Shasta Dam, the eighth-tallest dam in the United States, built between 1935 and 1945. The gift shop had an excellent selection of reference books!

Shasta Dam

RESOURCES CONSULTED
The 4 Eruption Cones of Mount Shasta, Hike Mt Shasta by Bubba Souss (12 January 2018) – includes diagrams
Border to Border: Essential road trip stops along I-5, Roadtrippers (13 May 2016)
Castle Crags State Park, California Department of Parks and Recreation
Dunsmuir Brewery Works
Feature Detail Report for: Whiskeytown Lake, USGS
Hike Mt Shasta, Bubba Suess
Judge Francis Carr Powerplant, Bureau of Reclamation Projects and Facilities
Lake Siskiyou Camp Resort
Lake Siskiyou Trail Loop – includes directions and map
Little Town of Dunsmuir is Big on Trains, San Francisco Chronicle (13 July 2016)
Oak Bottom Campground, Recreation.gov
Reynolds Resorts
Soaking up Shasta setting/Railroad towns, vintage hotels and hot springs in northern woods, SFGate (3 September 2016)
Things to do in Redding (Tripadvisor)
Visit Redding
Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, National Park Service
Work on the Chalet Trail, Mount Shasta Trail Association

Bike Camping on an Undulating Plateau, Jul 2017

The route: Truro to St. Agnes, St. Agnes to Lelant Saltings, Lelant Saltings to St. Ives (by train), St. Ives to Lamorna via Penzance

Cycling Cornwall is not for the faint of heart. Arriving by train in Truro, the county capital, and stepping off the platform, we quickly learned what a twenty degree incline looks like. “An undulating plateau at three hundred feet” is how one local told us his secondary school teachers had taught him to regard Cornwall’s geography. “You notice the contradiction in terms?” he said, “A plateau by definition can’t undulate.” Cornwall has many plateaus atop many undulations, he explained, which we can attest to.

Truro to St. Agnes

St Agnes was our first stop. We camped overnight at Trevellas Manor Farm Campsite, owned and operated by the Trevellas family since the 1840s. Every year the family undertakes a new improvement project, and this year it was renovating the toilet and shower facilities. They were fantastic. To get to the campsite, we followed a trail overgrown with foxgloves. Looking up the trail, the sky was a blue disc.

Shortly after setting up our tent, which the landlord thoughtfully located next to a westerly hedge to protect us from the wind, we were inundated with fog as thick as pea soup, as the saying goes. A dusk walk into town was somewhat treacherous. We took a narrow road, which we mistook for a minor road. As cars raced past us we were invisible in the falling light and the fog, which caused Gauthier to instruct me to “Be prepared to jump into the bushes,” by which he meant “Be prepared to leap into the thorny brambles that thickly cover the steeply inclined shoulder of the road.”

Dinner at The Taphouse consisted of fresh crab, rocket salad with bell-shaped tomatoes, steaming ciabatta bread, and berries and meringue for dessert. It was worth the perilous journey into town.

On the way back we followed a trail through the Blue Hills Tin Works. The site is now more famous for motorsport races than its rich industrial history. We stopped at Trevellas-Porth Beach. Crumbling smelt stacks poked out of the earth amidst ferns and flowering bushes, and a little stream flowed quietly under cracked stone bridges to meet waves that crashed onto a pebble beach. A hundred or so feet out to sea were shadowy sea stacks like the hands of a giant, rocky time keeper.

St. Agnes to Leland Saltings

Next we headed for St. Ives. The roads undulated with the curvaceous landscape, past coastal towns with names like Porthtowan and Portreath. Many a hill we walked our bikes up, panting. But there was always a pub to quench our thirst when we reached the top. We cheated a bit nearing the end of the day and took the train from Lelant Saltings Train Station to St. Ives.

St. Ives was bustling, and Ollie in his basket was a major attraction. I don’t know whether it was talking to so many strangers or the ride, but I was absolutely exhausted by the time we got to Ayr Park, the campsite where we were to spend the night. And hungry! So imagine our dismay when we discovered at 8:30 pm that restaurants in St. Ives close at 9 pm. For half an hour we searched in vain for a restaurant that would take dogs. Then we bumped into The Sloop, an inn dating back to 1312 with the only kitchen in town that stays open until 10 pm. And they took dogs!

St. Ives to Lamorna via Penzance

The next day we rode just south of Penzance via Mousehole (pronounced “moozle”) to Boleigh Farm, a working dairy farm with a fenced off field for campers. One of the farmers pronounced Gauthier’s name right on the first try, dispelling any doubts we had about the connection between the cultures of Cornwall and Brittany. Dinner at the Lamorna Wink, in breath-taking Larmorna Valley, was phenomenal. A modest river flows down the valley, surrounded by enormous ferns and other plants we had only ever imagined could exist in pacific temperate rain forests, and were certainly not a feature of any other place we had visited in England.

On day four we caught a train from Penzance back to London, vowing to return to Penzance as often as possible. And next time, to shop at the fish market! Before we left Cornwall, we had “cream tea,” which consists of tea and hot scones spread with jam and clotted cream… served the Cornish way with the cream on top of the jam.

Truro to St. Agnes was the only muddy leg of the trip.

St. Agnes stone city marker.

Having missed a turn, we found ourselves at the end of a dirt road and confronted by three boys assembled under a tree who forthrightly informed us that “You’re on private property.” Thankfully their dad popped his head out of a door with an injunction to the boys to “Show them how to get back onto the trail.” A hidden bridge brought us here.

The overgrown trail to the Travellas Manor Farm Campsite

Foxgloves!

Walking from the Travellas campsite to the narrow, but not so minor, road into town.

A Blue Hills Tin stream

Blue Hills Tin Works

On one of those plateaus. Near Portreath, on our way to St. Ives.

St. Ives

On our way to Lamorna.

Moors!

A very old, crumbled down stone fence on the moors.

A seagull with a view!

Boleigh Farm where the campsite was separated from cow paddocks by a three-rail fence and a hedge.

Lamorna Cove

Mousehole

Apologies for the low res image, but this is where we had cream tea. Our waiter was unlike any waiter we’d ever had before. In appearance and accent he resembled a sailor. I was uncertain how to address him at first, but he was friendly, funny and knowledgeable, equally at ease talking about scones, pilchards and local history.