Northstar MTB

Northstar California Resort, also known as #gnarstar and #duststar, is a mountain bike park and ski resort in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. A North Shore resort, it’s about a fifteen minute drive South on Highway 267 to King’s Beach and stunning Lake Tahoe. Known for its first-class amenities and village, its 3,000 acres are known for epic snow in the Winter, and mountain biking in the Summer. You can also hike here, or just take the gondola up for a scenic ride to mid-mountain and the Ritz Carlton Resort, a luxurious hotel complete with day spa. However, the real draw here in the summertime is the mountain biking.

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There is nothing like chair-lift assisted riding. For the amount of downhill you get, you’ll need all that energy you saved not climbing hills. The laws of physics are in your favor here, gravity assisted. The first time I came here, my forearms and wrists just about gave out by the end of the day I was so sore! Most people ride downhill bikes here, but enduro bikes are becoming more popular. I rode my low-travel bike here for a few years before upgrading last year to 150mm of travel, which is still on the scant side for Northstar. I’ve actually never tried a downhill bike, so I only know how these trails feel on my enduro bike. With enduro racing, it’s more helpful to ride these trails on my bike, anyway.

I don’t consider myself the top expert on Northstar, but I’ve ridden here dozens of times over the last several years, basically since I got my first full-suspension mountain bike (with all 110mm of travel!). I love riding up here! I’ve included some videos below of the trails, with the obvious preface that there are riders out there who charge way harder than I do. As a racer, videos are part of my training, and help me improve; they may also help give others an idea of what the trails are about. I know I get a lot out of watching others’ videos, especially when it’s a new trail.

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Summer Trail Map

You can make it as easy or challenging as you want riding Northstar. Having fun is often considered the most important part of mountain biking, and I passionately agree with that, but safety is equally important here. Northstar is known not only for eating tires and rims, but causing some pretty awful injuries. Full-faced helmets and protective gear are prerequisites.

If you’re an experienced mountain biker, you will immediately find your niche here, and know how to gauge each trail. If you’re new to mountain biking, it probably goes unsaid to start off on the blues and work your way up. Always stay in control, be able to stop on a moment’s notice, and know when to call it a day. Fatigue is public enemy #1 in mountain biking, so don’t let it get you sloppy. This is not the terrain to get tired on; you need all your focus, awareness, and commitment to tackle these trails.

The terrain is pretty well-maintained, especially on the Zephyr side of the mountain, while the Vista side has a more wild, all-mountain feel. It’s famous for getting dustier as Summer goes on and the last of Winter’s moisture is sucked from the soil. The rock is granitic with boulders ranging from the size of bowling balls to small cars. The overlying thin topsoil can become quite loose, like ball bearings over boulders, especially as it dries out. Sometimes it can feel like hydroplaning or skidding on ice it’s so loose. The dirt takes on a sort of hydrophobic, repellent quality that you must keep it in mind, to varying degrees, depending upon the trail and time of Summer.

The glorious exception to the #duststar reputation is Livewire, a meticulously designed trail that Northstar is most known for. Livewire is a fast, adrenaline-pumping descent with thoughtfully built, intelligently spaced jumps that you can get just about as high as you want to on. It is supremely dependable thanks to daily watering and regular trailwork, which makes it a wonderful trail to progress on over time; you get better at it each time you ride it, and the trail gets more fun. Its Livewire Classic downhill race is a big draw each year.

This is the first trail I ever rode here, having heard so much hype about it; this started a love affair over the years of learning how to flow with grace down its packed berms and tabletops. It earns every superlative, praise, and contagious zeal that surrounds its name. From rolling to soaring, you can get as sick as you want to get on this trail. If you ride here on a weekend, expect this trail to have a steady stream of riders, and be ready to yield to any faster riders coming down the trail on you. Everyone from six year-olds to pros on the UCI MTB circuit ride here, so be prepared for all types of riders, showing respect – and hopefully a smile! – in the process.

Coaster is a fun intermediate run, a long traverse down the mountain that makes for a good warm-up. It crosses Boondocks, so look out for riders at the merge.

Gypsy trail includes a variety of rock gardens, wooden berms and jumps, and a Red Bull corkscrew section. It’s a little bit of everything rolled into one.

Boondocks is a double-black that is a long descent full of enough sandy corners and rock drops to get you fired up. There are many go-arounds, as there are on most other trails here, but this trail is rocky top to bottom.

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Boondocks Downhill Race 1st Place Cat 2

On the Vista side of the mountain, the chairlift operates Fridays – Sundays; however, you can easily pedal to it via Zephyr when it’s not turning on weekdays. It’s about a ten minute traverse on fireroad from the top of Tahoe Zephyr Express. That’s the trade-off of coming here on weekdays in the Summer: you will almost have the whole mountain to yourself, but if you want to ride Vista, you’ve got to connect the dots. It’s a trade-off I’m willing to make, especially as a teacher with my Summers off! It’s a beautiful thing to be up here on a weekday.

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Sticks and Stones is a solid double-black on the Vista side, whose middle section is famously challenging. There are steep, loose sections of crust on rocks. The upper and lower sections hold their own, but the middle section is the hardest.

Speed Control is a super fun, flow-trail style run that starts below Vista mid-mountain. It’s fun to connect this one to Pho Dogg. Both trails are single blacks, with lots of dynamic flow to them. These are great trails to work on pumping.

Karpiel is a rocky, double-black that starts at the top of Vista. The upper and middle sections aren’t overly gnarly, but the very lower section? Dude what?! This is one of the hardest sections I’ve ever ridden at Northstar, and I certainly haven’t cleared every feature on it yet. If you want full-commitment, keep your speed or crash G-force thrills with high-stakes consequences for crashing or making a seemingly minor error, this is the trail for you! Don’t let the upper part of the trail fool you – the lower section is a bugaboo for many riders I know. You can exit out early before this bottom part, as many riders do, and don’t kick yourself if you do. It’s better to leave in one piece than in no peace.

Dog Bone parallels Karpiel, but starts mid-mountain. It’s also a double-black, whose upper section isn’t terribly death-defying. As you can see in my video below, I am still working on the lower section, which is, like Karpiel, a lot more challenging. Keeping your speed here is essential; I endo’d after stopping from getting my pedal stuck on a rock. Losing momentum makes starting again that much harder since you’ve lost your rolling power.

Both Karpiel and Dog Bone connect to finish at a steep, narrow slide down to the Diving Board, a few feet rock drop, which launches into Daytona Berms at the base of the mountain. The banked berms are a fun finish to the ride, but note that it merges with the bottom of Sticks and Stones; be aware of oncoming riders when you are at this junction.

Cooling off with a dip in the refreshing, second deepest lake in the United States is a wonderful way to finish off a day of physically demanding, and likely dirty, mountain biking at Northstar. The Lake Tahoe region is gorgeous enough to visit in its own right, mountain biking or not. But it’s that much more fun when you bring your two wheels!

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Lake Tahoe
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King’s Beach

Now go get some!

Wilder Ranch MTB: Crest to Coast

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Wilder Ranch State Park in Santa Cruz, California, boasts not only some of the region’s best trails, but best views. Known for its undulating series of marine terraces, Wilder Ranch is a result of millions of years of uplift along the California coast, driven by movements of the San Andreas Fault system.

One of my favorite routes in Wilder is the coastal trail formed by Old Cove Landing and Ohlone Bluff Trail. It’s like going to a different country, almost. This is the spot to bring your loved one, or just your love of Nature.

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For this loop, I started at Twin Gates and descended some fun singletrack in Wilder. I stopped at the historic Wilder Ranch, going in the horse stables before exploring the aloe tunnels. Though I’ve been here hundreds of times over the years, you always feel like you’ve stepped back in history when you’re here.

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From Wilder Ranch, the Old Cove Landing trail begins, starting a roughly five-mile traverse along the cliff bluffs until 3-Mile Beach up coast. The first section is more popular, but once you hit Ohlone Bluff Trail after Strawberry Beach, you’ll likely not see anyone until 3-Mile Beach. It’s a flat ride, but don’t underestimate the headwind – if there is a strong one, it makes riding Northward on this loop all that much harder!

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The draw of this ride is visual. With jaw-dropping cliffs right next to you for some of the ride, don’t get too distracted by the beautiful, expansive ocean views. Depending upon the weather, you may be able to see across the Monterey Bay all the way down to Pebble Beach. The best views, however, will be right in front of you the whole way.

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One of the coolest parts is the seal rookery. Dozens of seals can be seen lounging upon a large wave-platform, year after year, blessed may it be. They are wildly entertaining and cute to watch! Many seabirds, whales, and dolphins also make their appearances along this wild section of coastline.

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Seal Rookery

This trail is a lesson on coastal geology. Marine terraces, wave-cut platforms, sea stacks, and sea caves mark the trail, inviting curiosity and exploration. Be careful here; it’s about 200 feet down in the steepest spots. The rock is predominantly sedimentary mudstone, overlain by sandstone, neither of which are stable for climbing on.

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3-Mile beach is pretty much where the trail ends. This is a breathtaking spot to take a rest! The views here are simply incredible. Take the time to soak them up.

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3-Mile Beach
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Wave Platform

After enjoying the gorgeous sights of 3-Mile Beach, I continued up the railroad tracks until the Highway 1 undercrossing. Riding through this tunnel exits you onto Baldwin Trail in Wilder Ranch, which I climbed up to Enchanted Loop and Chinquapin Trail to return to my car. Take a stop at the Eucalyptus Grove for a nice view.

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Eucalyptus Grove Rest Spot

I took a few hours for this loop, stopping often to enjoy the views. There are many variations you can make; sections of this loop are from the Old Cabin Classic annual mountain bike race in Wilder. It’s also a wonderful spot for a hike or run.

Here is a video of the ride, but go check it out yourself!

Summer 2019 MTB: Santa Cruz & Carlsbad

Summer, Sweet Summer. Every year, I long for your arrival, and once here, cherish the grace of your annual visit. Brightening our days, inviting us to go outside – anywhere, and showing us Nature’s miracles are some of your highlights I appreciate the most.

Another upshot of Summer? As a teacher, I am on vacation! Hallelujah! I savor every moment; each year’s Summer reprieve becomes that much more treasured. Whenever I hear people talk about how little money we make, I have to quietly smile on the inside when I think about how rich we are in that impossible to appraise commodity called time. It is up to us how we use all this time off, but most teachers I know are hot out the gate once that final bell rings in early June. As for me? Well I think I caught a trace of Mrs. Deetz running off, but all I can see is her dust.

While other seasons of the year may bring better mountain biking weather, Summer offers a long window of time to get your ride in the morning, or evening. Santa Cruz gets pretty hot in the summertime, though not like the Central Valley. The regulating coastal fog helps us stay relatively comfortable, but there are some Summer days when it is too darn hot to ride during the daytime. This is where evening rides come in.

I think it needs no preface that my mountain bike videos are not “sick”, “sending it”, or anywhere near the same echelon of Red Bull Rampage. When I make videos, it’s mostly because I learn from them; it helps me become a better rider. Second, I know if I’m going to ride somewhere new, I like to watch others’ videos – and not necessarily the rippingest experts, but people who ride kind of like me, too. It gives me a snapshot of what to expect, and I often learn something by watching others ride. Maybe mine will help someone else out there. Or not. It’s all in good fun, anyway.

Here are a few videos of riding in the Santa Cruz Mountains over the last couple of weeks. I also had a fun ride down in Carlsbad in the San Diego area where my sister lives; Rancho La Costa Preserve is near her house, and has some pretty cool trails.

Go get your ride on; get your play on! Get your whatever-it-is-you-love-to-do on! It’s Summer!

Spring Magic at Toro Park, Waddell, & Henry Cowell

The Vernal Equinox recently passed, and this Spring is shaping up to be a Superbloom year after California was blessed with a colossally wet Winter. While Southern California is already experiencing the beautiful bounty of a full Superbloom, Central and Northern California are just warming up. It’s a wonderfully inspiring time of year to get outside and explore the multitude of wonders at our doorstep. Over the last week, I’ve enjoyed the dawn of the bloom at a few parks on the Central Coast: Waddell Creek, Toro Park, and Henry Cowell. Here’s a recent snapshot of them!

Waddell Creek/Rancho del Oso: 3/23/19

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About twenty minutes North of Santa Cruz up Highway 1 lies Waddell Creek. It drains into the Pacific Ocean at Waddell Beach, and is the westernmost edge of Big Basin State Park. This is one of my favorite places to trailrun; it’s so nice to finish at the beach! You also feel like you’re far away from town, even though it’s not too far of a drive.

The Berry Creek Falls Trail is a beautiful, welcoming hike, run, bikeride, or even ride a horse up to a beautiful waterfall. Another option is to backpack overnight on the Skyline to the Sea Trail into Big Basin, something I did years ago and now find myself asking why haven’t I yet again? There are so many different microclimes and habitats within the park, it always feels like something new is around every corner.

One of my favorite things about Waddell is the newts – I’ve seen more here than anywhere else! Rancho del Oso is also known for its abundance of Spring wildflowers, with an annual celebration planned for early May this year.

After my run, I drove a short bit more up coast to Año Nuevo beach, one of my favorite beaches.

Toro Park: 3/24/19

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Oak Woodland

Toro Park is a huge park with miles of hiking and mountain biking trails; it also has barbeque pits, playgrounds, and sporting facilities at the main park. The wildlife and wildflowers are exceptional here in the Spring and Summer. The landscape is sandy to loamy, with coastal chapparal mixed with oak grassland amid steep, rolling hills. I’ve ridden here many times, and raced here twice (winning once!). I hadn’t ridden Pipeline Trail, though, so I decided to check it out last weekend.

On the long fireroad climb up to Ollason Peak, I was lucky to see a bobcat, two coyotes, and a Wild Turkey, all close to the trail! It makes my day to see wildlife. But even more exciting? The bursting carpet of wildflowers filling in the hillsides; it is the start of the Spring bloom, indeed. I must’ve stopped twenty times on the climb up to marvel at the myriad blooms beckoning me from the trail. It was breathtaking, and I can’t wait to go back in a few weeks to see the Superbloom’s evolution. 

The scenery and flowers were a welcome distraction to the austere climb up Ollason Trail. I didn’t hesitate to get off and walk my bike up the steepest, ruttiest sections. The view from the top was an incredible bonus, spanning across the Monterey Bay and to my not too distant home, the Santa Cruz Mountains.

I set out on Pipeline Trail. The trails are in excellent shape right now, with recent rains tamping down the sandstone into a tacky, more trustworthy bite. It was my first time on the trail, so I rode with some prudence, but I can see how you could rip this trail up! It was definitely more technical than all of the other trails at Toro, although it had plenty of pedaly traversing sections. I am excited to ride this trail a lot more in the future! I look forward to finding the flow and grace of it.

Ollason Peak, 1,800′

Here is a pretty mellow video of my ride:

Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park: 3/27/19

Henry Cowell is my bread and butter in Santa Cruz; it’s where I first explored as a University freshman back in the day. This magical oasis in the Santa Cruz Mountains holds relics of old-growth giants from millennia past, and many remnants of their aggressive logging in the 1800’s. All but a few of the original stand today, their sanctity all that more profound compared to their spindly second-growth counterparts. There is an absolutely ethereal feeling of walking through a redwood forest – golden light penetrating the needles; fluorescent, animated moss reaching out from the tree limbs to pet you; always an animal or flower to stop and appreciate. Henry Cowell spans from redwood forest along the San Lorenzo River to drier, chaparral in the Sandhills habitat. There are many biking and hiking trails, and never a shortage of wonder!

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Every year, around the Equinoxes, the light is especially brilliant at Henry Cowell. It’s hitting at just the right angle to let the redwoods show their true, deep red color, with strokes of vibrant green moss, clover, and fern filling in the landscape for balance. For me, it feels like the closest thing to church. Whether it’s a calm stroll, a ripping mountain bike ride, or a graceful run through the forest, I always feel inspired, happy, and relaxed when I am here.

Happy Springtime everyone! Enjoy being outside in your special places, soaking up all the blooming flowers that abound. I plan on exploring a lot more this SuperBloom 2019 season!

Big Basin MTB Loop

Big Basin Redwoods State Park, in the middle of the Santa Cruz Mountains of California, is famous for its old-growth redwood trees. As the oldest state park established in 1902, it has drawn visitors from around the world to stand beneath its towering, majestic giants. Some redwoods are over 2,000 years old, and command the forest floor like marshals on patrol. They certainly command awe and respect.

Big Basin is also known for its 13-mile Skyline to the Sea Trail, which meanders from the park headquarters down to Waddell Beach at Rancho Del Oso. I backpacked this trail about fifteen years ago, sleeping overnight midway; it was a gorgeous, surprisingly remote adventure. Though we’re so close to Santa Cruz and “civilization”, it feels starkly desolate out here. Wildlife abounds, and inspiring views surround you.

While not known particularly for its mountain biking, Big Basin offers a network of fireroads for riding upon; single-track trails are off-limits. Today, I decided to try my first mountain bike ride here on the Big Basin Loop, a 13-mile loop climbing about 1,700′ in elevation. Only about a 25-minute drive from my house, it is close enough I should come here more often! This year, the first ever Old Growth Classic will take place here on August 25; if I weren’t already racing the CES at Northstar that day, I would be doing it.

Starting off at the Park Headquarters, you climb up Gazos Creek Fireroad for nearly seven miles. There are some downhill, flowy segments on this trail, and then it returns to climbing. At the end of this trail, turn right on Johansen Fireroad, which skirts a very unique mountain property with a treehouse and tepees. This is the steepest climbing on the loop.

After a few miles, you’ll reach Ocean View Summit at 1,685′; as the name implies, it’s a sweeping view West over the Pacific Ocean. Due to all the wildfires burning across the state, it was especially smoky today, and you can see it in the video. I also felt it in my lungs.

Middle Ridge Road was the funnest downhill of the ride, dropping quickly from the summit back to park headquarters over a mix of sandstone and redwood duff. Though nothing on this ride was exceptionally challenging, the gorgeous scenery and flowy fireroads provided enough motivation to make the climbing worth it. It was a good workout, about two and a half hours riding time.

I finished with a short walk through the Redwood Loop back at the Park Headquarters, appreciating the grand redwoods we are so lucky weren’t logged back in the 1800’s. Though it may feel like “wilderness” out here, it’s easy to see how much this land was ravaged for its valuable resources only a century or so ago. I can only imagine how this forest must’ve looked when it was full of these beautiful, old-growth giants.

Enjoy this video summary of the ride, or better yet, go try it yourself! You won’t regret it.