What constitutes an epic ride or adventure is different for everyone. The trick is to bite off just a little more than you’re used to chewing. That takes an honest judgment of what’s possible for you and whoever you might be planning an epic with. For me, I try to always keep the fun factor as high as the epic factor. I especially want to try something new whenever I can. Use whatever motivates you to drive the decision process. Go somewhere new, different and or remote, ride all day or multiples days, ride somewhere no one else has, or ride an established route. The important thing is to commit and not let anything stop you.
This is an account of the process we went through on a recent Epic ride in Baja with three of my good friends, Sanjay Shanbhag, Kevin Daniels, and Jesse Beck.
The desire to do a mountain bike ride through the Baja backcountry has been in the back of our minds for the last five years. The idea was to ride mountain bikes on the extensive moto trail network in central Baja. Leveraging the decades of moto riding and the trail knowledge acquired from those experiences into a multi-day self-supported bike ride. Sanjay one night, while camped out in the middle of Baja, suggested we self-support using the dirt bike motorcycles. In January during our New Year’s “Lost In” Baja Moto ride we discussed it around the many campfires decided to make it happen.
The idea blossomed into a plan based on our collective abilities and experience. I had never done a bicycle backpacking style ride but Sanjay has huge amounts of experience doing just that for us to tap into. Since the part of Baja that we wanted to ride is remote and devoid of natural water sources we would use motos to stash food and water along a planned route then ride the mountain bikes camping along the way. Sounds simple but there are a lot of logistics involved. After much thought, I put together a route that would get us as much single track as possible that was doable in five days of riding and had as little sand as possible. There is a lot of sand in Baja…but more on that later. It’s important to be realistic about our collective abilities and ideas of a good time. We would need a couple of vans, a moto and bicycle for each rider, and a lot of food and water.
Every one of us had extensive experience in Baja are all totally comfortable being in remote areas of the region. That can be one of the most important factors to keep in mind when planning an epic ride. Anything that causes someone stress will wear them down faster and lead to an increased likelihood of mistakes. It will also detract from the most important goal, enjoying the whole experience. Unfortunately, I’ve seen examples of the stress of the unknown leading to a mental breakdown. That never ends well. We all had motos and bicycles, Kevin has a van and so do I so we were all set. The whole project would take at least ten days to make it work. Three days of driving, two days moto riding and five days on the bicycles.
Planning and Getting Ready:
Once we settled on a plan the real work began. In the weeks leading up to the trip, I spent a lot of time staring at potential routes, I have a pretty big library of GPS information plus I spent time on google earth tracing out some connectors that I hadn’t personally ridden on the motos in the past. A lot of thought went into deciding how far to ride each day. Some practical limitations on where we could leave our stashes, where good campsites might be and which trails would have the best riding and are the most scenic informed those decisions. The route evolved into a 260-mile north to south point to point route starting in El Rosario near the Pacific coast ending in Bahia de Los Angeles aka Bay of LA on the Sea of Cortez Coast. Once I had the route fleshed out the doubts began, could we actually ride that far in a day on trails that no one has ever ridden a bicycle on. Making those judgments is serious, if we couldn’t make the intended destination every day we would be faced with a night out without enough food and water. It was going to be committing especially the first two days. It made sense to stay in the small town of Catavina at the 120-mile mark but we needed to do that in two days. I figured we could do it but there wouldn’t be that much room for delays. We offset that risk with our collective decades of experience in the mountains and deserts, all of us had spent unplanned nights out in the middle of nowhere and knew how to deal with those potential scenarios. We also knew what it was like to hike 50 miles in a day if need be should someone’s bike become un-ridable. All that experience really took the edge off the committing distances of the first two days. The third, fourth and fifth days would be shorter and easier. That would be good since fatigue would start slowing us down.
Once a route is nailed down it’s time to solidify the logistics starting with what to take. I put together a long list of things I thought might be useful then sent it out to the rest of the riders. Breakfast food, trail food, lunch food, dinner food, supplements, disposable/burnable cups, bowls, TP, paper towels, chamois butter, sunscreen, chain lube, spare tubes, change of clothes is some stashes to be retrieved after the ride, 2-gallons of water each and more. We each settled on our own idea of what to take and organized each camp’s stuff into bags.
We would leave a van, all the bicycles and riding gear at the north end and start of the bike route, drive the other van with the motos to the south end of the route leaving the stash packages at various places along the way. Since we would stay in the town of Catavina on the second night we would leave the camp one package there along with the day three riding food and clean clothes, spare parts tires and tubes. On the return trip riding the motos, we would take the camp-1 stash out to the remote campsite. The Camp-3 and 4 stashes we could put in place from the van while driving south. We would more or less ride the route backwards on the motos leaving water at mid-day points for each day. In total, we would have nearly 40 gallons of water spread out through the Baja backcountry.
We would all carry packs with our camping gear along with an insulating layer, wind rain shell, warm headgear, bike tools, and spares. We carried two tarps for shelters, each tarp plenty big enough for two people. Ounces mattered so we really pared down. My camping system is pretty small and light, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, ground cloth and the two-person tarp weighs less the 4 pounds. That along with a few pounds of trail food, 3-liters of water, clothes and everything else weighed about 16 pounds. Sanjay and Kevin mounted a lot of their water carrying capacity on their bikes. Jesse and I just used a pack and a water bottle on the bike. Everyone’s system worked out well for them.
Bike prep was also critical. There would be sand, hardpack, pavement, rocks, lots and lots of cactus and thorns on every plant. We had a lot of discussions about tire size, bike type, sealants, tire casings, hand guards for all the cactus, spare parts to take, how many spare tubes, all tubes needed to be prefilled with sealant and more. Jesse got his hands on a Fat Bike but after riding it decided to use his Felt Decree trail bike. Kevin and Sanjay settled on a couple of Pivot Plus Bikes and would run 2.8 or 3-inch tires, I went with my standard ride an Intense Primer and put the biggest tire on that would fit, a 2.6 on the front and a 2.5 on the back.
We all said we would try and get some training rides in before the trip. None of us managed to do as much of that as we should have. We had to rely on decades of base miles to get us through. It is worth making the effort to do some big rides. If your plan calls for 10 hours of riding, try and do a couple 10-hour rides so you know what that feels like, learn how your body will react to the food and drinks you plan to use and adjust your plan if necessary.
The Journey to Baja
We rolled out of Orange County midday on a Thursday and drove eight hours south to El Rosario where we made arrangements with the nice people at the Mama Espinoza’s hotel for a room and a safe place to park a van for a week.
We sorted our gear and prepped loading up the motos. We would need to organize five days of food in the stash bags and more than 40 gallons of water. We left all this stuff at various places along the way as we drove south to Bay of Los Angeles with the motorcycles. Since my van only holds three bikes Jesse volunteered to ride his moto. He took a side trip out to leave our first midday water stash while we drove to Catavina and made arrangements to leave two big gear bags at the Catavina Hotel. We would stay there on the second night of our mountain bike ride. We left two more food and water stashes off the highway buried in the ground.
We rolled into Bay of LA midafternoon. We had made arrangements to meet and have dinner with Bill and Pam Walton and then park our van at their place for a week. Once we met up with them they invited us to stay at their place. Such nice people. We bought a bunch of food and headed out to their beautiful home right on the beach. Thanks so much Bill and Pam for hosting us! A nice dinner, a bed and breakfast really set us up for the rest of the trip.
The Moto Ride:
We rolled out of Bay of LA on the motos the next morning with big packs. We rode the east side of the amazing 22-Day Trail leaving a couple gallons of water at about the halfway point of the Day 5 bike route. We checked to see that our Camp Number 4 stash was still where it belonged then we headed out into some new terrain.
I always try to ride something new every time we go down there. We rode a route Jimmy Sones shared with me that explored an unridden route cross country rejoining the Day 4 bike route where we stashed another mid-day water supply then backtracking the San Antonio Trail to the planned campsite near Laguna Chapala. Continuing north we loaded a mid-day water stash near the turkey ranch on the Day 3 bike route.
We rolled into Catavina late in the afternoon, got gas and more water then checked into a room at the Santa Ynes Ranch. That consisted of knocking on the door, finding no one around, finding an unlocked room and moving in. We went into town for dinner and to get Kevin’s flat tire patched. The next morning we woke to find coffee and breakfast ready.
We rode out of town stopping to collect our camp-site number 1 stash from the gear bags at the Catavina Hotel. We were loaded down with more than two and a half gallons of water each plus a bunch of food for a dinner, breakfast and a day’s riding. We left a mid-day water stash near Santa Catarina then rode into the very remote Coyote Arroyo Canyon where we buried our stuff. Finally, all the stashing was done and we pinned it back to El Rosario. It was time to transition from the motos to the bicycles. We parked all four motos in Kevin’s van, loaded our packs, filled water bladders, and bottles, ate lots of food, got our bicycles ready to roll and tried to get some sleep. It was time to ride!
Pedal Quest Day 1
After all the preparation, it was finally time to ride! In an effort to get an early start we made breakfast in our room. A final pack check and we saddled up. We rolled out of El Rosario about 6:30 am across the riverbed and out into the farmlands. It was a cold morning. The weather was going to be perfect! Several miles through the bean fields and finally out into the backcountry.
After 10 miles we turned onto the Hagy Mesa trail. This rocky single track goes across a ridge line for miles. Up and down, views of the ocean, views to the south of the Badlands and San Carlos Mesa where we would be later, cactus, pushing, descending and finally a long fun descent down into the open valley below. We hit our first water stash at 27 miles in a dry dusty canyon at the start of the next section of single track. That trail took us towards the Badlands along a twisty route through sections of mud hills and hilltops. A long open ride up the valley through the badlands then up the long canyon two-track to the top of the mesa. We were starting to feel it. Another rest stop then more singletrack finally dropping the fun descent onto the Coyote Arroyo and our first camp. 53 miles and 6800’ of climbing.
We set up camp stoked on how well the day had gone. No flat tires despite running over dozens of cholla balls and every other plant all with thorns, thanks Stans! We made dinner and hit the sleeping bags early. Tomorrow was going to be a big day.
Pedal Quest Day 2
After a cool night, we dragged ourselves out of bed, built a fire, made hot water for coffee and oatmeal, packed up our gear, filled water bottles and bladders, burned the trash, lubed the chains, tightened down the shoes and saddled up. This was the longest section of the whole trip, 63 miles total, 45 miles of single track. We always knew this was going to be a long day. We needed to make it to Catavina regardless.
We were riding by 7:30 am with the first 10 miles of cow trails going up the canyon. We made good time weaving around through the cactus, in and out of the arroyo bottom, past massive cardons, dodging cholla balls, running over cholla balls, and eventually climbing up onto the ridge top trail. The sky was starting to get dark, it looked like rain was coming.
At mile 18 it started to rain. A light drizzle that gradually got harder. About that time we got into some red dirt/clay that was sticking to the tires. By the time we topped out on the Cactus Canyon Trail, it was windy and raining. This trail was one of the highlight trails on the whole trip and one of the best and most beautiful trails in Baja. We dropped in and the increased speed helped a bit with the mud. After a mile or so we had to stop. The bikes wouldn’t roll anymore. We quickly set up a tarp and huddled under it for about an hour. Luckily it started to break up, we built a fire and warmed up and dried out. It took a while for the mud to dry but eventually, we were back on the trail.
By now it was afternoon and we still had 42 miles to ride, we got on with it trying to keep moving. At mile 33 we got to our mid-day water stash. Time to eat drink and camel up. The next leg was a long section of two-track, going up and down across valleys and over passes. Coming over the last pass the view to the east opened up, a long downhill, fast and rocky took us down to another single track for the last 15 miles into Catavina. By now it was late in the afternoon it was going to get dark. The trail was really nice, a bit sandy but not bad, we rolled along making good time through more beautiful cactus gardens. The setting sun provided some great evening light to enjoy the ride. The nearly full moon had already risen in the east and soon was lighting our way.
The last hour into Catavina was cold but really nice. We knew we were finally going to make it. Rolling into Catavina felt great, we had pulled off two big days in a row and enjoyed it as well. We checked into the Catavina Hotel where we had left clean clothes and supplies. That hot shower felt wonderful and a hot dinner with a couple of friends, Ira Vick and Brian Lopes, who had just arrived that afternoon for a moto trip made for a satisfying end to the day.
Pedal Quest Day 3
After that well deserved night of rest, we dragged ourselves out of bed and started to get our act together for the next three days of riding. Clean riding gear, hose down the bikes, check the bikes, get some food, and finally get on the road.
We started with a 4-mile section of highway to get to the trailhead of the Camper Shell Trail. Soon enough we were enjoying a pleasant ride through the beautiful desert. This is another standout trail in Baja. After a bit, we turned off onto a lesser used trail known as the Can and Spoon Trail. Another great single track with lots of chollas. Everyone got more than a few cholla balls kicked up onto their legs from the tire. We also all hit a few with our hands or packs as we weaved in and around all the vicious looking cactus. All too soon the single track ended and we rode along the Turkey Ranch Trail, a nice two-track through a series of valleys with some nice ranches. We stopped to talk to a couple of the locals before getting to our mid-day water stop.
After a casual lunch stop, we were back on the trail riding up and out of the valley into the open moonscape of the Turkey Ranch Trail. Past the Rock Pile and back onto the highway for a 14-mile stretch. That turned out to be painful as everyone’s legs were feeling the previous days riding and the long hours in the saddle. By the time we got past Laguna Chapala and turned off the highway back onto the dirt, we were glad the day’s ride was relatively short. Just 51 miles…but only about 3000 feet of climbing. We got to our campsite, dug out the stash and tried to relax and recover for tomorrow.
Pedal Quest Day 4
After the pain and sore asses from the previous day, we were all a bit apprehensive about Day 4. Today we would ride the San Antonio Trail through a remote, pristine, rugged and beautiful section of Baja. We all expected the riding to be difficult on the mountain bikes. Turned out the trail was really great on the bikes. First, we climbed up and over a shallow pass dropping down to an old ranch.
From there it was a cow trail and possibly an old route for pack animal trains. The trail is very old and clearly used by big animals in the past. Since legendary Baja moto explorers and trail builders Chilly White and Jimmy Sones found their way through it a few years ago it’s only been ridden a few times. I had been looking forward to this trail and it delivered.
Passing through a stunning three-dimensional landscape of rock formations and cardon forests. We really enjoyed it. Jesse got a little Kodak courage and dropped off this big rock. He bottomed out his rear shock hard. That resulted in our only mechanical issue of the whole trip. He lost some air pressure and pulled the dust seal off. A short break to remove the shock, put the seal back and pump the shock back up was a fine excuse for a lunch break. Once it was all back together we carried on.
After exiting the single track we rode along some beautiful two-track towards the old adobe ruins and palm oasis. Another few miles and we were already at our mid-day water stash. A casual break then a nice long ride out towards the highway on a rolling two-track. Just before we hit the highway we turned south down another two-track paralleling the highway for 10 miles. We had a tail wind and it was more down then up making for a relaxing and easy ride. All too soon after a couple of miles on the highway, we were at our camp 4 spot at the 22-Day Trail crossing. At only 45 miles it was our shortest day of the ride. We took advantage of the time to rest and relax before setting up camp, building a fire, cooking dinner, watching the full moon rise in the east and expounding on the day’s adventure.
Pedal Quest Day 5
We were all pretty stoked and upbeat as we went through the morning routine. We knew we were going to finish the ride as planned. It had been an amazing ride so far but we were getting barn sour for the finish. When we started the ride there was plenty of doubt about whether or not we would be able to complete the ride as scheduled. We didn’t know how the trails would ride, would the sand bog us down, were the distances for the first two days too far, would our bodies hold up to a daily grind, would our tires hold air with all the cactus, could we eat enough calories, would the weather be a problem the list of doubts was long. But we had persevered and had fun. The trails were wonderful on the bicycles and we all had held up physically. One more day of riding and we would have done it.
The day’s ride was on one of the more used trails on our route. The east side of the 22-Day Trail. After a casual morning, we hit the trail. The trail flows along nicely so we made good time. Weaving through the cactus forest, up and down through the rolling hills, a 10-minute hike up a sand hill, some rocky descents and eventually dropping down to the more open low desert and 5 miles of sandy trail that rolled easier than expected. The standard mid-day water stop and a few miles of two track and we hit the Bay of LA highway. We were closing in on the finish.
An hour or so later we crested the horizon and could see the Bay of LA, blue water surrounding a series of islands that filled the view. So beautiful and a welcome sight. At the top of the hill overlooking the bay, we peeled off the pavement and dropped down on a bit of single-track. We spent some time taking the obligatory photos before the final couple miles to Pam and Bill’s house where our van was parked. We rolled up and was greeted by Miguel and his big dog. Then we all reveled in a swim in the water celebrating what felt to us like a victory. It had been so good.
The whole experience had been better then we could have imagined. Starting with the kernel of an idea that came to fruition through commitment, the planning, and the people. For us, on this ride, those things all worked out. There was never any doubt about the collective strength of the group, the route came together nicely the trails riding better on the mountain bikes then we expected, we all got along and were always positive and having fun, we had all the food and especially the water we needed, even though the first two days were hard and required us to dig deep we stayed on our plan and in this case that made a world of difference and when it was all said and done we felt like we had earned the sense of accomplishment we felt. It was a challenge to chew this bite up, but it was very satisfying once we did.