In Search of Contrast: Riding California from Desert to Coast

I heard a lot about California’s mixed landscapes from my friends here. So as soon as my winter break began, I spent the entire 21 days of it touring southern California alone on my 1984 Raleigh Olympian bicycle.

From Desert to Coast

I tour on my bicycle in search of lands with contrasting shades. My biggest motivation to go on such tours is to capture nature in its most raw form. One consequence of it is that I often end up in extremely remote areas. When I meet local people in such places, I also pursue stories that I feel need to be told. Another reason I indulge in this hobby is because I view cycling as a form of mediation. It helps me clear my mind and improve my focus. I came to USA in September 2016 for my graduate studies. I heard a lot about California’s mixed landscapes from my friends here. So as soon as my winter break began, I spent the entire 21 days of it touring southern California alone on my 1984 Raleigh Olympian bicycle. Most of the gear was graciously lent to me by friends and well-wishers, whom I cannot thank enough. I would also like to thank Vargo Outdoors for supporting me with camping gear. I hope you enjoy my photo-essay and wish you a safe ride.

To know more about my exciting journeys, follow me on MEDIUM

By Krishna Rao
foot traveller and mountain biker

A photo-essay recorded on a bike tour around southern California, you can find the map HERE. The idea for a photo essay was adapted from the living legend Kamran On Bike.

This is a picture of my gear for the three-week long bike tour.

I solely relied on National Geographic map for navigating. It has every campground marked with remarkable accuracy. The distance and elevation served as a savior several times during the trip. I was able to plan out every day’s ride conveniently with this map. List of complete gear and itinerary can be found here.

The Pacific Coast Bike Route runs along the entire coast of the USA from the Canadian border to the Mexican border. The route passes through some of the most beautiful coastal places in the world. I started my tour at Santa Cruz and biked along the route for 4 days before deviating inland. The route merges often with Highway 1 and passes through numerous campgrounds, rest areas, and eateries.

The photo was taken south of Bixby Creek Bridge which is visible in the distance. It is one of the tallest single-span concrete bridges in the world

California produces nearly half of U.S. grown fruits, nuts and vegetables. Californian farmers are known extensively for their productivity and yield. Since drought was declared in 2014, the farmers have employed practices to further improve their efficiency. The picture taken near Monterey shows berry agriculture using partially biodegradable plastic mulch. The film helps in conserving soil water by minimizing evaporation losses and control weed growth.

California is home to 21 Spanish Missions that were established by catholic priests to expand Christianity among Native Americans. The missions are along the historic El Camino Real, parts of which are converted to the current US 101 freeway. The missions can be located by following peculiarly shaped bells that have been in place since the early part of the century. Bells were vitally important to daily life at any mission. The bells were rung at mealtimes, to call the Mission residents to work and to religious services, during births and funerals. During my tour, I visited two missions and found both to be equally beautiful and well preserved.

This photo was taken at the top of the pass where I left behind the green landscape.

Wildfires pose the biggest threat to forest cover and people living along the forest belt. The Big Sur fire was the last major fire recorded in California. It burned down 130,000 acres of natural forest and over 50 homes. It was started by an illegal campfire and took 3 months to bring under control. I was shaken by the incident and went on a few hikes around the affected areas to further pursue the story. The barren black mountain was once completely covered in green shrubs and short trees. The national forests offer ample places to camp legally. They charge a meager $5 for Hiker-Bikers. The campgrounds offer benches, toilets, water (with exceptions) and food lockers for protection from coyotes and raccoons. Unless one has decidedly made up a mind, there is very little reason to not use these facilities and camp illegally.

Near Monterey – berry agriculture using partially biodegradable plastic mulch.

Plush vineyards in California spread thousands of acres and are responsible for 85% of the nation’s wine production. For over 2 days, I cycled through the vineyards along Paso Robles, a wine country. The places offer upscale lodging and wine tasting sessions. They also offer tours of the entire wine-making process.

Los Padres that translates to “the fathers” is a national forest along Southern California’s coast. It spans 2m acres and is home to many endangered species. The forest provides explorers with a plethora of opportunities to wander in the wild. It has well-marked trails and mud roads. I biked in the forest for 2 days and did not meet any humans. At the campground too, I was the only human. Gusty winds flow through trees in the night and cause eerie sounds. Since I was very tired from biking, a slept like a baby that night. For some, it may be scary to spend time alone.

The Midway-Sunset oil field near Taft in Kern County is the third largest oilfield in the United States. The oil being heavy is difficult to extract. The basin uses thousands of pump-jacks to lift the oil to the surface. The pumps span land as far as the eye can see.

This photo captured from Palm Drive in Bakersfield shows an endless span of pumpjacks operating 24×7.

Isabella Lake is an artificially created reservoir in the Sequoia National Forest. At 11,000 acres, it is one of the larger reservoirs in California. The town named Lake Isabella is situated just downstream of it. The town has streets marked in holographic blue boards to indicate disaster evacuation routes. The lake is known not to freeze even if atmospheric temperatures dip below freezing. The temperature at night fell to 20F when I camped in Pioneer point campground overlooking the lake.

The Sierra Nevada, which stands for “snowy range”, is a mountain range running along the north-south direction. While traveling towards Death Valley, I crossed the range through the Walker Pass (5250 ft). The terrain on the east side is completely arid and desert like.

This photo was taken at the top of the pass where I left behind the green landscape.

While I was cycling legally around the Naval Air Weapons Station at China-Lake, I saw this plane hovering in the sky for prolonged periods of time. It then continued to perform maneuvers like loops and knife-edge turns. At one instance it passed dangerously close, right above my head at a height of not more than 500 feet. I stood staring at it, with an admiration for the incredible silence of the engines. Half a second later, I was thrown to the ground, my shades cracked, the front tire of my bike lost its air and an ear-splitting sound hit me. It was the loudest sound I have ever heard. It took me about half an hour to set all my gear back and about 2 hours to lose the itch in my ear.

A plane near the Naval Air Weapons Station perform maneuvers like loops and knife-edge turn

Death Valley is an apparent place of contradictions. It is one of the hottest places known to man, yet its peaks are covered in snow for several months. It is one of the driest places in the United States, yet signs of water exist throughout the park. It is called Death Valley, yet wildlife continues to exist perennially. The route above Panamint range was the steepest yet with gradients of 8% for miles together. For some short stretches, the climbs were even steeper and I had to walk my bike.

In the 5 days I spent in the valley, I traveled to many inspiring geological wonders. The Ubehebe crater in the north of Death Valley is an unconventional crater. It is only 3000 years old and was formed due to the buildup of geothermal heat, not by a volcanic eruption. This photo of me cycling along the rim of the crater was shot from half a mile away. It was the morning of the new year and very few people were present at this attraction.

The white sheet in the background are dense deposits of salts.

Death Valley contains the lowest point in North America. At 280 feet below sea level, the temperature in summer is very high. The water brought in by the underground Amargosa river evaporates, leaving behind a dense deposit of salts seen behind me in the picture. The area of the salt flat is about 20,000 acres. It serves as a popular destination for trekkers. Interestingly, the highest point in the USA, Mount Whitney is only 90 miles from here.

“Are we in Mars, mommy?” a little girl queried as I just cycled in. She was overwhelmed by the sight and possibly by the early morning sugar treats in her hand. I too was overwhelmed by the gentle, artistic curves of sandstone and clay deposits. Wind and water shaped this natural wonder and continues to influence the landscape of Death Valley even today. As I walked along the ridges I recollected a conversation I had with a local a day earlier. She belonged to the Shoshone Tribe. She said the ancestors of the land believed that rain and the wind are merely “His” tools and that “He” is the real sculptor.

This sand dune in the heart of death valley is another such creation. I have seen many artificial landscapes that are made to look natural. This is the first one that is a natural landscape but looks artificial because of its small size. This sand dune is merely 3 miles wide. Three things are required for dunes to form: a source of sand, winds to carry the sand, and a depression to collect the sand. Canyons on all four sides provide plenty of sand for winds to carry and deposit at places acting as natural “traps”.

This Opera Theatre in Amargosa is situated in one such township built by the Pacific Coast Mining Company.

In the early 20th Century Death Valley become the center of a lot of speculation. Conmen floated theories that the area had a natural mine deposit. The minerals that they claimed existed ranged from coal, which was eventually found, to gold and gemstones. The sudden boom in interest spurred rapid growth of townships around the valley which would disappear in a few years or in certain cases, a few months. Marta Becket, a renowned dancer, rebuilt this theatre, painted it all by herself, and performed in it. She retired from dancing in 2012, at the age of 88.

I covered a total of 1000 miles over the span of 21 days. I crossed 4 mountain ranges on my way away from the coast and 3 ranges while traveling towards the coast. The steepest gradient I faced was a thrilling 8% downhill and a daunting 7.5% uphill. In the Mojave desert, I cycled for 3 days amidst 45-degree crosswinds of 10–28 Mph. It took me 3 days to cover a distance of 70 miles, which in normal circumstances I am able to cover in a day. That was not a pleasurable experience. This is the last picture of the tour, taken just before entering Los Angeles. I was thinking about all the wonderful people I met during my journey. Many people went out of their way to help me. Some strangers opened their homes for me to stay over. Some people offered me delicious treats during afternoon breaks. Many people helped me even before I started the trip, by lending their precious gear. I was particularly happy the entire day and was chanting the Hare Krishna Mahamantra.

Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna,
Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare
Hare Rama, Hare Rama,
Rama Rama, Hare Hare

It is difficult to recollect if the chanting caused happiness or the other way round.

All photos are clicked by me using a basic tripod and a lot of patience. Reproduction of any content in any form must be referenced by providing a hyperlink to my blog:

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