Bikepacking California: The Eastern Sierra

Susan and I embark on our first bikepacking adventure.

Bikepacking California: The Eastern Sierra

Susan and I recently embarked on our first bikepacking adventure. I've ridden a mountain bike for decades, and camped for longer than that, but I've yet to combine the two for a humble adventure in the growing dirty activity of bikepacking.

Since we didn't know what we were doing, we made due with the equipment we already owned. We went into this trip confident we'd enjoy bikepacking, but we didn't want to spend any money on proper gear until we tried it out a few times. We fit just about everything we needed for a one-night test ride into three REI 18L Flash Packs. We each carried one bag on our backs that held a water bladder, extra clothes, flip-flops, a minimal amount of food, a camera, and an MSR stove and fuel. The third pack I strapped to my handlebars; it held our tent, a light sleeping bag, and an extra sleeping bag liner.

We also used velcro straps to secure an extra blanket to Susan's frame. I carried two water bottles on my Advocate Cycles Hayduke and strapped a Hydroflask containing precooked sausage and rice to the top tube. Susan's considerably smaller Raleigh frame has only one bottle cage which limited the amount of water she could carry. See Susan's post for a more thorough breakdown of our gear.

We left Bishop, CA early on a Thursday morning and rode along Highway 6 and a frontage road for about 5 miles until we merged onto Fish Slough Rd. It was a hot day and there is very little respite from the sun in the high desert of the Eastern Sierra. We traveled about 40 miles to reach the junction at Benton Hot Springs. Our plan was to ride to Benton then head west through the mountains to get to Crowley Lake just below Mammoth Lakes.

We found ourselves on Highway 120 just after the noon hour. The sun beat down upon us with anger. After a short climb along the melting asphalt I begged for us to pause under the only tree we'd seen in 45 miles. After a short refuel and hydration break we checked our map and again climbed upon our heavy steeds to venture further up the road. The map indicated there was a narrow four-wheel-only double-track dirt road just ahead. We took it believing it would take us over the southern portion of Glass Mountain, then drop us into the Crowley Lake area.

We were mistaken.

Slowly we pedaled, then pushed, our bikes for more than an hour up the steepest and most technical four-wheel drive dirt road I've experienced. As we crested the first climb the road ended. The map indicated it went on and over, but shortly into our descent the trail disappeared. We were concerned; the heat was intensifying and our water supply was down to one hot bottle I fortunately found on the side of the road. We considered exploring further but the possibility of descending into the canyon before us only to climb back out was a risk we weren't willing to take without water. We elected to head back to Benton Hot Springs to resupply and camp for the night.

The campsites at the springs were full up, but the host happily refilled our water bottles with natural spring water from the property. We then road to Benton town proper which has one gas station with a basic store. I shotgunned a soda, and a gatorade. We also purchased a gallon of water and resupplied our bladders and bottles. We sat on the cement in the shade until local told us there were some trees in the park by the senior center behind the store. We sat in that park under the thick shade of manicured trees and gathered ourselves. We were seven hours and sixty miles into our adventure and suffering from a bit of heat exhaustion.

Eventually we gained enough composure and motivated ourselves to get back on the bikes to find a place to camp for the night. We crossed Highway 6 and headed toward the White Mountains. We road and pushed our bikes up another three miles of rocky terrain coming to a crumbling stone dwelling near abandoned Montgomery City. We setup our tent in a dry creek bed and ate dinner.

Cold sausage, rice, and Trader Joe's Everything Bagel seasoning never tasted so good.

We used my REI Quarter Dome tent which was a little tight on room but we managed comfortably enough. We rose the next morning and decided our first bikepacking purchase would be Therm-a-Rest pads. We were warm enough at 7,000 feet using my light 55 degree sleeping bag that we shared. We slept in thermals and placed a thin wool blanket beneath us for some buffer from the hard cool ground. Eventually an investment may be necessary in lighter and warmer sleeping bags.

After a light breakfast we descended another dirt trail which took us back to Highway 6. We traveled on pavement a short distance then turned onto a gravel road which merged back with Fish Slough Rd. It was again a very warm day but we only traveled 40 miles to get back into Bishop.

Being it was our one-year anniversary of living in the van, we had already planned and booked a cheap hotel in town. A dirty pool, swamp cooler, and cold beer was just what we needed after two days of hot dirty riding.

While gravel races and bikepacking events are trending around the globe, for the most part this is a grass roots fringe activity spawned to allow people to go further and experience more on trails and dirt roads. If you have interest in this growing activity, is an excellent and thorough resource.

Susan and I are currently debating if it's possible to downsize further and live on our bikes.