Two weeks ago, I traveled up to Ojai for the first time in my life. I’ve never been there by bike or even by car, so it was a big treat. So when Chris from Topanga Creek Bicycles said he wanted to do another ride up to Ojai 2 weeks later on May 7th, I jumped on the opportunity. I thought this would be a similar trip to last time, with the exception of more gravel riding, but boy was I pleasantly wrong!
I met Chris at the Ventura Amtrak station at 9:35AM Wednesday morning. Chris drove down since he had to go back to the shop early the next day and catching a train would delay his arrival. I took the 1st Amtrak train out of Burbank to Ventura to get there. We quickly found our way back to the Ventura River Trail once again as the streets of Ventura is becoming a familiar place for our two wheeled adventures.
Since it was just the two of us on this trip, our pace was much quicker, and I was surprised every time we hit stops that seemed to have taken much longer with our group of 6 before. That may actually be the case since I know our pace was slower before because we were purposely trying to kill time on our way up to Ojai on the last trip. Both Chris and I were like excited children on Christmas morning waiting to tear open our gifts as we honed in on the trailhead to our offroad adventure known as Sulfur Mountain Road.
Sulfur Mountain Road
We found ourselves diverting our route right up Sulfur Mountain Road. The initial part of the road was paved all the way up to the trailhead entrance where all motorized vehicles were prohibited from going beyond the locked gate. There was a special gate for bicycles to enter through, where we had to lift our bikes over. As soon as we did that, it felt like we entered a parallel universe. The road widened up and we found ourselves ascending up dirt roads as the scenery around us became breathtakingly beautiful. The word of the day was, “Wow.” We didn’t limit the use of the word over and over as each switch back turn, descent, and ascent yielded awe-inspiring views of the local mountain range. We saw yellow meadows of flowers waving at us as we rode by with winds hitting us head on or pushing us from behind.
We rode almost 10 miles east, crossing several cattle grates and finally touching down on paved roads after we exited out of the similar bicycle-only gates at the other end of the trailhead. We continued to the top of the mountain range until the road pointed us downward on the best descent I’ve been on for a while now. Besides a construction crew and a few cars coming the opposite direction, our paths were open for us to carve our way out to the main highway. It reminded me of my motorcycle days when I would ride through the Santa Monica mountains with my Yamaha R6 sport bike on any given weekend.
Starting From The Top
I was the first to emerge out of the mountains as Chris took his time down. We took a left on highway 150 and rode northwest back to Ojai. Another big surprise was when we passed Dennison Park, where we stayed overnight the last trip. We were significantly higher in elevation than the last time we were here, so high that we were ascending down to Dennison! As Chris exclaimed, “Wow! Wow!” I put my head down and rode down a familiar descent down into town.
We met up again at the bottom of the twisty road and met up at the Los Padres National Forest ranger station. Chris bought a map and asked the ranger about where to stay for the night. We had originally planned on going to Wheeler Gorge, which meant we had to battle cars on a narrow highway climbing up to a campsite that charges us $24 a night. Instead, the ranger pointed us north towards Gridley Canyon or Sisar towards the east side away from town. Sisar would have meant more mileage.
We were both starving and rode into town looking for something hearty, oily, and savory. We found ourselves on E. Matilija Street and found a nice spot at Feast Bistro restaurant, where we parked our 2 Salsas while we dined in the patio area. I had a delicious sausage sandwich while Chris indulged in a veggie burger and several cups of coffee. With our bellies full, we stopped by the local market to fill up on water for the night and Chris went to buy olive oil for his cous cous (which he failed to make again, but the olive oil came in handy for bread dipping).
We jump started the next part of our journey northbound towards Gridley Canyon. It was a steady uphill climb until we found a small, tiny single track hiking trail. The good news was that the sign allowed bicycles on the trail, but the bad news was that the trail was made specifically for people hiking with next to nothing or with a backpack. I struggled all the way up as my poor Vaya grasped onto all my gear, while it was subjected to scrapes and bumps against rocks and boulders along the trail. At one point, I had to remove all my bags and gear to carry it by hand in order to scale a couple of huge boulders. It was my turn to carry my bike up the treacherous terrain for a short distance. I spent my time repacking my bags to the rear rack as the front rack made my bags lower to the ground which became an obstacle to my progress.
Chris patiently waited for me at the top as his Salsa Fargo and his frame bags made things much easier for him to scale the road and lift his bike. We both got back on and off our bikes to navigate the narrow trail. We raced against the sunset to find the primitive campground in Gridley, so we can finally rest our bodies from the last 3 miles of rough terrain. I was surprised when we made it to our home for the night. The site had a metal frame with a small sleeping area and a man-made campfire pit.
We were both exhausted and hungry again so we made dinner and setup camp for the night. Chris built our campfire for warmth as the temperature crept lower as the sun disappeared behind the ridge and the half-moon illuminated our piece of heaven on Earth. We were in our respective sleeping bags by 9PM and sound asleep. At least we attempted to sleep while being serenaded by a lone duck sitting in a water trough with his cricket friends. We both battled the sloping terrain. I had to adjust and readjust several times during the night, so that I didn’t roll off into the ditch.
We were both awake before 6AM to make breakfast and break down camp. We were ready to go by 7AM. Chris, with his experience in mountain biking and his well equipped Salsa Fargo, was ready for the 3 mile descent out of the trail. I, on the other hand, struggled going down with my awkward panniers and was definitely not ready for the ride, mentally or physically. It was apparent as I toppled over on the trail and scraped my knee and my chest. I was very fortunate I didn’t fall 2 more inches forward because when I opened up my arm, there was a tree root with sharp branches jutting out of the ground next to my chest! Yikes!
My spirit was down and I was not enjoying the journey out. I could only look forward to our destination in town to enjoy a cup of cappuccino and a bagel with cream cheese. We finally made it out of Gridley Canyon, but not without me falling again over loose dirt. The big lesson here is that I should be riding with some knobby tires for this type of riding. When we got to the main road, it was smooth sailing down into town. Chris treated me to our second breakfast as we gave each other high-fives and updated our social network since we were out of service the night before. It was about 9:30 when we left the coffee shop and strolled down the Ojai River Trail back into Ventura. Again, our pace was much quicker as our bikes devoured the 21 miles down to the Amtrak station, just in time to watch the train leave the station heading back to Los Angeles. I asked Chris if I can join him on his commute back into town, and he graciously obliged.
We couldn’t stop talking about the amazing time we had. It’s amazing how only 1 and a half day of bike riding, covering about 60 miles of gravel and paved road with 5000+ feet of climbing, would recharge us for the week. Chris dropped me off at De Soto and Victory in the Valley. I rode home on the bike path towards Burbank. This yielded another 20 miles for the day. Needless to say, I was tired when I got home, but I was much happier than when I started the morning before.
“Undefine your Wednesday” was a wildly successful journey! Thank you Chris for making this happen!