Mountain biking Northern California's redwoods and ocean coast
Zach Urness/Daily Courier

A mountain biking trip through the Redwood National and State parks system features views of old-growth trees, misty ocean bluffs and, every once in a while, naked people running along the beach. Here’s a link to a photo gallery of the Redwoods and here’s a video of mountain biking through them.

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By Zach Urness of the Daily Courier

The sweet, musty smell of marijuana smoke drifted up along the Pacific Ocean breeze onto a high rocky bluff, where I was standing beside my mountain bike, watching the winter sunset.

I’d spent the clear January afternoon riding the Coastal Trail south of Crescent City, Calif., weaving in between old-growth redwoods and along the edges of misty ocean cliffs. Toward the end of my 13-mile ride, I stopped at Nickel Creek campground and walked my bike onto a high bluff overlooking an ocean glowing silver-orange in the sunset’s fire.

It was an impressive sight, but there was faint perfume in the air that distracted my attention. Sure enough, below the overlook I saw four 20-something backpackers sitting on the beach smoking marijuana, just beyond the frothing reach of waves that crashed, slid up the sand and fell back into the depths. They passed a glass pipe down the line, each spending a moment to exhale a thick cloud of smoke, oblivious to anything besides the ocean’s deep breath.

I grinned and took off my helmet, opened my backpack and took out a water bottle for a long, satisfying drink of water. During multiple trips along northern California’s redwood coast this past month, I swept from the ocean’s green edges to the old-growth forests and back again. And yet, what made these trips unique were the actions of people I encountered along the way.

The overwhelming power of redwoods and the Pacific Ocean have a funny way of imbibing visitors with the notion they’ve wondered into an alternate universe where social norms can, if only for a moment, be cast aside.

I found people expressing that otherworldly emancipation in ways that ranged from brazenly smoking weed to running around buck-naked during January. As for myself, I learned that mountain biking can also be swimming.

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Streams of dusty yellow sunlight broke through the redwood canopy in only a few places, as though entering a dark room through windows, while I whipped downhill along the Redwood National and State Park system’s most famous mountain biking loop.

My tires slipped and grabbed against thick, cake-batter muck on uphill climbs, and the cold air burned my face when I’d speed back down, below trees the size of Saturn rockets, along Ossagon Trail toward the ocean.

The redwoods are not known for biking trails — only six worthwhile areas allow it — but the 20-mile Prairie Creek Ossagon Loop does present a spectacular though imperfect option. Linking together wild and difficult trails with easy lengths of road, the loop showcases old-growth redwoods, lush coastal bluffs and ocean dunes.

The upside to exploring the loop during winter is there are fewer people to crash into along the trails, which during the summer can become a serious hassle. The downside is the Coastal Trail section is often flooded out of existence, which was something I quickly discovered.

After finishing the Ossagon Trail section of the loop, I swung south, leaving behind the dark forest for a sunny marshland between green cliffs and ocean. I rode through soupy mud and jackhammered across the gnarled roots of Manzanita trees, but it wasn’t until the halfway point that the trail became flooded.

At first, I figured the water was only a few inches high. But the further I rode the higher the water level crept, slowly swallowing myself and bike below the murky surface.

The first body parts to go underwater were my feet. Then it crept over my knee and began inching toward my seat. At this point I was somewhere between biking and swimming, as though crossing a foul-smelling bog with a boat designed by Fred Flintstone.

Finally, after zig-zagging through a football field’s length of water, I escaped the bog near a grove of sweet-smelling trees and a thin, silver waterfall. I was unconditionally soaked and smelled like a garbage dumpster in August, but dry land below my wheels never felt so good.

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Now it’s time for the naked people.

It happened like this: After finishing the boat adventure, I needed a place to dry off and eat lunch. And so I continued a few miles down the Coastal Trail until I found a small path that led out to Gold Bluffs Beach along the ocean.

For those who’ve never been, Gold Bluffs Beach is among the most stunning stretches of coastal heaven you’re likely to find. Dunes of soft, salt-and-pepper sand stretched out in both directions. The ocean surf was aqua blue and rumbled into the shoreline like an army of snowplows invading the beach.

The afternoon sun had risen above the green cliffs, and after finding a nice patch of sand, I laid down in the salty air, closed my eyes and allowed the ocean’s super-sized fan to begin drying my clothes.

It was between 55 to 60 degrees in the sun, and with the soundtrack of the ocean’s steady hum, I slowly drifted into that place between resting your eyes and the beginning of sleep.

Then it began.

After 30 minutes of restful silence, bursts of loud, crackling shouts began to disturb the peace. I looked up to see five young adults running along the beach, hollering and whooping and crashing into each other. There were three young ladies and two gentlemen, and if I had to guess, I’d say they were college students on a road trip to the liberal bastions of San Francisco, Portland or Eugene.

I base that guess on what happened next.

From about 100 yards away I watched in stunned confusion while they stripped off their clothes and went sprinting toward the ocean surf. This was shocking not only because there were plenty of people along the beach, but also because January is not typically a good month for nudity.

As they crashed one-by-one into an ocean that must have been Arctic cold, and began shrieking and hooting in pain, I was forced to concede Mark Twain’s observation that “our Heavenly Father invented man because he was disappointed in the monkey.”

In order not be mistaken for a a voyeuristic weirdo (especially since I had a video camera in my backpack that might have turned their escapade into an Internet sensation), I jumped back onto my bike and continued on my way, following Davidson Road along the sandy beaches below a blue sky.

The overwhelming power of the redwood and Pacific Ocean have a funny way of imbibing visitors with the notion they’ve wondered into an alternate universe, where people smoking marijuana on the beach or skinny dipping in the ocean is, for at least a moment, just another part of the scenery.

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Lost Man Creek — 11 one way

For the lower trailhead, park cars at Lost Man Creek Picnic Area, off Highway 101 a few miles north of Orick. For the upper trailhead, drive up Bald Hills Road and park near Redwood Creek Overlook. From the upper trailhead, climb briefly, then roll up and down over ridgetop hillocks before a steady descent through spruce and redwood forest. If you return to the upper trailhead, the round trip becomes 22 miles and includes a steep uphill climb.

Rellim Ridge — 9 round trip

The trail goes through second-growth redwood forest. One trailhead is at Hamilton Road, across from Crescent Beach Vista Point. The other is off Howland Hill Road near Howland Hill Outdoor School.

Coastal Trail (Last Chance Section) — 6 one way

Begin at Milepost 15.6 on Highway 101 in DelNorte Coast Redwoods State Park for the easiest approach. The other trailhead is at the end of Enderts Beach Road south of Crescent City. The trail becomes steep and narrow at four miles from the south trailhead as it descends into Enderts Beach Trailhead. Nickel Creek backcountry campground is a short spur from the trail near the north end.

Little Bald Hills — 8 one way

There is a steep initial climb from the eastern portion of Howland Hills Road. Watch for horses! The trail ends on South Fork Road with access to national forest lands. During high run-off, the South Fork Road access soon arrives at a potentially impassable creek crossing. The trail offers a number of biological communities and splendid views on clear days.

Prairie Creek Ossagon Trail Loop — 20 loop

Through the redwood forest to the coast and back. Park at Ossagon Trailhead off the northern portion of Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway (milepost 132.74), at Elk Prairie Information Center, or at Fern Canyon. Day use fees are collected at Gold Bluffs Beach and at Elk Prairie.

Davison Road — 8 one way

Through the redwood forest to the coast and back. Park at Ossagon Trailhead off the northern portion of Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway (milepost 132.74), at Elk Prairie Information Center, or at Fern Canyon. Day use fees are collected at Gold Bluffs Beach and at Elk Prairie.


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