Thursday, June 4, 2015

Armstrong Connector, Corral & Sidewinder (South Lake Tahoe, CA)

During our 2015 Memorial Day pilgrimage to the California Sierra, we had planned to get in at least one day of riding in Tahoe, hoping to hit one or more of the classics. It was only due to the drought and extremely low snowpack that we could even entertain riding in Tahoe this early in the season -- in fact, we'd usually be here for kayaking. Unfortunately for us, Northern Cali had been hit with a few storms both right before and during our trip; therefore, we would be limited to the lower elevation trails in the area. Our weather over the previous days had forced us to drive from our base camp in Downieville to trail networks in both Nevada City and Auburn – Although we rode some fun trails in both locations, it wasn’t what I was really hoping to get out of our vacation and the long drive from Oregon. We did get to do a shuttle ride on the Downieville Downhill, but got hit by a thunderstorm about halfway down, which dropped copious amounts of rain and completely flooded out the trail – we now refer to that event as the Downieville Downpour… With our spirits a bit battered but not broken, we held out hope for an epic final day of riding in Tahoe.

It was now Monday morning and the last day of our trip. As I peered out the window of our abode in Tahoe City, I was greeted by puffy white clouds dotting a bright blue sky. I quickly searched out my phone so that I could check the forecast, where I found some good news – supposedly, there was only a 20% chance of showers for the day! With the change in weather, we discussed options. Bill, who was from Sacramento and had ridden Tahoe quite a few times before, came up with the ride agenda, which would have us shuttling some trails near the Northstar ski area. Reinvigorated, we quickly packed up our stuff, loaded up the cars and headed out. We headed northeast from Tahoe City, where along the way the sky began to change and a storm appeared to be moving in. A few minutes later, Bill pulled over and informed us that he had just gotten a severe weather update on his phone, which called for an 80% chance of heavy rain and hail in the area. Scrambling to come up with a new plan, we found that South Lake Tahoe looked like it would stay relatively dry throughout the day. With that, we turned the cars around and headed back south…

As we drove toward South Lake Tahoe it became clear that our trail options would be somewhat limited, due to the snow levels. Bill suggested we ride some of the lower trails off of Oneidas Drive / Fountain Place Rd. As we pulled into the bottom parking area, we found many other riders gearing up and preparing to ride – a good sign indeed! Our plan was to get in as many shuttle rides as we could, starting at the top of the Armstrong Connector and alternating between Corral and Sidewinder for the second half of the descent. Once we had loaded up Bill’s truck with all 6 bikes and people, we drove up Fountain Place Rd toward the upper trailhead. Of course our adversity continued, as we found our path blocked by a locked gate, partway up the road. In a state of disbelief, we were once again forced to evaluate our options. Since it was too late to find another ride area, we really only had a few choices – 1) Do the rest of the road climb on our bikes, or 2) limit our shuttles to Corral and Sidewinder. Almost all of us agreed that we should climb up for the Armstrong Connector at least once, so we parked the car and geared up for the climb.

The climb up the road was steep, ascending ~550' in a little over a mile. Being paved made it a little more manageable, but I still found myself weaving back & forth to help lessen the grade a bit. When we reached the top, at another locked gate, we found a couple other riders who had also decided to make the climb. It was here that we also saw a small black bear, which was cinnamon colored -- if I didn't know better, it could have been easily mistaken for a brown bear. This particular bear seemed very apathetic to our presence, as it snacked on grass for a bit before heading off into the woods on the other side of the fence. Once everyone had reached the top and we were all rested up, we headed out on the Armstrong Connector, which headed off to the north, just before the gate.

Three's Company 

"What are you looking at..."


The first part of the trail meandered through the forest, staying relatively flat and passing a few man-made log rides. What I noticed immediately were the perfect trail conditions, which were neither too wet nor too dry -- it looked like we were going to have ourselves some hero dirt! Eventually, the trail started to lose some elevation, and we were presented with a nice view of the high Sierra, just before dropping down and around a couple of switchbacks.

Bill gets ready to round the first switchback...while keeping his eye on the trail, not the view.

Just after the switchbacks, the trail traversed the hillside and offered up the goods! Along the way we were treated to some really fun and technical boulder lines -- really classic stuff and just what I had imagined riding in Tahoe to be like. In fact, it felt very similar to the riding in Squamish and Whistler, which is probably my favorite place to ride and where my wife and I go every year for our anniversary. Everyone in the group was having a good time, even the less technically experienced riders. Although there were more than a few nice rock drops to air off of, almost everything was rollable if you didn't feel like leaving the ground.

A typical section of trail along the hillside traverse 

Up & over

Bill, gettin' a boost

Shawn drops down a nice technical bit

Roman rolls a nice little rock drop

...and another

Bill takes a small detour to air this one out

The masked avenger

Chris gives chase

At the end of the long traverse, the trail switchbacked to the south, and soon after, a rather large horizon line presented itself. I quickly jumped off my bike to take a look and found a nice granite slab that was fairly steep but also very straightforward, with no real technicality. There was a sneak route around it to the right, which some in the group had opted for. For the rest of us that rode it, we entered high on the left and dropped down the middle of it. After the slab, the trail made haste around a few banked turns, with some rock kickers thrown in here & there for good measure. All too soon, we found ourselves back at the road, where we had been stopped by the first locked gate. We now had a choice between one of two descents down to the bottom, Corral or Sidewinder.

Bill finds one of the smother sections of the Armstrong Connector

The author drops a fun granite slab, which felt much steeper than this photo would suggest.
(photo by Bill Reidl)

Bill had recalled Corral being a bit better and the more technical route, with Sidewinder being more of a flow trail, consisting mostly of zigzagging banked turns. Technical riding is certainly my preference, so I was pretty happy when the group decided on Corral. With an agreed upon plan of attack, I jumped out ahead so that I could find a place to take some shots. As I rode along, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the trail. It's not that I was expecting it to be bad, I just figured it wouldn't be nearly as good as the Armstrong Connector. Although it didn't provide the views or classic rock lines like the previous trail had, it certainly had its share of rocky goodness for all to enjoy! During this stretch, I ended up stopping at a few of the better drops to take photos of the crew as they flew by.

Another fun rock drop, this time on Corral.

Follow the granite brick road

Exit stage left.

Bill drops into a fun series of berms 

One of the chunkier sections on Corral

Shawn, partway down the same rock garden

Roman drops into another technical pitch

About a mile into Corral, Sidewinder entered back in on our right. With the two routes now merged, it turned into a flow trail, with many dirt kickers and berms to play on. There were also some extremely fast stretches where we were able to reach speeds in excess of 25 MPH. The most notable features in this section were a series of tabletops and a built up gap jump. The trail eventually ended at a dirt road, about a quarter mile from where we had parked the cars. I must say, it was really cool to get both high quality technical terrain and flow trail out of one descent!

Bill finds some air even on the small rock booters

Chris lines it up nicely

Bill on the entrance drop to the tabletop section

Chris fires up one of the first tabletops

Lift off! 

Bill, in a rhythm.

Bill, clearing the built-up gap jump.

Once we were back at the parking lot, I drove Bill back up to the top of Corral/Sidewinder so that he could grab his truck. After running the back shuttle, we loaded up the bikes again for another lap, utilizing the same route. This time around we were down two riders, Chris & Shawn, who had opted for an earlier start for heading back home. I also decided not to take photos on this lap, which made the ride go much faster and be a bit more fun!

For the 3rd and 4th laps we didn't ride all the way to the top, instead we decided to just bite off the lower trails. Since we hadn't done Sidewinder, we rode that one next, which ended up being way better than I had expected. The first half of it actually had some fun technical stuff, which Bill had forgotten about. It did eventually turn into a zigzagging berm-fest, but even that ended up being pretty damn fun as well as offering a great practice session for banked turns. As with the first two laps, we got to ride the flow after it merged back in with Corral, which allowed me to learn the lines in that section a bit better. By the end of the 4th lap, where we rode Sidewinder again, I was clearing most of the tabletops and had really gotten into a groove.

Roman does some rock crawling near the top of Sidewinder

Bill finds the line through the air to be much smoother...

A fun distraction along the trail

More air time

The author partway through a alternate log ride
(photo by Bill Reidl)

More granite goodness

We were all pretty tired by the end of the 4th lap and decided to call it a day, which was probably wise, since we were also running low on available daylight. After running the back shuttle one more time and then loading up all our gear, we headed into Meyers for some much deserved pizza and beer. That night we crashed at Bills pad in Sacramento and the next morning we started our long drive back to Oregon, ending our 2015 Memorial Day extravaganza.

Parting thoughts:
I really wish the weather would have worked out a bit more for us and that we could have ridden at least another day in Tahoe. The trails that we did ride (Armstrong Connector, Corral and Sidewinder) were fantastic, but only served as an appetizer for the area as a whole. Even with how good these trails were, my understanding is that they are very average by Tahoe standards. As I stated earlier, it definitely reminded me of the riding in the Squamish/Whistler area, which makes sense, with the granite rock being the foundation of the natural/technical terrain. The only thing it was really missing was the intricate wood structures that are prevalent in that area (i.e. ladder bridges, etc.). Based on this small taste, I know I'll be back to Tahoe to ride at some point, hopefully in the very near future.

From the top:

Sidewinder/Corral only:

Monday, May 11, 2015

Smith Rock / Gray Butte Trail (OR)

Day two of Spring Barbie Camp brought sunny skies and cold morning temps, in the high 20s. Neither Jason Snook nor I had brought stuff for breakfast, so we ended up driving into Sisters for some much needed food and coffee – I must say, I wasn’t too heartbroken about this. I can only guess that I wasn’t the best company at the diner, since I was still in a haze from the festivities the night before. I ended up devouring an excessive amount of biscuits & gravy and topping it off with 2 eggs and a few sausage links. With my belly still expanding from the biscuits, we headed back to camp to meet up with the others and get ready for our ride at Smith Rock, which I’d never done before.

We quickly broke camp and said our goodbyes to the folks who were either heading back home or doing a different ride than us. The drive from Sisters to the Skull Hollow trailhead took about 45 minutes to an hour, traveling through Redmond and Terrebonne before the jagged peaks of Smith Rock came into view. Driving over the Crooked River brought back memories of my last time through the park, only then it was in my kayak, during the rare opportunity when they are releasing heavy flows from the dam. It’s actually been 5 years since the last significant release (trip report, here).

Pulling into the Skull Hollow Campground we found ourselves in the minority to the many horse trailers that were parked there. Although I’m in favor of shared trail use and believe that no form of recreation is more important than another, I was really hoping that we wouldn’t be dealing with too much horse traffic (or shit) on the trail. Even though the temps were supposed to be relatively cool, Emily and I drove around the lot for a bit, trying to find a place with shade for the dog. We eventually found a nice little nook between some trees that would provide adequate coverage, regardless of where the sun was at in the sky. We then unloaded our bikes, got geared up and met the others at the start of the trail, ready for the climb that would have us ascending around 700’ in 2 ½ miles.

We started the ride on the Cole Loop Trail (#854), heading in a northerly direction toward Gray Butte and paralleling Skull Hollow Rd (FS 7510). The climb made its ascent at a very manageable grade and through an open pine forest setting with good sight lines – All I could think about along the way was how fun of a descent it was going to be on the way back! We did have to pass through a few fence gates, which we needed to make sure were properly latched, before continuing on. Soon, the trail swooped around to our left and up another draw, where it eventually transitioned onto the Gray Butte Trail (#852), as it headed toward Smith Rock. This section of the trail led us up Sherwood Canyon, traveling high up on its rim and providing expansive views of the Cascades since the hillside covering was mainly dry grass, with sparse trees and shrubs dotting its landscape. Unfortunately, the cloud layer had fallen too low to see the tops of the main volcanic peaks.

Randy, somewhere along Gray Butte Trail

Emily takes in the views to the west

Long sightlines along the ridge

Near the boundary of Smith Rock State Park, the trail crossed over Burma Rd, where it started a steep descent down a series of switchbacks and traverses. This was also the point where we discovered that the Spring Sting adventure race was going on. Unfortunately for us, the participants happened to be climbing up the trail at the same time we were trying to get down. We did have the option of following the same route as the racers by descending Burma Rd, but instead, we decided to continue with our original plan and just yield to the uphill traffic as we made our way down the hill. We ended up crossing paths with lots of race participants, which broke up what would have been a pretty sweet descent. However, even if the race wasn’t going on, we still would have needed to control our speed and be on our best behavior, since there was also plenty of day hikers, who were also using this popular stretch of trail.

Jason enters the park

The top of Burma Rd was a popular spot on this day

Arthur and Roland lead the charge on the descent

More expansive views

Jason, between switchbacks.

Sarah rides past a nice viewpoint along the way

Arthur drops into the last pitch down to the river

Roland, givin' chase.

Sarah gets her first glimpse of Monkey Face

All too soon, the trail had dropped all the way down to the Crooked River, where it followed along its bank and past the many climbing routes engraved into the cliff walls to our left. We also passed by the famous landmark Monkey Face, a large rock spire with a formation on top that looks eerily like the head of a primate. This is probably the most popular trail in the park, so we kept a slow pace and gave friendly greetings to those we passed by. After passing by a footbridge over the Crooked, we followed the path around a large bend in the river for about a mile, where we reached a spur trail that led up to Burma Rd, at a very steep grade.

Emily, lovin' the ride!

Sarah nears the river 

Jason plays catch up after taking some photos

More great views of Monkey Face

Emily starts the river path

In the heart of Smith Rock State Park

Taking it easy during this stretch 

Jason, leaving the heavily populated section

We relaxed for a bit and had a snack before starting what would end up being a pretty brutal ascent, which included the climb on Burma Rd. About the only redeeming quality of the climb was the panorama, which once you were up high enough, you could see the entirety of the park with the Cascade as the backdrop. I can’t even imagine climbing up Burma in the middle of summertime, since it has absolutely no shade and ascends ~1,000’ in one mile. I’ve always considered myself a pretty slow climber, but after finding myself alone with no one from our crew in sight, I was feeling pretty defeated.

Rounding a corner during the ultra steep ascent out of the canyon

One of the more rideable parts of this section 

The start of the slog up Burma Rd.

Plenty of climbing routes on those walls

The view from Burma Rd.

Still a ways to go, but a light at the end of the tunnel...

I finally made it to the top of the road after what felt like an eternity and found the rest of the group patiently waiting for me. We were now back at the intersection where we had run into all the adventure racers. Without delay, we headed back on the stick of the lollipop, traveling northeast on the hillside above Sherwood Canyon. We regrouped one last time before the start of the descent back to the car, which may not have been necessary since the dust being kicked up by our tires encouraged a bit of spacing between us. In fact, at one point I pulled over and waited a few minutes before continuing on, just to let the dust settle. As I had assumed during the climb up the same trail, it was a sweet descent -- With long sight lines and no uphill traffic, it was time to open her up!

Heading back

Lost in a field of sage

Sarah, takin' in the descent

Nice sightlines here as well! 

Getting back to the car happened way too soon, and I was a bit surprised how short the downhill felt. With some remaining energy (at least for more descending), I convinced Emily to shuttle me to the top of Cline Butte so that I could get in a little more riding, explaining to her that it could double as exercise for our dog Grace. I’m not sure she completely bought my argument, but nonetheless, she happily agreed to give me a ride to the top. If you’re curious how that ride went, my ride report for Cline Butte can be found here.

The Gray Butte / Smith Rock ride that we did was fantastic! It’s not that the riding terrain was all that memorable, but it was good enough and the views of the surrounding landscape more than made up for it. It was also cool to experience Smith Rock from my bike saddle, since I had already done so from my kayak and with my hiking boots. Each method has provided its own unique experience and I can’t say that I’ve enjoyed any one over the other. I would actually compare this ride experience to road biking the Old McKenzie Highway and Crater Lake, or mountain biking Mount Saint Helens; although, I would say it’s not nearly as good as the last example – that one is an ultra-classic!

In the end, Smith Rock State Park is a very popular recreational area, so expect to have a shared use experience and just make the best of it – there’s a reason it’s so popular, it’s truly an amazing place to experience. If you decide to head there when the weather isn’t as nice (to avoid the crowds), make sure you don’t go if the trails are too wet, as I hear the mud will stop you dead in your tracks. Apparently, they don’t call it “Grey Butte Gumbo” for nothing…

The tracks from our ride: