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Car-Free Los Angeles Adventure
Sometimes the most rewarding adventures are the ones you throw together last minute.
On an abnormally warm Tuesday evening in February I loaded up my bike for a quick overnight with a crew from Topanga Creek Outpost. They close the shop midweek for Unpredict Your Wednesday—a mini vacation smack dab in the middle of the workweek. I had always seen these adventures on social media, but this time they were driving up to Mt. Wilson and riding a few miles downhill to the Mt. Lowe Trail Camp, which is essentially in my backyard. I only live a few miles from the trailhead, so I had no excuse not to join. Instead of driving to the top and riding down, however, I elected to ride the 4,000 feet up to camp from my house. A truly car-free bikepacking adventure. 100% human-powered, door to door.
I loaded my bar bag with a sleeping pad, sleeping bag, tarp, folding chair, and a few extra layers (it was February, after all). My oversized saddle bag carried a jetboil, fuel, aeropress, coffee grinder, a pack of instant rice, and a foil pouch of smoked salmon. I strapped water bottles to the forks then proceeded to cram as many beers as I could possibly fit into the remaining pockets of space. I figured hey, it’s one night. This trip is about comfort, not efficiency.
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I had ridden up the Mt. Lowe Railway grade before, but never with a fully loaded bike, and I could have sworn the trail had somehow gotten steeper since the last time I rode up it. I was pretty quickly huffing along in granny gear, but a warm tailwind gave me the extra motivation I needed to continue climbing. The glowing orange sunset to the west faded into twilight as the sky darkened to a deep indigo. Venus, Saturn, and Jupiter gleamed brightly in the darkening sky and the city lights spread out below me as I climbed higher into the mountains.
Los Angeles gets a bad rap for being a concrete sprawl of cars, traffic, and pollution, but as far as I’m concerned LA is as much a mountain town as Boulder or Seattle. As the sagebrush and gnarled oaks gave way to jeffrey pines and douglas firs, I could have been a hundred miles from town. In reality, I was about six miles from my front door.
Mt. Lowe Trail Camp sits just off the main trail up to Inspiration Point. I’d passed it half a dozen times but never taken the hundred yard detour to check it out. My loss. A grove of oak trees skirts the edges of camp, breaking in the middle to reveal a silver crescent moon hanging over the mountain. I rolled into camp around 8:00 and immediately cracked open a beer to reward the long climb up there. We had better drink all these, I thought, cause there’s no way I’m carrying the extra weight back down the mountain. An instant rice packet topped with smoked salmon makes a pretty great backcountry paella, if I do say so myself. I ate by moonlight and waited for the rest of the group to arrive.
I heard the bikes rolling down from Mt. Wilson long before anyone arrived into camp. Just as I finished eating, four others pulled into camp and wasted no time lighting a fire, setting up tents, and helping make a dent in the beers I’d hauled up from town.
There’s something about a campground that accelerates friendships. These guys who were strangers just a few hours before immediately became companions. We grilled up some steak and heated rice and beans over the fire for some backcountry burritos (my second dinner) and stayed up well into the night swapping stories. Eventually, we tired out and crawled into sleeping bags. It was crazy to think just a few hours earlier I had been sitting at home debating whether or not to come on the trip.
It’s amazing how quickly our bodies adapt to the rhythm of the natural world around us if we let them. Exposure to the natural cycle of light and darkness without the interference of artificial lighting and screens has a quick effect on our circadian rhythm. Doing something as simple as removing yourself from your house (and, thereby, distracting lights) for a night can reset your sleep cycle. Add in the strain of riding a fully packed bike up a 4,000 foot climb beforehand and you have a recipe for some of the best sleep there is. I don’t know the science behind it, but I’d be willing to bet that firelight doesn’t count as “artificial” either.
The next morning we made coffee by the fire, leisurely packed up camp, and rode back up to Mt. Wilson where the Topanga Creek crew and I parted ways. I rode back to town and was back home by 10am. Just over fifteen hours, and never more than a dozen miles from my front yard.
I love multi-day, hundreds-of-mile long expeditions just as much as anyone, but sometimes I lose sight of how memorable the simple ones are. The ones where you can afford to overpack the beer, eat two dinners, make a few new friends, and be back home in time to clock in for work the next morning. Even in a sprawling metropolis like Los Angeles, I’m amazed at how accessible getting out for a night of bikepacking is. The only question I’m left asking myself is why I don’t do it more often.