In 1989 the Bay Area Ridge Trail Council dedicated the first segment of trail to start the Bay Area Ridge Trail. Eighteen years later the council has linked together 360 miles of multi-use trail around the San Francisco Bay Area. Don Nolan of Santa Rosa, CA is currently riding to circumnavigate the grand Bay Area on the Ridge Trail. I met up with Don at the end of his fourth day of riding at Rob Hill Campground in the Presidio of San Francisco.BARTMap
Is this your first bikepacking trip?
I’ve done a lot of two, three, four-day trips, but nothing to this extent; ten days. I’ve done a lot of bike touring, where we were on roads. I did a lot of that when I was younger, cause that was the thing to do. I came out here in 1987 to ride a mountain bike. I’ve ridden all over the Bay Area. Really enjoyed riding, and this bikepacking thing started to become a big deal. I wanted to do the Tour Divide and my wife said, “Why don’t you do something a little closer for your first time, just in case.”
I thought about it and I look at the blue markers (the Bay Area Ridge Trail is marked by blue markers) around the Bay Area when I’m riding around and I wondered if anyone has ever done this. You know, it’s right here. I put a little research into it. There’s been some people that have thru hiked it. Most people have used shuttles or public transportation to get from section to section. The Bay Area Ridge Trail is constantly expanding so maybe you rode it in 1985 but it’s another 80 miles now. And every year it’ll be a little different.
It’s a tough one. 550 miles (total riding) 68,000 feet; that’s the same as the Colorado Trail. There’s already been some tough days. I’m not doing a bikepacking race pace. I’m doing a touring pace. I do about 50 miles 5000 – 6000 ft a day.
The other (difficult) parts are where am I going to stop? It’s not like the Tour Divide where it’s Bureau of Land Management land or National Forest where you can camp on the side of the road or wherever you want. This is the Bay Area, so I have to pick and choose where I can stay.
What is the terrain like?
I’ve done probably 1/3 singletrack. The rest is gravel or fire road. The fire roads we ride are typically not your well-graded fire roads. With all the rain we’ve had there are a lot of ruts and it’s pretty rocky. My second day I went down Sonoma Mountain and that’s all singletrack. Beautiful, beautiful trail, but man was it muddy with a lot of down trees. That was hard.
What bike are you riding?
REI donated this bike for my ride. It’s a CO-OP bike. It’s their 27.5 plus ride but I put 29er wheels on it. It is more of a trail/tour bike with mounts for racks. I put a rack on instead of a bag so I could do a dropper post, I’m big on dropper posts. It helps when it’s steep and technical, which there is plenty of on this trip. I’m looking forward to the South Bay. I’ve heard a lot of good things about Russian Ridge, Saratoga Gap and Sanborn Park. Those are some pretty nice places to ride.
Some big riding…
That’s what they say. Keep trying to scare me away from it. My first day in the North Bay might have been one of the hardest. Going up Hood MT there’s some steep grades, up to 34%. Going up Bald is 19% – 26%. There is a lot of hike-a-bike but that’s what it is, that’s what bikepacking is. If it were all easy it would be touring.
Sounds like a pretty intense choice for your first trip. Tell us about your preparation.
Yeah, but I trained a lot for it. The good part is I spent a lot of time on the Ridge Trail while training so I was familiar with the terrain. I already knew what I was getting into. I’d ride sections or do a two or three day trip to get prepared for it. I knew it would be seven days a week training with hardcore intervals and all that. With all the rain it was tough, I was afraid I’d have to push the ride back, but we have a nice window here.
You’ve been meeting up with people along the way?
That’s been the best part. It’s the pleasure I didn’t anticipate. My first day I rode alone, but the second day one of my pals from my bike club rode a good section with me. It really helped me on that last hill, cause I was thinking… “Do I have to do this?” It’s an out and back, which is even harder. If it’s a thru route it’s like, ‘this is nothing’. When it’s an out and back you have a penchant to say “Is anyone going to know?” [laughs] No, but I track all my rides.
I met another rider the third day from the Marin Bicycle Coalition, Tom Boss. He rode a good section with me. Of course I rode with Ridge to Bridge a local group ride today. There was a good group today, Sean McKenna from Silicon Valley Mountain Bikers and Nick Birth from San Francisco Urban Riders. We stayed in a nice tight little group together. It was like any normal group ride. Push on wait for a second. Push on, wait a sec. But it’s a super inspiration. It’s good to be with other riders and talk bikes and trails and trail building. These are the people making it happen. They’re not just average riders. They’re people getting involved. And that’s what my ride is all about. It’s not really all about me going out for a ride. It’s me representing the Bay Area Ridge Trail and saying to people, “what it takes to be able to complete this thing is people need to get together, join groups, be a voice, go to these small town meetings, county meetings, open space meetings. Be a part of this group, be a bigger voice. This is how we can make it happen. This is how we can make new trails open up, new easements open up. This is how we can complete this trail.”
Are you talking with anyone on the Bay Area Ridge Trail Council?
The first phone call that I made after I decided I was going to do this was the council. I had told my wife and friends I was going to do this and then called the Bay Area Ridge Trail council and said “I’m going to ride this ride and I need help navigation-wise. Which trails are multi-use, which are not? What roads are better to ride on than others?” They took all their representatives from the Bay Area; East Bay, Austin McInerny; South Bay, Sean McKenna; Marin, Tom Boss. Each one of these people helped me make the map. Some of them asked ‘Why’d you go that way. You should go this way?’ Some of them told me to go this way, it’s easier” and I said “But that’s not the Ridge Trail.’ It might be suffering, but it’s the Ridge Trail.
Anything else you’d like to add?
This ride is all about the representation of the trail. Uniting a community, getting people to be more aware that they can help as individuals and that’s the big lesson I learned. I joined a bike coalition; I’m a member of the Redwood Empire Mountain Bike Alliance, that is a whole group of mountain bike groups. Their leaders come together and help advocate, so when they need some voice they can go to all their members and say “Hey we need to go this council meeting and we need to talk”or “we need to write a letter to this congressman,” or “we need everyone to get involved in this and that’s how we’re going to make the change.”
You’re hopeful that this Bay Area Ridge Trail will expand until it’s a complete loop?
Yeah, we’ll just keep working on it. These are strange times right now. Who knows what’s going to happen to open space. I think in California, this is our lifestyle and this is how we live. We enjoy these places and this is what we’re about. The people that live here are going to get involved. We have what they call a green belt here around the Bay Area. And that’s exactly what it is. We have open space all the way around the whole Bay Area and the Ridge Trail is just connecting those open spaces. This trail exists through planning and people getting involved and saying “how hard is it to get an easement? How much damage can these people do?” I rode through cow fields today. I closed the gates. I wasn’t a hooligan. I wasn’t tearing the property up. I wasn’t doing anything I wasn’t supposed to be doing. I just passed through your land and appreciated it.
There’s so many groups of people too. When I look at it right from the trailhead to a mile away you have a lot of hikers, dog walkers, and trail runners. So many people are using these trails who will soon realize, if they haven’t already, that taking away these trails and developing the land will take away their natural space to recreate.