Renowned self-supported endurance ride through SoCal mountains, desert, and ocean is true test of grit
By Cedar Kyes
The Stagecoach 400 start in Idyllwild on March 17, 2017 was as informal as I had hoped it would be. But, I soon realized this was the beginning of something way bigger than I had ever imagined. While many people treat this event as a race or ITT (Individual Time Trial), I was treating it more like a long bike ride with some good friends. So, I was content to watch the crowd gather and then cheer them on as they departed in a kind of bikepacking critical mass that rolled out of town and down the highway towards the first long climb of the route. Having embarked on this journey with literally zero training, I was in no hurry to get the suffering started. I instinctively knew I needed to ease into this thing if I wanted to have any chance of actually finishing the ride.
After the initial warm-up, I was starting to find my pace and get comfortable on the bike. Having just built this fresh Advocate Cycles Hayduke with 29″ wheels, which I had never ridden before, there was a slight learning curve for me. After the first long descent, I was feeling comfortable enough to let these wagon wheels roll to their full potential. The decision to build this bike as a 29er would definitely pay off over the course of the ride. The Terrene Tires Chunk 29×2.3″ tires also proved to be the perfect choice. They rolled fast where I needed and gripped when I needed it the most.
After a long morning of getting settled into the saddle and coming to terms with the immense undertaking that I had just embarked upon, I finally met up with my crew again. Brendan (Hub Cyclery) had a mechanical malfunction right at the start of the ride which set him back a little bit. That delay gave me the head start I needed to get my legs and lungs working well enough to try and keep up with him for a few days. These guys caught up to me just in time to pull me along towards Sunshine Market with the promise of cold beer and sandwiches. I was happy to see them and even more happy to crack open that beer. This would be the fuel I needed to keep on the wheels of this steady-paced crew for the rest of the day and into the night. We would ultimately end up pushing on into the late night hours and pitching camp in a cow pasture somewhere deep in the SoCal Countryside. It was a solid slumber that seemed to be interrupted WAY too early.
Day 2 was a rough start for me. Waking up before the sun is not part of my normal daily routine. Thankfully, a few miles down the road, the crew had mercy on me and we stopped here at this old abandoned country store to soak up the morning vibes and ease into our day.
All of a sudden, the genius of my morning coffee ritual became clear to the crew. I brewed a few cups of joe and distributed with egalitarian generosity. I got the impression that most of the Stagecoachers don’t bother with a stove or coffee on this route. I’m not sure what would possess anyone to embark upon such a journey without it! It made this particular morning more enjoyable for all.
Dropping into Black Canyon after our snack/coffee stop was such an awesome experience. The super-green countryside funneled into the canyon and sent us spiraling down into a lush gorge filled with wildflowers and water flowing through huge boulders in the creek beside us. With all the rain that California received over the winter, there were tons of water crossings and streams where people had rarely seen water flowing before.
The fun would come to a screeching halt for me just before this spot. After making a ridiculous navigation error and succumbing to a serious lapse of reason, I was left hopelessly chasing the crew for the rest of the day. It was this incident that brought some issues to light for me.
Rule Number 1 of Endurance Bikepacking: Bring Electrolytes!!!
Rule Number 2 of Endurance Bikepacking: Always Forward – Never Backward!!!
After losing a couple of hours to a physical breakdown, I finally crawled out from under the bushes where I had lost consciousness trying to rehydrate myself in the shade. I’m pretty sure my body shut itself down in some sort of physiological self-preservation fit of revolt. I’m not really sure how long I was out for but I eventually came to the realization that it was a bit cooler and there was more shade to be found now. I pulled myself together and pushed on. Later, I would find texts from Brendan that kept me motivated to catch up to the crew again. “You’re not that far back,” and “We’re at Pizza Port in Ocean Beach,” were the words that kept me going. Thoughts of cold beer and warm pizza were coursing through my numbed mind. Onward I charged towards the ocean.
I came to a water crossing where I had to stop and consult the navigation app. Indeed, I was supposed to cross this water and climb up the steep hill on the other side. Ok. Got it. There was a woman on horseback standing in the stream while the horse was taking a drink. I waited patiently for them to clear the crossing. I must’ve looked like I had just died because this woman was genuinely concerned about my well being. She asked where I was going. “To the beach,” is all I could muster. She asked if I lived there or had a car waiting there. “No, neither of those,” is what made it out of my mouth. She proceeded to question me about what I was doing there. I was able to articulate the basics about riding from Idyllwild to San Diego and back to Idyllwild and that I was trying to catch up to my friends who were already in San Diego. She offered me a ride to meet back up with them. She said she would drop me off a few blocks away so nobody would ever know. I was tempted but I told her that I had to do this on my own steam. She then offered to say a prayer for me. I gladly accepted. I then thanked her and jokingly said, “I hope that helps me climb up this steep hill ahead.” I think it did help and a couple hours later I made it to this amazing ocean view.
Just as the sun was setting on the second day of the Stagecoach 400 I made it to Torrey Pines State Park. Even though I was in a bit of a hurry to catch up with my crew, I stopped for a moment to soak it all in. This was in itself a huge accomplishment for me by any means! I had just ridden from way up in the mountains of Idyllwild all the way down to the Pacific Ocean – in two days.
Now, to catch up with the gang and get some pizza and beer!
It didn’t work out quite as planned, but it did work out just right. It was getting late and the crew had left the pizza place for a friend’s house to stay the night somewhere in San Diego. Miraculously, we merged into one another on the bike path and rode through town together. They brought me a few slices of pizza and someone ran to the corner store for beer. It was a welcome pit stop after a long and difficult day in the saddle.
Breakfast Burritos in Barrio Logan! After getting shut down at every spot we tried to get breakfast along the way through San Diego, we finally landed here at Rolando’s Taco Shop. This would be the fuel I needed to keep the chase going again for day 3. As we rolled out of town and through the suburban edges of Southern San Diego, I spotted a Performance Bicycle store that looked like it was just opening up for the day. Even though the register was not open yet, the kind folks allowed me to purchase a heaping pile of hydration supplements. Definitely a pivotal moment.
Day 3 of the Stagecoach 400 would prove to be the most challenging day of the entire ride. I fell off the back on every climb and started to feel bad that the gang was constantly waiting for me. After the last re-group at a gas station in Alpine, I gave it my best effort to keep them in sight but it was futile. I was not on the same pace and it was time to face that reality.
This is the spot where I had the realization that I needed to fall back and ride my own ride if I wanted to finish at all. It was not a pretty moment for me. At least not until I finally got out of my head, listened to my body, and looked up at the beauty all around me.
I watched the sun set and felt it cool down considerably. I remembered that I had great lights and lots of battery power left. I decided that I needed to ride more in the evening hours when it wasn’t so hot. This was a critical epiphany for me. Saved by lights, I continued the relentless climb into the darkening night.
I will also add that at this point I was now in possession of the cue cards. One of our crew bailed out in Alpine and left me with his cards. These are little cues and details about distances and re-supply points. I had been foolish and started the ride without printing them out. Side Note: If you are ever presented with the option to obtain cues for a long bikepacking route, DO IT!!!
As I read through my newly acquired cues, I coached myself through the next few miles of the route. I learned that there was a restaurant and country store on the other side of this seemingly endless climb. That gave me inspiration to push on. I made it up and over that mountain and on to the restaurant but it had just closed. Luckily, the store was still open so I grabbed a cold beer and a bag of chips. I found a nice little spot in the middle of a grassy field and I sat there under the stars, sipping my beer and savoring each and every salty chip.
I was uncertain about the next move. The cards alluded to the notion that there was another store at a campground a few miles further along the route. “She makes great burritos for the Stagecoach riders,” it said. That was the motivation I needed to push on into the late night hours. It was a sluggish uphill push on muddy trail but at least I wasn’t on the highway and the night was cool and calm. I was also dreaming about that burrito.
When I rolled into the campground I was so stoked. I found a sweet spot to throw down my sleeping bag and the nearby stream serenaded me to sleep. I slept like a baby all night and well into the morning. I took my time packing up and wandered over to the store. It was closed.
This was my breakfast of disappointment. Not the delicious burrito of my dreams. Not even another bag of chips. Nothing. As it turns out, most of the stores on the rest of the route are closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. That was NOT on the cue cards. Oh well. I was able to refill all of my water and I had my magic hydration potions so I was all good … right!?!
Day 4 was another challenge for sure. During the relentless climb up and over Mt. Laguna, there was little to no shade and the temperature was rising by the minute. Thankfully, the trails were pretty awesome and the views were amazing. I took my time and listened to my body. Seeking refuge in every bit of shade that I encountered and being mindful of my hydration and nutrition, I chugged along all day. I was enjoying myself again. Even though it was slow going, I was happy to be making forward progress and I knew that this mountain had a summit … somewhere up there. I did not see or hear a single soul for the entirety of this climb. It was surreal how much solitude this stretch provided and I was loving it! Finally, I had gotten out of Babylon and into the Backcountry. This is what I truly enjoy and appreciate about bikepacking.
As I reached the summit of Mt. Laguna and popped out onto the highway, I was blasted away by this amazing view. I could see the Salton Sea way off in the distance and the snowy Tahquitz Peak/Mt. San Jacinto way back up in the mountains where I had started this ride. When I dropped in on the trail that parallels the highway for most of this stretch, I forgot all about the long day of climbing and just cruised sweet singletrack for what seemed like an eternity. In fact, it was so good that I missed my turn and continued on that trail for quite a while before I realized that I should be pointed in the opposite direction for my descent into the desert. Oh well. It was worth it.
I consulted the cards again and learned that I was hot on track to make it to the next store. This would be a critical re-supply before heading off into the most deserty section of the desert. I was determined to make it to that store before they closed at 6.
My powers of deduction led me to believe that it would be a serious downhill into the desert. I was not wrong. I let it all out and smoked the heck out of Oriflamme Canyon! I’m not sure many people have gone that fast on a fully loaded bikepacking rig. I smashed through rocks and drifted into corners like a world cup downhill track. In retrospect, it was downright foolish.
The shreddy downhill gave way to a sluggish sandtrap and my roll was slowed tremendously. I did not stop though. I somehow managed to keep afloat in the sand and rolled it all the way out to the pavement where I put the hammer down and made it to the store with minutes to spare. It was closed. Spring Hours: Closed Monday AND Tuesday. That was not on the cue cards either.
Welcome to my Desert Oasis! While it was indeed true that the store was closed (and would be closed the next day as well), I did find what I needed to continue on my journey.
There was a sign on the door that said to track down Doug for after hours registration. I wandered over and knocked on the door. Nothing. As I was walking back towards my bike and kicking rocks, I saw a guy headed in the same general direction and I called out “Hey there, are you Doug?” “No, Doug is off today,” said the man. “It bums me out when he closes the store.”
Meet my new friend Alber, the ranch hand at Butterfield. Thankfully for me, he just happened to be right there at that exact moment. He said he would try to get the keys from Doug and open the store for me in the morning. Perfect! He also said he would bring me some fruit. Amazing!
As I sat there in front of the closed store, I was optimistic that this would all turn out ok. Here comes Alber with an apple, banana, and orange and his two young daughters running along beside him. They had each made me a sandwich and wanted to bring them to me personally. It was truly amazing.
He told me about the cabins and the pool and the hot shower. It was indeed a desert oasis. That night I had a shower and slept indoors in a bunk bed. It was a good thing because the wind had kicked up and was howling across the desert floor all night long. As I was cozy inside my little cabin eating homemade sandwiches, I couldn’t help but think about the prayer that I had been granted earlier in the ride. However you want to look at it, The Universe was definitely shining down on me.
In the morning I made coffee by the poolside. The wind had calmed down and it was perfect. By some other stroke of luck, I ran into Alber at the store just before he took off on his work day. He let me in and I went on a shopping spree. I got what I thought I needed to carry me through the next stretch. I was good to go.
Day 5 – Welcome to the Desert. These massive ocotillos were like gateway guardians to the Anza-Borrego Desert and they were in full bloom as I passed through. I gave a nod of respect to each and every one of them on my passage. They seemed to return the gesture as they provided me with little bits of shade where otherwise there was none to be found.
Dropping into Diablo Drop and down through Mud Caves and Wind Caves was impressive and a little bit spooky. This is definitely where the Sand People live. I did not linger long in these parts.
Back onto the pavement, I was not very happy to see this sight. With minimal shade and nothing but an endless row of power lines stretching off to the horizon, it was best not to think about it too much. I put my head down and focused on the cadence. Boring! It wasn’t until I got to the store that I even looked up. Of course, it was closed. Thankfully, the bar across the street was open. I bellied up to the bar and asked for a cold beer. It was the most delicious domestic beer I have ever tasted!
This is where I ran into a fellow Stagecoacher who had also wandered off on a solo mission. We shared some stories and helped each other feel not-so-out-of-place in this strange desert watering hole. As I walked outside to check on my bike, I noticed that a distinct change in the weather had occurred. Then came the chatter from the locals about rain coming and that we were screwed.
I slammed my beer, settled up, and saddled up. There was a strong and sustained headwind for the next 20 miles or so as we struggled our way towards Borrego Springs. We rolled into town just after dark and hit up the Taco Shop for some much needed and well deserved nourishment. Then we headed out of town to find a spot to hunker down for the night.
This is where I woke up on Day 6, the final day for me on the Stagecoach 400. I had known about the sculpture gardens around Borrego Springs and I wanted to see them in the daylight so I steered us to this spot just outside of town. It was one of the best nights of sleep on the whole trip as we were out of the wind, the temperature was perfect, and the sky was booming with stars.
These enormous sculptures are scattered everywhere around town. This is one of my favorites. I made a quick stop to say hello and then we were off on our journey up into Coyote Canyon.
The wildflowers were out in full force and it was hard not to stop and take a million pictures. I snapped this one on the go and we pushed onward.
It wasn’t just the ocotillos and the wildflowers that were showing their colors. The cactus blooms were equally impressive. This is also where the sand starts. Welcome to the desert wash known as Coyote Canyon. Basically, it’s a big sandbox!
Making it to Bailey’s Cabin was a milestone for me. I had ridden this stretch once before but we were coming down the canyon and it was all downhill that time. I remembered the “Willows” section of Coyote Canyon and I was a bit nervous about getting through there. The last time I passed through it was so overgrown that it felt like we were trudging through the jungle. Thankfully, it was cut way back and our passage through was much easier on this trip. That did not help the fact that we were headed uphill through the canyon though. It was so sandy that I had to walk for long stretches. We stopped here at the cabin to dry out our shoes and socks before trudging further on into the sandbox.
Finally reaching the road at the entrance to Coyote Canyon was a great feeling. Despite the fact that I knew I was in store for a really long climb, it was good to be standing on solid ground again. The climb was every bit as long and strenuous as I had imagined it would be. At least the views were nice and I now had a gauge of exactly how far I needed to go to get back to Idyllwild. I pushed onward with a great sense of accomplishment that I had already come this far. It was a nice way to finish the ride and I was all smiles all the way home.
It was only fitting that I finished the Stagecoach 400 at night since I had ridden so much of it in the late night hours. Thankfully, I had the best lighting system you could ask for. The Lupine lights system worked flawlessly for six days and six nights of riding and camping while also keeping my phone and my camera charged the entire time. In fact, I had plenty of charge left in both batteries and I never once used my spare. Given the amount of nightriding on this ride and the fact that I kept Strava running on my phone the entire time, I’d say that’s pretty good!
Getting back to Idyllwild just hours before a snow storm hit was pretty awesome too. I had seen the system moving in and I cranked up the pace on the final day so that I might beat the storm. I pushed hard from Borrego Springs all the way into Idyllwild and made it in time to get a cold beer and some warm stew at Idyllwild Brewery. A huge thanks to them for finding me some hot food even though the kitchen was closed. Another huge thanks to Marlin and Dawne for the hot shower and cozy bed to crash in. What a wonderful way to finish such an incredible journey.
Gratitude to Brendan of Idyllwild’s Hub Cyclery for putting together such an amazing bikepacking route through some of the most remote and untouched places in Southern California. It’s definitely the best way to experience the diversity that SoCal has to offer. Thanks for pulling me along as far as you did. I don’t think I would’ve made it without your support and encouragement.
I also couldn’t have done it without the support of my awesome girlfriend who was holding down the fort and taking care of our dog while I was gone.
I look forward to doing this ride again. I pushed myself beyond my comfort zone and I tested every bit of strength that I could muster. It was by far one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.
Until next time …
Cedar Kyes, originally from Portland, OR, currently splits his time between the San Francisco Bay Area and Bellingham, WA. He spends most of the summer living and working out of his van, and most of the winter chasing powder and traveling south of the border. Cedar is always looking for a new adventure and is living the life he always dreamed of.