In the summer of 2016 I planned an over the top bicycle camping trip for my family. I had arranged for a friend to transport the three of us, Renee my wife, Trinity my then 9-year-old, myself, and all our gear to Santa Cruz. We had planned to ride down Highway 1 hugging the coast through Monterey, Carmel, Big Sur, San Simeon, and finish in San Luis Obispo. I had arranged campsites, hotels, a tour of Hearst Castle, and a train ride home to the bay area. It was to be an amazing journey that would tighten family bonds, fill us with accomplishment, as well as fulfill my sense of adventure!
I had all the gear we needed including a customized tandem for my daughter and myself, and a relatively new bike for my wife. I planned for us to ride a modest 25 to 40 miles a day. I had gathered panniers (bike packs that hang from bike racks front and rear), sleeping bags, tents, camp stove, and all the other items needed for a successful bicycle tour.
I also keep a close eye on the weather but will little concern. Weather on coastal California is pretty predictable. Foggy mornings turning to sunny afternoons with rain being a rarity and tail winds being anticipated. We were also prepared for weather changes if necessary. I will pretty much ride in any weather condition. Rain, unless extremely heavy, is tolerable. We have rain gear. Heat can be hard for some, but I thrive in hot weather. You can increase your fluid consumption and decrease your clothing layers. Cold weather means adding a layer or two and increasing your activity to provide some of your own heat. I thought I was prepared for anything nature was going to throw our way.
Then an unattended illegal camp fire in Garrapata State park sparked one of Big Sur’s most devastating wild fires. The deadly Soberanes fire burned 57 homes and burned over 132 thousand acres. Hwy 1 was impassable, and the area was chocked with smoke. A bulldozer operator helping to contain the fire was tragically killed.
All my plans were literally up in smoke. Most weather I could face, but highway closures and smoke-filled skies put a sad end to my plans. My time off work had been long before arranged so I decided to make a quick shift. I considered plane rides or train rides to beautiful destinations but these ideas all had a high price tag. The option that we came up with was a spectacular tour of our home county of Sonoma. A tour in our backyard so to speak.
We live in Sebastopol, so it was there that we began. Out our driveway and a short ride put us on the Joe Rodota bike trail. The adventure had begun. We spent the next five days circumnavigating our lovely county.
We started by heading to, of all places, Santa Rosa. Our first leg was a short 15 miles to Spring Lake County Park. The Spring Lake Campground is an oasis of oaks and hills nestled inside the city limits, and bordering Annandale State park. My friend who had planned on driving us to Santa Cruz ended up joining us with his wife and two daughters. The Perseid meteor shower was also at its peak so our first night was spent lying on blankets with friends watching the heavens and seeing our fair share of falling stars. Had we stuck to the coast we probably wouldn’t have had this opportunity. This was an auspicious beginning to our backyard tour.
From Santa Rosa we made our way via backroads and byways to the Russian river. We stopped at Burkes Canoes for a two-night stay. I had never taken a canoe down the Russian river, so we gave up a day of pedaling to paddle, and meander down the river. It was a delight.
After two nights and a day of river retreat it was time to make our way to the coast. We followed the Russian river to where Highway 1 crosses it just before Jenner. We then went back up the rivers opposite bank to Willow Creek Environmental Campground. Willow Creek is part of the Sonoma Coast State Park’s many sites. It has primitive sites with picnic tables, and fire rings, and not much else. No water, but there are pit toilets a short hike away. The sites are all located on the south shore of the Russian river and at this point in the river’s journey to the sea it is wide and slow. It is remote and often empty. We again decided to stay an extra day and enjoyed time by the river as well as day hikes. We also decided to have a meal at the Russian House. The Russian House on Highway 1 just south of Jenner and at the south side of the bridge that spans the Russian river at its widest point, is one of the most unique and delightful places you could find. There are no prices and no menu. They have bowls and plates of traditional and untraditional Russian food. At the end of an “all you care to eat” meal you simply pay what you want. Vegetarian options are available, and your hosts are happy go lucky Russian Buddhists. If you are having trouble getting your mind around all this, you are not alone. Did I mention the View? From their deck you look north at a wide expanse of the Russian river. Beautiful green hillsides with Pine and Oak and Bay surround. Birds in the air and on the shore as well. We were treated to a pair of fox cubs that were playfully enjoying the deck as well. This is a do not miss spot for any traveler in our county.
After Willow Creek we began our final day home. We worked our way down the coast to Bodega Bay. This section of Highway 1 is one of the most spectacular, with natural arches over the sea, rugged cliffs, and sand blown beaches. In Bodega Bay we stopped for a meal and enjoyed looking at the bay, teaming with fishing boats and day trippers. The fog lifted in the early morning and a mild tail wind helped propel us towards home. We turned in on Bodega Road, then turned in again towards Freestone. The Wildflour bakery (a favorite spot for many) was unfortunately closed, but we stopped in for tea at the Osmosis Spa in Freestone. We also took some time to enjoy their gardens and meditation pond.
After the spa we had our two most challenging climbs of the ride. First from Freestone to Occidental, and then From Occidental to Graton. There the roads are lined with redwoods and small creeks. We really had to give it our all to get home.
After all was said and done we had accomplished our two major goals. We had gone on an amazing adventure, and we didn’t have to go far to do it. We also created wonderful family memories with our backyard as the backdrop. We learned much more about the place we lived. We saw geographic features, rivers, mountains, and lakes. We saw birds of the land and sea. We saw deer, and fox, and squirrel. We saw falling stars and the milky way. We cooked outside, hiked, pedaled, paddled, and swam. We never had a forty-mile day and I’m grateful for that. My initial plan was probably more than my family could have enjoyed. Instead we let serendipity and spontaneity lead the way. There are so many places in Sonoma that I will never look at in the same way. It was the best stray-cation ever (a stray-cation is like a staycation but you don’t stray too far)!
Brettt Roncelli (yes Brettt with three t’s) is the owner operator of Bicycle Journeys at 21 Bloomfield Road Sebastopol, CA. A bicycle rental repair and touring business. He has bicycled around the globe. He is a certified naturalist and registered nurse and a pretty good wrench to boot.