6 Days in Southern California

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thenorthwind
Posts: 550
Joined: Thu Mar 10, 2016 6:07 pm
Location: Newcastle

6 Days in Southern California

Post by thenorthwind » Thu Jul 11, 2019 11:36 am

I had to be in San Diego in May for a conference and have an understanding employer, so got myself a week to ride through southern California. I keep thinking about changing jobs, but then things like this happen :roll:

I thought I'd write up some notes to go with my photos, and I seem to have turned my 6-day holiday into War and Peace, but it's written now, so here you go...

The weather in San Diego hadn't been entirely what you'd expect from southern California - a few sunny days, but a lot of cloud and rain. Apparently they call it "May grey" (they don't put that in the tourist brochure), but this was worse than usual. I wasn't too bothered in terms of riding, since I was more worried about it being too hot in the desert and having to carry a lot of water.

The plan was to start riding from San Bernardino and climb up into the mountains, but I managed to get a lift with a friend who was taking our hire car up to LA, meeting her boyfriend, picking up a rented campervan, and heading out in the same direction as me. Given timings, it made sense to hitch a lift with them up to the Big Bear Lake area - cheating myself out of 50 miles with 12,000ft of ascent :shock: :oops:

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Planned route (in blue)

We arrived at a National Forest campsite late and tired from travelling, and I put up my Lunar Solo (used in anger once previously), knowing it wasn't the best pitch, but that it was dry and relatively still so shouldn't be a problem.

Sunday - 61 miles, 4,500ft

It rained during the night and I woke up with the tent considerably closer to my face than it had been previously. It was only when I poked it that I realised it was the weight of the thin covering of wet snow on it. We were at 6,500ft.

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Full of trepidation about the trip ahead, and having had possibly the worst week's preparation imaginable (lots of eating, drinking and socialising, little sleep due to jet lag/general excitement/anxiety, no exercise except a couple of 4am gym sessions when I couldn't sleep) I was anxious to get riding. But I'd agreed to have a last breakfast with my friends, and by the time we'd found somewhere, eaten, said goodbyes, and they'd left me at a gas station to fumble incompetently with my rear-facing dropouts, it was gone 12. By this time it was sunny and had warmed up.

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There was several thousand feet of elevation to lose down to Joshua Tree town, so while there was some climbing, a lot was downhill. Which was handy, because a stiff headwind was building. The route over to Joshua Tree was on doubletrack mainly used by 4x4s, which still gave some interesting riding whilst not being too slow and sandy. However, the tarmac began sooner than I was expecting, and was a bit of a drag, especially once I was down into the desert where it was quite hot (who'd have thought?).

ImageThe sheer scale of the landscapes took a bit of getting used to

I arrived in Joshua Tree town mid-afternoon, and lunch was top of the agenda. I gravitate towards dirty food - burgers, pies, chips, etc. - when bikepacking, but having been eating in America for a week, I ended up in an organic cafe eating an avocado and houmous sandwich.. I resupplied, strapping an extra 1.5l of water to my fork, in addition to my 2l bladder and 800ml bottle. I picked up a message from my friends telling me which campsite they were aiming for - the plan was to meet up again, though it seemed unlikely to happen.

About 5 I started the long steady road climb into the National Park. A ranger had told me at the visitor centre that if there were no staff at the entrance, I could get in free and pay on the way out - I didn't tell them I would be leaving out the back door on a dirt road. With the climbing, the extra weight, the headwind (still going strong), I felt slow and tired, and it starts to get dark about 7:30 so I was pretty glad to finally arrive at the campsite and find my friends there, if only for the morale boost. However, the weather wasn't very sociable - they were sheltering from the wind in their camper (a people carrier with a bed in it) so I got the tent up (much more successfully this time) as quickly as I could before dark, in the minimal shelter of some bushes, and turned in.

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Obligatory Joshua Tree bike-lean

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Monday - 62 miles, 6,100ft

The morning was bright and a little less windy. A quick coffee and snack breakfast. Alex gave me a handful of jelly sweets which I put in a bag for emergencies and ended up carrying the whole way back to San Diego. We did goodbyes again and I left for good this time, pedalling along the road, and then dirt road over a ridge and out of the western edge of the park down a long rough winding canyon. At the bottom I crossed the San Andreas fault out into the wide, flat desert of the Coachella valley.

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Glad I brought the plus bike.

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Americans have some weird hobbies, including shooting inanimate objects and writing on rocks

It was much hotter on the valley floor, which is around sea level, and riding back into an urban environment was a bit jarring. I found a water fountain in a park, but had to slog out the 15 miles or so on the road to Indian Wells on the western side of the valley before I found somewhere to eat. My plan had been to have a long rest in the hot middle part of the day, charge devices, contact home, resupply, etc. though it was 1.30 before I stopped.

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Yes, this bike lane is also a golf cart lane

After nachos and a burrito, I stocked up at a supermarket, increasing my water carry to about 6l - all of which I used in the following 24 hours before I could resupply - and had a coffee for a final rest before starting the climb out of the valley. The first few miles was on road, and not steep, but tiring with the heat and weight. I was really happy to get to the head of the trail, even though it immediately began climbing steeply. I always favour a technical climb over a steady slog anyway.

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As it cooled down, it turned into a great afternoon and evening - proper sierra feel, twisty, rocky singletrack, spectacular views back across the valley. The miles were hard won but I had plenty of time. I arrived at the top of the trail - where it joins Dunn Road, a wider, more graded track, and tomorrow morning's objective - just before sunset. I was also just in time to chat to a local rider coming down one of the other trails on a trail bike. I longed to turn around and hoon back down the way I'd come up, but this route was mainly about gaining height and avoiding the road for me. The guy told me he'd met a pack of coyotes nearby recently. Usually this would unnerve me, but the evening was so peaceful that I only felt relaxed. I still put all my food in a drybag about 50 yards away, however.

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Looking back down over the Coachella valley from Dunn Road

I backtracked a little, away from the wider track, and in the lee of the ridge (although the wind had completely dropped), with a view of the valley. I found the flattest piece of ground I could. I was glad I'd brought my bivvy bag as there was nowhere big enough for a tent, and it was a perfect night to sleep out. In the end I only pulled my bivvy over my sleeping bag when the early morning chill arrived.

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Tuesday - 58 miles, 8,300ft

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Up at 6 after watching the morning light slowly illuminate the valley and surrounding hills. While having a coffee and some snacks for breakfast, I was startled by a sudden loud buzzing in the still air behind me, and turned to find a hummingbird flitting around my head. It was one of my favourite moments of the whole trip. The clarity of the morning energised me and I rode out to tackle the remaining 3,000ft or so of climbing that would bring me to the road near the top of the pass. As soon as I came over the ridge, however, I could feel the wind gathering and see the cloud building to the south and west.

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It's the truth

When I reached the road two or three hours later, both the sky and landscape were more reminiscent of Wales than southern California. There was now a stiff westerly and there was more climbing to do before I reached the road junction at Anza, where I knew there was a cafe. The road was narrow and twisting, with no shoulder, and the headwind robbed me of any warning of traffic approaching from behind. I had a few close passes, none more scary than an articulated tanker, the front axles of which passed 6 inches from my elbow, leaving me with a view of the void under the tanker and wondering whether the rear axle would pass or hit me. I decided if that happened again to stop and hitch - at least the proliferation of pickups should make getting a lift with a bike easy.

However, I arrived at the cafe alive and just in time to avoid a brief shower. This was my first contact with hikers on the Pacific Crest trail, for whom this is also a stop-off. My need for nutrition had evaporated and I tucked into a burger with bacon, cheese and BBQ sauce, alongside pints from the huge coffee mug that was continually topped up when I'd barely taken a sip.

I had a decision to make here: my chosen route from here (following the eastern side of the Stagecoach 400 loop, usually ridden in the opposite direction) would take me down through a sandy canyon into the desert proper and Borrego Springs. The wind could prove a real problem in the desert, and the forecast suggested it was likely to continue. Once I had descended, the only real option out of the desert was a steep rocky climb up Orriflame Canyon, which I had been advised to tackle only early in the morning due to its facing and exposure to the sun. Given my recent experience, I didn't fancy another long twisting road pass shortcut. Reluctantly I decided to follow the SC400's western side, towards the coast. My aim for the day became Warner Springs, another PCT staging post, where some sort of camping facilities would be available and hopefully provide a bit of respite from the incoming weather.

A few miles after the cafe I resupplied at a small, dingy RV park shop in Anza (more a collection of houses situated in vague proximity over a few square miles than a "town"), and slogged up a sandy dirt road heading directly into the wind. Once I turned south, things got a bit more pleasurable, with varied terrain and long views over mostly quite green hills. It looked a lot like England at points - not at all what I was expecting. Eventually I passed into the National Forest and came to the end of a winding singletrack road that led downhill into Warner Springs.

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The "desert"

Warner Springs must be manna from heaven for PCT hikers, and I was happy to avail myself of the same small delights at the Resource Center, a kind of village hall. I'd arrived just in time for the nightly hiker's dinner, so I left my phone charging in the Center and hot-footed it to the school canteen, where for $10 I got a big plate of pasta and bolognese, chicken legs, garlic bread, and salad. The hikers, heading north from the Mexican border were swapping stories of unseasonal rain for days.

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Some of the hikers (including a bunch of loud college lads who didn't seem to be doing much hiking, and who'd taken a day trip to San Diego) had bagged sheltered spots in the open marquee to sleep and were reluctant to share the space with a weird guy on a bike. I got chatting to a quieter guy, also on his own. I lamented about not bringing anything to read and he lent me a book on wildflowers of the Colorado desert, which wasn't what I had in mind but was a nice gesture. Later he came past my tent and offered me a New Testament - I declined as politely as I could. The old testament I might have taken!

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There were no sheltered spots in the camping area, except immediately behind the tent-wide trunk of a huge tree, which was taken. By this point though I'd got pretty good at pitching the Lunar Solo and with the help of a couple of deck chairs under the lifter guys, I had a flap-free night.

Wednesday - 16 miles, 1,600ft

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With no fixed plan and in no real rush, I spent most of the morning sitting out the squally rain in the Resource Center, eating free bananas, availing myself of the wifi and trying to decide what to do. There were a few hikers doing the same, and there was a subdued, slightly surreal mood. One of the college lads picked up a guitar and played and sang an unexpectedly delicate and beautiful rendition of a song called Down In The Valley by a fairly obscure American indie band I happen to like.

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A solo hiker sitting next to me, who'd been very quiet and I think spoke little English picked up a map of the whole PCT, looked at his progress thus far, and burst into slightly maniacal laughter (reminding me of the scene in Bill Bryson's book A Walk In The Woods where the protagonists have the same experience on the Appalachian Trail).

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I checked the weather again, and came across a weather warning from the area for the previous day, which made me feel a little less cowardly about avoiding the desert.

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Eventually I settled on a cheap bed in an Airbnb 15 miles up the road. It wasn't so much that I didn't want to camp in the wind and rain (though I didn't) but that I didn't fancy having time to kill and only being able to spend it sitting in my tent on my own. I'm usually quite happy on my own, doing my own thing, but the previous week hanging out with friends had made me yearn for company. Besides, the description made it sound like some sort of hippy commune, which promised more of an experience than a lonely camp. The directions told me to "Turn right at the love sign." I set off.

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It was accurate too.

An uneventful 15 miles on fairly quiet roads brought me to Wynola and a stiff 2 mile climb to the Airbnb. I arrived mid-afternoon, dropped my stuff and rode back down to the supermarket for provisions (and the novel pleasure of riding an unloaded bike). With that strange reluctance you get after developing a three-day patina of grime (no? just me?) I enjoyed a shower. I had the place to myself, so it turned out not to be the social experience I'd hoped for, and there wasn't much to occupy my time apart from studying the maps. My new route would allow me to cut back to the eastern half of the SC400 route, and bring me into San Diego from the east, which promised some nice riding. The coastal route wouldn't have been without its attractions but is much more built-up, with more shopping malls, golf courses, and burger joints, and limited wild camping opportunities.

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Thursday - 46 miles, 7,200ft

Apart from my friendly Turkish host who stuck his head in to check I was OK in the evening, I didn't see another soul till the morning. Loading my bike up in the morning, a teenage girl approached me and asked me if I had any weed. Apparently the hosts thought I was quietly getting high on my own (which would have been entirely legal). She was living and volunteering at the "community" for the summer and was lovely, but clearly with issues of some sort. She asked me if I wanted to go for a walk, and ignoring common sense and the rain, I followed her into the woods surrounding the house. I didn't end up in prison, a cult, or a shallow grave, but did have an interesting chat about matters as diverse as the environment, reproduction, and contraception.

Clearly my sobriety had been reported to the lady of the house, who came out to chat and was equally friendly. She offered me a ride up the hill to the next town, Julian, since she was taking another guest anyway. I initially politely refused out of misguided "purity," then realised I was staying in a house, and anyway it was raining and visibility was approximately 10 yards, and went to take her up on it anyway. However the other guests wanted to delay half an hour, so I got on with it. About a mile up the road I stopped to take a photo of the Julian sign for my uncle of the same name, when she passed in the pickup, stopped, and started walking back to see if I was OK. Such was generally my experience of American hospitality.

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The centre of Julian was only a few miles (albeit all uphill) but such was the rain, fog, and my unhurried schedule, that it seemed a shame not to stop in such a peaceful little mountain town. Picking a modest-looking cafe on a side street where I could see my bike from inside, I settled down with a coffee, pastry, and the San Diego Tribune. Even catching up with the latest from the Mexican immigration crisis and the Brexit shambles couldn't dampen the quietly cheerful mood as locals came and went, picking up their morning coffees and offering the odd friendly comment on the weather and my choice of transport. The place reminded me of the sort of quiet New England backwater towns I sometimes dream of disappearing to, never to be heard of again. It was my second favourite moment of the trip, and I could have prolonged it, but I did have to do SOME riding.

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After some more quiet road miles, I passed the top of the Orriflame Canyon, where I would have looked down across the desert I'd avoided, had it not been shrouded in fog. Here, some singletrack ran parallel to the road for a while, providing some much-needed entertainment. My aim was a primitive backcountry campsite in Cuyamaca state park where there is a well (not that water was hard to come by here), which would leave me an easy day's ride to San Diego. It was a modest aim, so I decided to follow some winding forest trails to Mount Laguna, where there is a shop and cafe - not that I really needed anything, but it was something to do. The only other customers at the cafe were a pair of PCT hikers who arrived at the same time as me. We got chatting and ate together, which made the stop worthwhile, despite the meagre, over-priced portions of food. We all agreed we'd been gouged, apparently not uncommon for the captive market on the PCT.

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I left about three, picking another of the numerous forest trails almost at random. The riding isn't terribly challenging but would be pleasant in good weather. As it is, it's boggy in places, and when I get away from the well-used trails nearer the road, the rain-loaded undergrowth encroaches on the trail and soaks my feet in short order. I reach the campsite (just a clearing in the trees) before sunset, and unsurprisingly have the place to myself, apart from numerous and noisy bluejays. I know the forecast for tomorrow is good, and the weather is already beginning to show signs of clearing, which is bad news in a way, given that I'm at around 5,000ft (as I have been all day), soaking wet, and only have my summer sleeping bag (and I sleep cold).

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Last night out

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The bike that made it happen

Friday - 73 miles, 5,700ft

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When I wake up (or more accurately, give up on sleep), everything is covered in thick frost and I can't feel my feet. Standing in the sun slowly creeping over the treetops, I can feel the warmth immediately and know it's going to get hot, but putting cold, wet feet into wet socks, into frosty shoes is still unpleasant. I leave my helmet and gloves in the sun to defrost while I have coffee and pre-breakfast snacks, then get moving. It's beautiful clear bluebird morning, and I'm expecting an easy day to San Diego, 45 miles away and 5,000ft below me. The reality doesn't quite match up.

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The first 20 miles or so to the small town of Alpine are a nice mix of doubletrack, quiet roads, and a long, long gravel descent which hugs the side of a wide valley down into Alpine, giving expansive views all the way to the Pacific. I stop for a decent breakfast, which I've been looking forward to. French toast made with cinnamon rolls, with cream and maple syrup. I've found that having a hearty (and there is no other option) late breakfast is a good value strategy in America. I sit outside in the sun, where it's already too hot, but most of my clothes are still damp.

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The Pacific Ocean (I think)

The route into San Diego is unexpectedly pleasant. After a climb out of Alpine, there is another winding gravel road through a steep-sided valley, and then I join the road, I assume until the end. Just before the road junction I have a unnerving experience when a huge pickup truck comes around the corner several hundred yards ahead of me, and seeing me (or so it seems) suddenly executes an exuberant handbrake turn. I momentarily panic - there's a river on one side, a rock face on the other, a remote dead-end valley road behind me, and a maniac in a pickup ahead. Fortunately, it roars off in the opposite direction, leaving me to wonder if they made a wrong turn, came down this road just to practice handbrake turns on gravel, or whether they saw me and decided to find another canyon to hide the bodies in.

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Americans: a hospitable lot (mostly)

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...just don't nick their avocados

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There's a few miles of fairly unpleasant, hot road, but then the route turns off and enters a nature reserve, with ribbons of singletrack snaking through grassland. It's undulating and some of the short, rocky climbs are tough-going in the heat. Despite ending the day 5,000ft below where I started, I still manage to climb the same distance. Gradually I arrive in the outskirts of San Diego and whilst the route cleverly avoids roads, navigating various trails, parks, and bike paths becomes wearisome - not helped by a couple of trail closures without obvious diversions.

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I stop at a Starbucks (which I've grudgingly come to terms with on this trip, providing, as they invariably do, air conditioning, seats, power and wifi, as well as caffeination) on the edge of Chula Vista. I debate whether to follow the route along the bike path by the river, or take the road through Chula Vista - the bike path has reportedly become an encampment for homeless people, which isn't something I really want to tackle, so I choose the road, which turns out to be fine. This takes me directly to the coast where a "bikeway" runs past the docks and Naval shipyards to downtown San Diego. At first this was a wide, smooth dedicated path, but it soon became a narrow bit of paint at the edge of a dual carriageway.

Eventually, about 4.30, I arrived at the USS Midway (in a somewhat different condition from that in which I'd attended a conference dinner on deck the previous week) which is the official start and end of the SC400, and seemed as good a place as any to mark the end of my journey. I got a passing tourist to take my photo and then pedalled slowly out to my hostel in Hillcrest.

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Bearbonesnorm
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Re: 6 Days in Southern California

Post by Bearbonesnorm » Thu Jul 11, 2019 12:04 pm

Brilliant. Enjoyed that, thank you. Avacado theft ... who knew?
Always be yourself unless you can be a pirate. In that case, always be a pirate

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sean_iow
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Re: 6 Days in Southern California

Post by sean_iow » Thu Jul 11, 2019 12:22 pm

I really enjoyed that, thanks for writing it up :-bd

You're a lot better at pitching you Lunar Solo than I am my Deschutes. As they are basically the same shape I'll have to practice some more. Maybe they pitch better back in the country of origin? :lol:
Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now

thenorthwind
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Re: 6 Days in Southern California

Post by thenorthwind » Thu Jul 11, 2019 2:29 pm

Thanks, glad someone enjoyed it.

Most of those Lunar Solo pitches were done with plenty of time, in the light, in the dry, with at least some energy left, with just the wind to contend with. In less accommodating conditions it might look a little different!

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99percentchimp
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Re: 6 Days in Southern California

Post by 99percentchimp » Thu Jul 11, 2019 2:31 pm

Best work trip add on ever :-bd :grin: thanks for writing up
Ruining a good ride by bringing my camping stuff TM ;-)

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In Reverse
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Re: 6 Days in Southern California

Post by In Reverse » Thu Jul 11, 2019 8:53 pm

Great stuff. :-bd

benp1
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Re: 6 Days in Southern California

Post by benp1 » Thu Jul 11, 2019 8:55 pm

Great write up, thanks for sharing

Rasta
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Re: 6 Days in Southern California

Post by Rasta » Thu Jul 11, 2019 9:20 pm

Brought back some memories.
I can remember camping out in the San Bernadinos with amazing views over LA - with bears trying all night to steal the food. Not an honest bunch. A bit nerve wracking when trapped in a bivi bag.

Was that Hidden Valley Campsite in J Tree? If it was - I camped there for a couple of months. Even had a pet snake for a couple of nights.

Amazing area.

Cheeky Monkey
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Re: 6 Days in Southern California

Post by Cheeky Monkey » Fri Jul 12, 2019 10:17 am

Lovely read, cheers :cool: A trip to be jealous of I reckon.

thenorthwind
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Re: 6 Days in Southern California

Post by thenorthwind » Fri Jul 12, 2019 12:52 pm

Rasta wrote:
Thu Jul 11, 2019 9:20 pm
Brought back some memories.
I can remember camping out in the San Bernadinos with amazing views over LA - with bears trying all night to steal the food. Not an honest bunch. A bit nerve wracking when trapped in a bivi bag.

Was that Hidden Valley Campsite in J Tree? If it was - I camped there for a couple of months. Even had a pet snake for a couple of nights.

Amazing area.
In that situation I'd rather be in a bivvy bag where I could see what was going on, rather than relying on my overactive imagination. Still would have scared the **** out of me though!

It is indeed Hidden Valley.
Best work trip add on ever
Not quite, I went to a conference in NZ a couple of years ago :oops:

Landslide
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Re: 6 Days in Southern California

Post by Landslide » Sun Jul 14, 2019 4:13 pm

Really liked that, especially the thought of being visited by a hummingbird.

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TheBrownDog
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Re: 6 Days in Southern California

Post by TheBrownDog » Sun Jul 14, 2019 8:03 pm

Great words. Lovely pix. Thanks.
I'm just stepping outside ...

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Zippy
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Re: 6 Days in Southern California

Post by Zippy » Mon Jul 15, 2019 4:41 pm

I enjoyed that Dave :smile:

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