I am more and more convinced that our happiness or unhappiness depends more on the way we meet the events of life than on the nature of those events themselves.
Bordered by rugged coastline and isolated from the rest of civilization by miles of narrow highways that twist along canyon walls like serpents, Humboldt County, California is unique in many ways. Aside from being known for its number-one agricultural export, it is also home to over 1.5 million acres of timberland, a very tall (but not record-breaking) totem pole, many rivers, numerous state parks and beaches, and occasionally large earthquakes.
The natural scenery of the area is nothing less than stunning. Moderate year-round temperatures and over 50 inches of annual rainfall create an environment where everything grows with verdant vigor.
This last weekend saw a number of Rogue Valley folks make the annual pilgrimage to Ferndale to partake in the 38th annual Tour of the Unknown Coast. Billed as “California’s Toughest Century,” the ride is held yearly on the first Saturday in May. The 100-mile route is as rewarding as it is punishing. Not only does it feature close to 10,000 feet of climbing, but a large portion of the vertical ascending occurs after the 80-mile mark — a point where many riders might be ready to take it easy and coast home. There’s no portion of the ride that isn’t scenic, but as the ride progresses, the views continue to improve, and by the time you’re moving north from Petrolia back to Ferndale, the scenery is downright spectacular.
I spent my formative years in Humboldt and have quite a few relatives in the area, so with my wife visiting a friend in San Diego for the weekend, I decided to make a three-day trip out of it.
Day 1: Mountain Bikes in Mckinleyville
Humboldt is full of great biking, but sometimes you have to know where to look.
Arriving on Friday around noon, I dropped dogs and clothes and stuff off with family and met up with a buddy, Mckinleyville’s mysterious trail baron who is known to his friends and clients as “Uncle Rico.” That’s not actually his real name and he’s not actually obsessed with going back in time and taking state, but he is the creator and overseer of miles and miles of amazing hero dirt singletrack you’ve never heard about.
The trails in Mckinleyville cover a few different kinds of terrain, but are generally fast, punchy and lots of fun, traversing deep pine forests, overgrown thickets, bogs, rooty hillsides, creeks and yesteryear’s clearcuts peppered with massive redwood stumps.
After covering about 14 miles of rippy stuff, my legs were cooked from trying to keep up with Mr. Rico and I called it a day. Burrito time!
Day 2: Tour of the Unknown Coast
I awoke early the next day and pointed the car south toward Ferndale. After arriving and attempting to drag myself together into some vague state of readiness, I met up with Dan at the start. He and I had planned on riding together and I was excited about getting my butt kicked by a Rogue Valley celebrity who has recently overcome injury to become stronger than ever before.
We rolled out around 7:15 am with a small group of other southern Oregon riders and enjoyed the peaceful morning air, punctuated by occasional cow smells, and a bit of a tailwind as we cruised from Ferndale south through Rio Dell and Scotia before arriving in the scenic, aptly-named Avenue of the Giants.
Before long, we had traversed the northern half of the Avenue and made the turn southwest toward the first big climb of the day, Panther Gap. After a brief stop to refuel, we began climbing.
Positioned roughly 40 miles in, Panther Gap is the longest sustained climb of the route, measuring out at a hair over 6.5 miles and close to 2,400 feet of vertical gain. By the time we arrived at the top and began to descend, we were in the cloud layer and getting a bit frigid. As we dropped down through tight switchbacks and tree-lined hillside, the sun began to peek out and by the time we arrived at the lunch stop at A. W. Way County Park near Petrolia, the sunlight was out in full force and we were warm again.
As we set out from the lunch stop, I noticed a ticking sound coming from my drivetrain. Ignoring it as I often choose to do in such situations, it gradually became worse until I was finally compelled to stop and check it out. I discovered I had pulled a chain link apart at the connecting pin and the remaining half of the link was barely holding the chain together. Vowing to change my ways by upshifting more frequently and not standing up and mashing as often as I usually do, I bid Dan farewell and reluctantly turned around and began the slow trek back to the lunch stop to find a mechanic or a ride home.
I stopped at a bridge overlooking the Mattole River and decided to hang out, take a few pictures and enjoy the scenery. As I was staring into the water thinking about burritos, I heard spinning freehubs in the distance. Lo and behold, a few Medford folks! As it happens, not only did Alex have a chaintool, he was kind enough to stop mid-ride and conduct a roadside chain repair. I was back on the road again!
The next few miles brought amazing views, and a couple quick climbs, including the not-quite-infamous-but-still-slightly-nefarious “Surprise Hill.” The remaining clouds seemed to part, the air warmed up and I was feeling great. It was around this point that I slowed my pace a bit, preparing for a six-mile stretch of coastal road that is known for its brutal headwinds.
Much to my surprise, upon arriving at the coast, there was no headwind; in fact, a slight tailwind pushed me along most of the way. With the smells of sea spray, wild licorice and green grass filling the air, I took advantage of the situation, relaxed and enjoyed the easy trek to the final aid stop before The Wall.
As I proceeded north, the fog began to roll in and grew increasingly thick as I began the climb up The Wall.
After an uneventful climb and descent, it was time to face the real challenge at the end of the ride: the Endless Hills. While slightly less intimidating, this climb is longer and more taxing than the one before it. In fact, it’s twice as tall and more than twice as long. On a clear day, however, the scenery makes up for it. The fog muted things a bit, but helped conceal the remaining climbing, which made things a bit easier mentally, if not physically.
Finally at the top, I was relieved to begin the 10-mile descent back to town, punctuated by a couple of additional small climbs for good measure. Heavy fog drip descended from every overhanging tree like rain.
And before I knew it, I was rolling back through the streets of Ferndale toward the finish!
All in all, it was a great day. It made me very happy to see that not only had Dan finished strong, by the time I returned he had already eaten, showered and registered for the Oregon Triple Crown. (Not sure about that last part, but he says he’s going to do it soon.) He crushed it!
Day 3: Runners, Rhododendrons and Riding
Because I’m such a cool brother and son, I spent Sunday morning cheering my mom and sisters on at Atalanta’s Victory Run, a women’s-only run held annually on Mother’s Day in Arcata. They did great!
After continuing a 19-year tradition with a trip to a local farm with the family to pick up a Mother’s Day rhododendron, I had promised my younger brother Micah a mountain bike ride, so we pedaled up the road and hit the trails. He’s a tough kid and is getting better on the bike all the time.
It was a great weekend spending time with family and friends. I’m thinking this will probably become a yearly thing!
2 thoughts on “Touring the Unknown Coast”
Next stop Oakridge?
Yes! This summer.