From the top of Pole Mountain I’m able to look south and rising above the fog I see Mount Tamalpais. For cyclists, it is nothing so much as the birthplace of mountain biking, even the sport’s spiritual home. But these days most of the unpaved terrain open to cyclists in Marin County is fire road. While estimates vary on just how much of Marin County’s considerable singletrack is open to riders, all the estimates agree that it’s less than 10 percent of the available terrain.
It’s a tragic situation, but one where cyclists are as much to blame as those who hate us. We can criticize each other for riding too fast, passing too close, skidding through turns and other behaviors that aren’t exactly a sales pitch for mountain biking or inter-group harmony, but that isn’t the real problem. The real problem for Marin County is that cyclists didn’t get organized and start advocating for access to trails until there was considerable momentum to locking us out.
And that past is why I’m standing on top of Pole Mountain. The 1800-foot mountain sits in Western Sonoma County, due north of the hamlet of Jenner. It’s a private reserve that is accessible only by passing through the Jenner Headlands Preserve. I’m looking out on rolling hills, the occasional vineyard, probably a dozen illegal grows and fog being sucked off the ocean thanks to the warm inland temperatures.
With me are three other riders, one of whom, Jake Bayless, will be familiar to listeners of the Redwood Empire Pedalcast. Jake is also a board member for the Redwood Empire Mountain Bike Alliance and set up the ride in conjunction with the Jenner Headlands Preserve. The route took us out of Duncans Mills and up a fire road into the heart of the Jenner Headlands. Officially speaking, bikes aren’t yet allowed in the Jenner Headlands, or Pole Mountain, but we aren’t poaching. We’re there as part of a pilot program to introduce a bike patrol to the area with the goal of being able to offer guided rides in the preserve.
The preserve is managed by the Wildlands Conservancy and one of the staffers there sees mountain bikes is a refreshing light, as possible partners in managing its use while working to avoid conflicts between cyclists and hikers and keeping both populations safe on the steep terrain.
Before arriving, the thought of possible leading a group through the preserve was sexier than sweet nothings whispered in your ear. I loved the idea of heading almost to the coast one day a month to lead a group up to the summit.
Much of our route takes us through thick conifer forest, with second-growth redwoods shielding us from the already bright sunlight. Following an opening climb we rode on hard-packed dirt the rose as it undulated upward. We lose more than 700 feet of elevation before starting the second half of the climb, which will lead us out of the Jenner Headlands and into Pole Mountain. Navigation proves to be easy; the Wildlands Conservancy ranger overseeing our test run, Luke Farmer, has put up signs to direct us, though in every situation, the way to go proves to be staying on the biggest of the fire roads.
I had friends in Marin County who were giving me updates on how they lost rideable terrain, one trail at a time. In my head, I contrast that with being able to work with rangers to come up with a tentative plan on how usable terrain might be ridden without the situation degenerating into a ready-made hiker/biker conflict.
Eventually, we climb out of the redwoods and up into the occasional shade of large oaks. There’s an inversion layer, so while Duncans Mills is a typical 60-odd degrees, the temperature has been rising steadily. The first steep pitches in the direct sun slow me to a walking pace, and while I could try to blame the recently cut grass, the sun acts like the air at altitude, simply robbing me of power.
Once at the top we go to the picnic table that had only recently been stationed up there and pull it into the shade of a neighboring oak. We sit, take pulls off our bottles or hydration packs and remark at how difficult the ride has been. We’ve been on the bikes three hours, have ridden roughly 11 miles and already climbed more than 3000 feet.
Ranger Luke arrives with water, ice and food that some of the guys put in his truck. We eat, drip sweat and drink as much water as our bellies will allow. I grab handfuls of ice and drop them in my hydration bladder.
I pull my gloves on as we make our way over to our bikes and the moment we are rolling, even though we are on a dirt road often covered by hay or grass, I’m grateful for the flat bar, full suspension and dropper post. A whopping seven different sections featured pitches steeper than 20 percent so I stay loose and brake frequently enough to avoid reaching terminal velocity.
I’m not sure where this bike ranger program will lead. That’s okay. This isn’t a ride I’d want to do a couple of times a week. Every other month or maybe once a quarter. It’s also difficult enough that I think interest will drop off once word spreads, but keeping people out isn’t, I hope, the goal. Creating well-managed situations that allow the cyclists to ascend Pole Mountain so that they care about preserving it is what I care about.
By the time I’m back at my car, six hours have passed. We stopped to regroup plenty and we spent an hour at the top refueling, but that still means I’d have needed four hours to ride the 20 miles and ascend 4000 vertical feet. This is a ride of a different feather. Lacking the singletrack that makes most mountain bike rides such visceral fun, and being too rough and steep for a gravel bike, the attraction of this ride may be the challenge of just reaching the top and then taking in the expansive views. On clear days you can see Mount Diablo and Pt. Reyes. As a hike, this would take every bit of the day, but as a bike ride it’s just silly hard. And though silly hard, the view at the top is enough to remind you that sometimes it’s not about the ride, but getting there.