Bikepacking the Marin Headlands

Bikepacking the Marin Headlands

A solo, 70-mile pedal through the largest National Park adjacent to a major US Metro Area

During a Wednesday afternoon, while pounding on laptop keys and furiously trying to keep up with a barrage of email, the idea struck me. I was on a tear that week, scribbling first drafts and working with editors to make them legible – and would soon need a reset. There’s no better way to get a digital detox than a full immersion in nature, with a lot of sweat and a half-baked plan. 

Instead of wasting time driving to the Sierra to adventure, I opted to stay local. There are some great hikes in Pt Reyes, some beautiful campsites on Angel Island, and some great trails south along the peninsula, all the way to Santa Cruz. All good options, but I was craving novelty and any solitude I could find. I was also craving some time in the saddle, on my favorite gravel grinding bike from Specialized.

I began to scour trails to the north of the city, a mix of dirt fire roads and single track winding past Mt Tam and deep into the Marin Headlands. I’ve ridden many of paved roads in the area, including well-trodden cycling routes such as Alpine Damn, Paradise, and many laps on Hawk Hill. Fun, but not quite what I was looking for. After a half hour of digging around the internet I found very few bikepacking trip reports in the area. That’s when I truly got excited about the trip.

I cobbled together a 70-ish mile loop using Trail Forks and Google Maps, and went back to my normal work. That night I started packing gear, debating which tents and sleeping bags would work best, and trying to fit them into the limited space I had. Then came the same tetris process for food, water, and a few bike tools in case things went south.

Early Friday afternoon I closed Gmail and shut my laptop, eager for the long weekend ahead. I planned to take Monday off, giving me three full days and two nights to complete the loop. I debated inviting a friend or two, but ultimately decided that this would be best as a solo trip, roaming the woods around Marin, and figuring out what kind of trouble I could get into – and out of – by myself.

I rode the standard route, the bike path along Embarcadero, and over the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. I probably looked a bit odd to most people, loaded with 40 pounds of gear, but didn’t take notice. This was the start of something new for me and most of my thoughts were circling around the next few steps – getting to the first dirt trail and leaving the world of rapid-fire texts and supersonic tweets behind.

A few hours in I ran into my first big, ugly dirt hill. With 20 pounds on my back and 20 more on my bike, this was going to a slow walk uphill. Lessons like this were important – I was on and off my bike much more than I expected, avoiding large mud puddles (it was a rainy spring the Bay Area), hiking up steep hills and twice taking tough falls on rocky descents. All of these were hard but important lessons on the less glorious side of bikepacking.

I made it twenty-some miles the first day and found a great campsite about Stinson Beach with views of the Pacific. I set up my tent in a grassy field and feasted on my Good To-Go meal, adding in some precooked asparagus for some additional nutrients. This is my favorite way to eat dinner: a delicious dehydrated meal with an added bonus. I slept hard that night and got up early the next morning ready to ride.

The next two days followed a similar pattern, spending most of my day steadily (and sometimes slowly) trekking the loop I had set out, taking only a few wrong turns along the way. I made it to the northern terminus by late morning the second day, after riding a fast forest road for ten or so miles. Looking out at Pt Reyes, eating a granola bar and trying to rehydrate, I started to realize how lucky I was. Most people have obligations every day – all I had to do was ride my bike.

I finished the ride with a summit of Mt Tam, the highest peak in Marin and descended down through Mill Valley and back onto pavement into Sausalito, grabbing an ice cream cone before climbing back to the Golden Gate to finish my trip. I learned a lot – everything from the right gear to bring to the tricks of moving fast and staying hydrated. But most importantly, I learned that not all great adventures need to be far away. Some can happen right out your front door.

Story and photography by: Andy Cochrane | IG: @andrewfitts

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