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The Contours of a Country – A Tour de Parks California Bike Ride Story

Written by: Michael Bridges

Ernest Hemingway once said, “It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best.” I could not agree more.  Apparently, he also enjoyed bicycles. Well, here are a few words about a bicycle ride.

Last weekend, forty park enthusiasts bicycled 75 miles along the undulating California coast from Candlestick Point State Recreation Area in San Francisco to Big Basin Redwoods State Park, with an overnight group camp at Half Moon Bay State Beach. We learned not only the specific contours (occasionally painful) of this stretch of California coast, but we learned some specific ways that California State Parks embrace those contours. From community hubs in urban parks, to indigenous practice and story along the coast, to historical preservation, to reimagining wilderness parks for the future with an eye toward both inclusion and climate resilience, the California State Park system, with its statewide statutory partner, Parks California, is faithfully and strategically stewarding the state’s natural, cultural, and historical treasures.

Forty bicycle riders began their Saturday before sunrise in San Francisco, convening at Candlestick Point State Recreation Area (CPSRA). We experienced the setting of this urban natural oasis at the speed of a bicycle. Situated in one of San Francisco’s least-resourced neighborhoods, the park is a place where the community is coming together to create a hub for learning, recreating, gathering, relaxing, and collaborating. CPRSA offers extraordinary access to nature including fishing, hiking, picnicking, kayaking, and camping. Parks California recently secured a donation of a dozen kayaks (thanks Oru Kayak) for the park, so that people of all ages can try their skills on the water. Parks California believes the way people engage with a park cannot be dictated or even predicted by authorities; each person holds a unique set of traits that leads to a unique way of engaging with nature. California State Parks is creating a space for engagement, and Parks California is not only stewarding the space but also reducing barriers for folks to access outdoor spaces. Through programs like “Route to Parks,” and “Career Pathways,” Parks California helps people get to, engage with, and accrue the many benefits of, parks and nature.

One engaging park program we had the chance to understand better is the creation of Art in the Park, the beautification of the space by locals whose sense of ownership reflects the ideals of the public park. We heard from Joe Colmenares and Hazel Barrera, whose art adorns the park, from windbreaks to the newly-beautified entrance kiosk. Joe, a lifelong Bayview resident who came to the park as a teen, explained that the shape of logo on the entrance kiosk is no coincidence.  It looks like the home plate on a baseball field. That’s because, for those in the Bayview Hunters Point neighborhood, this state park can be, and is, a home base for the community.

Riding out of Candlestick, we waved to the KTVU News cameras, which were broadcasting the Tour live on the morning news! Taking in the neighborhoods and enjoying San Francisco’s unique ups and downs, we made our way ten miles across town to Ocean Beach on the far west side of the 415. We regrouped, and prepared for the ride south through Daly City and on into Pacifica where we would face the climb at the aptly named Devil’s Slide.

We rode in five groups of eight riders, and each group was accompanied by a trail car with water, snacks, and encouragement aplenty. Backing up all the groups of riders was a mobile bike shop — a maintenance van driven by a bike expert, Ian Connover, and provided by Mike’s Bikes. Almost half of the riders used e-bikes with a pedal assist, and owing to the generosity of Mike’s Bikes in cooperation with the bicycle company Gazelle, anyone who wanted to use an e-bike for the weekend was able to borrow one for free.  Thanks, Mike’s Bikes!

Riding through the pastel-colored single-family homes of Daly City, we climbed a two-plus-mile hill nearly a thousand feet of elevation, before gliding down into the lovely beach town of Pacifica where we veered onto a dedicated bicycle path and rode along the beach to a re-grouping point. Gathered in front of the Ace Hardware store, to our surprise, we were greeted by Parks California staff with a cooler of ice cream. After scoops of ice cream, fruits, and water refills, we embarked up Devil’s Slide. Just like in the song about the fiddle player in Georgia, the Devil, in this case, went down, as the riders went up with smiles, while even the motorists on this narrow stretch paid respect to the riders with patience for which we all were grateful. After a minute of celebration at the top of the one-mile climb (8.1% grade), we descended along the dedicated walking and bicycling path through some of the most beautiful coastline we would experience on the trip. We then re-joined Pacific Coast Highway and glided into Montara.

Shortly after Montara State Beach, we left Hwy 1, and rode into Half Moon Bay along a coastal trail. In fact, the dedicated bicycle bath took us along the beach and directly to the Sweetwood Group Campsite at Half Moon Bay State Park where we camped for the night.

Thanks to the generous support of REI Co-op, including volunteer help to set up and take down the camp, when we arrived at the camp there were more than forty REI tents set up for riders and volunteers. Each tent was outfitted with a sleeping bag, an inflatable sleeping pad, and a camp chair.  Thanks, REI! The tents were a welcome sight, but we were also greeted with snacks and beverages galore. Thanks, Smog City Brewing for four cases of amazing craft beer, and thanks Best Day Brewing for a case of non-alcoholic craft beer!

There was plenty of sparkling water, juice, and wine as well.  After we’d settled in a bit, believe it or not, a trailer arrived with a pizza oven. Eye of Pie provided dozens of pizzas, with attention to all manner of dietary preferences. An eighth of a cord of wood from nearby Firewood Farms kept the campfire going strong, and thanks to volunteer Betsy Tucciarone, everyone had a smore kit to make the campout complete.

Gathered around the campfire, we learned about the history and current involvement of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, and their ancestors- collectively known as the Ohlone People. Parks California supports the Amah Mutsun’s work along this stretch of coast to bring traditional land-stewardship practices to state park spaces and help provide work experience in natural-resource stewardship for tribal youth and those in places of career transition. We also had the chance to hear from Dan Wright, an amateur astronomer who brought a powerful telescope, and despite the cloud cover (welcome while riding, but not the best weather for star gazing) kept us engaged in learning about what we might see when we try our own explorations of the night sky on clearer evenings.

The campfire was re-ignited at 5:30 AM, and when folks started coming out of their tents, we were treated to Orange Juice, Starbucks coffee and a Yogurt “Parkfait” bar, replete with granola, berries, and more. Ian checked out the bikes and pumped up tires. All batteries – bikes and riders – were recharged overnight for continuing the ride down the coast.

The first leg on Sunday was a 23-mile, fairly straight, but not exactly flat, stretch from Half Moon Bay State Park to  Pigeon Point Light Station State Historic Park. There was a lot of climbing, but there was also a good bit of coasting. I suppose, the whole ride could be considered “coasting,” but not all of it was downhill. All in all, it was a beautiful ride in cool autumn temperatures. And if it didn’t feel enough like a lovely fall day already, to our surprise, we were welcomed at Pigeon Point with cups of hot cider. It was the kind of treat we didn’t know we wanted until we had it, and then it was hard to imagine the ride without that highlight. In that respect the cider reminded me of my own visits to many of the California State Parks in the past few years: “Who knew?” and then, “How could we live without this?”

The Pigeon Point Lighthouse, at 115 feet, is one of the tallest lighthouses in the country.  While the light source has been updated, it is still in use for Coast Guard navigation. Having been first lit on November 15, 1872, the lighthouse is just about to celebrate 150 years of service.

After the cider, and the history, and the stretching of legs and backs, we continued along the coast for the final ten miles to the Rancho del Oso Visitor Center at Big Basin Redwoods State Park. Along the stretch of coast over the two days, we passed, and sometimes stopped at, ten state beaches. We were reminded by all these state beaches that California State Parks stewards 25% of the state’s coastline, and provides programs around marine habitat, climate resilience, and ocean safety while engaging local communities in recreational and educational opportunities.  Parks California’s work includes enabling young people and families to get to the coast and beaches in many places throughout the state.

And speaking of beaches, when we saw a Tour de Parks California volunteer waving a flag at Waddell Beach, we knew it was time to make a left across the Pacific Coast Highway and make a final short climb up the hill into Big Basin Redwoods State Park to conclude the epic ride. We were greeted with shouts and waves, water, lunches (thanks, Oceans Halo and thanks, Joje Bars), and pie! Everyone received a lovely parting gifts (thanks, Klean Kanteen, and thanks, Dr. Bronner).

At Big Basin, we heard from California State Parks District Superintendent Chris Spohrer and the Reimagining Big Basin Senior Project Manager Will Fourt, who is part of the Parks California team, about the project to Re-imagine Big Basin after the devastating CZU Lightning Fire burned 90% of the park just a few years ago. Already, there are signs of new life at the park. While visitors are not permitted to take things from state parks, there’s one thing everyone is allowed take away, and that’s life lessons. Big Basin, as it happens, is full of them. The resilient and recovering majestic redwoods stand as a symbol of strength and reminder of hope, while the variety of interdependent life in the forest reminds us of the strength that proceeds from diversity. While the fire was a natural disaster, to be sure, it is also an opportunity to think about how a park might be built in the 21st Century with a view toward sustainability, climate resilience, user benefit, carrying capacity, equitable access, cultural relevance, and more. Parks California is deeply involved in the reimagining of Big Basin which is one part of the essential mission of the organization, “to strengthen parks and inspire all people to experience these extraordinary places.”

As the population of California continues to change, becoming more youthful and diverse with each passing year, California State Parks, and their partners, must ensure that visitors to parks also reflect that youth and diversity. There are two main reasons for this call to action. One is simply rooted in social justice: everyone deserves the right to enjoy the many benefits of a relationship with nature, history, and culture. And the other reason is that in the decades ahead, parks will need stewards, and the best way to know that folks will be there to care for parks tomorrow is to enable them to build a relationship with parks – on their own terms – today.

Parks California, like the California Department of Parks and Recreation itself, has a dual bottom line – strengthening the parks themselves and also expanding opportunities for people to engage with the parks. Parks California addresses these important goals through programs like “Route to Parks,” which reduces tangible and intangible barriers to accessing parks, and “Career Pathways,” which helps provide a skill set and work experience in the field of resource stewardship. Other key programs include Urban Parks work that seeks to co-create, with local residents, community hubs in urban state parks, and Untold Stories work that amplifies the breadth of stories told in and about park lands.

The Tour de Parks California allowed riders to connect with parks and with one another over a fabulous fall weekend, and see first-hand how Parks California is helping to build a community hub in urban San Francisco, amplifying indigenous stories and engaging communities in natural-resource stewardship along the coast, and re-imagining parks for the future, while collaborating with partners from government, non-profit, corporate, and community sectors.

Pulling into Big Basin Redwoods State Park on Sunday afternoon, after 75 miles of riding, my body was sore, but my spirit soared. And while soreness has subsided, I’m grateful to report that the lift to my spirit is sustained. Thanks, parks!