The general consensus among most cyclists is that once you ride Grasshopper Peak in Humboldt Redwoods State Park, you can check it off your bucket list and not repeat it. But that's not how it went for me. Earlier in the summer I had joined some friends to climb 10,000 feet in one day, which included one ascent of Grasshopper Peak (3,379 feet), followed by two different routes up to Thornton Ridge to the north. It was a fun, hard day of riding. We hugged giant Douglas firs and had a lot of laughs.
Weeks later, it was time to complete the official Sea to Summit challenge for Grasshopper, since my previous ascent hadn't started at the ocean. Back-to-back epic rides are generally unwise but my riding buddy could only do it on Monday, two days after the humbling grind up Salmon Mountain. My body felt like a weighted anchor in the mud of Humboldt Bay at low tide. I have this problem where I often feel if I don't do something now, it's never going to happen. Which is sometimes ridiculous, but sometimes true, and oftentimes leads to a good story.
This time I recruited Natalie, a trusted riding partner of mine for years, who somehow still remains mysterious. With her backpack on, she will pedal for dozens of miles in any terrain, in any weather, with very little water and food. When she gets to the top of whatever mountain you're climbing, just when you think your pack is too heavy from snacks and tools, she'll crack open a beer she's been carrying for who knows how long. When it's just the two of us, we chat easily. But introduce one or two more people and black-haired, bird-watching Natalie might not say a single word on a multi-day trip. I used to be unsure if she even liked me but now count her as a true friend. No matter how long or difficult the ride, I know she'll always be game.
I sent Natalie the GPS route the night before and we discussed which bikes to bring. The path up Grasshopper is notoriously steep but the rest of the ride was on pavement with rolling hills. I decided to bring my touring bike which has easy gears for the uphill. When we met up at the Ferndale fairgrounds, Natalie stood next to her road bike and asked, "So where are we going again?" Only she would ask this at 9 a.m. before a 98-mile ride on a Monday. We went over the map again and set off.
First we pedaled to Centerville Beach through thick, slate-colored fog and headwinds, then up and over the Three Sisters hills toward Rio Dell. A brief jog on U.S. Highway 101 took us past Scotia before we exited with several tourists for the cool shadows of the Avenue of the Giants. I will never get tired of pedaling through these ancient redwoods and if you never have, you should. In the baritone words of my great and late grandfather Hal, "I'm not telling you what to do, I'm just encouraging you in a positive direction." So go pedal it. You can start in Weott and just do a section. I guarantee you'll see the place where we live a little differently after pedaling among these behemoths. Biking is the perfect pace to experience a place: fast enough to cover some ground, but slow enough to smell, touch and feel your surroundings.
We turned right on Mattole Road at the Eel River Bridge, weaved through more big trees and finally started the steep ascent up Grasshopper Mountain. It got hot and the unforgiving gradient reached 30 percent in some spots. It's one of those climbs you count down in one-tenth of a mile increments until you reach the top at mile 6.66. We suffered, which is really saying something for the relentless, never-complaining Natalie. My legs turned over slowly and methodically, like a well-trained horse going around the corral in the same circles until he keels over.
As I splashed water from a horse trough on my pulsing head for relief from the intense heat, I reflected on how we had unwisely passed up the blackberry popsicle stand on the Avenue. I counted the hours until we would be back there to buy one. The climb took more than two hours and when we got to the top, we were rewarded with 360-degree views of the surrounding ridges, peaks and scars from past fires. It was almost worth the climb for those views. We were proud of ourselves and stayed up there talking and snacking for a bit.
For the return trip, we retraced our steps. The loose gravel and steep downhill made controlling the bike difficult, and we were relieved when we reached the bottom. We took a quick dip in the Eel River, its mossiness deterring us only for a moment. We felt refreshed, like we were living a proper summer day, but by the time we got to Flood Plain Produce farm on the Avenue, the popsicle stand was closed. We stopped in Scotia and ate Reese's peanut butter cups and drank cold maté as consolation.
We pedaled over the Three Sisters Hills, in the sunshine again. The fog enveloped us again in the Ferndale Bottoms, which somehow was the hardest part of the ride. The cold fog, headwind and saddle sores made us feel like we were riding in place for the last 8 miles.
After 98 miles, 9.5 hours of riding, and 7,000 feet of climbing, you'd think we'd bundle up and drive home. Instead we bought two tall boys of IPA and sat in the parking lot with big smiles, talking about our next ride and everything else in life until it got dark. That's when we remembered: "Shoot! We'd better go home because it's Monday and we have work tomorrow!"
Hollie Ernest (she/her) is a botanist and forestry technician on hiatus from an international bike tour. She is writing a book about her travels, gardening and exploring the corners of Northern California. Follow her on Instagram @Hollie_holly