West Side Rider
Fort Ord’s less-trafficked half offers great scenery and a labyrinth of fun mountain bike trails.
Thursday, July 24, 2008
Given the shiny red poison oak leaves at the entrance to Fort Ord Public Lands’ Blair Witch Trail– and the dense thicket of oaks and chaparral behind them– it seems an odd place to carve a mountain bike trail. But evidence to the contrary comes as quickly as do two riders who soar past me before I enter the coppice.
The hard pack single track makes for a fine warmup. Weeds rub against my legs as I pedal through a couple of narrow tree gaps. I immediately wish I had worn pants– a rash of poison oak seems imminent. The brush momentarily clears at the trail’s thorny crown and leads into a short downhill reward. After a sturdy ascent up Trail 68, the ride’s possibilities unfold. I glimpse green ag fields in the Salinas Valley and Toro Park’s yellow hills through the fog. My plan: Get lost.
This is not hard to do on Fort Ord’s west side, with numerous short numbered trails and even more unmarked ones. (As a result, the trail sequence detailed below can read a little like a bingo night transcript: “96-21-50-71”.) But it’s also easy to find your way back– with the help of a map. (Get one at major trail entrances or www.fortordpubliclands.org.)
Exploring the trails once trodden by soldiers, you’ll be rewarded with varied foliage, wildlife and solitude. The ascents aren’t as steep as on the east side, so the trails are refreshing for beginners. Alluring relics of the military base’s past are everywhere. Best of all, the trails aren’t as heavily traveled as the eastern front, which includes Sea Otter Classic’s epic cross-country course.
From the top of 68 I head south on Machine Gun Flats, then take an unmarked, rutted fire road further uphill to a clearing. A weather station twists in the wind. The gray fog blows across the ridge. In the valley below lurks a stark compound of concrete buildings used for police officer training: the Military Operations Urban Terrain (MOUT) facility better known as “Impossible City.”
Little Moab Road sounds enticing but my bike tires squirm in the sand. I backtrack and get on Trail 96, which looks like it hasn’t felt a tire in a while. Seeing a downhill opportunity, I venture onto an unmarked trail but make a hasty U-turn after remembering a ride there spent pedaling through knee-high manzanita.
I hop back on Little Moab and catch a little air off the road’s rollers. Crossing a paved road, I burst down Trail 21, then switch over to a killer single track parallel to it that leads me to a cliff overlooking Barloy Canyon Road.
From here a technical stretch with a narrow rutted-out spine stands between me and further exploration. I chicken out, choosing to navigate around the bumpy, rock-encrusted introduction, ultimately finding a line down the spine that finishes in soft sand. Behind me a sign warns that dangerous explosives lurk in the area. Nevertheless, this trail seems more perilous than munitions.
But Trail 50 is worth the risk, winding downhill through smooth banked turns. I accelerate as the trail straightens and dive into an oak forest with a thick canopy, traversing Jack’s Road across to Trail 71. After not seeing a sprinkle of water this whole ride, I’m surprised to see a pond splashing with ducks ahead.
A stomach growl tells me it’s time to start heading back, so I zoom down Crescent Bluff Road. When a flock of wild turkeys appears on the path, I slow down. The birds don’t, ducking their heads in the tall grass and heading for the hills. Continuing on the dirt road, I pass bucolic Merrill Ranch. I then head west on Trail 62. This is a mistake.
The trail has the worst kind of sand: the lumpy, deceiving sand that looks like I can ride it but only spins my tires. I end up walking my bike most of the way up.
I finally meet up with trail 24 (the route I should have taken), which hooks up with Trail 25 and rumbles past a row of bunkers behind a barbed wire fence– and back onto Machine Gun Flats.
Trail 56 gives me the hard-pack remedy to rekindle my confidence after the sand battle. The narrow trail cuts through a vernal pool habitat called Steve Addington Glade and past the mysterious lumps called Mima Mounds. “This undulating terrain of little mounds and intermound depressions was first described and named at Mima Prairie in western Washington,” a sign reads. “The origin of Mima mounds is a mystery, but many theories have been proposed to explain these curious formations.” The sign goes on to name various theories, including Ice Age ground cracking and the contraction of clay during wet and dry periods.
Geology lesson complete, I climb up to the top of 68 again. The fog has obscured any view, but I’m not here to sightsee. I barrel down connecting Trail 67. Its ever-changing sand patches and rollicking ruts make for an invigorating closer. I just hope I didn’t catch any poison oak.
From Highway 1 exit at the CSU Monterey Bay main exit, turn right at General Jim Moore Boulevard and left at Gigling Road. Park at corner of 8th Avenue and Gigling. Take Gigling or various unmarked Happy Trails to Watkins Gate Road where Bureau of Land Management trails begin.
Fort Ord has more than 86 miles of trails and roads open to mountain bikers and horses.
Catch views of “Impossible City” from trails 91-96; Ride by old military bunkers on trail 25 and scope out Mima Mounds from trail 56.