This article is part of Mtbr’s Ultimate Base Camp feature. See all the stories in this special section here.
Testing shiny new outdoor gear is a tough, tough job. No, really it is. Initially we got familiar with the equipment for the Ultimate Base Camp in backyard camp sessions. But because we’re duty-bound to give our readers comprehensive, real world feedback, we hit the hard roads and trails of California to pressure-test our initial impressions. All three of our test destinations—Kernville, Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz—are each road trip worthy. As you read through our destination guides, we think you’ll see why.
The hard-working town of Bakersfield, Calif. is perhaps best known for oil production, agriculture, and the “Bakersfield sound,” a rough-hewn variant of country music from Dust Bowl refugees like Merle Haggard and Buck Owens. What’s not-so-well-known is its gateway status to some of the best all-mountain riding in the state.
Situated a twisty hour-and-a-half drive east sits the tiny town of Kernville, near where the Sierra Nevada mountain range comes to its southern terminus. The berg is ground-zero for the Cannell Plunge, an epic, advanced-level, downhill-tilting route featuring nearly 30 miles of roller coaster topography punctuated by rocky chutes, ribbons of buff singletrack, the occasional uphill grunt, and enough picture perfect scenery to start a postcard factory.
A few miles south, the aptly named Just Outstanding trail bobs, weaves, and tunnels like a bobsled run from the Alta Sierra Ski Resort back to the picturesque Isabella Lake basin near the town of Wofford Heights. Together, the pair of rides make the perfect itinerary for a weekend trip and serve as an appetizer to the area’s mountain biking tonnage. That inventory includes trails used for the long-running Keyseville Classic Race and several others.
Ride 1: The Cannell Plunge
The epic Cannell Plunge winds from a start at the 9,200-foot saddle of Sherman Pass and flows for nearly 30 miles through the Sequoia National Forest’s tree-lined tracts and alpine meadows dropping some 8,000 feet to its conclusion in the Kern River Valley. Though the mostly-singletrack route features a distinct downhill orientation, including The Plunge itself–the route’s mind-blowing drop of 5,000 feet over the final eight miles–it requires true all-mountain fitness and a bike to match. You’re gonna have fun on this one, but you’re gonna earn it, despite the long shuttle ride to the top.
And while The Plunge may be the cherry on top of this tasty mountain bike sundae, to overlook its preamble is to forget about the ice cream, whipped cream, bananas and hot chocolate topping. Like a good sundae, the Cannell Plunge’s whole is greater than its parts, but each part is pretty damn tasty on its own. From pump track-like flow sections to rocky, technical chutes to barely-more-than-tire-wide singletrack the Cannell Plunge feels like five or six rides-in-one and deserves inclusion in any “California’s Best” conversations.
Riders get treated to both amazing riding and awesome scenery on the Cannell Plunge route near Kernville, Calif. Photo by Don Palermini
The Cannell Plunge requires advanced-intermediate to expert technical abilities, excellent fitness, and the ability to be self-sufficient in the event of mishap or mechanical malfunction. The route is long and strenuous, and some parts are quite remote with no cell phone coverage. Light armor recommended, large hydration pack required.
Though the Plunge is mostly downhill, it does have a couple gut-busting climbs, but they’re short and well worth the effort. Photo by Don Palermini
The spring and fall are best for riding Cannell, though the summer is doable if you can take the heat. Our first trip to Kernville in June saw high temperatures of 111 degrees, making even carbon handlebars hot to the touch. On the other end of the spectrum, snow on the ride’s upper reaches is not uncommon for the early spring and late fall. A lower shuttle drop-off at the 7,500 foot Horse Meadow serves as an alternate start point when Sherman Pass is snowed-in. Temperature swings of 20-30 degrees between the start and finish are commonplace any time, so bring layers and make sure you can carry it all. The folks at Mountain and River Adventures (800-861-6553) can usually give you an idea of what to expect if you give them a call a few days before you arrive.
On this particular ride temperatures were as high as 111-degrees. It’s also been known to snow at the ride’s high-elevation start. Photo by Don Palermini