Thursday, January 17, 2013

San Diego's Rite of Passage (Road Cycling) Hills

Every town has its own set of testy hills that serve as 'rite of passage' hills for its budding local cyclists, I think. Here in San Diego, there are all sorts of hills to challenge all sorts of pedal pushers on two wheels. Here are my short list of San Diego hills to test myself on, arranged by degree of unpleasantness (from 'beginning to be rather unpleasant' to 'profanely nasty lungs/quads buster'):

Juan St in Old Town: a steep affair with cracky pavement and lots of parallel parked cars.
1. Juan Street in Old Town: This naughty bit of road running along the north end of Old Town State Park is pretty well known even to non-cyclists because of its location. It's lined by Bazaar del Mundo, the Mormon Battalion, Heritage Park (where all those gorgeous Victorian Era houses are), and, of course, Old Town and its tasty Mexican restaurants. The climb is from the intersection with Haney St (where Mormon Battalion & Heritage Park are) to the intersection with Sunset Blvd. It's a short ascent at just less than 1/2 mile, though still a testy work out with averages grade of 9%. There is a faux flat about 4/5 of the way up, however, so the actual grade of that first rising block is closer to 11%.

I'm afraid road surface (all concrete) is rather cracky, and there is parallel parking along most of its stretch. Juan St can be a very busy road during the weekends or when there's a festival going on in Old Town, so avoid it on such occasions.

Torrey Pines 'outside' and 'inside'. You can see the difference in gradients, I think.
2. Torrey Pines Service Road (Torrey Pines 'Inside'): Most San Diegans are familiar with the hilly stretch of N Torrey Pines Rd from Torrey Pines State Beach to Torrey Pines Golf Course. That bit of road is known to local cyclists as 'Torrey Pines - Outside', and it is a good little climb of steady 5% grade for 1.5 miles.
The park service road (Torrey Pines 'inside') that winds up the hill to the ocean-side of N Torrey Pines Rd, is markedly less friendly to weary legs, however. From the park entrance to the lookout just before Torrey Pines Lodge (where park HQ is) it climbs at 8% grade for about .8 mile. Pavement is pretty bumpy with quite a bit of sand and debris on the road. Traffic is much lighter, though, as people tend to park their cars at the lot at the bottom of the hill and then hike up the road to the park's many trail heads. This is a favorite hill-training climb for many. It's more advisable to climb up TP inside, then coast down TP outside... though crossing N Torrey Pines Rd at the bottom of the hill can be dicey at times (there's a traffic light controlled intersection at the top of the hill for easy crossing). Aside from offering a good hill work out, TP inside is blessed with many scenic rest spots for the more casual cyclists to pull over and enjoy some bird's eye views of the area.

Don't forget to visit Torrey Pines Lodge when you get to the top. It's hiding behind the parking lot on the inland side of the road and has lots of interesting displays about the state park.

Cabrillo Rd (Tidepool hill) on a really clear day.
3. Cabrillo Road 'Tidepool' Hill: Another favorite 'hill-training/hill-repeats' site for San Diegan cyclists, the scenic stretch of Cabrillo Rd from just beyond Cabrillo National Park entrance shack down to the new Pt Loma Lighthouse (and on to the famous tidepools) is just a tad short of a mile long, though it can be a punishing mile at near constant 8% grade that doesn't let up until you get to the top. To get to it you must enter Cabrillo National Park, however, and that carries a $3 entry fee per bicycle (the pass is good for 7 consecutive days)... or you can buy the Cabrillo Park pass for $15 that allows you unlimited entries for a year. A way around that is to get up early and enter the park before it opens at 9am.

Lemon St at Alto Dr, crest of the first steep pitch on the road.
4. Lemon St - Mt Helix Dr up Mt Helix in La Mesa/Casa de Oro area: This is a good hill climb not very far from the city. Heading east on Lemon Street in La Mesa, the road starts on a gradual climb from the intersection with Bancroft St, getting steeper and steeper as it approaches the intersection with Alto Dr. A little downhill/faux flat stretch before another vicious kick up to the curve overlooking Lake Helix. Yet another downhill/faux flat before a short but stingy kick to the intersection with Fuerte Rd. Two short right turns, and you are on a straight and steady uphill grind on Mt Helix Dr. A kick that is best sprinted/punched thru at the right turn corner onto the first ring up the mountain, and the road eases up a bit as the view opens up on the right side of the road. From then on the average grade is only around 6-7%, easing off toward the top. The total climb is roughly 2.5 miles. It's a good work out, but not a vicious one since the steep ramps are followed by a good flat/downhill bit for you to catch your breath before resuming. And the view from the top at the wonderful stone nature theater is worth every bit of the sufferings, imho.

Texas St from Mission Valley to University Heights.
5. Texas St: The .7 mile stretch of Texas St from Mission Valley to the uptown community of University Heights is an intimidating local climb. The average grade from bottom to top is about 10%, with maximum gradient of 15% for a short bit just north of the Adams Avenue bridge. I'm afraid traffic makes this gently curved quads workout unsuitable as a hill-repeat site, though. Since the widening and re-paving of the uphill bike lane last year climbing Texas St much safer than before. Descending it is still a anxious experience, however. The downhill bike lane is narrow and well littered with broken glass and other puncture-friendly debris. It is also often obstructed by protruding branches from roadside bushes. There is a traffic light at the bottom of the steep descent, and freeway merges are just beyond it. Still, as a one off climb, Texas St is a favorite final hill for many super fit local racers to climb up the uptown mesa on at the end of their ride.
Nautilus St at Fay Ave bike path
6. Mt Soledad by Nautilus St: When someone tells you that s/he has cycled up Mt Soledad, s/he really hasn't told you much. There are many roads going up that hill, and one doesn't have to be very fit to go all the way to its top on long and gentle routes like Soledad Mountain Rd, Soledad Rd, or Cardeno Dr. Riding up Mt Soledad from its west side by way of Nautilus St, however, is a fit step above the afore mentioned southern routes. From the first kick at the bottom of the hill (around the intersection with Draper St) thru La Jolla Scenic Dr to Mt Soledad Memorial is about 1.7 miles at pretty consistent 6% grade. A hill that separates beginners from the vets!

Honey Springs Rd in Jamul.
7. Honey Springs Road in Jamul: This unrelenting 7 miles long 5% grade road is San Diego County's quintessential category 2 mountain climb with a lot of good view to miss as you suffer up its slope. This is one of the few favorite climbs the local pros train on both for a long grinding speed ascent and for a good gently curvy descent. The pavement is mostly good with a few cracks on the tarmac and some shallow potholes. Not a lot of road shoulder - none at all during the s-curves section about 1/2 way up the climb, but then traffic is usually pretty light. Once you see Jacob's red barn on the right side you're only a bit over a mile from the top (at Barber Mountain Rd junction). Just after the red barn there's a local firehouse that has a bench and a water faucet outside of its east wall that you can use to refill your bottles. That's the only water stop on the road.

Via Capri route up Mt Soledad
8. Mt Soledad by Hidden Valley - Via Capri Rd: There are many roads heading up Mt Soledad, that big hill that separate the ritzy village of La Jolla from much lower keyed Mission Bay, but the most notorious of them all has to be the mile long climb up Hidden Valley & Via Capri Rds from its north side. Starting up Hidden Valley Rd from Torrey Pines Rd is a mellow & curvy affair through rows of nice & perfectly landscaped houses. Then the road does a serious kick up to the T intersection with Via Capri Dr. Watch out for traffic and time it so you don't have to stop in the middle of this right-turning 14% grade bit! After a block it eases off to around 8% and really doesn't drop off much from that at all all the way to the end. There are a couple more 13% grade ramps before the top, keeping the average gradient at 10% for the mile long climb... What can I say? It's short, but it's really gnarly and you have to be really really fit to make it all the way up without having to stop along the way. Once you've managed that, though, you'll have joined a very exclusive club of mountain goats on two wheels indeed. Saner people ride up Soledad on the more reasonable roads and then coast down Via Capri instead of up it.

As a side note, there is a steeper climb up Mt Soledad than the Hidden Valley - Via Capri route with much scarcer and slower traffic, Country Club Dr - Romero - Brodicaea - Encelia - Upper Hillside. At 11% average grade, it is a brutal climb with only two short mellow rest spots. Upper Hillside Dr is gated off; however, though there is a way through to pick up Via Casa Alta, another steep stretch of climbing to the radio towers and the true top of Soledad Mountain.

Yes, yes, one of these days I'll go back and take a proper shot of Cole Grade Rd...
9. Cole Grade Road (from the north side) in Pauma Valley: It makes a huge difference from which direction you climb this L-shaped road connecting Escondido to Pauma Valley. The really gnarly way is to come at it from the north (from Pauma Valley to Escondido)... preferably after having shot out both of your quads riding up that hill listed #11 on this list. But even if you get to the base of this 2 miles long at 9% grade climb with a fresh pair of legs, it is still a gnarly thoroughfare to fare through without an engine on your bike. Thankfully the road is moderately bendy, which allows you the mental trick of trying to repeatedly lie to yourself that you'll pause for a break when you've cleared this next curve up in front... until you finally heave yourself and your hard working bike over its crest. The good part is that traffic-wise Cole Grade Rd is a much more pleasant thing to ride on coming and going between Pauma Valley/Palomar and Escondido/Valley Center than Valley Center Rd is... At least for me, anyhow, I'd rather drop dead from heart attack while snailing my way up this hideous slope than getting flattened by speeding motorists zooming up and down the nearly shoulder-free stretches of Valley Center Rd.

10. Montezuma Valley Road (SR22) AKA 'Montezuma Grade': Alas, yours truly have yet to ride up this most scenic of local climbs known to cyclists as 'the Glass Elevator'. Being on the east side of the mountains northeast of Julian without much public transportation access, it's a bit out of the way for car-less me. Once the weather gets a bit warmer, though, I might just catch one of the two weekly buses from San Diego there and camp out the night in Borrego before riding back into town via this spectacular road. Immediately upon leaving Borrego Springs the SR22 jumps into a near constant 6% grade climb up many S-curves for 10 miles as it winds its way across the Peninsula Range toward Ranchita. Watch the video above and you'll know why this is such a prized stretch of pavement for us bikers!

South Grade Rd up Palomar Mtn.
11. Palomar South Grade Road (S-6): Actually, this climb starts on Hwy 76 at the intersection with Valley Center Rd. Look for Jilberto's Mexican restaurant on the north side of the road. It marks the official start point of this grueling 12 miles long climb. The first 6 miles of it on Hwy 76 is a constant grind at 6% grade until a short level-off just before the S6 turn off. Taking a left onto South Grade Rd (S6), if you are low on water, the only water stop on this slope is at the Oak Knolls Campground on the left side of the road (there is a little shop with cold drinks and even ice-creams!). From then on, though, it's an endlessly wiggly 7% grade climb that really doesn't vary more than 1% gradient point either way all the way to the top. In the warm/hot months between May and November, this slope is plagued with swarms of face-eating flies that love to confuse the salty sweat on your face with nectar or something actually savory. I'd make sure I have 2 bottles of water and 1 bottle of electrolyte drink when I go up this thing. One of the water bottle is used exclusively to splash sweat off my face to get rid of the flies... As bad as the climb and the heat can get, the flies are really the worst... They know you can't sprint off on so grinding a slope, and taking a hand off to brush them away really doesn't help with your suffering. Water splashing works great for me... though it does wash the sunscreen off and I almost always get a bit sunburned on this ride.

Nate Harrison Grade Rd up Palomar Mtn.
12. Nate Harrison Grade Road: This lesser known route is probably the steepest and most scenic route up Mt Palomar, with the caveat that it is only partly paved. Most of the road is dirt/gravel of various degrees of wheel-skidding looseness. I climbed this thing just yesterday on my road bike (with 700x25 Continental Gatorskin road tires). It is quite doable on a roadie but very painful so I would recommend going up it on a mountain bike instead. After 2 miles of paved road through orange orchards the road narrows to just 1 lane (don't know what happens if two cars have to pass each other going opposite way on the narrow parts of this road. There is just not enough room!) of firm dirt with a thin layer of fine loose gravel on top. After a mile or two the loose gravel became more coarse and a skid-fest for road bike tires. That the slope is nearly constant between 7-8% grade the whole way doesn't help.

Wiggly Nate Harrison Grade Rd
There is one faux flat right around the middle of the climb, but it is offset by 3 or 4 steep ramps that are as steep as 13%. Such gradient wouldn't be a problem on a firm road, but on loose gravel with the rear tire skidding under you, it is most disconcerting (especially since you tend to slide to the low side of the road, making it hard to stay on the line you want to ride on). There is a mile or so of old broken tarmac bit half way thru, but it ended into more gravel and rocky stretches (hard to see a good line because of tree shadows). The top mile or so of the road is paved, however, and there are many good scenic spots along the way. If you climb this thing in winter, beware that this road isn't really maintained, so there may be frozen snow on the road once you've passed 4500ft elevation or so. I wouldn't go down this road on a road bike, but mountain bikes should do okay. Just brake well before you need to and don't go speeding thru blind corners (there are many of those on this thing. It's just as wiggly as South Grade Rd.... or more).

San Diego's Steepest Short Climbs
San Diego's Steepest Sub-Milers
San Diego's Steepest 1-3 Mile Climbs


  1. Good list! I propose another good hill to climb in San Diego - Jamacha Rd as it turns into Apple St in Dictionary Hills. Have you ridden up that yet?

    Marco S

  2. Hi Marco,
    Sorry I didn't see your comment earlier! Yes, I've gone up Jamacha/Apple in Dictionary Hills indeed. Gnarly legs-chewing thing! Great view of Sweetwater reservoir & Mt San Miguel from the top, tho. :D One of these days I've gotta go back and try to film my way up that thing... but first I need more hill training! ;o)

    Thanks for stopping by!

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  4. As I just rode Honey Springs Road on Friday (first time in the 40 years I've lived here), I was curious about other grades. It's listed as a 5% (average?) grade for 7 miles, but I"m curious about the grades towards the top, where it gets much steeper. Any info on that? Thx!

  5. Hi Anon,
    Congrats on your first time up Honey Springs! :o) The 5% is the average grade for the 7 miles indeed, though, as you have found, it isn't a consistent climb and has ramps and false flats. I think from Deerhorn Valley Rd up to Barber Mtn Rd (the last climbing section to the crest... after the red barn and the fire house) averages around 7%. The Strava segment on it is pretty accurate ( ).

    Cheers! :o)

  6. Thanks for the list - something to aspire to! Just curious if you've considered Double Peak in San Marcos for this list? I climbed it for the first time a few weeks back and it hurt! I'm not sure the gradient but it had to be 10%+...

    1. Hi Patrick,
      I did indeed. That is a good little stinger! :D I think the last 1/2 mile or so must be around 13%, quite a test after the 3 miles up San Elijo Rd (or worse, Twin Oaks Valley Rd).

      I think I will have to make a North County steepies list... and San Marcos will likely be over-represented with the steepies up Double Peak, Lake San Marcos radio tower & Mt Whitney. Lovely gory climbs! :o)

    2. I rode #9, #10, and #11 on the Oceanside Double Century. So there is no need for public transportation, or over night camping required to hammer Montezuma to Cole Grade. You can also ride the same route on the Borrego DC too. Oh, and the ride into Julian on Old Julian Hwy and Julian rode is pretty long too, about the same as Montezuma. You can start by lake Hodges.


Thanks for stopping by. Be safe on the roads!