Friday, March 29, 2013

A ride through the enchanted forest of Fallbrook, De Luz & Rice Canyon

It was 6:30am when I got off bus 389 at the new bus stop on Hwy 76 at Old Hwy 395 in Fallbrook. The bike that I had painstakingly cleaned and lubed only yesterday is now wet and dirty from spending the last 3 hours in thick fog at the front of the bus. It was still dark out, and I was quivering in the moist and cold morning air, cursing at myself for interrupting a good sleep at 3:30am in order to catch the early buses that would enable me to be standing so far away from warm shelter in such unpleasant weather at this hour of the morning. It is always like this the once or twice a week that I drag myself out of bed for a long and exotic country ride. But I don't own a car and this is what I have to do to fit in such a ride and still be able to get back home before dark.
The park&ride lot at the NE corner of Hwy 76 and Old Hwy 395.
(Route map)
There is a Mobil gas station with an attached K convenient store at the other end of the park-and-ride lot where the new bus stop is, but I was fully loaded with food supplies. I meant to first ride west on 76 to climb up Sage Road to Pala Mesa (it was my nemesis climb when I lived in Murrieta in the early 90's and used to ride my mountain bike down to Fallbrook once a week) before following curvy Wilt Road north. But it was cold and I didn't fancy riding on narrow winding residential roads when it's foggy out and the residents are pulling out of their driveways to go to work, so I decided to just go north up Old Hwy 395 instead.

Going north on Old Hwy 395 while indulging in some Schadenfreude looking at the heavy southbound traffic on I-15.
It is a boring stretch of straight road - made even less appealing by its constant gentle uphill grade (the type of phantom hill that pulls down on your bike without really giving you a real hill to climb) and its proximity to I-15. After a couple of miles I had enough of the non-existing view and turned left on Reche Rd to go through the more interesting (and slower traffic) part of Fallbrook, the rustic Live Oak Park.

Live Oak Park Road in Fallbrook.
Turning right onto oak-covered Live Oak Park Rd is an escape into a fairy tale; rolling through the curvy fogged in lane that looked like it was hiding elusive elves and hobbits just behind the next corner. Trafficwise it would have been better to turn left/east on E Alvarado for some really gorgeous (and rather steeply undulating) riding, but I missed the turn due to absent-mindedness and continued on to Gum Tree Ln to Hwy 79/N Mission Rd instead. That cut off quite a bit of climbing in a bad trade for high-speed car traffic. 
N Pico/ De Luz Rd turn off on N Mission Rd in Fallbrook.
It was a relief to turn right onto N Pico/De Luz Road for another lapse into fantasy land; this time one that would last more than an hour.

Did I mention that it was foggy out? Rolling deeper into the oak covered curvy De Luz Road in a fog was almost a ride into Tolkien's Tales from the Perilous Realm... or just the Old Forest from The Fellowship of the Ring. The encroaching oak canopies hiding haze-covered evil wights behind each bend, and I found myself looking around trying to catch sight of Old Tom Bombadil as Goldenberry, Daughter of the River, hummed in my ears from the De Luz Creek nearby.

Harris Trail, branching up the hill to De Luz Heights from De Luz Rd.
After a cliff-hugging bit of climbing on De Luz Rd I took a detour right onto narrow but pretty well-paved Harris Trail for even more 'off-the-beaten-path' exploration. Alas, the fog was so heavy that all the gorgeous view from that exposed hill-scaling road was well shrouded in a uniform gray mist. An exasperating thing for a ride-for-the-view cyclist like me, so I parked myself on a dirt turn out and munched on the two apple turnovers that were weighing down my backpack and waited for a good 30 minutes for the haze to thin out a bit.

Life is like riding up winding Harris Trail in De Luz Heights; you never know what's lurking around the next corner!
It was a good move. Harris Trail is full of surprises. As I wind up the hill around a left-turning corner I first noticed a little stream of water running along the road's right edge, then I rounded the corner to find a little Asiatic oasis of lotus covered pond,  not-so-wild daffodils and a grove of bamboo trees. It was so out-of-place in a most charming way imaginable!

More views from Harris Trail.
Just beyond it and the Shogo Mountain Rd turn off I pedaled through a thick patch of gray straight into avocado country. Then another bend of the trail's many little steep hills unfurled a line of tall palm trees beside the road. What the heck were tall palm trees doing on top of a rocky mountain range anyhow? By now the sun had started to flex its ray a bit and much of the fog had retreated to lower elevation (mind, the hills of De Luz Heights aren't that tall. Riding in this part of town you get a lot of short and steep up and down but no real long mountain climb).

De Luz Heights Rd. Looking down east toward Sandia Creek and looking up to its crest at Big Rock Ranch.
After a short descent to a T-junction I headed left/west up the really narrow De Luz Heights Rd. This is a charming country lane with hardly any flat bit to speak of. You are either punching up a steep little climb or you are nursing your brakes down another steep drop. It was nearing 9am (I had been taking my time photographing and bird-watching) and a few locals were out... along with their dogs. The dogs were mostly obedient, though they were also mostly unleashed, which meant a lot of cautious riding past them on the really narrow lane. The last bit of De Luz Heights Rd features a series of steep step climbs up to a hilltop stately occupied by Big Rock Ranch.

Looking back down De Luz Heights Rd from the top gave an interesting view of the road.
This bit of Joan Lane smelled particularly nice, thanks to the blooming bush of jasmine on the wooden fence.
Heading down the narrow, twisty and very steep descent of Joan Lane there was amazing view at every corner. De Luz Heights is a strange country; with lanes so narrow that two cars can barely pass each other, exotic trees popping out in the middle of nowhere on the ground of huge manor houses perched on hilltops like castles in the clouds.
Looking down on Daily Rd from Joan Lane.
Going down Cathy Ln to Ross Lake.
Ross Lake, all fenced in.
I was very happy to be riding down Cathy Lane toward Ross Lake rather than to climb up it's long-ish curvy stretch of 14% gradient. The lane became covered with tree canopies toward the bottom as I turned left onto Daily Road and made my way around Ross Lake, the little private loch in the middle of the mountain. The 10 acre lake is completely fenced in with locked gates on each side and is home to, surprise - surprise, the De Luz Yacht Club! Who would have thought there would be a yacht club hidden in a little manmade loch in the hills between Riverside and San Diego Counties, ay? Apparently the area was developed by Ross Daily in 1958 and the roads were planned from a helicopter. Maybe that explains the outrageous gradient on some of these narrow lanes?

A few friendly locals were out and about, fishing, jogging or walking the dog. Even Shiela, the lake's resident black swan, glided in to check me (or perhaps just my wacky looking road bike) out.

Shiela, the Ross Lake black swan, in the middle of one of her showboating spins.
A strange beast, that bird was. She floated to a halt a few feet in front of me on the lake and did a few slow spins in place. I took a few shots of her with the camera before panning around to focus in on something else. That caused her such indignation that she gave a terse loud squawk, turned right around and zoomed off to row with a family of American coots fishing nearby instead.

Daily Rd climbing north from Ross Lake.
I rounded the lake to the right and continued north on Daily Rd as it climbed up out of the little valley. This bit of De Luz is quite filled with interesting birds. I passed many varieties of sparrows, a few mourning doves, an industrious acorn woodpecker abusing a telephone pole just before Daily Rd plateaued off into Camaron Rd, and saw quite a few hawks patrolling the sky looking for a fresh brunch. I was able to shoot my camera off at a few while staying on the bike, and got off the bike in time to capture some others.
A redtailed hawk patrolling the road.
American kestrel, hooded oriole, American robin, yellow warbler, western scrub jay spotted along Daily Rd.
There were two misses that nagged at me a bit, though. The first was a white-headed bald eagle I spotted while rolling down a steep bit of the road and couldn't brake softly enough to not spook him off before I could fish my camera out. The other was a huge fat roadrunner that crossed the road not more than 30 yards ahead of me. Alas, I was snailing my way up an unfriendly steep climb at the moment and needed both of my hands on the handle bar.

Hilltop view from Camaron Rd
More treed in riding on De Luz - Murrieta Rd
Daily Rd turned into Camaron Rd as it crested the top of a rather photogenic hill. I was back in avocado country again as the road descended down to intersect with De Luz - Murrieta Rd. This was the same road I started out on in Fallbrook, of course, but my detour had taken me up the hills rather than staying in the valley with De Luz Creek. I rejoined De Luz Rd northeast and was soon enjoying more enchantingly curvy oaken forest riding. A family of rock swallows buzzed overhead as I passed their home bend on the road.

A creek crossing on De Luz Rd
The Margarita Creek running along the east side of De Luz Rd
You know you're nearing the turn off to Temecula when De Luz Rd goes from rustic to manicured.
There are many creek crossings on De Luz Rd. These are concrete crossing with diagonal ruts etched onto the pavement that feel pretty much like riding over a cattle crossing. They are best traversed at speed with flexed arms and knees and light grips. Take time to check out the little creek if you ever ride this way. It even has a little waterfall at one of the bend!

Cross Creek Golf Course off from De Luz Rd.
Rancho California Rd, a bit of climbing before a fun 8% grade descent into Temecula.
Rancho California Rd crest.
When the roadside vegetation went from rustic to manicured I knew it was only a few miles before I get to the Rancho California Rd turn off for Temecula. Rancho California Rd was a boring stretch of this ride, I'm afraid. Turning east, it goes straight up a long-ish climb with nary a view to speak of. I was tempted to turn south off it to return to Fallbrook via Sandia Creek Rd, but a run into Temecula held the promise of lunching at my favorite restaurant when I used to live in town, Peony's. I had been dreaming of their house special chicken ever since I took off for this ride... And so up the boring Rancho California Rd I rode until it peaked high above what is now a real city (amazing how this place had grown in the last decade!) when I could finally shift to the big ring again and coast down the curvy 8% grade east face of the mountain.

Rancho California Rd at Ynez Rd in Temecula
Alas, Peony's was not where it once was in the shopping complex between Rancho California and Margarita Rds. I can't tell you how demoralizing that was! (I only found out later that they had moved a few hundred yards west on the same road... and I rode right by it twice without noticing it!)

Rainbow Canyon Rd carving its way south along the rocky mountains.
Snow-capped San Jacinto Mtn was visible from Rainbow Canyon Rd
Frustrated, I snacked on another granola bar and headed south on Ynez Rd, through the ranchos along La Paz Rd to Hwy 79, where I had to share a hundred or so yards with a lot of cars before I could turn south on Pechanga Pkwy and then right on Rainbow Canyon Rd on my way out of Dodge. I should say, it is quite less fun going south uphill on Rainbow Canyon Rd than the other way around. The road is quite curvy with lots of broken glass debris on the shoulder. I remember this used to be a granny gear hill for me back in my mountain biking 90's. Nowadays it's a middle-gear climb.

One of the many flowers & cactus farms in Rainbow. Mt Olympus in background.
Rice Canyon Rd at 8th St in Rainbow.
There was nothing much to see in Rainbow as I rolled through and took the quick turns onto 8th St and then Rice Canyon Road. I was tempted to veer left onto Rainbow Heights Rd for a scenic detour, but it was getting quite warm and more climbing didn't feel very inviting just then.

Rice Canyon Rd and its ruts-hiding tree shadows.
Oh, what a fun ride going south on Rice Canyon Road could be if only the pavement wasn't full of wicked long ruts that blended themselves in perfectly to the all too abundant tree shadows? Going south from Rainbow on Rice Canyon Rd is mostly downhill, though there are a few abrupt rollers to climb up in the middle of it. The road is very narrow and tree shadows makes it hard to spot the many ruts and potholes and all the other tire-eating thing rural roads like to hide up the middle of their pavement. In the southern bit of Rice Canyon the view opened up over avocado farms, though, and the road ended t-boned to the north side of a curve on Hwy 76.

Highway 76 west from Rice Canyon Rd toward I-15.
The two or so miles west on Hwy 76 between Rice Canyon Rd and my bus stop on the far side of the freeway were the tensest two miles of the trip even though I was traversing it just past noon on a weekday. Thanks to Pala and Pauma Casinos just up the road, this narrow two laned (and mostly shoulderless) highway always carries more big car traffic than is comfortable to share my tiny little bicycle with. Luckily, once I got to Rosemary's rock quarry another lane and a wide shoulder was added to the westbound side. The shoulder was mostly useless because of all the rocks scattered on it, but the extra lane sure helped.

All in all it was a good 56 miles ride, most of it very scenic and interesting. I hope to go up for more variations of the route before the weather gets to be too hot for such a ride (I reckon I still have a month or two left before De Luz gets too warm for me). I should note for anyone looking to try out this route that there is no water stop to speak of on the De Luz - Harris Trail - Camaron variation from Fallbrook to Temecula (if you stay on De Luz Rd all the way, though, there is water at the fire station), and the same goes for Rainbow Canyon & Rice Canyon Rd, so water up before you leave Fallbrook and Temecula and you should do okay.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Riding CCW Great Western Loop with Honey Springs Rd with a group

Although I generally lone-range on my weekday long exploration bike rides, I usually join up with a group once or twice on weekends. A couple of weekends ago I went with a group of 5 to ride a preview of the hilly bit of this April's Gran Fondo Campagnolo, starting from Eastlake area of Chula Vista and go up Honey Springs Rd to ride counter-clockwise most of the traditional Great Western Loop, coming back to Eastlake via Hwy 94 (instead of climbing up Lyons Valley Rd) to Otay Lakes Road.

Route map:

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I have done the Great Western Loop (GWL) and climbed up cat. 2 Honey Springs Rd a few times on my own, though I had never tried riding on Campo Road/Hwy 94 from Rancho San Diego to Otay Lakes Road... and probably wouldn't try it alone. Call me a chicken, but to connect to Honey Springs Rd from Otay Lakes Rd you have to spend a hundred meter or so on Hwy 94, and that little stretch alone is enough to scare me off soloing any significant bit of that narrow two-laned highway between San Diego and the turn off for the Mexican border in Tecate. There is hardly any road shoulder to ride on, and the road is too curvy and over-populated with speeding semi trucks and RVs for yours truly. Being in a group would help, though, I thought, if I can manage to be in the middle of the line of cyclists rather than at the slow end of it (so the trucks and RVs would spot the others and know to expect more cyclists on the road by the time they get to me, see?).

Anyhow, we went off a bit late since one of guys that signed up for the ride pulled a no-notice no show on us. An icky thing to do to stand up a group on a hilly ride like this! If you ever sign up to ride GWL or Honey Springs Rd in the summer & fall months, call the group if you have to bail out and don't make them wait. It gets really hot on the climb and even 20 minutes delay can make all the difference in the world!
Rolling east on Otay Lakes Rd on a hazy morning.
As it was, we took off on a pretty fast clip down rolling Olympic Pkwy to curvy Wueste Rd (which cuts Olympic Pkwy twice, be sure to take the second Wueste Rd instead of the first one that dead ends at a park on the south side of the lake after 3 or so miles) to Otay Lakes Rd. It was pretty hazy out, so all the bike lights came in handy riding east along the lower Otay Lakes (there isn't much road shoulder much of the way and what little traffic on that road tends to be speedy).

On the east shore of Otay Lake sits Nichols' Field, a little landing strip that is home to Skydive San Diego. Its little clubhouse contains Lemon Drop Cafe (food & drinks) and a row of really nice port-a-toilets (I mean, deluxe level port-a-toilets! They even have wash basin with tap water!). It, along with the Pio Pico general store at the campground another 3 or so miles up the road, are the only watering spots along this east end of Otay Lakes Rd.
Honey Springs Rd climbing up toward Lyons Peak, the rocky peak on the left side of the road.
After a little off-course venture on Hwy 94 we made our way up Honey Springs Rd as the air began to warm and the haze was thinning out a bit. This 7 mile climb is one of the best category 2 climbs in San Diego County. Its average gradient is 5%, but with a couple of ramps that are around 10-12%, followed by faux flats. The road is dominated by rocky Lyons Peak either straight ahead or off to the left for most of the climb (it's the rocky mountain with lots of antennae on top). There is enough road shoulder to ride on for much of the way up, except for a 1/4 miles shoulder-free stretch of the S-curves area about 2 miles up the road. Traffic usually is quite light, especially during the week, though we were riding on a Saturday and so were sharing the road with a few other cyclists and motorcyclists... along with occasional cars and trucks.
Looking back down Honey Springs Rd
The Honey Springs Rd 'Dip'
Mother Grundy Truck Trail turn off on Honey Springs Rd
There aren't many good turn out spots on Honey Springs Rd. The first good one is at the row of mail boxes where Mother Grundy Truck Trail branches off to the south. If you run low of water climbing up this road, however, the only water source along the climb is up at the Deerhorn Valley fire station on the right side of the road after Deerhorn Valley Rd and Jacob's red barn. On the left side of the fire house is a little stone bench and a water faucet that you can fill the water bottles with.

Honey Springs Rd at Jacob's red barn.
Deerhorn Valley fire station with water faucet on its left wall
If you plan on doing the GWL counter clockwise like my group did after climbing up Honey Springs Rd, you really must fill up at the DV fire station since that is the last water stop along the way all the way to Rancho San Diego. Those who plan to turn left (west) on Lyons Valley Rd for a clockwise loop, however, will have another chance at the Lyons Valley Trading Post a couple of miles west of Four Corners (the local name of the intersection of Lyons Valley Rd and Honey Springs Rd/Skyline Truck Trail).
Looking south on Honey Springs Rd from DV fire house. The tall rocky peak is Bratton's Peak (Eagle's Nest), actually on the near side of the road (it curves right at the white tree).
Our group was severely stretched out on the climb, and as nobody else in the group had ridden around here before I stopped everyone riding up behind me at the DV fire house so they can fill their water bottles before the 26 water-free miles stretch that laid ahead. We paused there for a good 15 minutes until the last rider arrived and filled up her bottles before taking off again. Our ride leader was the only rider ahead of me, though, and had gone all the way to Four Corners to wait for us. I was reminded yet again to get the cellphone number of all the riders in the group the next time I lead my own group ride. I don't know what our lead must have been thinking, waiting at the side of that intersection for perhaps 20 minutes before any of his riders turned up on the road. I was surprised that he didn't retrace back down Honey Springs to see what was holding everyone up!
Honey Springs Rd crests at Barber Mountain Rd.
Four Corners!
After the DV fire house Honey Springs Rd climbs another mile and a half or so to its crest at Barber Mountain Road. A mile of speedy descent followed into Four Corners where we turned right (east) and indulged on a couple more descending miles on Lyons Valley Road.

Heading NE on Lyons Valley Rd. Gaskill Peak in left background.
Alas, after the initial downhill miles Lyons Valley Rd soon climbs uphill again in stepwise fashion. Some 'steps' are more gnarly than others, now that we were closer to noon and the sun was flexing its beam a bit. The hillsides were full of wild lavender this time of year, however, and the scenes we rode through gave quite something to look at to take our mind off all the suffering.

Equestrians preparing for a ride in Barrett Valley area
Lyons Valley Rd carving its way northeast toward Japatul
View east of Lyons Valley Rd as it nears Japatul.
The road hugs Lawson Peak & Gaskill Peak to the left and, after Camp Barrett, features spectacular Barrett Valley to the right. Unfortunately we couldn't see secluded Barrett lake itself, but the hillside surrounding it is supremely beautiful... You just have to remember to take your eyes off the road and look right (and behind-ish) every now and then!
Re-grouped at Japatul Rd junction
Heading east on Japatul Rd after descending The Wall
After re-grouping at the junction of Japatul Rd, we turned west (left) and headed down the hill. There is a gorgeous valley view off the right side of the road as it curves its way east. The descent is uniformed except for two uphill humps on the road; the first one is fun to punch your way over without getting out of the big chain ring, the second is a vicious 1/3 mile stretch of 9-12% grade climb that really makes you pay for previous stretch of fun gravity-driven joy ride.
Loveland Reservoir from Japatul Rd. Looking rather anemic.
Once you've crested the climb, be sure to look left for the narrow finger of Loveland Reservoir on the left side of the road. Japatul Rd turns into Tavern Rd up to Alpine at the Y-intersection. We turned left onto Dehesa Rd and enjoyed 4 hair-raising miles of curvy descent into the Sycuan Casino traffic. This took a little adjusting. I could count on one hand the number of cars that passed me on Lyons Valley and Japatul Rds, but I quickly ran out of countable digits once I got halfway down Dehesa.

A left turn at Harbison Canyon Rd junction to stay on Dehesa Rd and through the Singing Hills neighborhood of Rancho San Diego. No photos from this bit of the ride, I'm afraid. Too downhilly followed by too trafficky for me to fish the camera out. By now everyone was running low on water again, so we veered into Cottonwood Golf Course along the way to patronize its well stocked clubhouse to-go bar. I was so content, resting in the shade while nursing a cup of iced Sierra Mist, that I totally forgot to take photo there, too...
Heading back SE on Steele Canyon Rd.
At any rate, we only rested a bit before hitting the road again, turning left (south) on Steele Canyon Rd, up a gnarly little climb toward Jamul. Our ride leader was nowhere in sight as I headed the chase group to the Campo Rd/Hwy 94 junction, so I headed left (SE) and hoped that he hadn't taken the wrong turn and gone into El Cajon instead.

Campo Rd/Hwy 94 between Rancho San Diego & Jamul has a decent shoulder to ride on.
The 'Phantom Hill' on Campo Rd/Hwy 94 heading into Jamul
Sure enough, a mile or so into 'the phantom hill' climb up Campo Rd he came riding up from behind, said a quick hello and was gone off the front of the group again up the busy highway. Did I mention that the dude was riding a single-gear bicycle? It isn't a fixie as he can coast and has front and rear brakes, but it only has one gear. I had all the exercise I needed going up things like Honey Springs Rd on my 8 speed cassette and I couldn't keep up with this single-geared dude!

Elvis was here! In Jamul!
When the road shoulder disappeared on Campo Rd/Hwy 94 SE of Melody Ln
The view sure is good off Campo Rd
Anyhow, Campo Rd is definitely one of the 'roads to avoid cycling on' in San Diego. I heard it used to be quite nice until it was connected to the Mexican border crossing at I-188 in Tecate, after which it became way too crowded with speeding cars and trucks and has one of the highest accident rates in the county. On the northwest stretch between Rancho San Diego and Jamul it does have a good bit of road shoulder to ride on, however. After Jamul a gorgeous view develops on the slight descent toward Otay Lakes Rd. A curvy narrow highway, hardly any shoulder to speak of, lots of speeding RVs and trucks, and a gorgeous view to distract drivers all the way to Tecate. Hwy 94 isn't a road for sane cyclists to ride on voluntarily!

It was a relief when we finally turned right onto Otay Lakes Rd for the home stretch of the trip. Everybody was dragging a bit by this point, though I was familiar enough with the area to have saved some reserve just for the next 9 miles of strong headwind back to the west side of the lake, and did some serious pulling. That didn't help keep the group together, however. I wanted to stay just ahead of the two gals in our group that were struggling a bit, but I didn't dare losing touch with the two guys who were forging on ahead either, because they didn't know the route and I was afraid that they would miss the Wueste Rd turn off to go back to our start point.

Back west (and into the wind) on Otay Lakes Rd
In the end I had to drop the gals just before Skydive San Diego, tucked in and time trialed my way back to the guys and caught them just as the fastest one was about to keep heading west on Otay Lakes Rd at Wueste Rd intersection (it is a minor turn off that is really easy to miss) and had to ring my bell and shouted like crazy to get his attention. We waited there until the gals arrived a few minutes later before taking off again at a much easier pace in order to stay in a tighter group. None of us had seen the ride leader since the corner of Hwy 94 and Otay Lakes Rd where he waited to direct the rest of the group back west, so I was a bit concerned that he might have missed Wueste Rd turn off. A quick phone call and it turned out the dude had gone on ahead to the finish.

Up another Olympic Pkwy roller toward the finish!
The way back wasn't complicated, though, as we rolled up the 3 or 4 rollers on Olympic Pkwy back to the parking lot of Home Depot where we started. It was a long and hilly work out with lots of view and good company.

After this ride I was reminded of how difficult leading a group ride of this caliber must be, though. I really was spoiled when I started doing group rides with the LUNA Chix last year (they're predominantly woman riders, but they also welcome guys who will stay with the group rather than going off on attacks) since they always have at least 3 lead riders taking care of the group (a lead rider heading the way, a sweep rider at the back of the pack, and an intermediate rider who makes sure everyone makes the right turns along the route). Perhaps only 2 lead riders are enough for shorter and easier rides, but on punishing hilly ones like this ride you'd either need a marked course or a third, I think... That, or making all the riders study the route before hand!