Friday, March 1, 2013

Great Western Loop road cycling ride (clockwise)

If you road bike recreationally in San Diego County sooner or later you'll be asked if you have done the Great Western Loop yet. This 42 or so miles mountainous loop is one of the rite of passage rides amongst local cyclists. It is one of the more accessible mountain rides in the area, and very doable even for casual cyclists (though the route tends to be dominated by serious riders and racers).
I would have loved to have a partner riding with me on my first ride of the GWL, but the route is reportedly most bikes-friendly on weekdays and early in the morning (part of the route is subjected to Sycuan casino traffic... think older folks in big trailers and casino buses) and that sort of interferes with most people's work schedule.

Create Maps or search from 80 million at MapMyRide

At any rate, I got up early a few Wednesdays ago and decided to go explore it on my own. By 6:30am I was on the green line trolley heading east to El Cajon Transit Center east of the city. I had decided on making the Starbuck's coffee at Washington Plaza my official start/finish point, and do the clockwise loop. This is not the same Starbuck's that serves at the GWL meetup spot for most GWL rides, however. I chose this shop further north on Jamacha Rd because it's closer to the trolley station and to avoid traffic going east on Willow Glen past the golf course.
Starbuck's on Jamacha Rd at E Washington in El Cajon.
It was cold out! I had 4 layers of clothing on and it still took a while to warm up, riding east on E Washington Rd. A mile or so east of Jamacha Rd E Washington turns into Dehesa Rd and does a seriously curvy drop down into a valley. I imagine this bit of the road wouldn't be very pleasant to cycle on during heavy traffic hours... very narrow shoulder, precipitous drop off the right side, and lots of view to distract drivers.

Dehesa Rd drops down into Singing Hills
At the bottom of the drop the traffic light at the intersection with Willow Glen Rd doesn't recognize bicycles. If one is willing to pretend to be a pedestrian, however, there is a pedestrian crossing button at the right corner that one can push to get the light to change. I headed straight thru on Dehesa Rd, which starts out level enough before angling up on a gentle climb toward Harbison Canyon Rd turn off. Traffic was mild, and the road shoulder wide and well paved. The golf course on the right hand side used to be known as 'Singing Hills', though it had been purchased by Sycuan a few years back.
Dehesa Rd at Harbison Canyon Rd
Hanging right to continue on Dehesa Rd I soon passed the entrance to Sycuan Casino. I was lucky and traffic was surprisingly light (I had been warned by a few people about this stretch of the road and its casino traffic). After passing Sycuan casino it got even lighter, still, as the road climbs steadily ENE at near constant 5-6% grade for about 5 miles to the Tavern Rd/Japatul Rd turn off. Turning left here would take you to the rustic town of Alpine, CA.
Information post at Loveland Reservoir
Turning right onto Japatul Rd the upslope eases a bit as I rolled past Loveland Reservoir on the right side of the road. This is a favorite local fishing spot, though there was no service off the road aside from a wide unpaved parking lot and two port-a-toilets. Another layer of clothing came off, though the sparse traffic meant that there was no one around to witness my little public striptease...

The steeper bit of Japatual Rd a couple of miles before Lyons Valley Rd turn-off.
There are a couple of short shallow downhill stretches, but most of the time on Japatul Rd is spent climbing. The gradient picks up a bit past the high voltage power lines, this is the famous Japatul 'Wall'. Look out for a metal plate denoting the top of the wall on the road shoulder. When you see it, you are only 1/2 mile or so from being done with Japatul Rd.
Look for this plaque near the top of Japatul Wall.
'Le petit col du Japatul' at the junction with Lyons Valley Rd.
The right turn onto Lyons Valley Rd brings welcomed relief as the road levels out before plunging into a long, twisty and amazingly scenic downhill stretch. Crumbly rock wall lined the right side of the road, and a sheer drop with a panoramic view of the valley and mountains surrounding Barrett Lake to the left. The two lane road is quite narrow and there's no shoulder to speak of. There were enough pebbles small and big-ish on the pavement to necessitate keeping an eye on the road most of the time. This would probably be worse right after some rain. Something to keep in mind riding around here during the winter months.

As scenic Lyons Valley Road curves back east it levels out and more climbing commences. It was a bit disappointing, really. After hours of climbing I had expected the downhill stretch to last quite a bit longer. The couple of miles of climbing back up to Four Corners (the intersection with Honey Springs Rd/Skyline Truck Trail) was grinding without much interesting view to keep one motivated. The narrow road shoulder was in the process of eroding off, and the trees blocked much of the view.

Scenic Lyons Valley Rd between Four Corners and the trading post.
At Four Corners one has the choice of either continuing east on Lyons Valley Rd (scenic twisty valley view, mostly downhill but also with a few more bits of climbing) or taking a right onto Skyline Truck Trail (scenic mountain-top view, big wide shoulder to ride on, not so curvy and, after the mile or so of climbing to start with, is downhill all the way to Jamul). Being on my own with no one to worry about I took the traditional Lyons Valley Rd, partly for a snack stop at Lyons Valley Trading Post, the only general store around for miles. Located on the north side of the road about 1.5 miles east of Four Corners, it is well stocked with cold drinks and pre-packaged snacks and some grocery stuff. There is a restroom (Lyons Valley Relief Post) in the back-west side of the building.

Lyons Valley Trading Post
An acorn woodpecker attempting to quack in tune while flying
The trading post is well frequented by passing cyclists, a chorus of quacking acorn woodpeckers, some flighty blue birds and even occasional visiting red-tailed hawks. Across the road you might spot Black Jack, the valley's friendliest donkey, grazing in a green ranch. He quite enjoys petting and isn't shy about asking for any grub you may have on you, but please feed him nothing sweeter than celery (or better yet, don't feed him at all!). He's a well-nourished beast, whether he himself agrees or not!
The Lyons Valley donkey
Lyons Valley Rd soon drops into a series of s-curves and a really cool switchback which likes to blind-side cyclists not familiar with the road with a rather hideous steep climbing ramp immediately after the sweeping left curve over the ravine. The ramp isn't short enough to sprint it out on the big ring, so you really want to be ready, as you make the sweeping left turn, to shift straight to climbing gear as your momentum rapidly dies on the up-slope. The 18% ramp eases into a long gradual uphill as the road curves right and afford a rather nice view of Lyons Peak's north face (and if you look closely, the twisty paved access road that services the fire lookout towers on top of it).

The little steep climb is followed by a long false flat lined by horse ranches and orchards before kicking up to the junction with Lawson Valley Rd where you can hang a left to stay on Lyons Valley Rd or veer right to join up with Skyline Truck Trail. I stuck with Lyons Valley since both roads are now heading downhill and Lyons Valley Rd has twisty fun curves ahead to offer. If I were taking a group riding there I would descend on Skyline Truck Trail. On my own, I'm a fast descender and can just ride down the middle of the traffic lane since cars aren't going to pass me having to cope with the tight turns on their clumsy 4 wheels.

Lyons Valley Rd and Skyline Truck Trail join up again and descend into Jamul as Lyons Valley Rd. I took Jamul Rd turn off on the right side halfway down, however, and was treated to another bit of really fast descent into Steele Canyon. This descent can be rather hairy when there's a lot of cars on the road. The shoulder is really narrow and there are lots of broken glass debris.

A quick right turn onto Steele Canyon Rd and then left on Willow Glen (nicely paved and wide bike lane there!) takes you to Jamacha Rd. There is another stretch of climbing to take you back to the Starbuck's, but nothing indecently steep and there is good road shoulder (and even bike lane on some stretches) to ride on.

I'm afraid I waited too long to write this up and lost most of the photos from the trip when my hard-drive crashed last week. Luckily I made and posted a youtube video of the route earlier...

It was a good ride! The whole loop took me 3 1/2 hrs at moderate pace. The views were very enjoyable and the climbing not very taxing. There are bits along Japatul Rd that are vulnerable to flooding from mountain run-off and bits on Lyons Valley Rd that tend to get covered with pebbles from the cliff-side after a bout of rain, though, so I wouldn't recommend this ride if it rained in the mountains that morning or the day before. The valley also gets very hot during the summer months, so anyone wanting to ride it from July-November should pack extra bottles of water (remember, there's only one water stop in the mountain).


  1. How in the world did you manage to shoot that woodpecker like that! He looks so weird! Great shot!

    - Soren

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  3. Do you know the history behind those road plaques? I ride GWL all the time and there are at least 10 different ones out there.

    1. Hi Sk8,
      I'm afraid not, but it is always cool finding them along the route. :)

  4. Did this ride today and there are a few switchbacks on the way up to Japatul Rd that felt extremely dangerous. The bike lane is non existent and cars cannot see you as they whip around the rocks in two sections going up the hill. It felt very unsafe to me. I don't think I will ride this route again. I think it's a shame that these really nice rides with low traffic have garbage bike lanes - really sad. Also on the way down the bike lanes when they widen up are in terrible condition lots of cracked asphalt to dodge. Things were fine up to Sycuan after that it got really sketchy in areas - right when the traffic dropped off ... :(

    1. Hi,
      Sorry to hear that! Most of the GWL east of Sycuan has no shoulder indeed. I'm afraid the opening of Hollywood Jamul Casino didn't help thing, as drivers are now using the backroads more to get away from casino traffic on the 94. The weekends are the worst... so, it's kinda like riding Palomar Mtn now. Avoid riding on weekends, and always monitor fire and accident conditions before heading out.

      If you don't already have one, I'd strongly suggest getting a helmet rear-view mirror. It really makes riding out on those two lane mountain roads a lot safer. You can control the lane (as in riding more toward the center of the lane rather than to the edge of it, to enable drivers to see you earlier) better, and when you see cars coming up behind you, you can gradually move to the edge - when it is safe - to let them pass. The trick is to be where they can see you early, so they'd be compelled to slow down, and then move out of the way as safely as possible for both you and the drivers. If you are at the road edge all the time, they won't see you until it is too late for them to slow down to pass you safely... then they'll squeeze pass at high speed. Dangerous for everyone, especially for you.


Thanks for stopping by. Be safe on the roads!