Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Bike Ride Lake Murray - Mt Helix - Mission Trails Loop

It isn't easy finding a good cycling route here in San Diego that isn't by the coast and doesn't involve spending a lot of time riding with cars on major arteries. This 26 miles loop from Lake Murray to Mt Helix, Mission Trails Regional Park and back is a perfect little ride with not a lot of traffic, however.

The ride starts from the main parking lot by the concession stand on the south side of Lake Murray in La Mesa (enter on Kiowa St from Lake Murray Blvd). There is plenty of parking there, a concession stand selling drinks, fishing baits, and even ice-cream, and good public restrooms. Follow the paved cycling/hiking trail that goes around the lake east, then take the first paved narrow ramp off to the right and climb your way up to Baltimore Dr (the ramp is paved but is quite rough and has a short steep pitch at the top). There is a crosswalk there, use it to turn left on Baltimore Dr and then right on El Paso St through a quiet residential neighborhood.

After about 1/2 mile, turn right on Jackson Dr for a nice downhill (it's a wide street with a bike lane, though much of the bike lane is in the door zone of parallel-parked cars, so stay alert). Merge early to the through lane as you approach the intersections with Fletcher Pkwy and with I-8, after which the road gently climbs up to the mesa south of the interstate. Go straight until the road ends and turn left on Lemon St (cross traffic doesn't stop here). Once you get past Bancroft, traffic will all but disappear as the road starts to climb up the saddle between Mt Helix and the adjacent (and apparently nameless) hill.

Lemon St is a narrow two-laner with very little to no shoulder. It isn't trafficky, though, and climbs up the hill is sputtering fashions; three steep pitches followed by short downhill sections. The first starts quite gentle and steadily steepens to around 10% approaching the intersection with Alto Dr before dropping off. The next section is a bit more vicious, with a block-long 12% grade ramp that crests at a right hand bend overlooking Lake Helix (you'll have to cross over to the other side of the road to see the charming private lake, however). A short recovery downhill section leads to a short steep pitch up to Fuerte Dr. A quick right turn there followed immediately by another right turn onto Mt Helix Dr takes you away from traffic up the steady 1.5 miles climb to the top.

The straight-ish bit of Mt Helix Dr.
After the grinding straight stretch Mt Helix Dr curves right to climb up around the mountain. If you're suffering as you approach the turn (the road pitches up a bit there), tough it out as the grade becomes markedly more gentle around the bend. Look to your right after you get out of the bushes, too. The view east toward El Cajon, Laguna and Cuyamaca Mountains is usually gorgeous even on overcast days! The road is now a wide one-way street and you'll likely run into more hikers than you will cars. As the road curves left, look up the hill ahead and to the right for the famous rotating house.

Looking ESE from Mt Helix Nature Theater.
Bear right and through an underpass as you make your way up around the mountain as the rock-walled road climbs steadily up. There is plenty of view to look at to take your mind off any hill-induced suffering. The slope steadily shallows after you enter the park gate (the top of the mountain is a private park that is open to the public from sun up to sun down), and before you know it you have topped out at the marvelous stone open-air theater! There is a port-a-toilet by the road and a water fountain in the little open recess by the info board. Mt Helix Nature Theater, the stone auditorium, is worth exploring (it has lots of cool little nooks and corners). There is a paved ramp up to the cross at the top where you can enjoy panoramic view of the area. On a clear day you can see clear to the ocean and even to Palomar Mountain to the north. There is also a cool little hiking trail (Yawkey Trail) around the top of the hill with info boards identifying all the mountain peaks you could see.

After a good rest stop, descend down Mt Helix Dr to the first ring of the road and turn left. Yes, yes, you've been here before, but we're only overlapping just a bit. Take a right onto narrow Alto Dr. This road is very narrow and twisty, but it is a two-way street, so keep right of center and don't speed into its many blind turns (you never know if someone is about to come out of their private drive way!). It was recently re-paved in spring of 2013, and the black asphalt is quite pleasantly smooth. There is a switchback turn and many S-curves as the road winds its way down the slope. Go straight through the intersection with Lemon St until the road ends at Mesa Vista Ave. Shift to low (climbing) gear and turn right and up a vicious little ramp (max gradient is about 17% here) and bear left onto Mesa Terrace.

Turn left on El Granito, then right on Grossmont Blvd and stay on it across to the south side of I-8. Turn right at the intersection and follow Murray Dr east and then north (stay left when it branches into Murray Dr and El Cajon Blvd). Keep right at Dennstedt Pl which then turns into Murray Dr again until it runs into a traffic circle. Exit at S Westwind St and follow it as it winds gently uphill to the intersection with Fletcher Pkwy. Look for a paved little bike path on the right curb between Fletcher Pkwy and Tyrone Ct and turn right onto it. Mind your downhill speed as the pavement is very bumpy (and tree shadows make the bumps hard to see)!

Fletcher Hills bike path. Take the left branch here to exit.
Stay on the path past the two benched look out spots and then take the left fork at the Y-intersection to exit onto Wyatt Pl. Hang a left down the hill and then right on Peltree. Be careful crossing the trolley tracks as you turn right onto N Marshall St. Stay straight through the intersection (and take care to cross the diagonal trolley tracks as perpendicularly as possible) until the road curves left through Gillespie Field to intersect Cuyamaca St (another set of trolley tracks to cross there). You want to be in the through lane to cross the intersection to pick up the paved bike path running on the sidewalk to the right, paralleled to Cuyamaca St, but the traffic light here doesn't pick up bicycles, so you may have to hop onto the sidewalk to hit the pedestrian crossing light. Take the bike path right and follow it as it veers left away from Cuyamaca. Be prepared to stop as it ends abruptly at Prospect Ave. Make the left turn onto Prospect and stay right on the through lane at the first intersection. You're going to hop onto the paved path on the sidewalk parallel to the road and stay on the path as it veers right to pick up a little creek heading north.

After some nice car-free (and very flat) riding the path ends very abruptly on the south side of very busy Mission Gorge Rd. Check the sidewalk for pedestrians and make the sharp right turn, staying on the sidewalk to the next traffic light (there's a pharmacy there) and use the light to turn north onto Carlton Hills Blvd. I'm afraid this is the only 'trafficky' bit of the route. Cross the bridge and merge to the left turning lane as early and safely as you can to turn left on Carlton Oaks Dr. Once you've made the turn the traffic lessens considerably and there is a nice bike lane to ride in. The road ends in a T-intersection with W Hills Pkwy. You want to make a left turn, but may have to use the pedestrian crossing light as the traffic light loop here also doesn't pick up bicycles.

Old Mission Dam in Mission Trails Regional Park. Water & port-a-toilets available.
Turn right onto Mission Gorge Rd (and into headwind) for a short stretch before continuing right onto Junipero Serra Trails through Mission Trails Regional Park. Look out for the Old Mission Dam on the right as the right lane of the road closes to car traffic (the left lane is open to cars, but only runs one-way north). If nature calls, there are port-a-toilets at the Mission Dam parking lot, but if you can hold it another 10 minutes, the park's visitor center at the south end of the trail has a real and clean restrooms with running water!

If you have a bike bell, it would really come in handy riding through Mission Trails park on the Serra Trails as it is a favorite hiking and jogging spots even on weekdays. Please remember that pedestrians always have the right of way on multi-use paths like this (and that you may meet many of the joggers again on the road once they've gotten back in their car).

Junipero Serra Trails through Mission Trails Regional Park.
Turn right at Mission Gorge Rd and carefully merge left on the downhill stretch to turn left onto Jackson Dr. You may have to run the red-light here if no left-turning car materializes to trigger the left turn light for you (yes, another traffic light loop that doesn't recognize bicycles!). This is the last climb of the day and it is a pretty gentle and steady one at about 5-6% grade and about 1.3 miles long (pretty comparable to the climb up Torrey Pines 'Outside'). There is good view of Cowles Mountain to the left as you spin up the hill to the next traffic light. Turn right onto Park Ridge Blvd for a couple of gentle rollers through residential neighborhoods. After the major intersection with Navajo Rd, turn left on Wandermere Dr and down the hill to the stop sign and turn right on Belle Glade Ave and follow it into Lake Murray Park.

Of course, you could also stay on Park Ridge Blvd all the way into Lake Murray Park, but I find its intersection with Murray Park Dr rather dangerous as cross traffic doesn't stop, and any traffic coming from the right comes down a curvy 12% grade slope. Cross traffic as Belle Glade runs into Lake Murray park doesn't stop either, but it is a flat stretch removed from that fast downhill and makes for much more pleasant crossing.

Cycling on Lake Murray multi-use trail.
Stay straight on through the parking lot, down a steep ramp to the lake trail and hang a left... very carefully, please, as the paved multi-use trail is a popular jogging and flat-cycling spot in the area. This is the flat home stretch! Go slow (speed limit is 8 mph) and enjoy the view as you cool down riding the last 2 miles around the lake back to start point on the south side. As on the Serra Trail, pedestrians always have the right of way on Lake Murray path. Please give them plenty of room and call (or ring) out warning before passing them as most will have their ear phone on. Remember, most of these people got here by cars and you'd rather leave them with good impression for the next time you meet on the roads!

I shot a video preview of the ride a while back. Keep in mind that I used a handheld camera, however, so I couldn't shoot on steep up or down slopes (or on the narrow and steep descent of Alto Dr).

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Thanks for stopping by. Be safe on the roads!