Friday, September 20, 2013

The Mountain Roads of San Marcos: Mt Israel, Questhaven, Mt Whitney (Coronado Hills), San Marcos Radio Tower, Double Peak - 1

A few weeks ago, after having recovered from my cycling exploration of Starvation Mountain east of Escondido I decided to get up early for another 'getting lost in the mountains' ride - this time in the mountains west of the same north county city. I really would be quite lost without MTS bus 20... Being the only bus directly connecting Escondido to downtown San Diego, it runs at good frequency seven days a week! I caught an early one on a Thursday morning and got off at Del Lago Transit Station and headed west on Via Rancho Parkway to catch Del Dios Hwy to the foot of my first mountain of the day, Mt Israel.
Mt Israel Rd climbing north from Del Dios Hwy
The name begs some explanation, doesn't it? It doesn't have any Jewish connection, though. The mountain was named after Robert Decatur Israel, a 19th century pioneer from of German and Scottish ancestry who first homesteaded there. The mountain is now home to Olivenhain Reservoir and private ranch houses, which meant that traffic went from a steady flow of fast moving cars and trucks to practically nothing at all the minute I turned north onto Mt Israel Rd from Del Dios Hwy. That, as it always does, came with a trade off, however, as the road shot uphill at 9% grade and held there for around 1/2 mile before mellowing out after a couple of curves. It is a pleasant little climb, especially if you look back down the hill from right-turning curve to catch glimpses of Lake Hodges disappearing in between the mountains.

Now, if you look at the map and pay attention to road signs you'd know that technically Mt Israel is a dead end road. I did my homework, however, and knew that people have road biked between it and Via Ambiante to Harmony Grove Rd to the north. I'm not telling exactly how, but a good perusal of Google Earth map could inform you of a possible detour that would get you onto (quite very private) Connemara Rd up the hill to Rancho Cielo housing development and then Via Ambiante... If you do find the detour, please, please, only ride thru there solo or in very small (and quiet) group. Be as discreet as possible and keep the way open for others.

Connemara Rd climbing up from Mt Israel Rd.
Connemara Rd is a steep little climb! Unless you have the key to the heavy duty lower gate, you'd be starting riding a bit up on the road on a 15% grade incline (and it'd stay like that for about 250 yds, nearly all the way to the upper gate, which you can easily hike-a-bike around). So... mind that you put the bike in the low climbing gear!

Rancho Cielo development overlooking Olivenhain Reservoir & Mt Israel.
Gaining the top of the hill rewarded me with a fantastic view of Olivenhain Dam and Reservoir across the valley. The housing development on top of the hill is still very new and not many houses had been built yet, so from many spots along Via Rancho Cielo one could enjoy near panoramic view all the way to the coast and of the surrounding mountains. In a few years this would change, of course. What a place to sink one's anchor and build a house on... I would just spend all my days looking out the huge windows!
Via Ambiente descending north through Olivenhain toward Harmony Grove.
Reaching Via Ambiante (a famous climb for local cyclists, but here I'll get to ride down instead of up it!) I turned right and went around another car gate and started my descent. It's a steep one that's checked by two car gates that you have to hike-a-bike around near the bottom of the first downhill section toward the turn off to Olivenhain Reservoir. There is a short 8% grade climb over a hump after the dam before the final steep descent down to Harmony Grove Rd (no car gate this time, but a couple of speed bumps near the bridge at the bottom).
Harmony Grove Rd and Questhaven Rd to Questhaven Nature Trail.
The short level stretch heading west on Harmony Grove Rd was nice except for all the speedy cars. There isn't much room for road-sharing there, so I was quite happy to turn right/north onto supposedly haunted Questhaven Rd and headed into the delightfully spooky Elfin Forest.

Questhaven north from Harmony Grove is paved for about 600 yds or so before it disintegrates into firm fine gravel and then firm dirt... That is until it becomes a car/motorcycle-free nature trail that's open only to hikers, bicycles and horses. My 25mm road tires did okay for much of the way, though there were a couple of short stretches where the top layer of dirt was too soft to ride through. This is why I'm fond of riding in my comfy shoes rather than cycling cleats. Hopping off the bike for a bit of hike-a-bike is no problem for me!
Questhaven Rd
After a while the dirt trail started to climb and the overhanging tree canopy thinned out as I emerged on the north gate of the nature trail at Questhaven Religious Retreat. The road is now paved, but remains quite narrow and curvy and with a generous tree cover. I didn't find riding through the Elfin Forest bit of Questhaven Rd very spooky, though the stunted and very twisty tree cover did make for interesting lighting condition. Sometimes shafts of light that fall through the canopy come out oddly in the peripheral vision. Of course, the oddity is corrected when you turn to look at it full on... So that's probably the explanation for the various fleeting ghost or witch sightings that give the area its supernatural reputation.

I think I did spot the supposed tree with a witch's face on it, though. It's a bit north of the retreat... and the face is just an odd looking stump on its branch. The more wow-inducing encounter happened a couple of s-curves later, however, when I cleared the right bend to find a deer standing right by the side of the road, staring at me from just a few feet away! He turned on the spot and bolted straight into the woods before I could say 'Boo!', of course. I even had my camera out and was filming the road, but all I got of him was a very quick glance of his rear end disappearing into the trees (you can see that on the video at the bottom of the page, at around 5:56 min).

There is some climbing going northwest on Questhaven Rd; a pretty steep (around 12% grade) but short pitch to the level out where Attebury Rd branches out to the right to climb up Mt Whitney. I had intended to follow Attebury, but was deterred by the 'Private Road: No Trespassing' sign and by the prospect of climbing up a steep dirt thing on my road tires (the sun had turned up and the temperature was shooting rapidly through the roof) and the fact that I was running quite low on water and there was no prospect of refilling the bottles on Attebury Rd or anywhere on Mt Whitney, so I stayed on Questhaven Rd until it joined up with San Elijo Rd and turned right and headed for San Marcos.

This is getting long, though, so I'm breaking off and will post part 2 of the ride soon! In the meanwhile, here's the video from the ride:

Monday, September 9, 2013

San Diego County's Five Toughest Cycling Climbs

Recreational road cycling as a sport has a way of turning even mostly sane people masochistic. No matter how much we suffer and swear our way up yet another heartlessly steep hill, once topped out (and having rested a bit) we almost never could resist having another go at the nasty mountain. We are also always on a look out for another all-too-vertically-paved monster to tame with our bike! Here in San Diego, California, there are many challenging climbs to satisfy the region's many pain-addicted road cyclists. We all have our favorite slanty nemeses, of course, but here are five paved climbs that should command the respect of even the fittest of hill-hungry mountain goats in spandex:
Apple St looking east up Dictionary Hill.
1. Apple St from La Presa up Dictionary Hill: Located in Spring Valley, this is the shortest climb on this list, but it packs a lot of punches. Dictionary Hill is a questionably planned bit of San Diego where the streets were set in straight grid regardless of the terrain (and the name of the terrain ought to tell you to not turn up on a fixie or single gear bike!). The three blocks that Apple St takes to climb east to its crest on Dictionary Hill averages 15% grade. The climb comes in three sections; however, each broken by a leveled out intersection (which does some damage to the climb's overall gradient). The first two blocks are relatively short and manageable at around 12% grade, but the third block is both the longest and the steepest with maximum slope at around 30%. It is a main road and there may be parallel-parked cars on the hill side of the street (a perilous practice for such a steep incline!). Traffic is usually quite light, though, as the top of the hill is all residential area and not heavily populated. The view of Mt San Miguel and Sweetwater Reservoir from the top of the climb is quite worth the suffering it would take to get there (it is painful to climb this hill from any direction!).

Coronado Hills Dr up Mt Whitney in San Marcos as seen from La Moree.
2. Coronado Hills Dr up Mt Whitney in San Marcos: That's right! There is a Mt Whitney here in San Diego County. At 1,729 ft tall it isn't anywhere within the same league as the real Mt Whitney up in the Sierra Nevada, however. This Mt Whitney is the highest peak in the Cerro de las Posas mountain range, and is just across San Elijo Rd from the more visited Double Peak. There are three roads scaling Mt Whitney from three sides, but only one is open to the public, and that's Coronado Hills Rd that climbs in from the north off from La Moree. Rumors has it this is where the Cal State San Marcos cycling team gets their hill training done. I'm not surprised; from the moment Coronado Hills Rd starts climbing to its crest at the intersection with Washingtonia Rd about 2/3 of the way up the mountain it sadistically holds steady at 15.2% gradient the whole way (which is roughly a mile). Luckily there are a few gentle curves to the climb and the pavement is quite good. Traffic is light to non-existent since aside from the unmanned radio tower at the top of the peak the mountain only houses a small community of well-to-do residents.
Washingtonia past the false summit (there's a dip and then another steep climb up to the real summit).
You can continue to climb on Washingtonia all the way to the radio tower gate, of course. That adds another mile of steep rollers. Washingtonia gets hideously cracky and pot-holey after the 5-way intersection, though. The view from between the rollers and from the look out close to the tower gate is amazing. On a clear day you could even see Mt Baldy north of Los Angeles! There is no park or shop on the mountain, so make sure you water up when you pass through San Marcos on the way to the climb.
Mt Woodson Service Rd is better cycled up and down on a mountain bike than a roadie.
3. Mt Woodson from the east by Mt Woodson Service Rd: Mt Woodson is the prominent rocky radio tower-topped peak between Rancho Bernardo and Ramona. It is famous for its many hiking trails, but is off-limit to most road cyclists because the only paved road up it is extremely rough, narrow, steep and hazardous to descend down. You can access it either directly from Hwy 67 or indirectly from the service road off the back of the CDF fire station (also off from Hwy 67 just south of Archie Moore Dr). The road is closed to cars, but is quite popular with hikers and mountain bikers (mountain bikes, of course, is much more ideal for this climb than road bikes are).
Mt Woodson Service Rd snaking up & up through rock formation.
The climb starts gently enough, but pitches up after the first curve on the road (there are a bunch of switchbacks to this climb, which goes right up the mountain's east face). From then on it's 12-16% grade ramps, one after another with only 2 short false flats spaced into the climb. Overall, it's a 1.4 miles climb that averages 14.5% grade on very narrow single lane oldly paved road (I don't think they have repaved this thing since Neanderthals still roamed the earth). There are cracks and pot holes and a lot of loose gravel and other debris. many turns are steeply switchbacked from sheer cliffs with no guard rail or any other protection. So, even though you may manage to road bike up this monster, chances are good that you will end up having to walk down most of it.

Approaching the radio towers over Lake San Marcos.
4. Lake San Marcos Radio Tower Trail: Well, this is a paved recreational trail rather than a proper road. You can get to the microwave towers on top of the hill overlooking Lake San Marcos from the north or the south (or the east, even, but that Ridge Line Trail from Double Peak isn't so steep) and either route will put you in a world of hurt on your way up. The steepest route is from the south, however. The paved narrow trail begins on the hill side off from the top of Lighthouse Rd, makes a 90 degree right turn and then shoots straight up the hill at about 25% grade for a 10th of a mile before 'mellowing' out (hahaha) to a T-intersection. You will, of course, take the path to the right that leads to another T-intersection from where you will head left to continue to climb to the radio tower simply because you are a fan of Jens Voigt and can't get enough of silently screaming for your legs to shut up. Take heart, after that bit of 25% grader, the remaining 1/3 mile up to the tower is much friendlier at around 16% grade. To top it off, there is literally no view once you get to the tower, since it is a tiny top sort of peak and the tower blocks just about all the view to the west (which would be the only really cool view up there, overlooking the beautiful lake).

The approach from the north is a narrow and unmarked paved trail leading uphill from La Plaza Dr at mailbox #1520. This is a slightly less sadistic climb that averages around 16% grade for 3/4 mile. The lower bit of it is flanked by avocado orchards, however, so watch out for squishy slippery fruits on the path. There also is a heavy duty locked gate just beyond the orchards that only leaves about 1 1/2 feet of room for skinny cyclists to squeeze past after having half-thrown the expensive bike over head to the other side of the gate. Of course, once on the other side, you'd have to start pedaling immediately up a 15% incline on a very narrow lane. Perhaps the southern approach is better after all! There is no water stop along the trail, though there is a good restroom and drinking fountain at Double Peak Park if you take the Ridge Line Trail east from the radio tower. That's another mile and a bit of steep rollers and the final steep climb up Double Peak Park Rd, however.
Camino del Aguila wiggling its way up Starvation Mountain.
5. Camino del Aguila - Starvation Mountain Rd up Starvation Mountain: Last but not least by any stretch of imagination is the only paved road up Starvation Mountain that isn't gated. Starvation Mountain is the pyramid shape peak that Highland Valley Rd curves itself around as it climbs from Escondido to Ramona. I haven't a clue as to whose starvation earned the peak its name, but with all the farms and orchards on its slope, that isn't a likely fate of any who braves up its roads. Camino del Aguila branches south from Highland Valley Rd just north of the Bandy Canyon Rd intersection. There is a steep little ridge to cross right off the bat, and the descent down the other side is bumpy and moderated by 4 rather hard-to-spot thin speed control bumps. After a dip into a ravine the real climbing starts gently enough at around 9% grade for about 100 yds. Once you turn left onto the first switchback, however, it is 12-18% ramps, one after another for the rest of the mile long climb to bring the average gradient up to 15.2% (if you stop climbing at Eagles Crest Rd).
Saving the best for last, the final pitch up Starvation Mountain Rd to the top. Eeeeek!
Hiking a bike up the steep dirt ramp to pick up the top part of Starvation Mountain Rd will earn you another 0.3 mile of interrupted climbing. There are stretches of gentle 3% false flats that end with another severe turn up 15-18% ramps. The final ramp is the worst of all at around 23%, though it is quite short and ends at the imposing gate of a huge manor, barring the way to the trail that goes to the top of the peak. Road pavement gets better and better the higher up you go, though the road remains quite narrow. The view is fantastic through out the climb. The road itself is a thing of beauty to look down upon, wiggling itself up the slope like a ribbon surrounded by mountain panorama. There is virtually no traffic as there are only a few houses on this road. Be sure to fill up your water bottles before you get to Camino del Aguila, however, as there is no water stop at all on Highland Valley Rd and on any road up Starvation Mountain (and this region is hot enough to melt tarmac during the summer months).