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).


  1. The climbs may be tough, but what a great place to live!

    Note to anyone who follows me: someone is harassing me anc claiming I'm not "who I say I am" based primarily upon a photo I used being submitted to sites by my grandmother and sold by the photographer who took the picture. (I readily admit my real surname is not Rousseau.) He is contacting my followers. I apologize if you havebeen contacted.


  2. Hi Alexis!
    Sorry I'm so late answering comments these days. I haven't heard from the stalker yet. Sorry you have to deal with that! :oP Some people just don't seem to have better things to do with their lives than to harass people on the internet, ay? :o(

    One of those followed me around two different websites a few years ago and kept leaving comments designed to get someone to defend me so he could start another fight. I generally ignored him while warning my friends off... He went away after a while. I almost miss his hits (bwahahaha!). ;o)

    Hang tough and hope you are having a good September! Thanks for stopping by!



Thanks for stopping by. Be safe on the roads!