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:


  1. I didn't know you did what we call "21% grade" that day! (To the radio towers). I have only done that three times and have never made it to the stop without stopping at least once. I hope to, some day.

    The Attebury/Deadwood/Valborg sign - I used to live all the way at the back end of Valborg. It is ok to ride back there. In fact, we rode back there for Team Fun two weeks ago! There is a really nice pond that often has a blue heron during the "winter" months.

  2. Hey there! :oD I only did the north trail, though. I think it's the more reasonable one of the two (the south trail up from Lighthouse Dr is inhumane unless you go for the zig-zaggy hiking trail, tho that isn't much easier... being unpaved :oP ). :o) I bet you just need one more big cog on the rear cassette and you'll be spinning up that monster! (Those two trails made me very attached to my 30x26 low gear... and I was zig-zagging all over the narrow pavement)

    Thanks a bunch for the tips on the back roads up Mt Whitney! Will go back to properly explore it indeed. :oD Have a great time in Palm Springs tomorrow!


Thanks for stopping by. Be safe on the roads!