Thursday, October 10, 2013

The mountain roads of San Marcos, part 2: Mt Whitney by Coronado Hills, San Marcos Radio Tower & Double Peak

Part 1: Mt Israel, Via Ambiante, Questhaven

Heading east on San Elijo Rd across the San Elijo Hills is a favorite climb amongst local cyclists. From the intersection with Rancho Santa Fe Rd to the top the road rises three consistent miles at 6% grade; good little hill that gets even more sportive if you veer off on Double Peak Dr for a side trip to Double Peak Park. For the extra solid mile of 10% grade climb (it starts out gentle but kicks up to 12% for the last 1/4 mile to the top), the gorgeous mountaintop lookout with a nice parking lot, shaded rest area, outdoor amphitheater and nice restrooms with running water.

Cutting into San Elijo Rd from Questhaven Rd, however, involves shorter climbing at a steeper pitch so that turning onto the last 1/2 mile of San Elijo Rd felt much like a respite. The bike lane on the upper part of San Elijo Rd is quite decent (unlike the lower section of the road in University Commons area where it is more squeezed by the sidewalk and much disputed by bikes-unfriendly cars), then the descent down Twin Oaks Valley Rd to E Barnham is fabulously fast and smooth. I was running pretty low on water and was hoping to find a store or little restaurant on the right side of the road to fill up, but everything was on the left side of the wide road. I didn't feel like foraging for water fountain on the Cal State - San Marcos campus, however, and made the right turn onto La Moree with just a full small water bottle, figuring that I could just turn around on Coronado Hills Dr when I run out and it'd be a downhill coast all the way.

San Elijo Rd, Coronado Hills Dr, Washingtonia Dr.
Coronado Hills Dr, the third major climb of the day, caught me a bit by surprise. From La Moree, it starts out gentle enough until it passes a side road and kicks straight up to 14% grade and just stays there for about 3/4 mile. The gentle s-curves on the road was quite effective at hiding from view just how far out the end of my suffering was. After Mt Israel, Questhaven and San Elijo, my legs and lungs were getting rather fed up with double digit uphill gradient and were no longer keen to shut up on command. I kept telling myself that I only had to get to the next bend and the slope would surely levels out a bit, but Coronado Hills Dr really made a Pinocchio out of me. Mind you, I did make it to the top without stopping, but the process sure wasn't pretty!

Washingtonia - Indian Ridge Rd to the last car gate near top of Mt Whitney.
If you live in San Marcos area and has a sadistic streak when it comes to cycling uphill, Coronado Hills Dr would make a really good hill-repeat site. There is hardly any traffic there, and the descent doesn't abruptly ends at a stop sign or traffic light like so many good climbs around town do. I didn't come for a hill-repeat indulgence, however, but to check out Mt Whitney, so I took the right turn up Washingtonia and followed it to Indian Ridge Rd almost to the radio towers at the top. It's a beautiful narrow lane that hasn't a level stretch to speak of, either going up a steep little roller or down the other side of one, with amazing view peeking out of every corner. Alas, I stopped just short of the top... All the climbing and the last mile spent dodging house-size pot holes and fields of loose gravels on icky 12% grade slope on the narrow pavement, but the maintenance crew had pulled up in their pickup truck just as I whipped out my camera to take a few shots of the car gate to the radio tower, so I figured I had better not pushed my luck and get busted red-footed for trespassing. I'm sure you understand.

Discovery Lake and the trail up the mountain.
I have to say, the only downside to the Mt Whitney climb is that it's an out-and-back deal unless you don't mind trespassing on really private roads. I didn't enjoy the rolling nature of Indian Ridge & Washingtonia on the way down, but the descent of Coronado Hills Dr is a magnificent blast! The pavement is smooth, one car passed me on the way up and none on the way down, and the view is quite amazing. At the bottom I got back west on Barnham and continued onto Discovery Dr, Craven Rd and then took the left onto Foxhall in search for another off-the-main-road local attraction, Discovery Lake.

Morning was getting quite sunny and old, so finding the nice restroom and water fountains on the top side of the parking lot at Discovery Lake was something of a deliverance for yours truly (after all, there was no water stop whatsoever on Mt Whitney, friendly looking local residents not withstanding). There are two paths leading to Discovery Dam, if you are on bike, you're better off taking the upper trail on the left than the lower one that goes straight in from the parking lot, since the planks on the bridge across the causeway run perpendicular rather than parallel to the path. On the far side of the dam the paved trail pitches uphill in a couple of zigzag curves and gives quite a spectacular view of the lake from above. Pedaling up yet another double digit gradient road/trail does get old rather quickly, but every little distractingly beautiful view really help!

The steep paved trail from La Plaza to the radio towers on top of San Marcos Hill.
The short trail (only about 1/4 mile, about 14% grade at the bottom, but quickly easing up as you climb) ends at the cul-de-sac on Via Vera Cruz, and gorgeously well-paved (and, as it turned out, very private) road lined by big and brand new houses as it climbs a little more to a little crest before turning right and zooms down the hill. There are a few different combinations of turns that can take you from Via Vera Cruz to La Plaza, where the next bit of icky steep paved climbing is. I took a circuitous route through the well sculpted neighborhood that deposited me on the lake side of La Plaza, and a pretty good uphill kick around a left-hand bend that felt unfriendly steep until I got to the unmarked paved trailhead (the narrow lane next to mailbox # 1520 on the uphill side of the street), and realized that my perception of what constitute a 'steep' climb was about to change.

The first bit of the trail is quite narrow and lined by avocado orchards (which means, of course, sticky fruits on the pavement!). None of that helped with the 14% gradient. A bit after the right elbow turn the path is completely blocked by a heavy gate secured by about a million locks (no, really, look at the photo above!) that I had to half toss the bike over and then squeezed my skinny cyclist body by the little opening on the left side - I swear, the thing is only a little over a foot wide! - recovered my bike and then figured out how to hop on and start pedaling again up a 15% grade slope on a path that was only about 4 ft wide!

The view opens up quite nicely on the right side as I struggled up the steep slope. There were a few pot holes to swerve around along with little patches of loose gravels. After a false summit overlooking Lake San Marcos, the steepest pitch of all came at the last switchback up to the radio towers (it was something quite close to 20% grade), which I labored over only to find no view whatsoever awaiting me at the top! You see, the Cerro de Las Posas where the radio towers are is really a cerro. There was only enough level-ish space for the towers and nothing else, so the entire view to the west (over the lake) is blocked by the towers, and the only way to reap the splendid visage around the place is to... roll back down the hill a bit.

You wouldn't think that would be such a big deal until you see how steep the drop on either side of the radio towers complex is! By this point of my ride my legs were quite shot, it was close to noon and the sun was getting quite maddeningly hot, so I said 'Screw it!' and opted to head east down the Ridge Line Trail toward Double Peak instead.

Cerro de las Posas - Double Peak Ridge Line Trail.
The Ridge Line Trail is quite true to its name and sticks right on the ridge, which means more up and down riding. Some of these up and down runs are quite steep, too. I was very happy to be riding this on a weekday, however, and didn't have to share the trail with anyone. The whole thing is really nicely paved (well, there's a gravel lane running along the north side for the equestrians). Apparently much of the trail was paid by the housing development on the south side of the ridge and there are a few gates at access points where I had to hike-a-bike around.

Ridge Line Trail ends at Double Peak Drive.
Ridge Line Trail ends at a bend 3/4 way up Double Peak Dr... And once you're there, you might as well go up to the top of the peak for a well earned bragging right and spectacular vista before calling it quit for the day when it comes to uphill climb. Yes, the 1/4 mile of 12% grade hurts like heck, but then that was the story of the day, so what's with a few more minutes of torture if you can add the traverse of Cerro de las Posas and the bagging of the range's two highest peaks to your cycling resume?
San Dieguito Heritage Museum, Swami Garden, Torrey Pines Lodge animals.
Needless to say, the 4 downhill miles down Double Peak Dr and San Elijo Rd was a nice reward for all the climbing. There were a few rollers on my way to the coast, of course, and the two moderately steep humps (Torrey Pines inside and Bandini Rd up Mission Hills) to climb over on my way home, but the air got quite cooler along the coast highway and there were many cool places and sights to see. It's the cool thing about riding solo rather than in a group. I didn't have a time limit and didn't have to keep up with anyone else, so I stopped wherever I felt like and had a ball visiting many attractions on my way home.


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Thanks for stopping by. Be safe on the roads!