Monday, December 2, 2013

Forbidden San Miguel Mountain (and less than forbidden Mt Helix) by road bike

One mountain dominates the skyline of San Diego; antennae-topped Mt San Miguel. Rising to only 2567 ft (783m) at its peak, San Miguel's lack of vertical intimidation is well offset by its beautiful symmetry and proximity to the coast... and, of course, to road cyclist me, the smoothly paved access road that goes all the way to the top!
Mt San Miguel from Poe St in Pt Loma. The paler pyramid peak behind its left flank is Lyons Peak.
I had been lusting after this climb for a long while now, but kept on putting it off for various reasons (not the least of which has to do with all the 'no trespassing' signs around). A couple of weeks ago I finally decided to have a go at it, thanks very much to my friend Hippy who agreed to come along with me. Two is braver than one, and so we met up at the trolley station in Old Town on Saturday morning and rode the green line to El Cajon station to begin our journey.

Catching a ride in on the green line trolley at Old Town Transit Ctr
It had rained the night before, so the morning was of the damp and overcast variety, perfect for going up mountains, though a bit dirtying to the newly washed and lubed bikes. From El Cajon we rode south over the Avocado Blvd hump before furiously descending down to Rancho San Diego on Fury Ln to find Jamacha Rd delightfully nearly free of car traffic. A quick turn south on Campo Rd/Hwy 94 to enjoy the last bit of level pavement before the right turn onto Millar Ranch Rd, just after the old Sweetwater River Bridge (we didn't stop to see the bridge, though, as there were a bunch of hikers massed around on the near end of it, and I had already visited a few days before while scouting out the lower bit of the route).

Millar Ranch Rd, climbing to Millar Anita.
The proper climb (4.6 miles at 9.2% average grade per Strava) starts about 100 ft onto Millar Ranch Rd, after the icky gravel river-crossing segment (remember this on the way down and scrub all speed at the last right turn before the pavement goes poof on you!). The first 1.5 miles on Millar Ranch Rd is relatively mellow. There's the first kick (about 8.5% grade) for half a mile or so before a nice and mellow false flat before the second kick starts (depends on which line you take, the right hand bend could be as steep as 18% before dropping off to around 9%).

Millar Ranch Rd ends at the three-way junction at the top where we turned right onto gravely dirt Millar Anita Rd through a row of ranch houses. Sneaked in some gels and water as I slowly rolled over the bumpy road before turning left at the emus and speeding down the dippy base of Miller Ranch Rd (yup, different name. The Millar Ranch Rd that we rode up to Millar Anita does continue southeast down the other side of Mt Miguel as a dirt tract that eventually hooks up with Proctor Valley Rd, connecting Jamul to the Eastlake neighborhood of Chula Vista), the forbidden paved access to the top of San Miguel Mountain.

The gate completely blocks the road.
Hello 14% grade ramp with speed bump garnish. There are loads of (both of) these on the whole length of Miller Ranch Rd.
Let me just say that it wouldn't pay to be on a heavy steel touring bike trying to access Miller Ranch Rd from its base. You need something you can easily lift and maneuver. Once you hit the pavement again, though, you are in for a rather enchanting time on a 'remote' mountain road within easy sight of the city and coastline! I saw nobody but my buddy Hippy on my way up the mountain, and a whole lot of coyote doodoos (apparently the road is choiced toilet ground for the local four-legged population!). Just me on my creaky aluminum bike on the slick damp and extremely narrow road, occasional birds chirping from nearby brushes, and a quite solitude punctuated by Hippy's occasional yodeling from somewhere up the road (being more keen on filming my way up the mountain I had lost sight of my speedy companion soon after the first curve/ramp).
The mountain is less than 3000 ft tall, so the road can't keep on climbing steeply forever... can it??
Dude, it's gonna be something hairy on the way down this narrow twisty thing!
Mt San Miguel on a road bike is a strenuous climb of a very different variety than the long grind of Palomar South Grade route. It is a series of false flats interrupted by icky steep ramps that ranges anything from 12-20% grade, which, truth be told, is much better suited to my physiology than Palomar's 12 miles at near constant 6-8%. I like really steep ramps, as long as I get a decent recovery stretch on top of them.

About 2/3 of the way up the mountain a red dirt mountain bike/hiking trail intercept Miller Ranch Rd at a curve. It is quite a sight to see from further up the slope.
The prettiest mountain roads in the county (well, aside from Cam del Aguilar, perhaps) in my book!
After I had taken that pretty shot of the road from a switchback above it the road turned left in another switchback and Hippy reappeared. He had already gone to the top, had a long nap, taken in more view and chilly mountain air before deciding to come back to escort slow slug me up the last bit of the climb. You would never know how touched I was that he would endure another trip up the last 1/2 mile of Miller Ranch Rd until you've experienced it yourself. That nasty b*st*@# of a road had saved the ickiest surprise for last in the form of a long drawn out ramp that starts at 12% before mellowing out the wrong way to a 21% pitch, only to very slowly drop off as it nears the first set of tv antennae.

(Almost) Top!
We made it up the mountain's last fight without stopping, though, and got to enjoy quite a view from the television antennae complex... even in low-visibility weather! A few minutes after we topped out (well, my first and Hippy's second), a local hiker turned up. It had taken him an hour and a quarter to top the peak from a trail... really quite fast considering that it took me around 50 minutes on my road bike. The road ends on the antennae's west side, so the sweeping view from the top is from Otay Mountains (and Otay Lakes) north to Sweetwater Reservoir and Dictionary Hills. It was quite spectacular... though one that should be properly topped by another ascent on a clearer winter morning!
View of Otay Lakes from top of Mt San Miguel.
Descending a damp Miller Ranch Rd was something quite less than fun. Not only is this thing super narrow (it has only one lane and no shoulder or railing whatsoever) and winding, all the painted speed bumps seemed designed to purposefully bump a bicycle right off the mountain! The most nerve-wracking bit, of course, was that final long and very damp 12%-21%-12% ramp, taken very slow and still with a bit too generous portion of rear skidding just to stay on the road past the switchbacks before some dry patches started showing up on the pavement (I aimed straight for all of them, of course). The posted speed limit is 15 mph, but it would be folly to go down this thing at anything faster than 10 mph, imho.

On our way back to town Hippy split off for the trolley station as I went scouting the access paved road up to a water tower nearby (only to be foiled by locked fence). The morning was still quite young, though, so I decided to go find another route up Mt Helix instead (after all, that little rocky peak was directly on my way home).
Alto Dr climb up Mt Helix.
It pays to study alternate routes via Google Earth before hand. I found my way through many curvy side roads off Challenge Blvd from Avocado Blvd, and eventually ended up at the base of Beaumont, which climbed steeply up to acquire Alto Dr a little up the hill from Lemon St. Alto Dr is really a most delightfully twisty and well lined climb in the area, and an even better descent (though you always have to be careful coming down that thing with all the private driveways lurking behind blind corners).

A bunch of local kids volunteer-cleaning up trash at the Nature Theater & Yawkey Trail.
The Nature Theater on top of Mt Helix was bustling with people on the gray morning as a team of local youngsters were preparing to spread out to collect trash that some inconsiderate visitors had littered the area with.
Second climb of Mt Helix, this time from Vivera to Mt Helix Dr.
Mt San Miguel from Yawkey Trailhead on Mt Helix.
I was still feeling pretty good when I got to the top, so I decided to have another spin up the mountain, this time from the more mellow Vivera & Mt Helix Dr.

It was a good morning mountain ride! I was back home in time for a lunch as the clouds broke up and the afternoon turned out perfect beach weather. There's hardly a better place for a cyclist to be this time of year!


  1. I ride up MSM regularly, probably more than anybody else. I usually also make a trip up Mt Helix on the way out. I have had times in the past where I do 3-4 repeats on MSM. I do not go back down to 94 only down to the tube gate and back up

  2. I would ride my bike from Casa de Oro Elementry in Spring Valley to my home on Mt. Helix at Crestview Hts. We would zig zag back and forth up the hill. As the kids would pull into their homes, I would keep riding. Finally riding alone, to my stop. I enjoyed reading the story of your ride. I miss the hills, living in a very flat Dallas. Thank you. Jeanine.

    1. Thanks, Jeanine! :) Mt Helix & Grossmont were my favorite cycling ground. I wish Fuerte Dr between Avocado and Bancroft is more bike-friendly (there's just no room for expansion, I'm afraid), but during the day traffic is light enough to do short sections of it while connecting to the many cool shaded lanes there. :o)

  3. I really want to go to the peak of San Miguel Mountain, but since it is closed to the public, I'm scared to get in trouble for trespassing. Do a lot of people still go up there?

    1. Hi. Yup, it is closed to the public, tho people still hike up it all the time - usually from the Proctor Valley Rd side. They didn't enforce the no trespassing much until some idiots went and stole stuff from the radio tower complex last year, I think. Now I hear people are getting ticketed more often... Tho the locals still do sneak up there. :o)

    2. I lived across the valley from MSM (Hartzell Ranch) for decades. I've always wanted to go up there to check out the view but have also been deterred by the "No Trespassing" signs. For a long time, despite its being the most recognizable landmark for leagues, the peak has been absent from any local maps. Thank you for your article. Now that I know that some other brave souls have risked arrest to satisfy their curiosity, I feel as though I may one day satisfy mine as well. Peace out.

  4. I have ridden this hill at least 150x since 2010 but was kicked off by a federal officer earlier this year for good.... I will miss it as nothing close compares!



Thanks for stopping by. Be safe on the roads!