Wednesday, October 1, 2014

San Diego's Toughest Road Climbs: Little Blocks of Horror

“You're off to Great Places!
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting,
So... get on your way!”
    - Dr Seuss, Oh, The Places You'll Go.

But if riding up a proper mountain can't be on your cycling agenda today, San Diego is the hiding place of many gnarly short climbs that pack a lot of punch into just a single street block, too. Here are, according to me (and my 30x28 granny gear), ten toughest blocks of paved road to cycle up in the County of San Diego. I'm afraid I'm omitting the likes of Poe St north of Evergreen Dr on Pt Loma (the steepest paved 'block' in the city limit at 28.6%), Laurel St at State St (22.5%), B St at 20th (22.5%), the steep block of 46th at Home Ave or Upas St wall west of Florida (20%). They are indeed steep, but I'm sure you will find them comparable quite less achy to go up than the ones on the list.

[Right click & open fotos in new tab to view in full size] 

10. Bandini St at San Diego Ave in Mission Hills:
Matthew Alice cited the city traffic engineer in pegging this terrible block of cracky pavement at 24.9% grade, though I see no qualms in rounding it out to 25% since the last 5 ft of it is so awful (it seems the concrete road is sliding down the little cliff and the top bit before the level off at California Ave is morphing into an overhang, jacking the gradient up a painful notch). The block is just short enough, however, that Bandini remains my preferred climb up to Mission Hills from the north. The 25% grade bottom ramp is intensely painful, but there is enough rest in the short level off and the mild uphill tick that follow before another short-ish 12% grade stretch around the S-curve with nice view of the bay and the magnificent Villa Felice before the road levels off to connect to Sunset Blvd in Mission Hills proper that I prefer its 3 minutes of pain than the 5-6 minutes grind the other still quite steep routes like Juan St or Presidio Dr or Pringle St have to offer.

9. Torrance St at Keatings St in Mission Hills:

Officially the steepest through block of street in the city at 26% grade, this hidden monster of Mission Hills is what I would call an unnecessary climb since it really isn't on any direct route between Old Town/Five Point and Mission Hills. You have to veer out of the way to climb it. The steepest 3/4 of the block is concrete, and it is about the only thing you could see from the bottom (so if your first encounter with it comes from the Keatings St approach, be warned that the top of the concrete wall you can see actually is not the top of the climb).

8. Loring St at Foothills Blvd in Pacific Beach (south base of Mt Soledad):
 Loring St in Pacific Beach is a naughty road whose fragmented body crosses the southern base of Mt Soledad in a series of transmission-busting ramps, the worst of which rises up from the busy intersection of Foothills Blvd just west of Beryl. Averaging 21% grade for a long block, this is the steepest single ramp on La Jolla's little hill by the sea (yes, quite a bit worse than the much more (in)famous Linda Rosa Wall). It is not a well frequented climbs for local cyclists, though, being sort of isolated between Cardeno Dr and Soledad Rd with the trafficky Foothills Blvd at the bottom. The few times I've gone up it were to add a bit of spice at the bottom of the Castlehill and Cardeno Drs climb.

7. Illion St at Gardena in Bay Park:
Illion St in Bay Park is where the little knoll on the east side of the valley that houses I-5 sticks its tongue at cyclists, hikers and drivers alike. The four-way stop intersection at the bottom of it ensures that you can't get a running start, and its gnarly concrete primary ramp has a way of hiding from view the slightly less gory tarmac top half of this long block of unmitigated nastiness. It was only fitting that the first time I went up it the Church of St Mary Magdalene at the top of the climb was being visited by a AAA Road Claims agent. The view on top is quite fantastic (there is a huge parking lot with panoramic view of Mission Bay). I'd go back down the hill on either Orten or Milton, if I were you. They are much better at allowing you to come to a stop without risking an over-the-handlebar somersault at the bottom.
6. Lucinda St in Pt Loma (La Playa):
Pt Loma is full of nasty walls masquerading as roads. From the fun-filled level ground of Ocean Beach you can see them striping the spine of the peninsula block after block after block, all looking terribly sinister to just about anyone on foot or bike. The most evil wall of the lot is on the other side of Pt Loma; however, moderately hidden between the shores of La Playa and the Wooded Area where expensive mansions overlook a postcard-perfect view of the San Diego Bay resides the long and horrible block of cracky concrete wall by the lovely name of Lucinda St.

Local resident may lovingly call the block Lucy, but to weary cyclists, Lucifer is a more fitting a moniker for the 23% grade monster! I'm only counting the bottom block between Harbor View Pl and Garden State, though Lucinda continues to climb for another block to Bangor St. The view isn't as good from the real top of it as it is from just a bit below Garden State level off, however. A perfect excuse to take a little breather there, especially on a bright and clear day. I don't advice trying to go down this thing. You are much safer doing that on Harbor View Pl next door.

5. Raptor Rd in Poway:
Raptor Rd from Sycamore Canyon Rd.
This little gem of a dead end rural lane is a northern offshoot from Sycamore Canyon Rd a bit south of Scripps Poway Pkwy and leads to scenic Paragon Mesa Rd that dead ends in a cul-de-sac with a marvelous view of the surrounding mountains. It is a private road, though the gate is always open. I'm afraid the little dip at the bottom from Sycamore Canyon Rd doesn't facilitate any sling-shot maneuver due to a liberal amount of sand on the road surface. The 'ramp' averages around 16% with max grade of 32% near the top, where the road levels off for a bit before climbing again (but at a much more reasonable incline than its opening salvo).

4. Apple St on Dictionary Hill (Spring Valley):

An apple a day keeps the doctors away, or so the saying goes, but a serving of Apple St over the eastern shoulder of Dictionary Hill by bicycle is more likely to make you wish to see a doctor than not!

Formerly known as 'Lookout Mountain' or 'Gravity Hill', Dictionary Hill is what you would call a steepie-rich environment whose road planner had a certain distaste for curves and cut straight roads up and down cliffs, many of which look only safe to descend down on a parachute rather than on anything with wheels. Apple St is perhaps the most visible of the hyper-vertical thoroughfare in the area.

The climb from the west is steeper than from the east, but not by much. The whole ascent from Capistrano Ave to the crest is 3 blocks long, but the killer last block from Luther Ave on up is a killer all on its own at 21% average with max grade of 28%. The worst thing about it, though, is that it takes its time leveling off at the top.

3. Grand Ave on Dictionary Hill: 

There is no shortage of legs-chewing blocks on Dictionary Hill, but the longest and sadly not the shallowest single block climb there is on Grand Ave from the dip just below Date St to the top where pavement fades into a dirt track across the western shoulder of the 'mountain'. It is a long long block at 22% grade that I only ride up when I have need of severe punishment... perhaps after another one of those chocolate cake binge or after having failed to adequately pet the neighbor's cat and hurting her feeling. If only the local nuns knows how much that hill stings they'd just send their repentant sinners over to ride up that block on a bike rather than just handing them a rosary and an allotted number of repeats of the Hail Mary.

The slope does gentle out after Eucalyptus St intersection, but only slowly... and I'm afraid the view is underwhelming from the top of the pavement. I did say it's a punishment hill, right?

2. San Bernardino Ave on Dictionary Hill:
San Bernardino Ave at Apple St.
After the first steep hump.
At 0.2 mile long this monster is a bit long for this list, but I'm putting it here because you can't really logically break it into smaller climbs and it's a bit short for the 'toughest mile long climbs' list.

It is an exhausting business just getting to the base of San Bernardino Ave on Dictionary Hill. You see.. the thing sits on top of our previous entry, Apple St!
The real monster!

Most people would, after having spent most of their quads' glycogen preserve grinding to the top of Apple St, just pretend to not notice the 20+ % grade short block going further up the hillside of Apple. After all, it looks quite (ahem!) insignificant - a perfect facade hiding a truly hideous monster sleeping on the other side... 

After that steep hump the road dives into a steep dip before bouncing straight up the rest of Dictionary Hill proper for 2 1/2 torturous blocks at inhumane average gradient of 21% (the two level off intersections at Date and Eucalyptus Sts included in the calculation, which puts max somewhere in the high 30%).

From the top of San Bernardino Ave.
The road dead ends at the top with a little wooden gate barring a dirt trail to the top of the hill. I'm afraid I haven't gone on to investigate beyond that yet. I'm usually so out of it by the time I get to the top that the thought of having to climb over that first steep hump at the bottom of this thing to get back to Apple St in order to get off this accursed hill after my descent is almost enough to make me cry!

1. Maria Ave north of Chestnut St on Dictionary Hill:

First ramp on Maria Ave from Chestnut.
I'm hating myself already...
When roaming around Dictionary Hill on a bicycle, Maria is definitely not 'the most wonderful sound I've ever heard'. The 32% grade block of Maria Ave north of Chestnut is officially the steepest block of paved 'road' in San Diego. And though it is quite shorter than the long ramps on Grand Ave and San Bernardino Ave, it is the only block on this hill that I didn't manage  to cycle all the way up on my first try. (I've since ridden up it a few times, though only after having humbly added the 28 cog to my rear cassette).

A view from the top.
To add some salt into this injurious block, it even turns into a steep set of staircase at the top! There are a few houses on this scenic little monster, and so the whole block is not a uniform 32% grade climb, but has a couple of less horrible bits (so cars can come out of the driveways) mixed in with a couple of really ghoulie ones (not counting the gnarly opening slant ramp since you'd be past that thing before it really hurts you). I'm afraid years of scraping the bottom out of local cars have etched ruts and cracks and left quite a bit of debris on the pavement and makes line-choosing a critical part of making it up Maria Ave's queen block on a bicycle (that, and having low enough gear, of course!).

Be aware that you'll probably not be able to coast back down this thing (it's far safer to go down Ramona Ave's 28.3 % grade block next door instead, what with all the cracks and ruts and slippery dirt on the pavement).


  1. Thanks for the update on this post.

  2. My pleasure, Paul! :o) Are you planning on paying these climbs a visit?


Thanks for stopping by. Be safe on the roads!