Wednesday, June 3, 2015

San Diego's Steepest Road Climbs: Magnificent Sub-Milers

Steepest Short Walls
Steepest 1-5 Milers

Long overdue, I'm afraid because it took a while to get out and personally check all the candidate sub-miler badass climbs around town. Anyhow, so far, here are the toughest just-less-than-a-mile-long paved road climbs I've encountered in San Diego County. This shouldn't be read as an exhaustive list, tho. There are loads of amazing climbs out there and I'm sure I haven't explored them all yet. The climbs with * on them take some finessing to get onto, I'm afraid, as they are gated access-controlled roads.

10. Alpine Trail [0.7 mile, avg 7%, max 43%]
Just the top ramp on Alpine Trail.
A back way to Alpine from Harbison Canyon, this extreme rollercoaster takes you through a new housing development between Galloway Valley and Alpine Heights. From west to east, the climb comes in two major ramps with a nice dip in between them that allows for a bit of sling-shotting. It's a bit of a dilemma placing this climb lower than Via Capri and Country Club... I suppose, if you aren't already strong enough to survive > 23% graders for about a city block, then Alpine Trail would be quite harder to climb than Via Capri and Country Club Drs on Mt Soledad. If you can cope with short stretches of extreme gradients, tho, I feel this climb a bit easier simply because it allows you good enough rest to catch your breath and shake some lactate off the legs before the gnarliness resumes.

9. Via Capri Dr (Mt Soledad) [0.8 mile, avg 10%, max ]:
When the locals talk about climbing up the steep side of Mt Soledad, they usually mean Via Capri Dr from Hidden Valley to La Jolla Scenic Dr. It is indeed a very stern test of legs and lungs of the relentlessly uncomfortably steep variety. The worst thing about climbing Via Capri, to me, however, is the traffic. I'm afraid most cars don't struggle up the steep slope as much as we cyclists do, and the fact that there are often cars parallel-parked on the steep ramp between Vie Sienna and Hillside Dr, forcing you onto the only uphill traffic lane sure doesn't help things much.

8. Country Club-Romero-Brodicaea-Encelia Drs (Mt Soledad) [0.8 mile, avg 11%]
But, really, the hardest climb on Mt Soledad is actually the lesser known and traveled Country Club route. At about the same length, this route is a full percent grade steeper than Via Capri Dr. It is lesser known, I think, because it dead ends for cars at the private gate to Upper Hillside Dr from Encelia Dr. This makes for much sparser traffic... and sort of makes climbing it feels a bit easier than Via Capri since you can actually paperboy (zigzag) up the ramps in next to no-traffic condition. The steepest bit of this climb actually comes in the middle of the first block of Country Club Dr at about 18%, then there is a short break after the left turn along the golf course before the gradient kicks up again to Romero Dr and doesn't drop again until the top of Encelia Dr, 1/2 mile later.

View from La Jolla Reservoir off Encelia Dr.
If you aren't fixated on getting to the top without ever stopping, though, I'd suggest veering left at the corner of Brodicaea and Encelia Drs and going down the little drop to the car gate with a magnificent view of La Jolla Shores. If you don't mind a bit of firm dirt riding or hike-a-biking, the little dirt trail leading left over the knoll from the car gate is worth some exploration, too. It is only about 40 yds long and takes you to perhaps the best panoramic view point in La Jolla.

7. Coronado Hills Dr (San Marcos) [.6 mile, avg 12%, max grade 25%]:

It is almost inhumane how steadily steep this main route up Mt Whitney in San Marcos is! It's a well paved thing with two wide lanes and hardly any traffic at all after all the Mt Whitney residents had gone to work during the week. Once the road kicks up it doesn't drop below 10% again until 'the top'.

Looking north down Coronado Hills Dr.
Of course, by the time you get there, you might as well turn right onto Washingtonia and climb a bit more (2 or 3 short steep ramps with level off or dips in between) to the radio tower at the top. The steep ramp from the 5-way intersection is quite holey, though (unless it has very recently been repaved), and might be even gnarlier to descent than to climb.

6. Black Gold Rd (La Jolla Farms) [.4 mile, avg 14%, max grade 23%]:

The paved access road to Black's Beach from La Jolla Farms is perhaps the best kept secret local climbs in the city! It is car-gated at the top, though sometimes service vehicles and some key-holding local residents would drive down to the beach there. For us cyclists, most of the time getting on this beautiful beast involves tossing the bike over the gate and walking through the tight peds access way through the gate.

After the road starts to drop the view starts to open up and this climb can look very intimidating, with the switchbacks mid-section looking quite steeper than it actually is. Have no fear, the worst of the climb is actually at the very bottom where the narrow lane branches around a triangular island and the tarmac becomes well dusted with sand. From that spot down to the benches overlooking the beach the grade average is around 18% with maximum of 23% (yes, you'll have to mount the bike and start climbing on a 17% grade slope... Oh, the price we pay for a glimpse of the city's only nude beach!).

From the bottom of Black Gold Rd.
You may notice a lot of skid marks on the road surface as you muscle your way back up. Because this road is mostly car-free, steep, well paved and curvy, it is a favorite road-surfing spot for the local skatboarders. So... keep a look out for those when you hear strange rumbling approaching from above!

6. *Montana Serena Rd (Crest) [0.9 mile, avg 12%, max grade 43%]:

Getting on Montana Serena Rd may be a bit of a problem as it is in a private housing complex off from Rios Canyon Rd from Mountain View Dr between Crest proper and Harbison Canyon. Once you get on it, though, it is a conquest worth all the sufferings it inflicts!

The mellow tarmac bottom of Montana Serena through the relatively new housing development turns into a bumpy white concrete monster as soon as the road turns right around the row of palm trees. From then on it is put-your-head-down-and-don't-look-far-ahead do or die sort of climbing until the concrete surface turns into tarmac again about .7 mile later.

Gnarly climb for spectacular view = good trade off?
There is a lot of view to see from this road, but chances are that you won't notice any of it on the way up. It is that nastily unrelentless and steep. And to make it worse, there is no bombing on the descent either. The concrete is rutted and so bumpy that if you hit a bump wrong at >10 mph you will be in for quite a lot of hurt. Besides... why would you go fast down this thing when there is so much view to see?

5. *Buds Ln - Double R Rd (off Old Coach Rd in Poway [0.7 mile, avg 14%, max 27%].
I'm afraid I can't tell you much about this one since I haven't managed to get on it yet. :) It hides behind a heavy duty gate off from Deer Valley Estates just below Ramona Reservoir.

Buds Ln - Double R Rd as espied from Old Coach Tr
It sure looks super gnarly from a distance, though. I think you'd have to know someone who lives on Buds Ln to get inside the gate... Either that or wait until one of the new houses in the complex is doing an open house.

4. Lake San Marcos Towers Trail N [0.5 mile, avg 15%, max 30%]:
Known to the local steepie-hunters as the Lake San Marcos 21% (dunno why that percentage, but there it is), this is the paved narrow access road from the north side to the radio towers overlooking Lake San Marcos on the western spire of Cerro de los Posas Mountain, and it is a feat of suffering with a very disappointing view at the top!

I'm afraid the trail head at the bottom is unmarked and looks just like a private drive way. It's basically the narrow lane next to #1520 La Plaza Rd, and it leads you through some nice fenced in avocado orchards before being nearly completely blocked with a giant car gate with about a million padlocks on it where you will have to toss the bike over and somehow squeeze through the narrow opening on the left side... and find yourself restarting on about a 14% grade slope. I know, I know, San Diego steepies are such pills sometimes!
Final ramp to the Lake San Marcos radio tower.
The pavement is quite good and just wide enough for some paperboy-ing, and if you can, you must take in as much view as possible on the way up since the top of the road only has enough flat space for the radio tower complex and nothing else... and the complex lies between the top of the road and the drop to the lake. So... there is no view whatsoever at the very top, unless you want to roll back halfway down the steepest ramp of the climb for it, which may be okay if you just want to out-n-back this thing. But if you want to traverse from the tower along the Ridgeline Trail to Double Peak, then this would be quite a lot of aggravation!

3. Camino del Aguilar (Starvation Mountain near Escondido) [.7 mile, avg grade 15%, max grade 24.2%]:

While most sensible cyclists ride up to Ramona from Escondido via
the splendid curvy climb of Highland Valley Road (HVR), the steepie-addicted ones are partial to the (not very) short cut over Starvation Mountain that branches off from it just east of Bandy Canyon Rd instead. Camino del Aguila is a paved private road that technically ends at the dirt connection to Eagle Crest Rd just a wedge shot from the top of the mountain, though on bicycle there are a few ways you could take downhill from the top.

Anyhow, the first part of the Aguila involves going over a steep ridge by the winery and avocado farms. Road surface is quite pothole infested and there are a few sharp speed bumps to be mindful off as you descend to the ravine. From the bottom of the ravine, though, the road kicks straight up and becomes distinctly hostile to normal legs and lungs functions. I'm afraid the next turn on the road won't bring you any relief no matter how much you wish it would, not until you get to the lone level-off with a low stone wall by a ranch house nearly a mile later!

Of course, the only traffic on this road are local residents, and there aren't many of them, so you probably won't run into any car at all (though if you do, tread carefully because the driver is probably having as much trouble staying on the road as you do... the thing wasn't quite engineered right and doesn't bank quite the right way at its many steep switchbacks).

At the top, you could either take the dirt road onto Eagle Crest Rd that'd drop you off on HVR just west of Sky Valley Dr (this involves going around a couple of gates and quite a bit of trespassing), or you could hike-the-bike up the steep dirt ramp leading off to the left to pick up the top bit of Starvation Mountain Rd. I'm afraid we can't get to the very top of the mountain since the big house on the top had gated it, but turning left will take you down Starvation Mountain Rd back to HVR about a mile further up than when you turned off it to climb the Aguila.

2. The Crow's Nest Lane (Harbison Canyon) [.4 mile, avg grade 18%, max grade 33.3%]:

The shortest on this list, and it's sitting at #2! No kidding! I'm sure many have glimpsed at this monster as they descend Mountain View/Frances Rd into Harbison Canyon, though not many have gone up it since the base of it isn't quite on the main road. As you can see from the gradient profile pic above... it is a mad road!

As there are only 2 occupied houses on The Crow's Nest, the likelihood of sharing the gnarly climb/descent with a car is quite slim. The road is pretty well paved, though it does have liberal amount of sandy debris on the surface (probably doesn't get swept often... or at all!), and there are a couple of really ill-placed sharp speed bumps right on the steepest bit of the climb that gave me quite a fright when I spontaneously wheelied upon hitting them (the 2nd one even came with a rear wheel skid due to a loose layer of sand). So... please make sure your brakes are in excellent order before attempting this thing because you will have to come down it. And, as much as I enjoy going downhill, descending the Crow's Nest Lane was like a pleasure cruise that caught the flu virus 500 miles off-shore with no other ship in sight. I was happy to be alive when I got to the bottom... after having snailed my way down at less than 8 mph!

1. **Rocky Lane (Muth Valley) [.7 mile, avg 17%, max grade 44.8%]:
Talk about a barricaded road... It takes quite a bit of acrobatic just to get onto Rocky Ln at all! And once you are on it, you sort of wonder what madness had come upon you and how in the world are you going to get back out! Have an equally crazy buddy with you or tell someone where you'll be before attempting ('cause if you run into a mountain lion while dragging your bike up this thing, you're toasted and probably won't be found within a month). Also, as hideous as cycling down Wildcat Canyon Rd is, considering its traffic, it still is probably safer than descending Rocky Lane. I don't think I would even attempt it if I have disc brakes... So there you go.

Honorable mentions: Rainbow Glen from the west (Fallbrook), Rice Rd (Rattlesnake Mtn in Santee), Gomez Creek Rd (Rainbow - Pala).

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Thanks for stopping by. Be safe on the roads!