Monday, July 20, 2015

Mt Laguna by Road Bike...

Unlike Palomar Mountain where one can hop onto a couple of MTS and NCTD buses and be deposited right at the base of the climb, Mt Laguna is much less easy to access via public transportation. From Uptown the only option (aside from riding all the way in, of course) is to take either the Green or Orange Line trolley to El Cajon Transit Center and then catching MTS bus 864 east to either Alpine (last real coffee shop stop) or Viejas Casino (last restroom stop until Pine Valley). The latter deposits you still 10 miles short of the base of the first route (Pine Creek Rd) up Mt Laguna, and 15 miles from the base of the more popular (and gently inclined) Sunrise Highway climb.

A quick stop for coffee & restroom at Janet's Montana Coffee in Alpine, and then I was off heading east on Alpine Blvd and onto the bike-legal stretch shoulder of I-8 for the mountains (I-8 is bike legal between E Willow Rd and Hwy 79/Japatul Valley Rd, but you have to take the scenic viewpoint/rest stop detour and get off at the next exit - in other words, you can't cross an exit ramp). It's a gentle 6% grade climb all the way to Hwy 79 turn off, but the morning was just cool enough for me to keep the hi-viz jacket on. 

Heading east on I-8 at E Willow Rd
A short downhill east on Hwy 79 ensued before the short level off through Descanso Junction and then it's back to four miles of gentle climbing again on Old Hwy 80 to Guatay. Cuyamaca Peak was being a sleepy head and taking its time shedding the cloud blanket as Stonewall Peak next door was already in the clear and looking fairly Alp-ish in the clearer air below.

A view of Cuyamaca Peak (touching the low cloud) and Stonewall Peak (rocky pyramid on right) from Old Hwy 80.
After Guatay I enjoyed the couple of downhill miles into the little town of Pine Valley before the day's main dose of climbing began. I'm afraid the only public restroom in Pine Valley is at the community park, and it isn't open until 10:30 a.m. Other than that are the restaurants with 'for customers only' john. So, if you plan on riding thru town earlier than 10 and don't want to have to buy something just to use the restroom, stopping to do the nature break in Alpine is the way to go.

Leaving Pine Valley's little strip mall on Olde Hwy 80 the road immediately pitches up at a rather constant 6% grade to the junction with Sunrise Hwy (S1).

Heading east on Olde Hwy 80 from Guatay to Pine Valley
Found me a little souvenir from a local hawk.
Pine Valley, the last flat bit of riding at the base of Mt Laguna.
By the left (north) turn onto Sunrise Highway I was all warmed up again. The sun emerged onto the clearing sky and there was a lot of view to enjoy while dogging my way up the 9 miles climb to the top (which is just a bit past the fire house). There is nothing steeper than 7 or 8% on this climb. It's just long!

Looking west toward Cuyamaca Peak from Sunrise Hwy.
Here the road levels out a bit.
Just after Kitchen Creek Rd turn off about 4/5 of the way up the climb I veered right onto the serene pine-lined single-lane tarmac Morris Ranch Rd. By the way, Kitchen Creek Rd is only marked on the west side of Sunrise Hwy. There is no sign on Kitchen Creek Rd itself. If you haven't ridden Mt  Laguna, Kitchen Creek is a marvelous cycling back road. Most of it is closed to automobile and has  amazing view with some >12% grade steep ramps in its lower half.

Morris Ranch Rd

The unmarked lane that leads to the SDSU's Mt Laguna Observatory Complex.
Most cyclists ride right by Morris Ranch Rd on their way up or down Mt Laguna without giving the nondescript lane a second thought (or even a first thought, for that matter, most don't even notice the turn off in the first place) since there is no sign pointing to anything interesting off the main highway. I had google-earthed the area before hand, however, and knew there were some goodies hiding less than a mile away.

The Charles Huffer Memorial Sundial at the 21" Buller telescope dome.
Tucked into the east side of the Laguna Mtns at 6100 ft elevation is the four-telescopes complex of Mt Laguna Observatory, operated by the San Diego State University. It's a well wooded facility with a most charming access road that zigs its way up the mild pine-covered slope. If you arrive here by car you'd have to park at the parking lot off Morris Ranch Rd and then take the dirt hiking trail (marked by this cool-looking holed-through stump in the pic below) to the tarmac access road just up the hill.

The hollow stump at the trail head to Laguna Observatory access road.
After spending some time riding around checking out all the observatory buildings (the place was  closed and there was nobody around even at the dormitory) and snapping lots of photos I retraced back to Sunrise Hwy and rode over the crest just beyond the fire house. A water/snack stop at the general store before hitting the road again, heading north in search of more off-the-main-road excitement.

FAA radar dome from the U-curve on Monument Peak Rd.
The fence gate...
The first was the tantalizing FAA radar domes atop Stephenson Peak just north of Desert View campground. The road (Monument Peak Rd) to it is unmarked, which is just as well since it's heavy-duty gated off just after the U-curve. There is some nice desert view to be had from the curve, tho.

Not feeling much trespassing mojo, I turned around and went picking a fight elsewhere instead. Just a bit further north on the S1 is the turn off for the Big Laguna Trail (dirt, bikes-prohibited as it is part of the Pacific Crest Trail) and the service road to Horse Haven Campground.

Lightning Ridge Trail.
Branching off the nicely paved lane of Horse Haven is a cool looking gravel lane leading through the pine trees toward the narrow little hill. A bit of gate-hopping ensued before the Smorgmobile got to experience some gravel-riding fun as the road does a zigzag and climbs its way out of the tree line. I'd love to say that I rode all the way up this lovely gravelly side adventure, but a patch or two of it proved a bit too soft and steep for my 25 mm tires to handle. It is only a half mile climb, but Lightning Ridge Trail is quite a charmer. There were loads of Steller's jays, acorn woodpeckers, Oregon juncos, and rufus-sided towhees populating its slope, and the view on the top is quite worth the bike-handling practice, too! (I see that the Cleveland National Forest page on the trail calls it a 'hike only', but the signs at the trail itself clearly show bicycle and hike).

Water tank on top of Lightning Ridge.
Laguna Meadow and the dry Little Laguna Lake.
Looking north down Sunrise Hwy from Lightning Ridge.
I think the fenced-in geodesic structure at the top is just a water reservoir (with anti-lightning geodesic roof design). The proper top is on the rock cropping on the right side of the trail. The surrounding pine trees looked like burn-survivors... from wild fire or lightning strikes. The sun was out and so were the many winged critters, so I hung around the ridge for a long while to bird watch.

A rufus-sided towhee playing with the pine cones.
Squawky Steller's jay.
Oregon junco.
A pair of watchful western bluebirds.
While down in the town the only jays I'd run into are cute western scrub jays, here above 3000 ft the pine forests are dominated by the Steller's jays, whose endless cackling is only matched by the feisty families of acorn woodpeckers. The cute black-headed Oregon juncos and the colorful spotted (AKA rufus-sided) towhees and western bluebirds, on the other hands are a quiet bunch. Spotted towhees are particularly fun to watch when they forage on the ground, doing a distinctive double-scratching backward hops to clear stuff off their food items.
Either I have really small feet or that's quite a huge pine cone!
A glimpse of the desert from Desert View campground.
I needed to be back in town in the afternoon and it was getting pretty late to linger on the mountain, so I started rolling my way back down Sunrise Hwy, stopping at Desert View campground to use the restroom (the toilet still flushes, but water had been turned off for the sink) and refill my water bottles... and to catch another good glimpse of the desert before enjoying the long and curvy descent down to Pine Valley.

Curiosity got the better of me as I rolled through the village, though, and I veered south on Corte Madera Rd just to see why Google Earth car didn't go south on it past the I-8 underpass (I had been google-earthing it to see if I could get to Los Pinos lookout tower from there). As it turned out, the road is fenced and gated off just a bit south of the underpass when it runs into a private cattle ranch. There is a marked dirt trail leading south from there along the right side of the fence, however.

The relatively nice no-trespassing sign on the Corte Madera Rd gate.
Passed a few bike-touring cyclists heading east on Old Hwy 80.
Wildwood Glen Dr (Old Hwy 80) bridge across the Sweetwater River.
After climbing back up to Guatay and Descanso I thought I'd turn off the 79 at Wildwood Glen Dr instead of the I-8 on-ramp. I had heard some tantalizing comments about this old alignment of the 80 that allows you to bypass the exposed I-8 bridge over the Sweetwater River (it's a nasty cycling stretch when the wind is blowing). It started out as a well-kept two laner lined by a few ranch houses. After about 1/3 mile the concrete road is gated off to automobile, though (the sign post says bikes, horse & hikers are allowed).

Wildwood Spring gate.
The old road is in the process of being reclaimed by nature...
The old Ellis Wayside Rest, well hidden behind graffitied boulders.
After a while all pavement disappeared into a gravelly track.
The pavement disappeared after 3/4 mile or so and the dirt/gravel trail that continues west becomes rougher and rougher. By the time I got to the well graffitied boulders that hides the old Ellis Wayside Rest (Ellis Springs on the map) that used to service the Old Hwy 80, it is just a narrow track that gets moderately spooky where it cuts into the hillside. My sixth sense antennae went into overdrive and I started berating myself for putting me into such an unforgiving location. I was well hidden from the freeway and couldn't move fast on so rough (and gravelly) a trail on my road bike. This being beyond the locked gate of a closed road that only serves a handful of houses, had a hungry mountain lion turned up just then nobody would find my carcass for months! Needless to say, I didn't linger around and plowed on just as fast as the unsuitable-to-terrain bike would allow to get to where I could be (though still unlikely to be) spotted from the freeway again. I've got to admit, the view of the I-8 heading east into the mountains from the trail was pretty spectacular even on such an overcast day!

Looking east down on I-8 from Wildwood Glen trail (which goes thru that little blast channel in the hill on the left).
Well, this is an interesting exit...
Made it to the I-8 shoulder just a couple of curves from E Willow Rd exit!
The final little drop onto the westbound I-8 shoulder is a precarious one. It's all soft sandy stuff at about 18% grade steep, and I was happy that I managed to glissade down without messing up bike or cycling kit. The wheels were well decorated with brushes and twigs by the time I was done, though. It was outrageously fun but not something I'd like to try again in the future.

Here's a little video from the ride.

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Thanks for stopping by. Be safe on the roads!