Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Following Nate Harrison's Trail Up Palomar Mountain

I felt like one of the Danaides, caught in a timelessly futile torment trying to fill a porous jar with water that would wash away the sin of post-forced-marital mariticide. The thing is, there simply was not enough water left in my two bottles to squirt the multitude of hungry flies out of my every exposed orifice. The steep, narrow, and slippery dirt road I was on made me a fish in the flies' barrel. I tried to keep an eye on the road, but only caught flashes of trees and dirt in between the shifting curtains of gnats. My lungs gasped for air, but every other molecules of gas came accompanied by bugs.
The Danaides by John William Waterhouse circ 1903.
There couldn't have been more than a mile and a bit left from the top of Nate Harrison Grade Road where the trees would thin out and the cooler alpine air would be mostly free of pesky insects. The closer I got to the top, though, the distance seemed to stretch out like the magical pear branches that kept receding away from the starving hand of Tantalus. Cycling up Palomar Mountain outside of the cold winter months must be very offensive to the petulant gods of Olympus... and it has much less to do with the steepness and the length of the slope than whether one had splattered on sufficient amount of DEET before committing the crime commencing the climb. 

After a mile and a bit pavement ends on Nate Harrison Grade.
There are lots of view to see along the climb even on a misty day.
Old tarmac comes and goes, but the constant grind lasts (almost) forever.
That was my first re-visit with Palomar Mountain since last spring when I rode up and down the standard Hwy 76/S Grade Rd route with the friendly folks from Neighborhood Cyclery. It was a different day, then. I was in much fitter bicycling shape and had a lot of friends with me on the road. There was even a SAG support trailer keeping an eye on us up and down the mountain. This time around I was in a sad biking fitness and looking for much needed alone time away from civilization. The former didn't bode well for the steepest barely-roadbikeable route up the mountain (8.4 miles at 9% average gradient), the latter, however, is a given on Nate's mostly dirt road.

It took over two hours of constant grinding; about 20 minutes of which was spent in really-bugged-by-bugs purgatory, but I survived to the top and a bit (once you've endured the trial of Nate Harrison Grade Rd on a road bike, you might as well go another half mile up double digit gradient paved ramp to Boucher Hill fire lookout tower!). It is a very different climb from Palomar South Grade Rd. There are 5 or 6 ramps with gradients in the low teens, and there are false flats to catch your breath on. It's just a shame that the final mile of this thing is the steepest mile of the entire road.

The last mile and a bit of Nate Harrison Grade is very steep forested lane.
The burnt elephant stump guarding the road to Boucher Hill.
Boucher Hill Fire Lookout Tower (May 2017).
It had rained three days earlier, so the 6 miles of dirt on that narrow back door to the mountain was mostly dry and nicely firm. What I hadn't quite counted on was how windy the storm that hit the mountain was... The last two miles or so of Nate Harrison (and most of Boucher Hill Rd) was covered in downed trees; and a lot of huge roadside trees looked ready to come down with the next gust of wind (not a reassuring sight when you can hardly go 6 mph up the hill, and have neither the tires nor the brakes to even attempt to descend down the way you came).

I thought about swinging down to visit Doane Pond when I got to the top, but the road was closed due to storm-downed trees. Come to think of it, the rangers probably should have closed down Nate Harrison as well (or at least put up signs about downed trees and trees that might soon be coming down as you drive/ride under them further up the slope). At any rate, my legs were moderately grateful that the Doane Pond option was closed off. They had had quite enough of insect infested double digit gradient slopes for the morning!

Yes, there were still good patches of snow on Palomar Mountain!
A young doe crossed State Park Rd just ahead of me before stopping to give me a second look.
A glimpse of the snaky Palomar South Grade Rd from State Park Rd.
From Boucher Hill, it's three or so miles of paved rollers on State Park Rd (S7) to Mother's Kitchen and Palomar Mountain General Store, and the start of the descent back down the mountain. There aren't many descents in the county as hair-raisingly fun as the combination of Palomar South Grade and Hwy 76 to Jilberto's Taco. Twelve downhill miles (5-9% grade the whole way with just one short false flat in the middle), only one stop sign, and only two short straight stretches. A lot of times the descent alone is worth suffering up this big blob of granite for me.

Nate Harrison Grade is off my hit list until next winter, though. There are bugs waiting to ambush pesky cyclists along South Grade and East Grade Roads, too, but at least with those routes I would have the option to beat a retreat back down the hill if it gets too much. On Nate Harrison Grade, if you start up that on a road bike, you are committed to going all the way up in order to come down on the paved roads... unless you are a ninja bike handler on the level with Peter Sagan or his likes, I guess. But even if you can handle the super rough, steep, slippery, and snaky descent, you'll still likely need a couple of new tires and maybe spokes and brake pads by the time you level out again. That's just not quite worth it for me.

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