There are not that many places that encompass a regional diversity in micro-climates and geological landscape such as Southern California. One can easily cycle up from the beach, through the sprawling suburbia of the West Coast, get stuck in snow, fog and rain on the mountains, just to suddenly race down to the desert badlands with soft sand trails and relentless sunshine – in less than two days – by bicycle.
I won’t get into too much route details here (You can find my tracks HERE). I headed out from San Diego to Borrego Springs in the Anza-Borrego Desert where I was lucky enough to meet up with my wife for hanging out a bit more with hot tub and hiking, but you might want to plan it as a round trip or start or end it in Los Angeles. You are traversing different climates you might need to adapt to seasons – You likely don’t want to ride in the desert between May and September – and road conditions – I advise to check before both for the mountains and the desert, for reasons you either imagine and you will find them described below. It can be done as road cycling as well as on trails and offroad. BIKEPACKING.com has published impressions and route descriptions such as the SoCal Desert Ramble or the Stagecoach 400 Bikepacking Route. The San Diego Christmas Ride has good road based suggestions and variants. I set out with a mix, inspired by all of them in mind but re-routed a bit after I got stuck in the snow.
Pacific Beach – Laguna Mountain
Total: 111km, 2360m elevation gain
Starting from Pacific Beach I get immediately delayed by the first mishap: The cheap Chinese saddle bag I just recently bought broke when I tried to zip it tight, and I after fruitless attempts to fix it I had to figure out an improvised solution: I mounted a rack and just tied it onto it. Finally, I headed out along Mission Bay and Mission Valley mostly following low traffic roads and bikeways, closing in on main roads in the outskirts of San Diego. Definitely, it’s a long suburban stretch: It is about 60 kilometers of riding until beautiful scenes of rural landscapes take over. Just after Alpine I left the Highway 80, went over the I-8 and headed along into the Viejas Reservation following Viejas Grade road. Starting as a paved road into a flat valley it turns into a gravel road in good conditions that gently winds up, beginning what will be more serious climbing for the rest of the day. At some point, I hit pavement again and rode into Descanso, which is a great place to restock on water or Gatorade. I had a burrito at the Mexican joint next to a gas station. Food spots will get spare from now on.
After filling my belly up – with what seemed too much food and water – I turned into Pine Valley and along the Pine Creek starting out gently graded again, through a very scenic Valley. Slowly though, Pine Creek Road turned smaller and steeper. I hit a “Road Closed” sign and closed gate, but decided to ignore it. A little bit later had to cross a flooded piece of road. Not too deep, it could quickly be passed, and I thought this to be the reason for the road closures. I would later find out there are more severe obstacles on the way. But now the road got steeper and steeper with grades I would estimate to top 14 or 16%, which made my already muscles burn. By that point I already about 1500m of elevation gain in my legs.
I encountered patches of snow. First I found it funny, and I took a few pictures, but it slowly turned into snowfields. It was not very far to the main highway, just about three kilometers and 200 or 300 m of elevation gain left, and I expected to find some dry spot to pitch my tent in some of the many campgrounds up on the top (very naive). Due to my late departure and the delays in climbing up here, I had already revised my initial plan to head down the truck trail and set up the tent there. By now also sunset and darkness started to set in. I pushed my bike through snow, and it only got worse from here. It was still warm though – I was not (entirely) stupid, I checked the weather forecast and conditions, and it was far above freezing temperature, and nighttime temperature was expected to be more or less within the comfort range of my sleeping bag. But I seriously underestimated snow cover and did not check for road closures. And the melting snow also meant it was heavy and wet – as were feet. I arrived on top, by which mean the Sunrise Highway, in pitch darkness (Yes I had lights) and exhaustion.
I headed for the Laguna Mountains campground and found it closed. I headed for the next campsite and found the entrance covered in snow. As far as I could see – which was not much further than the roadside – I only saw snow (the highway itself was clear). I pedaled on a few kilometers where I could find another campsite, a store, a cafe and a lodge – all closed. On the rare occasion, I saw I snow-free patch of ground it was either a pool of water or mud. I saw a few houses with lights on, and cars parking at the lodge. My phone did not have service. Luckily I found an emergency check-in at the backside of the lodge. It was modeled after a phone booth. It had a single button. By pressing it, I placed a call to the owner above and a few minutes later, while a finally put on a puff jacket, he opened the back door and led me into the store where I was given a motel room and found myself a cold beer. Later in my room, I put on the heater, dried my socks and shoes, and cooked myself a hydrated meal on the alcohol stove placed at the chimney.
Laguna Mountain – Fonts Point
108 km, 600m
I woke up around 7.15 am, made myself some tea and muesli and peeked out the door: Still snow. Also water from melting snow dropping from everywhere: the roof, the trees, the sky. The sky? It was foggy and wet, with drizzling rain (- Of course, my forecasts did not anything of rain). A great day to ride! I put my feed into plastic bags, myself in the rain gear, which I was close to leaving at home, lucky I did not. I set out to ride to Julian. By now the decision was clear: I would not set out to ride down a truck trail I could hardly see, but stick to paved roads. It also meant canceling the planned crossing of the Carrizo Badlands, as it would now be a zigzag detour with an unknown quantity of pushing my bike through soft sand, and for now, I had enough of pushing the bike. So I headed directly to Fonts Point and Borrego Springs, camp out there in the desert and explore the desert jeep trails the day after.
First however, I had to cycle through the fog and rain to Julian, about 35 kilometers, slightly up and down, where I warmed up and enjoyed a combination of second breakfast and lunch, famous Julian apple pie with a cup of bad American coffee, followed by a bowl of Chilli in the diner next door as replacement for the espresso they did not have and I could not find. I forced myself to get back on the bike. It helped that it was all downhill from here. And to my surprise after only a few minutes I suddenly the fog dissolved and sunshine hit my body. I looked back, a wall of clouds covered everything. I stopped to get out of the jackets, gloves, leg and arm warmers. I turned hot. The ride was beautiful and mostly downhill except for Yaqui Pass. It was a short climb though, with pretty views followed by another downhill ride into Borrego Valley and Springs, where I hit another challenge I had not anticipated: Wind. A lot of wind. Headwind! From the first “Welcome to Borrego Springs” it took me about an hour to get into the center cycling with an average speed of 11 km per hour.
At the mall of Borrego Springs, I finally found a good espresso, a greek salad and an egg pocket, more espresso, ice cream and two gallons of water that should bring me through the 24 hours. Then I hit the road again, out the BORREGO_SALTON SEA WAR until Fonts Wash, now with tailwinds. Fonts Wash confirmed my worst fears of desert trails: A wash full o jeep trails and soft sand piles. I ended up mostly pushing the bike and gave up riding as it turned out to be more exhausting. I found the last kilometer of the 6.3 km had a firmer ground and rideable again even as it went uphills slightly, so I could proudly ride into Fonts Point met by eyes of the amazed spectators, who had overtaken me by
Fonts Points – The Slot – Borrego Springs
I woke up to the sound of a drone flying somewhere over my head just before sunrise at 6.16h. I was not the only one to stay out here. Climbing up the ridge, I found three cars and a bunch of people flying their drone, everyone equipped with professional cameras shooting pictures of the vistas, tents, and a cooler backpack. Instagram life?
At least for a while, I had Fonts Point alone to myself after they all left and before the next load of tourists arrived in their jeeps.
Fighting my way out of the soft sand trail back to pavement I found myself significantly faster than the day before: it went slightly downhill, I got better in reading the ground and finding drivable spots in the crust next to the ridden trails. It also helped I had lost a few kilograms in load, mainly consumed water and food.
What followed was a comparably easy day of cycling and desert sightseeing. I ventured to see another significant icon of the Anza Borrego State Park: The Slot, an impressive slot canyon you could easily walk through and circle back around looking at it from the top. Also, the road leading into was in much better conditions. I met some of the same tourists from Fonts Point again here.
Mostly however I found myself uneventfully cycling on the road, fighting head or side wind and tackling sudden drop-offs of 10% that came out of nowhere in a usually mostly flat desert.
Back in Borrego Springs, I settled for espresso, ice cream, and pizza, reading local papers until my wife arrived from work. We pitched our tent in the cheapest place with a hot tub we found: In an RV and Golf Resort, somewhere between huge RVs, each of which came with a dog, a jeep and a generator. Luckily it’s owners are well-behaved citizens. They respected quiet times.
Borrego Springs, exploring
The morning started with drizzling rain again, and fat rainbow, just after our breakfast. We headed out for the flower fields. It had rained an outstanding amount this winter season. The desert continues to be a source of surprise and amazement: Watching a blooming desert under a rainbow is genuinely unique. We couldn’t get our mouth shut (or the mobile cameras in the pockets).
It for sure was not my last time in the Anza-Borrego Desert. I am already looking forward to the next bike ride out here, realizing the canceled route and more off-route explorations into places such as Canyon Sin Nombre, Fish Creek, Split Mountain, Coyote Canyon, Kitchen Creek Road, and the Mason Truck Trail, etc…)
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is the largest State Park in California and samples an impressive amount of geological, botanical and social oddities and diversity. Here, you find it all: The golf courses, the massive RVs, the off-road vehicle enthusiasts – reminiscents of a man-conquers nature mindset and fossil fuel culture, that will eventually be eaten up by the sand of deserts like the ruins of former mines in the arid mountains,