Thomas Mountain lies near Idyllwild, just west of Highway 74 as you head towards Palm Desert. The mountain is named for Charles Thomas, a pioneer who founded a ranch in the valley in 1861. There are different options for this ride. One is to stay on the fire road for a 16-mile loop and the other is a five-mile fire road climb with a technical single-track descent on the Ramona Trail; a total of 14 miles.
Both routes return to the parking area with a ride along Highway 74. With a summit of 6,825 feet and a 2,000 foot plus elevation gain on the longer ride, this ride is a good aerobic workout with nothing too steep and Southern California views that can’t be beat. Located in the beautiful Garner Valley between Idyllwild and Palm Desert, there are many riding options in the area for an extended visit, including popular Hurkey Creek and The Hub Trails near the Idyllwild Arts Academy, as well as rides in the Palm Desert area.
Having previously ridden the singletrack descent route, we set out on this morning in early March to explore the longer all fire road option. The day began as many days do when heading out of town on a day trip. With coffee and bagels for the drive that began at dawn, it had the feel of a mini-vacation. As we started riding up the fire road, the air was crisp and cool, but the climb quickly warmed us up.
The views to the west of Anza Valley and the Cahuilla Indian Reservation, and the San Jacinto Mountain range capped in snow to the east, were breathtaking. The season brought us a first glimpse of wildflowers, with Indian paintbrush and others beginning to bloom.
The road is in excellent shape as it consistently climbs through pines and chaparral. Just as I was feeling like the climbing would never end, Tool Box Springs Campground came into view through a thick forest of Jeffrey pines at about the five-mile mark. It was time for a short break. At this point, one option would be to take the Ramona Trail down the hill, which is a fun, technical single track that keeps you on your toes. On this trip, we opted to continue climbing up the fire road several more miles, passing campsites along the way – most of which were vacant.
For being called “one of the most popular rides in the area,” this trail was amazingly empty. We encountered a total of two hikers, one equestrian, two motorcyclists, and one truck during our several hours on the trail. This route would make an excellent introductory bike-packing trip, with many campsites to choose from, and a great fat tire ride in the snow.
Once again, as I was wondering, “when will the climbing end,” we reached the junction that took us on a welcomed downhill on Thomas Mountain Road and back to Highway 74. This long, curvy downhill brought smiles to our faces. Again, the scenery was amazing, with fantastic views to the west and, after turning back towards the east, of Garner Valley and the rugged San Jacintos. For a while we wondered if we were going to end up on the wrong side of the mountain and down in Anza, but the road eventually turned back toward the San Jacintos and headed down to the 74.
After the ride along the highway back to the car, our legs were tired and we were ready for a stop in Idyllwild before heading home – including requisite visits to The Hub Cyclery, a great local bike shop; Mountain Paws, an upscale pet store; and a local eatery for a good meal with a glass of wine. Two favorite restaurants are Gastrognome, with delicious homemade soups and breads, and Fratello’s, for authentic Italian food. Their outdoor seating keeps the mountain views from ending even when the ride is over. With our stomachs full and our bodies tired and dirty, we drove home with memories of yet another Southern California adventure. – SS
Shari Sullivant is an Orange County native living in Tustin. Shari enjoys riding her Santa Cruz Superlight on trails all over the county. Chino Hills, O’Neil Park, and Backstar Canyon are some of her favorite spots to ride.