From the East Mesa parking area by the side of Route 79 in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, I pedal up East Mesa Fire Road in the direction of Oakzanita Peak. It’s a steady climb with a few pushes along the way before topping out, where it becomes a cruise to the single track by Granite Spring that connects Cuyamaca to the Laguna Mountains of Cleveland National Forest. The descent down to Indian Creek is a dirty, somewhat double track that rides like single track, meaning there’s a line of sorts to follow.
At the Indian Creek trail sign, I settle into the saddle for the long, laborious climb to Champagne Pass. At the waterfall (bone dry at this time of year) I dismount and hike-a-bike up and over the rocks, and then get back on and climb some more. A crux comes up; a slightly off camber rock section that requires a bit of a power move. I clean it, elated to make it through, only to not clean another tough section a few minutes later. ‘Oh the travails of mountain biking,’ I think to myself!
Atop Champagne, I stop to eat and drink. With an apple and some nuts in my stomach, I get back on the bike and take Pine Mountain Trail, one of my favorites in this neck of the woods. I end up not seeing a single person until I get to the Sunrise Highway. It is solitary riding at its best, fueling me for the road ride from Pioneer Mail to Lucky 5.
At Lucky 5 I climb up the single track, twisting and turning my way to the parking area, with giant boulders the color of mountain lions plopped along the trail as I go. On through the parking area, I crank, and then it’s on to more single track connecting to La Cima. A little more gradual climbing on a slightly rocky surface describes the trail, with chaparral on both sides. I crest out and then pedal hard on the super-fast and fun descent to the next trail junction.
I turn right and go on around the top of the ride, where La Cima morphs into the California Riding and Hiking Trail. Undulating, classic, cross-country riding amidst the iconic golden meadows with views of the Cuyamacas, including Stonewall Peak, keep the energy level up – along with electrolytes pulled through the hose of the hydration pack strapped to my back.
At Soapstone Grade, a fire road, I turn right on the double track and pedal with ease, enjoying the afternoon in the mountains. A left turn down Stonewall Creak Fire Road is a hoot, the dirt road providing ample room to let it rip. Slowing a little to not miss Cold Stream, I see it and turn right on to the single track. The most-recent, purpose-built, mountain bike trail in the park is a dandy to ride. Delight fills my bones as I pedal up and down it, wandering over to where it ends and then crossing over route 79 to connect to West Mesa trail. More single track takes me south, in the direction of where I started three hours ago. At the technical rock garden, I take the high line and roll it with ease. Happiness.
The creek crossing has a puddle to splash through, not impeding my pedal stroke at all. On and on, I go, down to where the trail spits me out on 79. A quick right, I cross the bridge, and then a quick left into the parking area where I pick of East Mesa trail.
Up the loose rocky climb and then right and down and then back up through more rocks, a bit of a gut punch highlights the near-end to the ride. When the trail drops down, it is fast and somewhat loose, with rocks and deep gulches here and there before it settles down. At that point, it is all about turning the cranks and clipping off the remainder of the ride, handfuls of minutes passing by as I make my way back to the car.
Cuyamaca Rancho State Park: If you park at the Visitor Center, there is a parking fee. If you park along state route 79 at any of the obvious parking areas, e.g. East Mesa, there is no fee to park.
Cleveland National Forest: If you are not familiar with the area, it requires planning and map skills to piece this ride together, as it encompasses trails in Cuyamaca and the Lagunas. Technically, parts of the section between Lucky 5 and Soapstone that is described in the article actually falls under the boundaries of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, though the trails are mapped on Cuyamaca documents. Check both sites above for local camping options.
If coming/going from San Diego, Alpine Beer Company has legendary IPAs and plenty of food options at their restaurant. If you opt to go the tasting room and not the restaurant, walk down the sidewalk to the taco shop, order some food, and bring it to the tasting room. Sit out back and bask in the sunshine while eating and drinking.
On up Julian way, the apple-mountain-town-San Diego-weekend-getaway locale offers good ole home cooking in various styles, along with cider and wine tasting rooms and breweries.
You can read more from James Murren’s travels on his website www.jamesmurren.com