I called Tony on Saturday morning to see of he was down for an early departure on Sunday 3/16 to ride the San Juan trail from the bottom. Usually up by noon, I knew that this would be a stretch for the once alpine starter. Surprisingly, he agreed. We exchanged a few texts throughout the day. Something to the affect of "where can we get an adventure pass in town?" "REI..., get me some cliffshots when you go", "why don't you go, I'm too lazy" and ended with that.
The San Juan trail winds its way from the floor of Hot Springs Canyon in south Orange County up to Blue Jay Campground about 3000’ above. This trail is widely considered one of the most technical in orange county and one of the best overall in California. Typically done as a shuttle ride from the top, this ride can be done as an out and back or lollipop for those who like to earn their turns.
I woke up at 4:30am and started tooling around, making coffee, packing lunch, etc. Tony arrived promptly at 6am and informed me that he had a flat tire on his bike and no spare. I quickly popped the tire off of the rim and removed the offending tube. This was the stock tube that came on his 29" Trek and appeared to be made from old tank treads infused with lead...no wonder I would always leave him in the dust! I pumped up the tube and immediately noticed that the leak was coming from the stem/tube interface...screwed. where the hell do you get a 29" presta valve tube at 6 in the morning? We tried Walgreens, but no tubes at all. The only other option was a 24hour Walmart. We had our doubts that they were going to be up on the 29r presta valve market, but today Walmart made a great stride in redemption in my eyes...Score!
Tony installed the new Walmart tube as we sped south towards San Juan Capistrano. About 25 minutes later, as we approached the Ortega exit, signs began to appear "No Trucks on Ortega HWY" and then as we exited "Ortega HWY Closed". Ortega Hwy CLOSED!!! Well shit… We discussed our options and decided to see if we could make it far enough to get to our trailhead, 12 miles down the road.
As luck would have it, the road was closed just past our turn off! Sweet! We made our way up to the parking area where I suddenly remembered that we had failed to pick up our state required adventure pass. Looks like another NRF notice for Brady! The lot was mostly empty, with a few vehicles indicating that the majority of those already on the trail were mountain bikers. Excited, we geared up in the chilly morning air, I manually placed my chain on the little ring (as I have rather enjoyed not having a front derailleur these past few weeks) and we hit the trail. It was now 8am.
So…the warm up on this ride consists of about a mile of really tight switchbacks at 10% up a chaparral covered, west facing slope, still cool in the shade. From here, the climbing continues in much the same manner, averaging 7-8% and occasionally offering up a healthy dose of exposure to keep you feeling alive. We soon gained a ridge and some outrageous views began to open up. While it was a bit hazy, we could see down to the ocean and into most of orange county. The sun was now on us pretty much full time, aside from the odd canopy here or there. This was exaggerated by the fact that we had failed to apply or bring sunblock. The trail at this point is mostly dry hardpack with a good share of rock garden, sandy pits, large rock obstacles and a fair amount of deep rut. The rutted areas can get a bit dodgy, but all in all it wasn’t so bad. I will admit that I had my fair share of hike-a-bike moments.
Now on any odd fire road, Tony would be far ahead on the upslide, but throw in the tricky singletrack and I was able to keep a healthy lead for most of the climb. This was a good feeling as Tony is in MUCH better physical shape than I am, albeit about 8 years my senior. We made it most of the way up the climb before we were passed by a couple of faster folks. Then a couple more and a few more. I was starting to get worried, but the wave passed as we broke for a snack at a rocky outcrop (that offered a nice shady respite) and the trail was once again deserted. It turned out that took our brake just about a ¼ mile from our first trail junction with Old San Juan Trail at Cocktail Rocks.
A group of about 12 guys in full face helmets greeted us like a team of storm troopers on about $75000 worth of bike. Apparently, Cocktail Rocks is the turnaround spot for most riders out here as the next leg is a bit more XC style. I am pretty sure that all the guys that passed us on the way up were in this group. They immediately started off back down the mountain as we headed out on the loop leg of the lollipop and once again the trail was ours. We had to hike our bikes up the first rutted section, but after that the trail flattens out for a bit before the first substantial downhill. The setting also changes as the trail winds its way through oaks and manzanita. This downhill offers up some substantial challenges with a bunch of roots mixed in with a bunch of rocks zig-zaging across the trail. Plenty of opportunity for some drops and hops but with little run out. Before I knew it I was spit out into an amazing oak lined meadow. I figured this would be a nice spot for lunch and got comfortable while I waited for Tony to make his way down.
While eating our lunch there we met one rider that was also completing the loop. We exchanged some pleasantries, he gave us some trail beta and rode on. We sat for a while longer, enjoying the whispering melody of a light breeze wafting through the meadow. The oaks and grass and birds and sun and breeze… (sigh) so cleansing. Ok, back to work. We hopped on our bikes and started back on the trail, shocking our bodies back out of their relaxed state. From here it was a mostly smooth, mellow climb up through a couple of meadows separated by narrow bands of oak. There was a bridge crossing a dry creek bed and some more climbing before we came to a 4 way intersection at the base of a steep hill. There were no markings, but a quick map reference gave us a heading suggesting we should turn right, and so we did. A little bit more smooth flowy climbing led to a sahweeeet mile long, slightly downhill section of fast, curvy, burmy singletrack. This is the stuff dreams are made of. Flying through hallways and tunnels created by the overgrowing brush, I felt like Luke Skywalker speeding through the trees on Endor, trying to catch those pesky storm troopers. I want more of this stuff.
Eventually the downhill ran out and we began our climb back up to Cocktail Rocks. Much of this section was hike-a-bike stuff for us with large blocky rock obstacles and rock gardens littering the climb. Eventually we arrived back at the trail junction. I lowered my seat, not remembering the ½ mile or so of climbing we would have to do before the real meat of the downhill began. My uphill muscles were pretty toasted by now so I quickly reverted back to climbing mode before we hit the final downhill section. From here it would be six miles of technical, slidey, twisted and generally awesome singletrack. I paused a few times to let the feeling come back into my hands and to make sure that Tony was still upright somewhere up the mountain. I came off the bike once at one of the steeper switchbacks and had a few foot dabs here and there, but all-n-all I fared well.
I finally reached the bottom and changed into some comfy cotton. Soon Tony popped out at the trailhead, battered and bloodied. Apparently I hadn’t been keeping as good of an eye on him as I thought. He described how he had gone down a number of times and showed off his various cuts and scrapes. His arms and legs looked like he narrowly escaped some sort of chainsaw massacre. My GPS died on the way down so I am not sure what our actual mileage was. My Strava ride showed 18.1 miles and 3400’ of climbing, Tony’s computer clocked 18.9 miles.
We drove back to Huntington Beach, picked up my boys and spent the rest of the afternoon bodysurfing and relaxing in the sand. My kind of Sunday.
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