Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Bikepacking the Santa Ana Mountains

Sometimes it's good not to know what you are getting yourself into.  I mapped out an ambitious adventure on unfamiliar terrain through the Santa Ana mountains and convinced a friend it was a good idea.  The plan was to take the Amtrak to San Juan Capistrano, pedal out to the San Juan Trail via Ortega Highway, climb up into the Santa Ana Mountains, ride the Main Divide Truck Trail north until it was time to camp, wake up and continue north until we decided to take one of the trails down and Amtrak it home.

The first couple steps were easy.  We caught the 6:05am train out of San Diego and pedaled our way up the Ortega Highway towards the SJT from San Juan Capistrano.  The Ortega wasn't very pleasant.  The shoulder was wide at times and non-existent at times with a fair amount of high speed semi truck traffic sprinkled in.  Throw in a nice headwind and it starts to feel like a long 12 miles.  It didn't get me down though because I knew these would be the last cars I had to deal with for a while.

Ortega Hwy - Usually not such a wide shoulder

The San Juan Trail starts climbing from the very first turn of the pedals.  This would be a pretty tough one to start cold, right from the trailhead.  The switchbacks were close together to start and widen as you gain elevation.  I managed to clean a few of them, but it was pretty tough with all the weight I was carrying on the back.

SJT Trailhead

Early switchback

The short switchbacks early give way to longer traverses of the hillside with switchbacks much further apart.  These were good fun because they were easier to navigate with the loaded mountain bike and for a feature that I wouldn't appreciate until later...shade.

Looking back

Switchbacks leaving the trailhead

After the switchbacks things got tougher.  We started on the west side of the mountain in the morning which gave us some shade on the switchbacks, but by the time we got up higher the sun was solidly overhead and it turned out to be a hotter day than we expected, probably low 80s.  Not scorching, but not insignificant.  The terrain got a bit more technical, rutted, and loose - making us work harder.  We had to hike-a-bike a bunch of sections as the loaded bikes were difficult to maneuver through the ruts and uphill restarts were made more challenging by the sandy conditions.

We managed to find a few big rocks providing a little shade to eat lunch and rest a bit.  I think the afternoon sun might have clouded judgement a bit as we ended up taking a wrong turn at a fork in the trail and started down the Chiquito Trail.  The wrong decision proved fun for a while as the looping singletrack wound down through a shady creek basin.  Eventually, we came to a signpost that let us know we were on our way back towards the Ortega Highway.  We had to point the bikes back up hill and search out the Blue Jay campground.  We were pretty much out of water (started with about 90 oz each) so the spigot that came into view before discovering the campground was a welcome sight.

The plan had been to continue on up the Main Divide Road further that day, but we decided to stay at Blue Jay and climb "The Wall" in the morning.  Our camp neighbor was there to forage for edible mushrooms in the Chiquito basin and offered us some oranges when we were setting up camp.  Best orange I've ever had.  Since I got back from this trip I've been eating oranges like a crazy person, I think the positive association with that particular orange is responsible.  The camping got a little less pleasant when several cars full of OC yahoos set up camp right next to us with no intentions outside of partying.  They were pretty awful people.  Not a great night of sleep even after asking them to turn off their car speakers at 10:30pm.

The next morning we packed up and started the climb up the Main Divide road.  About halfway up it became more of a hike as the loose, steep road proved exhausting to ride with our loaded rigs.  It flattened out near the top and we rode up to the junction with Los Pinos and Trabuco.  We planned to continue on the Main Divide road, eventually taking either Horsethief or Holy Jim down towards Irvine.  We knew we weren't going to make it nearly as far as our ambitious plan to go over Santiago and down through Black Star Ranch.

While waiting at the junction a couple guys came riding up Trabuco and we started chatting about our plans.  They had good local knowledge and told us not to mess with Horsethief, especially with panniers, and that the Main Divide road turns into a steep rollercoaster of loose terrain and babyheads for 8 miles until Holy Jim.  We took their advice to head down Trabuco and were rewarded with fun, shady switchbacks through thick vegetation and a somewhat dicey downhill section that had a pretty high penalty for a left side bailout.


Time to replace the stock 1989 tires.

The sharp, loose rocks on the descent absolutely destroyed my front tire.  The tire was pretty old, so it's not too shocking, but I got pretty lucky that I didn't get any punctures.  I learned a lot on this trip.

1. Big elevation gains on loose terrain with a full load are hard, real hard.  
2. Don't get trail mix with pieces that can melt.  If you do, be sure to keep it in a ziploc.
3. The Rock Combo is a mule.  Lack of suspension didn't matter on the climb, kept me under control on the descents.  (On the way down Trabuco some guys climbed past us and I heard one of them say to the other, "Did you see that guy's bike?  None of these modern accouterment, just vintage cromoly.  Awesome.")
4. Good company with positive attitudes is crucial.  Erik was down for anything.  At times he was suffering, at times I was suffering, but it was always temporary.
5. A more detailed map would be a good idea.  I was using the Cleveland National Forest map, not enough detail.
6. Bikepacking is a pretty rad way to get out there.


  1. Couple of months ago, I biked up Santiago Peak via Harding Truck Trail (fire roads are fine w/me when loaded), and was contemplating bikepacking in them thar hills. The ride is not that hard until you get to Main Divide, and then it turns into rocks and more rocks. The last four miles was brutal, I was glad to get past it on the way down (20 yr old suspension). Next time I'm just going to Modjeska Peak...or maybe just Main Divide and back.