Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Nor'Easter San Diego: "The Long Way" (Big Laguna & Noble Canyon, CA)

If I knew where I was going I never would have made it here.
Imagine for a moment, a mountain biking trail that runs up the Mt. Washington auto road in New Hampshire, across the Presidential ridge and then winds slowly down into the Gulf of Slides, crossing various spines and ravines all the way down to Pinkham Notch:  a four thousand foot, eleven mile descent on pure singletrack.

This is roughly equivalent to what is lurking in the Laguna Mountains of southern California.

As I pulled off the highway and drove into Pine Valley, California I began to realize my presumptions about the terrain in the mountains east of San Diego were mostly wrong.  Although I had pictured the steep hills and deep canyons, I had also pictured dusty sagebrush and cacti: basically your typical scene from a Wiley Coyote cartoon.  While there was plenty of roadrunner terrain, I was also surprised to find grassy meadows, pine glens and tree filled canyons.  And although the temperatures in San Diego were in the seventies, at Pine Valley's elevation, it was a cool forty five degrees.
.... and climbing... and climbing...

Now this is the part of the story where I’m supposed to tell you that I had planned to do the Big Laguna to Noble Canyon tour all along, thus impressing you with my ambitious nature.  However that would be a lie.  In reality, the length of my tour was a mistake.

I had originally planned to just ride the Noble Canyon trail.  The online descriptions indicate that this involves climbing a paved road to get to the top of the ridge, but unfortunately they aren’t entirely clear on where that road starts, or in which direction it runs from town. (Or at least it wasn't entirely clear to me.)  After talking to the folks in the general store, and surveying the surrounding roads, I decided to climb eastward out of town, then turn onto the Sunrise Highway up to the first trailhead in the Cleveland National Forest.

Finally. Singletrack.
Fortunately for me, the Sunrise Highway  runs in a large semi-circle on the ridges above Pine Valley.  I had headed east (counter-clockwise) on the ridge and so as I entered the Cleveland National Forest the first set of trails I encountered were for Big Laguna and not Noble Canyon, which sits on the other side of the semi-circle.

As I stared at the large trailhead map, I realized I was on the wrong part of the ridge and I had a decision to make if I wanted to go down the Noble Canyon trail.  I could stay on the road for another dozen miles and reach the trailhead, or I could try to cut across the circle on various trails through the Big Laguna wilderness.  The map showed that I wouldn’t be giving up much elevation on the cut-across, but I had to make a series of turns to be sure I would catch the Noble Canyon trail in the right spot.  My map reading skills- the trainwreck that they are- were no comfort: particularly in a place wrought with deep canyons where you could wander for days without finding civilization.  So with some trepidation, I set out on the Big Laguna trails toward Noble Canyon.

Los Chicos Trail
The trail started on Old County Road, a slowly disappearing paved road that lazily climbs the hill just on the inside of the main road.  I ducked onto the first of the singletrack trails down into Chico Canyon, avoiding Gatos Canyon, because of the obvious implication from its name that cats (i.e. mountain lions) liked to hang out there.  The “kid’s” Canyon trail sounded much less imposing.  This turned out to be an excellent decision as the smooth singletrack, with banked turns and water bars offered exceptional cross-country riding. 

Starting the descent.
Soon, I was on the Big Laguna trail, which wound around a large meadow and lake.  This trail was well marked, showing at each junction the correct direction for reaching Noble Canyon.  Finally, on the far side of the immense meadow, I arrived at the Noble Canyon junction.  At just under six thousand feet this intersection was the high point of my journey.

Noble presented unparalleled variety.  From buff singletrack to riverbed quality rock gardens I was alternately relaxed and flowing with the trial to desperately gripping the handlebars and fearing for my life.

Starting in the high alpine forest, the trail wound its way along the brushy spines and down into forested canyons, only to emerge onto another exposed ridge.  Spine after spine, and canyon after canyon passed by as I headed back down toward Pine Valley.

Lean into the hill.  Or else.
Slowly the brush changed and the cacti, rock and dust filled terrain I had expected appeared as I approached the valley floor.

Wiley Coyote territory.
Just as I was thinking I had reached the end of the line, the trail began to slowly climb again.  This last climb of nearly five hundred feet was an unwelcome surprise.  The trail wasn’t well marked at this point and I became concerned that I had taken a wrong turn and I was possibly heading into the Anza Borrego desert.  Eventually, however, the climbing topped out and I resumed my descent, finally reaching the trailhead on Pine Creek Road in just over four hours.  From the parking area it was another few miles on hardtop back to Pine Valley where I crawled into my car and retreated back to San Diego, completely exhausted.

Here's the video of the full tour:

And here are some of the long descents on Noble Canyon trail with a little Metallica to set the mood:


  1. Those trails look FUN and a bit treacherous at times. Nice ending to the first video. :)

    1. We did a similar ride 20 years ago. We wanted to do big Laguna and Noble and thought by taking Sunrise highway it would be easier than climbing Pine valley road. We were in decent shape for maybe a three hour ride. Surprise! By the time we made to the last bail out point after the first two loops on Noble we were torched. Can't quit now, I'd lived in SD for a year and never done the famous Noble canyon and what is more we had done it the hard way climbing up and not doing a shuttle! What a death march. We rode the most technical part totally bonked only to be greeted by the sandy uphill at the end. We reached the car after I think 5 hours, just totally done. I think it was 28 miles with like 3000' of vertical. Hardest thing I ever did on a mountain bike.

    2. Yeah that sandy uphill at about the 24 mile mark really messed with my mind. I wasn't expecting it at all. I can't imagine what hitting that last section at the end of a long day would have been like if it had been even 10 degrees warmer. Kudos to you for finishing. Shuttles are for astronauts.