Anza Borrego or Bust

Winter storm warning in effect for mountains in San Diego County. Heavy showers and hail expected with 6-12 inches of snow in the mountains, 18 inches expected at higher elevations. Travel not advised. “

Alana and I had made our way south to California for a mid-winter respite.  After visiting with family and attending my cousins wedding just south of LA, we made our way further south embarking on a bike trip from San Diego that more or less followed the Stagecoach 400 race route.  Travel had been slower than expected the first day and a half of our trip.  We discovered that due to our setup and erosion, single track trails were nearly unrideable, forcing us to push our bikes up the steeper/rockier sections, slowing our progress.  Nonetheless, we had made it to the foothills, stopping briefly to resupply in Alpine before continuing into the mountains.  That idea quickly evaporated after reading the above weather report. There weren’t many options for camping in the area. However, we were able to find a campground on a native reservation a few miles outside of town. The storm arrived along the way, bringing heavy showers and strong wind gusts. We arrived to the campground chilled and soaked, yet relieved to have somewhat of a haven and respite for the following days.

Climbing towards Julian. Not the warm weather we were looking for
Looking down to the desert outside Julian

Over the following day, we played cards, read and tried to dry our clothes out while avoiding the intermittent hail storms and heavy rain. Nearly 2 days later, clear skies returned and would be the norm for the rest of the trip.  Due to the weather and our unexpected stop, we realized we’d have to switch up our route from mostly dirt roads and trails, to mostly pavement. We pedaled by snow covered forests and fields, glistening from the bright sun above.  It seemed as if everyone had left the city to check out the snow for the day.  Forests, parks and fields were filled with people sledding, running about and enjoying themselves amongst this rarity of Southern California.  We arrived in Julian in the evening, pedaling through the slushy downtown streets to try some of their famous pie.  With cold and snow up high, we were determined to descend to the desert by nightfall to camp.  Leaving town about a half hour before sunset, we raced the ~11 miles, dropping 3000 feet to the valley floor. Descending down the north side of the valley proved more treacherous than we expected, as we found ourselves slowing and swerving to avoid ice patches extending across the road. At twilight on the desert floor, we found a camp off the road amongst the cacti and sparse vegetation. Soon stars glistened brightly overhead and the silence of the desert enveloped us. A silence only broken by the occasional howling of coyote or car rushing by on the highway beyond.

We rode into Borrego Springs the next day, pedaling right through the middle of Anza Borrego Desert State Park.  Anza Borrego was the focal point of our trip and the part we were most looking forward to. During her trail crew years, Alana had worked on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in Anza Borrego and was eager to return. We were content to spend the next few days rambling about the area, hiking up a few canyons, looking (and watching!) borregos (desert bighorn sheep) on the mountains above, playing countless games of cards and enjoying the scenery. An abandoned orchard outside of town kept us fed with sweet and ripe orange like fruits. Borrego Springs contains some oddities, both earthly and man-made. On all sides of town, there are metal sculptures of scorpions, eagles, mammoths, saber toothed tigers, serpents and camels, among others, on display in random spots of the desert. In the canyons, ancient springs allow palm trees to prosper, offering true oases amidst an otherwise extremely arid environment.   Coming from Alaska, a land with its own extremes, it was fun identifying and learning about the local equivalents.

Hanging out in Borrego Springs
Friendly sign/monument about 1/2 mi into a trail in Anza Borrego
Borrego Rams mid frame

After 3 days, our time in the desert crested to an end, leading to us climbing some 3500 ft back out of the desert up Montezuma Grade and spending an afternoon and night exploring Culp Valley.  The descent was swift and much appreciated the next day, allowing us to cover 20 some miles to Santa Ysabel by late morning.  We lounged around the market, charging our phones, figuring out which overpriced meal inside the store was justifiable and of course, playing cards. The afternoon ride took us past more farms, wineries and even some camels.  With some time to spare before nightfall, we hung out at a park in Ramona before restocking and carrying on our way.  Our route had us descending once more, albeit in a more unnerving fashion with zero shoulder with rush hour traffic near sunset.  We ducked off the road, midway down slope, finding a spot to camp near the boundary of the local national forest. For the first night, we slept open to the stars. The sound of dozens of frogs croaking in the valley below lulling us to sleep.

Heat and a surprising number of uphills marked the next days travel.  We had left the farms, wineries and open spaces behind. In their place were gated mansions, country clubs and commercial establishments.  Our waves and greetings were no longer returned, even among fellow bikers, instead met with indifference or quickly averted eyes. An intriguing contrast.  By late afternoon, we had made it to the ritzy coastal community of Del Mar.  There we rested, ate ice cream, charged our phones and awaited nightfall.  In such an urban area, legal camping options are more or less nonexistent. We figured we could find a spot to stealth camp in the nearby state park or a local sunset park just outside of town. Near sunset, we rode over to the park and watched the sun set below the ocean.  After it had set, we ate dinner while waiting for everyone else to filter out.  A little after 7 we had the place to ourselves, finding a spot at cliff’s edge to rest for the night.

Nobody bothered us during the night and we left early the next morning, stopping near the beach at Torrey Pines State Park so that Alana could get some more sleep.  The remaining 25 miles of our journey consisted of bike paths that took us all around San Diego.  We rode by the oddity that is SeaWorld, through La Jolla (finding and fulfilling a nearly 2 year quest to find Alana el postre fresas con crema), and around Mission Bay. We were passed by many bikers throughout the day who were curious to know where we were headed. The conversation usually went like this:

Them:”Where you headed?”

 Us:”San Diego.”

Them: “Oh well you’re almost there, where are you coming from?”

Us: “..San Diego.”

Them: “(long pause) oh…cool.”

Not knowing the geography of the city well, we ended up taking some of the steepest streets back to our starting point.  Forcing us to more or less end our trip by pushing our bikes. Oh well. Our friends Rich and Amanda were very kind to provide us a spot to wash up, organize our gear and sleep in a vacant unit in their building.  We spent the next day touring Coronado Island with Rich and relaxing in Balboa Park before our flight back. 

Alana biked more on this trip than she had cumulatively throughout her entire life.  There were some challenges in the learning and familiarization process but overall, we both really enjoyed the trip and this form of travel. It is very different than the typical travel we are accustomed to in Alaska, which takes us away from roads and any aspects of civilization rather than relying upon them exclusively. However, the bike allows for a more immersive experience than delivered by that of car travel and offers a way to cover greater distances under human power quickly and more efficiently. I have already started dreaming up some trips, both within state and beyond, that I’d like to take by bike. But that is months, if not more away. For now, we switch back to our fat bikes, enjoying the local trails for the last months of winter.

Our deepest thanks to Rich and Amanda for their extensive generosity in helping out with bikes, gear and trip logistics. Without them this trip would have been far, far more difficult. We’d also like to thank Cindy and all of the other people who stopped to look out for us along the way. You are very much appreciated.

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