Over the weekend I took a two-day bike tour to the top of Palomar Mountain — and back. After riding across the Mojave in May, I promised myself I’d do at least one overnight trip each month, and this was my first.
I went with low expectations. I’ve never even been to the top of Palomar in a car, let alone a bike, and didn’t take time to scout the ride. I watched YouTube videos of area cyclists and became aware that this is the climb in San Diego bike culture.
What I couldn’t find, despite using every key search term imaginable, was information about bikepacking on Palomar — riding to the top, but with camping gear like a bicycle tourist. I was surprised and began to question whether this climb was doable with gear.
Some common terms from cyclists who’ve documented their climbs of Palomar not carrying gear included hell, torture, pain, and never again. What would an extra 25-pounds do to my experience…? I dunno 🤷🏼♂️.
From my house, it’s just 40-miles to the top — a distance I ride regularly. And most of that ride was easy, with roughly 2000’ of gradual climbing to get to the base of the mountain. The 16-mile ascent though, took me nearly 4-hours. By comparison, the ascent the following morning took just under 30-minutes.
I booked a space at Observatory Campground, just a few miles from the observatory itself. I figured once I got my tent set up, I’d leave my gear, do a little hiking, and take some pictures. A funny thing happened on the way up…
It was the hardest physical challenge of my life. Just-3 miles into the climb, I decided I couldn’t do it — I quit. I took out my phone and called the Lazy H Inn, a country motel just a few miles from where I stopped. I was going to ask if they had a room for the night. Then I thought about my friend Andy, who in support of my ride, ran to the highest point in his community in northern England earlier in the day. I hung up my phone and continued my ride. For 13-miles I just kept repeating Andy‘s name. It was slow going and it was hard, but I wasn’t going to quit. I was also reminded of my friend Tim a few weeks back crossing the Mojave… “We’ll be fine…”
About 3-miles from the summit, my legs began cramping. With my experience in fitness, I knew how to minimize cramps. For the last few miles, I’d ride roughly a half-mile, stop, stretch, do some deep squats, and rest for about 10-minutes. That was the protocol to the top. I finished all my liquids in those last few miles.
When I arrived at the convenience store just beyond the summit, it seemed fitting that the attendant was closing the door as my bike entered the parking lot. I was less than 50-feet away when she flipped the sign in the window to CLOSED. So much for Powerade. When I arrived at my campsite, before setting up my tent or unpacking my gear, I went to the water spigot and drank two bottles and did a little more stretching. The cramps soon subsided.
The campsite was a fun 5-mile descent from the summit, which felt good after climbing all afternoon. When I reached for my phone to text my love ones I’d made it, there was no service. I asked a fellow camper if he knew where the nearest service might be. He said the closest service was in the parking lot of the convenience store I’d just left. I didn’t want anyone worried about me so I got back on my bike, rode to the convenience store, and sent several texts letting people know I was okay.
Back at the campsite, I setup my tent and sleeping roll. The other thing I failed to take into consideration, along with a lack of cellular service, was the profound infestation of flies and mosquitoes that have claimed Palomar. I didn’t count mosquito bites, but the fly bites hurt worse. I took caution to keep the door to my tent closed except when entering and leaving. Without bug spray, the tent would be my salvation.
Of course with no cell service, there was no music, no YouTube, and no movies. Just writing and thinking — two of my favorite things. Since I needed one more frustration, along with the bugs and the lack of Internet to complete the trifecta, the campsite beside me had 6 matching sky blue tents — all filled with pre-teen girls from an area church. So help me God, everyone of them was named Morgan. After getting settled, I was tempted to face Mecca, bow, and pray for a while. I chose to just sit quietly for a moment and give thanks to God instead.
Exhausted from the afternoon, I took a short hike as the sun was setting, but made it less than a half-mile before I turned around and climbed in my tent for the night. Dinner was two Annie’s vegetarian burritos and a Larry & Larry vegan cookie. From the window of my tent, I watched the moon pass through some pines and decided to turn the light out.
Photos below are from earlier in the week…
The church girls beside me giggled into the night, and the White Trash Family Robinson arrived at the campsite on the opposite side a little after 10pm. They listened to Foreigner and shotgunned beers as they set up camp. When I woke Sunday morning, there were actually three recliners beside their campfire — they simply took their living room for a drive.
At 5am I began stowing my gear. I was on the road by 5:45. Descending Palomar was spectacular. The morning light highlighted the views through every hairpin turn and overlook. From the time I left the summit, I didn’t take a single kick for 16-miles — it was a total freeride. I rode slow through the orchards and groves of the Pauma Valley with a sense of pride from what I’d accomplished. I was home by 10am.
Honestly, I’m not sure I’ll do this again. I’m glad I did it — and glad that I didn’t quit. The ride was the epitome of Type A fun — the kind of fun that’s made up of exhaustion and determination, and doesn’t actually become fun until it’s over. Okay, I’ll probably do it again or something similar, but I’m definitely going to pack lighter.
This is what I think about when I ride it… Jhciacb
Last week by the numbers…
Bikes Ridden: 6
Mph Avg: 12.6
Seat Time: 13 hours 38 minutes
Whether you ride a bike or not, thank you for taking the time to ride along this week. If you haven’t already, please scroll up and subscribe. If you like what you read, give it a like and a share. Oh, and there’s this from The Inmates. Enjoy…