SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO — Give me an exciting ride, long or short, a chance to see wildlife in their natural habitat, a scenic location and, following a ride, a place to soak in . . . and I'm hooked.
I found such an experience on the San Juan Trail off the Ortega Highway in Cleveland National Forest about 25 miles from San Juan Capistrano. The trail is 11.2 miles long, with a 2,600-foot descent that ends a short distance from San Juan Capistrano Hot Springs, home of hot (about 100 degrees), soothing mineral water.
Deer, squirrels, rabbits and other animals are common to the area, and on occasion more threatening wildlife such as mountain lions and rattlesnakes have been sighted along the trail. Cyclists should also be wary of poison oak in the area.
The Forest Service operates Bluejay campground at the trail head on a first-come, first-served basis at $6 a night. Water, tables, pedestal grills (no open fires permitted) and pit toilets are provided.
The campground is open from Memorial Day to November. Trail maps and information are available at the El Cariso Visitor Information Station, No. 32-353 Ortega Highway, Lake Elsinore, Calif. 92330, phone (714) 678-3766.
You reach the San Juan trail head by driving the Ortega Highway (74) for 22 miles, then turning left on a road marked "Bluejay" and driving for about two miles on a paved road, then a mile on gravel.
The trail head is at a turnout on the left side of the road, about 50 yards before turning into the campground.
In June, 1987, the trail head marker was destroyed, leaving only two upright posts. Nevertheless, the trail is clearly defined as it parallels the campground before descending into Chiquito Basin.
A mountain bike is essential for riding this alternately hard-packed, loose-dirt, rocky trail that begins at 3,400 feet and descends 2,600 feet in 11.2 miles. It is not a ride for amateurs.
Hard, Often Fast Ride
It is a hard, frequently rapid ride requiring riding skill and sound equipment. A helmet, gloves, two water bottles, heavy pants and knee and shin pads are recommended.
The trail begins in the shade of large oak trees, parallels the campground, then makes a fast descent for a mile where it levels when reaching Chiquito Basin.
On the downhill there are several vista points for panoramic views. Sugarloaf Peak (3,227 feet), the highest point here, is to the front right (south). On a clear day you can see the Pacific Ocean from this point.
The trail levels when it reaches Chiquito Basin and divides at a posted trail junction.
The Chiquito Basin Trail goes left to join the San Juan Loop Trail, which, in turn, leads to Ortega Highway. The San Juan Trail turns right and downhill until it passes on the left side of Sugarloaf Peak. From there it's a delightful hike to the summit of Sugarloaf for marvelous views of the area.
Some steep, hazardous parts and switchbacks characterize the last four miles of the trail. Be extremely cautious and alert for hikers who cannot always be seen or heard around some of the turns.
This area also contains large patches of poison oak. Learn to identify this nuisance in both its vine and bush configurations. The vivid red leaves have three smooth leaflets.
The trail ends abruptly in Hot Spring Canyon. Turn left (south) on the canyon road and ride less than one mile to reach the San Juan Capistrano Hot Springs and the hot tubs.
After a hard ride, it's a pleasure to soak in hot mineral water in private redwood tubs under sycamore and oak trees.
What a way to end a marvelous ride. Although the hot mineral water soothes any bumps or bruises as it caresses the body, it will also dehydrate your system. Drink plenty of water.
You may make reservations for the campground and tubs. The owners offer camping at $4.25 per person a night ($8.50 minimum) that includes water, tables, toilets and showers.
Besides the tubs, a pool contains a mixture of mineral water and fresh water at $3 for the day.
San Juan Hot Springs is open 24 hours a day all year. Make reservations by contacting San Juan Capistrano Hot Springs Resort, 35501 Ortega Highway, P.O. Box 58, San Juan Capistrano 92693, (714) 728-0400.