Cool evening breezes and late, summer-solstice sunsets make this time of year quite pleasant for late afternoon or early-evening cycling. Forget the coast route if you've had all you can take of heavy traffic and stoplights.
Instead, try either of these two inland routes that follow several of the county's most beautiful and lightly traveled rural roads.
Inland North County is hilly (there's no getting around it), so neither of these trips is a slouch. But, if you're an experienced cyclist with a low set of gears on your 10-speed or mountain bike and a fair amount of stamina, there's no reason to think of either as a gut-buster either. Take along your own water and snacks (if you need them). Also remember that the sun sets about 8 p.m.--be sure to allow enough time before darkness falls.
Trip 1, the longer and more difficult of the two, starts in the small community of Rainbow and loops through an area of scenic hills and valleys along the San Diego-Riverside county line. You'll gain and lose about 1,300 feet of elevation over a distance of 23 miles--not much more than an hour's ride for real tigers, but perhaps a three-hour trip for leisure riders.
To reach Rainbow, exit Interstate 15 at Mission Road and follow Old Highway 395 north to Rainbow Valley Boulevard. Turn right and go east about a mile to an intersection where Rainbow Valley Boulevard turns sharply north. Park along the shoulder of the road.
Pedal north on Rainbow Valley Boulevard through the scenic little valley named "Rainbow." Curiously, this place name has nothing to do with the optical phenomenon. Rather, it's named after a Mr. J. P. M. Rainbow, who helped lay out a town site here in 1888. Rainbow was elected a San Diego County supervisor in 1890.
After about 1.5 miles, Rainbow Valley Boulevard joins Old Highway 395 to become Rainbow Canyon Road a little ways ahead. Continue north over a gentle summit and begin a twisting descent down through boulder-studded hills to the booming community of Rancho California.
As you descend, look for the 10,000-foot-plus summits of San Jacinto Peak and San Gorgonio Mountain straight ahead, visible whenever the air is clear.
At the bottom of the hill, turn right (southeast) on Pala Road. You pass through new subdivisions for a mile or two, and a sod farm specializing in growing instant lawns. Another couple of miles over steeper terrain takes you past a sign announcing your return to San Diego County. Presently, you reach a gentle summit--the start of an exciting, curvy spin toward Pala. Rugged slopes covered with dense chaparral frame a view of range after range of blue-tinted mountains to the south.
Near the bottom of the grade, the road winds for a while alongside the oak- and sycamore-shaded bed of Pala Creek, damp-smelling from the recent rains. A final, almost flat mile takes you into the Indian settlement of Pala and its sub-mission (on the left), founded in 1816. The mission's free-standing campanile holds the original bells.
A not-very-exciting 3 miles follow as you pedal west through the valley of the San Luis Rey River accompanied by some occasional fast-moving traffic on the California 76. A right turn on Rice Canyon Road returns you to rural serenity. This narrow, paved country lane meanders north, gaining about 700 feet, then drops briefly into what is surely one of San Diego County's darkest and densest live-oak groves. After emerging into the light again, you climb to a T-intersection. Turn left and cycle a short distance back to your car.
Trip 2, a 16.5-mile loop with gains and losses of about 1,100 feet, takes you through the tiny, rural hamlet of Lilac and over the spectacular, arched West Lilac bridge straddling Interstate 15.
Starting from the junction of Interstate 15 and California 76, cycle east 1.5 miles to Couser Canyon Road. Turn right, roll across an antique wooden structure bridging the San Luis Rey River, and begin climbing in earnest up a twisting grade (a short section of Couser Canyon Road is unpaved). Nine-hundred feet higher, you top out and begin a short descent to Lilac Road.
Turn right and cruise past the few farmhouses that make up the community of Lilac. It was named in honor of the California lilac (ceanothus) shrubs that once graced the surrounding slopes in greater abundance. Make a right at West Lilac Road and yet another right after about 2 miles, staying on West Lilac Road. After one more small climb, the rest of the ride amounts to little more than freewheeling. Citrus and avocado groves pass by in a blur, then you level out momentarily atop the arched bridge.
Turn right on Old Highway 395 and complete the loop by descending one of the old highway's most notorious grades, now rendered almost traffic-free by the newer Interstate 15.