On any given weekend morning, bikes almost outnumber cars on Santiago Canyon Road, the two-lane highway that winds through Orange County's rural hill country at the edge of the Santa Ana Mountains.
The popular route offers scenery as a bonus to excellent cycling for intermediate riders. A wide, well-marked bike lane, long stretches without cross-traffic and challenging hills make it an ideal training ride for a Sunday morning.
A loop ride that includes Santiago Canyon Road has long been a classic among local cyclists. Variations can make for longer rides, but we'll outline a 32.5-mile route that will provide an exhilarating two-hour workout for the average active cyclist. Beginners may want to start by exploring short sections of the loop before tackling the whole thing.
Of course, because it is a loop, it is possible to start at any point; also, it is possible to go in either direction. The route outlined here starts at El Toro and Trabuco roads and heads northwest. This way, cyclists will get the least interesting part of the ride out of the way first, finish with a brisk downhill ride and also avoid left turns against traffic.
Heading northwest from El Toro Road, the cyclist will encounter just under 10 miles of relatively flat terrain. The first three miles are commercial and residential areas; after Trabuco Road becomes Irvine Boulevard, it passes through the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station. Beyond the air base, the road continues straight as an arrow through agricultural land and, later, residential areas.
At about 9.5 miles, turn right onto Jamboree Road, which has been extended to Santiago Canyon Road within the past few years.
This is where the climbing begins. The road starts with a gradual slope but gets increasingly steeper, cresting just short of the intersection of Santiago Canyon Road, 4.8 miles from the corner of Irvine and Jamboree. Turn right.
After a small rise and dip, another climbing test arrives, a formidable hill more than a mile long. After cresting this hill, the route's dips and rises just about cancel each other out for the next 12 miles or so.
This is the most scenic section of the ride, taking you through largely undeveloped hill and canyon country and past Irvine Lake. It can get hot here in summer, so ride early in the morning and bring plenty of water.
At about 12 miles, after passing Silverado and Modjeska canyons, you'll pass the Cook's Corner roadhouse and restaurant on the left. You're now on El Toro Road, and from here (with a few brief exceptions) the ride is steadily downhill for the last five miles back to the start.
The bike lane is not always marked, but the road is generally wide enough to safely accommodate bicycles. There is an off-road bike path available for part of the way, but on weekends it can be filled with pedestrians, dogs and kids on bikes--I find it safer to stay on the main road.
Numerous variations on this route are possible. Some cyclists continue to take the old, longer loop (before Jamboree was extended), which winds through parts of Tustin and Orange. Others detour onto the Modjeska Grade, one of the toughest hill climbs in the county. Start out with the basic route outlined here, and experiment on future rides.