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Taking the High Road

Mountain Biking at Aliso/Wood Canyons Can Take You to the Top of the World


LAGUNA BEACH — Two years ago, Mike Denudt was a heavy smoker with barely enough wind to make it around the block with his dog. Now, he's a member of an emerging subculture that gets its kicks pedaling expensive two-wheeled vehicles up and down dusty, rocky, hilly terrain on the weekends.

Denudt's favorite terrain and one of the most popular tracks in Orange County is the Aliso/Wood Canyons Regional Park, tucked between Laguna Hills and Laguna Beach. The roads that cover more than 5,000 acres of city and county land were originally used for fire access. Later, they served as horse trails and then hiking trails.

These days, serious mountain bikers like Denudt and beginners such as Thuan Hyunh rule the roads, occasionally sharing them with marathon runners, horses and hikers.

"I like [Aliso/Wood] because of the variety," said Denudt, who lives in Long Beach. "The varying terrain is what brings me back here."

Denudt entered the park from the Aliso Creek Road entrance and rode the Wood Canyon Trail to Cholla Trail, which took him up to the West Ridge Trail, also known as the Top of the World run.

Denudt was gasping for air and searching for his water bottle as he reached the top of Cholla Trail. Hyunh, a UC Irvine student, was in agony.

"I thought it was going to be different," said Hyunh, as he leaned over his Specialized Hard Rock, one of the less expensive mountain bikes. "No one told me it was going to be like this."

Hyunh discovered Aliso/Wood from one of his classmates, who found a listing of mountain bike trails on the Internet at

Hyunh and his friends continued up Top of the World trail, but they were overmatched by more than 400 feet of elevation gain as they attempted to reach the 1,036-foot-summit at Alta Laguna Park.

Most of the dirt trails on the Top of the World run are easy enough for beginners to maneuver through, but some of steeper climbs can be gruesome without the right equipment.

Denudt began mountain biking with a "Kmart special," but he's since upgraded to a $600 Giant equipped with dual suspension.

"With my first bike, I crashed so hard, I vowed I'd never go again until I bought a nice bike," Denudt said. "The equipment is what makes this fun. But it's not cheap. I bought my first car for cheaper than what my bike cost."

Dave Pullen rides a titanium bike with full-on XTR components, including a Thudbuster suspension seat post and 737 Shimano clipless pedals. The total package cost Pullen about $3,500. My wife, Kim, and I rode Schwinn dual suspension bikes that go for a cool $2,500 each at Bicycles Etc. in Lake Forest. Pullen and his wife, Pam, were our tour guides for the afternoon.

Each Saturday morning at 9 a.m., Pullen, who is affiliated with Bicycles Etc., leads a group ride through a variety of county trails. Twice a month, Pullen takes intermediate and advanced riders on some of the county's more difficult trails such as San Juan Trail (off Ortega Highway) and Black Star Canyon (off Silverado Canyon Road).

The other two Saturdays, Pullen leads a ride for mostly beginning riders. All the rides are organized by Bicycles Etc. and are free and open to anyone.

"We get new bike owners, out-of-towners, or people simply looking to ride with a group," Pullen said.

Pullen has been mountain biking nine years. He's been racing for four years, and admits he's fallen more than a few times.

"The better you get, the more things you try," he said.

For those willing to try more daring trails, Aliso/Wood has those too. The Lynx trail, which starts 2.3 miles in from Alta Laguna, is a single track all the way down and is extremely steep in places. Another treacherous trail is Mathis. When entering from Alta Laguna, Mathis is a right turn about a half mile in. After only a few hundred feet, you are greeted by a rock garden--fallen slabs of grooved stone. From there, be prepared to drop about 500 feet in the next half mile.

Tulanox, a gnarly vertical single track that starts just past a newly constructed reservoir, is not on any maps and it's not for the beginner or even the intermediate rider. It's slippery with a lot of dropoffs.

"Not too many people ride it because it's so technical," Pullen said. "It's for expert extremists. It scares the crap out of me. Over 50% of the ride, you're off your saddle and your seat is up against your chest. On the way back up, you're carrying your bike on your shoulder."

My wife and I were not confident enough or crazy enough to try Lynx or Mathis, so we took the high road and left the gnarly rides to the experts. We stayed on the main road, West Ridge Trail, but it was hardly boring. For beginners like us, it provided plenty of thrilling and adventurous moments.

The best advice Pullen gave us in dealing with the rocks, the dirt and the steep hills was this: "Pick out a path you want to take and your bike will go there. If you keep looking at a ditch, you'll wind up riding into it."

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