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Going Down?

On the San Juan Trail, Mountain Bikers Can Pick Up Speed Without Those Pesky Uphill Climbs


For thousands of years it was a dead-quiet Juaneno Indian path. Now, on many weekends, as many as 200 outdoors enthusiasts raise dust and often a little hell on San Juan Trail, one of Southern California's most popular and challenging mountain bike tracks.

Spanning 11.9 east-west miles in the Santa Ana Mountains, the trail is loved for its scenery and accessibility. It can be ridden in January drizzle and August heat, by weekend warriors and pros, at leisurely or breakneck speeds.

Best of all, riders say, is its variety.

"We call it the multivitamin trail, because it gives you everything you need," says Doug Moore, 43, of San Clemente, who says he has ridden the trail hundreds of times since 1986. "It gives you sharp edges, it's tight, technical, dangerous, yet some parts are wide open."

San Juan is the county's longest single-track trail, meaning none of it is a fire road and so bikers needn't share the path with motorcycles or pickup trucks.

Beginners are wise to stick to the trail's upper, flatter section; blind hairpin turns, some on cliff edges, plague the lower half. In these spots, skidding off the trail after hitting a loose rock or exposed root can mean serious injury or even death. Faulty equipment, such as poor brakes or a wheel that tends to fall off, can also send a rider over the edge.

Compared with such a scenario, the trail's other hazards, including ticks, dehydration and poison oak--which drapes over the trail's edges in certain sections--seem quaintly manageable.


Easily accessible from California 74, San Juan is a popular shuttle trail, meaning most riders do only the downhill half. This is accomplished by parking vehicles at the bottom, near San Juan Hot Springs, and the top, at Bluejay Campground.

"It's rare to find a trail you can ride 11 miles downhill. That's why it's popular," says Carl Bauer of South County Cyclery in San Juan Capistrano.

The trail's big elevation drop--2,582 feet--explains the appeal of the downhill-only route. Along the way, bikers get looks at representative Santa Ana Mountain flora, including coast live oak, buckwheat and other coastal sage-scrub. One good reason to take your time on the trail are spring wildflowers, including chocolate lilies, deep-yellow calochortus, pink-and-white blooming manzanita, monkey flower and pink pedicularis denfilora.

Marking the trail's halfway point is a section of boulders that invites rest and picnicking. From here Santa Catalina Island is often visible, along with downtown Long Beach. But keep an eye out for cougars, which Bauer has seen on this section of the trail.

Blue-bellied lizards flit across the trail in warm months, and where there are lizards there are snakes--poisonous ones.

"One problem with San Juan Trail, there's a lot of Ortega red rattlesnakes," Moore says. "Take a snakebite kit, because if you get bit with your heart racing as fast as it does when mountain biking, you're in trouble."

Helmets are as essential as antivenin; the prepared cyclist also carries spare tubes, a pump and plenty of water. Bikes should have heavy-duty suspension and well-maintained brakes.

As with many popular recreation sites, disputes have arisen over proper use.

Moore, a former mountain bike competitor, values the trail as a training ground. Others, such as Bauer, wish the downhillers would slow down--if not for the sake of hikers, then for other bikers.

"You get people in full downhill gear--full-face helmets, chest protectors--and they basically look like motorcycle guys," says Bauer, who has been riding the trail since the early '80s.

"They think it's a weekend race course, and it's not. I've been hit three times by other bikers. They come sliding down a curve with one foot out, and take you out. If you want to race, go to Big Bear. You can do 60 mph there."

Moore, in turn, says it's the downhillers, or "coasters," who do the most damage to the trail and the least to repair it. He believes this problem is related to their decision to take the easier, downhill route.

"A lot of guys feel that if you're looking for that downhill ride, you should work for it" by doing the uphill half first, he says. "In any given sport there are people who give and people who take."

Among those who give are volunteer clubs, such as the Warrior's Society of the Santa Ana Mountains, that repair trails and trim back brush.

Says Aaron Morris, 29, of San Clemente, a twice-a-week user of the trail: "When a rider sees there are trail maintenance guys out doing work, when you ride by it's etiquette to stop and give them 15 or 30 minutes of your time. We fix washouts, and there are quite a few washouts on San Juan Trail. And we make water breaks so rainwater is diverted. We also cut brush back."

Morris says most riders know the trail well and take the time to maintain it. Most accidents happen, he says, when riders go beyond their skill level.

"You need to know trail etiquette. The uphillers have right-of-way," he says. "There are sections where you can pick up speed [safely], and you need to know where they are."

Bauer agrees.

"It's great for the sport that there is a trail that can challenge people," he says. "But maybe the Forest Service needs to post guidelines [for safety and etiquette]. People need to take their time, slow down and enjoy the scenery."

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