Damian Hiley was hours into a ride on a West Sycamore Canyon trail in Scripps Ranch when he and his cycling group came upon a man standing in the middle of the path, a gun at his hip.
"At first I thought they were looking for someone or that it was a police raid," Hiley said. "I was blown away when they told us we had stepped into the eastern boundary of the [Marine Corps Air Station Miramar] base."
Hiley and the other mountain bikers were escorted around a bend, where six to eight Marines in vests and flight suits stood next to a pile of bikes. They explained to the riders that they were being ticketed for trespassing on federal land and that their bicycles would be confiscated.
Marines issued tickets to 50 people for trespassing and impounded 45 bikes and three motorcycles over that recent weekend, said 1st Lt. Matthew Gregory, the base's public affairs officer.
Gregory said the military had worked diligently to inform hikers and mountain bikers about off-limits areas, slowly escalating over months from giving warnings to impounding bicycles. Roaming around the east side of the base can be dangerous, Gregory said, since gun ranges — where more than 9,000 Marines go for annual rifle and pistol qualifications — are in the area.
"There is a very real safety hazard for anyone that may come onto the federal property, and the trails in question place those who trespass onto the base in potentially life-threatening danger," he said.
Signs and warnings, Gregory said, are posted across the property. Hiley said his group didn't see any when they crossed into base property from Santee.
"What's really upsetting for us is that there are really no signs," he said. "As first-time riders on that trail, we had no idea we were on [the base]."
The Marines told them ignorance was no excuse, Hiley said. All of the riders got tickets and may have to pay fines, depending on what a judge decides when they appear in court. The cyclists were told they would get their bikes back after the tickets were handled.
Gregory said a judge can choose to dismiss a ticket or assign a fine, depending on the circumstances.
When Hiley's group hiked more than two miles back to their cars, they took a different route back and passed signs that read, "Keep Out." If similar signs had been placed where they had crossed onto the base, he said, they would have been hard to miss.
Ben Stone, a San Diego Mountain Biking Organization board member, called the trails in Sycamore Canyon "historic." He said people have been riding them for decades, but that doesn't make it legal. The organization spent months warning hikers and mountain bikers that Marine officials were planning to start ticketing and confiscating bikes and posted maps of the boundaries.
Stone said San Diego County officials had spent years trying to negotiate access to the property, but each time the deal fell through.
So now Stone's group is working to piece together a trail that would circumvent the base — although that solution will be years in the making since it would require land purchases and working with current landowners.
Winkley writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.