With its continually changing playing field and demand for lightning reflexes, mountain biking can be a lot like a video game. But the exercise, adrenaline rush and experience of nature one gets on the trail are anything but virtual.
Most mountain bikers in Orange County are men ages 20 to 40, though more women are trying out the sport, ride organizers and retailers say.
Beginners needn’t shell out a fortune on equipment. Mountain bikes range from light-duty cruisers to pro-level, downhill racing bikes that resemble motorcycles without engines. Prices range from a few hundred dollars to several thousand, but well-built, full-suspension bikes can be had for about $1,400.
Jim Curwood, owner of South County Cyclery in San Juan Capistrano, said: “If you’re comfortable, you’ll have more fun and ride more often. Be sure to test-ride the bikes and make the necessary adjustments to make yourself comfortable--a gel seat and riser handlebars can make a huge difference.”
Despite the burgeoning population and housing growth in southern Orange County, getting away from it all is possible, if you know the right time and place to escape. For details on local trails, see https://www.ocnow.com /recreation/guides/biking.
Proximity to many new neighborhoods and the cool ocean breeze makes Aliso & Wood Canyons Wilderness Park (3,400 acres) and Crystal Cove State Park (3,000 acres) difficult to have to yourself, but if you can sneak out midday during the workweek, there’s a good chance you won’t see many people. But beware: Weekends can be a zoo, even when the parks open at 7 a.m.
With their variety of terrain, trails at Aliso/Wood and Crystal Cove are suited for family fun rides or for the most competitive adrenaline junkies.
The two major access points for Aliso/Wood are from the southwestern corner of Alicia Parkway and Aliso Creek Road in Aliso Viejo, and from the Top of the World Park in Laguna Beach. Crystal Cove is just north of Laguna Beach, off Coast Highway.
Nestled north of the Foothill tollway is another popular riding area, Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park. Its 1,520 acres appeal to beginning and intermediate riders. Keep in mind that on a hot day, the thermometer at Whiting reads at least 10 degrees higher than Aliso/Wood or Crystal Cove.
For those who really need to get away from the crowds, thousands of wilderness acres set aside by the Irvine Co. are open from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on the first and third Sundays of every month; call (714) 832-7478 for information and reservations for the Laguna Coast Wilderness Park (1,971 acres) and Irvine Open Space Reserve (21,000 acres).
These reserves, home to an abundance of native plants and wildlife, feature miles of rarely used trails.
“More and more people are showing up every weekend for the open-wilderness access and the guided rides. Sometimes the parking lot fills on open-wilderness access day,” said Cheryl Thiele, a docent for the Nature Conservancy, which manages the land, controls access and gives tours.
In the Santa Ana Mountains, trails are longer, narrower and often steeper than foothill trails.
Before parking your car in the Cleveland National Forest, pick up an Adventure Pass at ranger stations or Sport Chalet ($5 per day, $30 annual) and display it on your windshield.
The most popular mountain-bike trail in the Santa Anas is the San Juan, an 11.9-mile route that roughly parallels California 74. If you like to climb, the San Juan Trail is for you: It features a steady slope--and a 2,582-foot elevation gain.
For beginners and downhill riders, car shuttling the San Juan Trail allows most uphill sections to be bypassed. Shuttlers park a car at the base and take a second vehicle to the top of the trail at Blue Jay campground to begin their downhill ride.
Cross-country riders, on the other hand, park at the bottom and pedal their 25- to 30-pound bikes uphill, then turn around to enjoy the return on their investment. To get to the base of the trail, drive 13 miles east of Interstate 5 on California 74. Turn left on Hot Springs Canyon Road and follow the mostly dirt road for about a mile. The trail head is just east of the parking area.
Uphill riders on the San Juan have complained that many car shuttlers fail to observe trail etiquette--that is, they don’t yield to uphill riders and hikers. Conflicts have arisen between trail users when downhill riders--some wearing practically enough equipment to play hockey--come into contact with the uphill riders on the narrow trail.
Right-of-way disputes aside, mountain bikers have cooperated over the past decade to help build better relationships with hikers and equestrians.
“There are a number of ways the mountain bikers can help build better relationships with other trail users,” Thiele said. “The most obvious is to be friendly and say hello when encountering other trail users. Riders should follow the International Mountain Biking Assn.'s rules of the trails: Ride on open trails only, leave no trace, control your bike, yield the trail, never scare animals and plan ahead.
“Get involved in trail maintenance, trail advocacy, docent programs or other forms of volunteer work that demonstrates mountain bikers do care and are willing to take action to preserve the open spaces for generations to come,” Thiele continued.
The Warrior’s Society is the county’s largest mountain-bike club, pulling members from several local groups and nearly every city in the county. Events such as the Mountain Bike Pow Wow each spring, the Toad Festival in October and numerous trail-maintenance efforts and club rides keep members connected.
For information on the Toad Festival and to read the quarterly newsletter, Smoke Signals, see https://www.warriorssociety.org.
The issue of multiple use of Orange County trails is a hot topic among mountain bikers, equestrians, hikers and public officials.
“With urban sprawl and irresponsible trail use, trail access will be the largest issue facing the mountain-bike community in Orange County,” said Vernon Felton, editor of Bike magazine, based in Dana Point. “The face-to-face conflicts [between hiker and biker] have not reached a critical mass, like in Marin County, but the hikers and park rangers are seeing more decimated trails.”
On Earth Day in 1991, then-Gov. Pete Wilson unveiled his Natural Communities Conservation Plan to comply with the Endangered Species Act. What he effectively created was a barter system for developers to protect endangered species habitat while providing land containing endangered species for development.
To implement the plan, the Nature Reserve of Orange County was established and received initial funding in 1997.
Reserve officials are planning a five-year census of trail and habitat conditions in state and county parks and reserves. Non-motorized recreation has been ruled compatible with the Conservation Plan, and this study will document the impact of recreational use in the reserve areas.
On April 18, county Supervisor Tom Wilson will host a Trails Summit at the San Juan Capistrano Community Center.
Topics will include connecting the gaps that exist within the trail system, combating illegal trail use, making sure developers do their part to work with the county’s master plan, and how users can get involved to help enrich the trails system.
“We’re getting about four development projects a week,” said Jeff Dickman, chief of trail planning and implementation for the county. “It’s the busiest that I’ve seen it; there are more than 100 trail and bikeway projects currently underway.”
Workshop information: (714) 834-3550.