Road Trip: Climbing & Mountain Biking Northern, Southern California

This guest post comes from Robyn Embry, a local pro downhill racer living in Kings Beach, California, for the past seven years. She can be found climbing rocks and skiing powder when not enjoying life on two wheels; her blog contains the extended version of this and other adventures, including the fun and tribulations found within a season of mountain bike racing.

whitney portal climbing
Whitney Portal – granite as far as the eye can see

Less than two weeks after returning from a mountain bike race in Las Vegas, Kit and I were back on the road again toward Fontana, CA, for yet another race. That went well and I walked away with the win, ready to enjoy some more Southern California sunshine during a week of visiting friends, climbing, surfing and riding bikes. One of our first stops was Pirate’s Cove by Newport Bay for some bouldering. Here, a crash pad is not totally necessary because of the soft sandy landing, but a pair of slip-on or Velcro climbing shoes and some Reef sandals are nice and easy to trade off between problems. There are some climbs in the shade, but the sun gets intense at the boulders directly on the beach, making a good sunscreen like Sierra Summits Adventure Sunscreen a great idea. Sun hats are good too; a ball cap just doesn’t cut it in strong sunshine. This I’ll remember next time. Something like the Prana Sally hat looks cute and protects your ears as well.

pirates cove bouldering
Pirate’s Cove

After the fun bouldering session our friend offered to shuttle us on the San Juan mountain bike trail, located up in the Santa Ana Mountains. One of Southern California’s premier single tracks, this trail is way the heck out there
and is 11.6 miles in each direction. Being fully prepared for anything is always a good idea, so we filled our Camelbaks to the brim with water, snacks, tools, spare tubes, and even a Black Diamond headlamp just in case – because you’re always glad you have one when you’d least expect it. We started the ride at around 5 p.m. so there was definitely a chance of getting caught in the dark. As luck would have it, we made it to the bottom just before it got too dark to see, and we were grinning from ear to ear after experiencing what both of us agreed was an all-time classic bike ride! This ride can also be ridden as a loop for the super burly climber types, and is generally recommended for advanced riders because of its sometimes technical, steep, and exposed nature. If you fit into that category, it’s an absolute blast!

san juan mountain bike trail
Late afternoon on the San Juan Trail

Following a couple days of surfing, we left our friend’s house in Costa Mesa and headed up to experience the historical climbing at Tahquitz. Carrying a full rack of trad gear in my Osprey pack up (and down) the approach was definitely not my favorite part of the trip. Fortunately, once at the rock we found nobody on Open Book 5.9, our chosen route. It was the first 5.9 in North America. On-route the granite was clean and climbing was enjoyable, not too difficult but certainly interesting in places. Not much loose rock was present on the route itself but I still wore my Half Dome climbing helmet out of habit, just in case. We also found ourselves wishing for more lightweight carabiners like the BD Neutrino, and longer runners to cut down on rope drag–for some reason we have both been using sport quick-draws lately and that makes leading difficult when routes begin to wander. We both concluded that the climbing was excellent, but also that much more of the same can be found with less of a drive for us in the northern part of the Sierra. Still, it was novel to be climbing a Royal Robbins First Ascent and experiencing the birthplace of modern rock climbing.

open book tahquitz
Me following the first pitch of Open Book 5.9 at Tahquitz

The camping and parking situations a little more restrictive than us Nor-Cal adventurers are used to, so we split for the Eastern Sierras and Whitney Portal that evening. Waking up the next morning, we went straight for the granite wonderland of The Portal and settled on climbing at the Roadwork Wall, which contained some 2-and 3-star moderates like Made In The Shade and Manzanar, both rated 5.9. For some reason we had an affinity for right-facing dihedrals on this trip so we chose the latter climb, which was quite similar to Open Book but had even more liebacking moves. It also contained a few odd chimney sections and off-widths, but the solution in most cases was to smear your feet and lieback. For this I was thankful to be wearing the La Sportiva Mythos, a super comfortable shoe for multi-pitch climbs that also happens to smear very well on small indentations. Always a bit old school, Kit was happy to find some great Metolius nut placements along the way, and I used a long runner to sling a chockstone for a perfect belay anchor on the second pitch. We hoped to find some rap rings for the descent, but ended up walking down the 3rd-class gully just left of the wall; in hindsight, I should have brought my approach shoes up the climb. In all, the quality of climbing was amazing at the Portal, along with the sheer quantity of granite faces covering the surrounding peaks. This is a great summer climbing area and I hope we can return soon for more.

mount whitney granite
Taking a shady route

The following day was colder with high winds everywhere, so we decided to skip climbing and head north on Hwy 395 towards home. Being a gentleman (with a couple of cracked ribs bothering him from a crash earlier in the week), Kit offered to shuttle me a lap on the Lower Rock Creek Trail just south of Mammoth – a 7.5-mile downhill dropping about 2,000 feet through varied terrain. It’s a pretty amazing ride and one of my favorites. More rocky and technical than the San Juan trail, I’ve ridden both a downhill bike and a 7” trail bike and found the smaller bike a little more fun overall, though the big bike is great in a few sections for its ability to roll through the rough terrain. Even though it was snowing and blowing sideways at the top, it warmed up quickly and I removed my Arc’teryx soft shell hoody at about halfway down. I love that thing. I got it for skiing but now use it for almost every sport. For the final, most scenic section of trail the sun was shining and wind was not too bad in the canyon…until I got near the trailhead and was nearly blown off the bike! That downhill finale was yet another classic ride and a great end to our road trip adventures!

Climbing California’s Mountains
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