I can ride my bike with no pacer cars: enjoying America’s top bike climbs

I love biking out far in San Diego county and beyond, preferably in the hills and even better with no watch to shackle my wrist. No races on bikes this year allowed me to enjoy it more. This year I was able to get on some of SoCal’s biggest bike climbs, and even more relevant than that, they are some of our most beautiful climbs. Some of them happen to be in the very top in America. Itinerary this year included the picturesque climbs of Palomar, Baldy, Soledad, Woodson, Wilson… and now I’m getting ready for Whitney.

Top of Mt Wilson

I still love biking, even though my relationship with bikes has been somewhat less than illustrious (see a dozen or more examples in my post here). So this year I logged more miles and even more feet of elevation gain in this joyous activity.

Soledad is a peak I’ve trained on before and often because it’s right outside of my home in La Jolla, but I’d never ridden the “5 faces of Soledad” until this year. The summit is only 800′, but that’s a 4000′ day by the end… The 5 faces ride is probably the most beautiful I have ever done, you go up and over the summit 5 times with great mountain and ocean views, as well as views of all angles of San Diego!

The Mt. Woodson road is only 1.8 miles, but gains 1200 feet–13% average. The road and climb both were the most gnarly of the year for me.  Closed to vehicular traffic, Woodson is San Diego’s best rock climbing area. But it is little know that it’s actually San Diego county’s most intense road climb also. Practically a mountain bike climb with the grade, amount of gravel and tortured asphalt, this was really a challenge. First of all, it’s a hilly 35 miles from La Jolla to get there. So close enough that you bike there, not drive. But far enough that you’re already a bit tired when you arrive.

Secondly, Woodson’s  unrelenting steepness means that, unlike most longer, cardio climbs, this one goes anaerobic, and it was over in 22 minutes. I really though I might not make it without a rest; many times I almost ground to a standstill. Cranking so hard the front wheel came off the gnarly, uneven, gravelly pavement sometimes. It was like a track workout: you know you’re doing it right when in the middle of the second-to-last interval you genuinely consider quitting the sport. At the end, I made it in a single push, thanks to a short 30 meter flat-ish section about 2/3 of the way up. Until there, it’s pure guts. So great.

Of the bigger peaks on the list, I biked those all with Matt and I liked them all. Mt Baldy, rising pristine from the LA smog, was probably my favorite this year because of the steepness in the last few miles and the excellent hairpins, plus the variations in pitch. An incredible road that doesn’t actually summit, but ends at the Ski area there. Still a most amazing climb. Dallas met us at the top with our snowboards, so we shredded that afternoon! Yeah SoCal!

Some hairpin turns on baldy have 10mph recs and get close to 20 degrees…of course we’re going way slower than that uphill!

Palomar Mtn is also amazing–not because of steep pitches like Baldy, but because of its exact consistency: 6-7% throughout, almost never steeper, almost never less. And the alpine environment! And the views–San Diego county is less polluted than LA County so you can see further!

Mt Wilson starts at the Rose bowl in Pasadena, very iconic, and meanders through neighborhoods and then up a gradual 4% average for more than 20 miles. The last 5 miles of Wilson were definitely the most beautiful of any of the big SoCal climbs with huge expansive views of the San Gabriel mountains. Maybe rivaled by Gibralter’s ocean views (see my pics here). There is also a famous hiking/ running trail up Wilson.

While these climbs are ends in themselves (as evidenced that they appear on numerous lists below), they are also prep for my biggest bike outing of the year- Badwater to Whitney! Stay tuned…

Now for the stats/ list part of the post. Wilson makes Bicycling Magazine’s list of “The 10 Toughest Climbs.” Baldy and Palomar both make the greatoutdoors.com top 10 Great Hillclimbs of America and the top 10 in the book Best Cycling climbs in the US.  All these listed are pasted at the bottom of this post.

Baldy and Wilson both make the Outside magazine list of America’s 10 Tour de France-like road climbs; see the second list at the bottom of this post. I’ve now ridden 4 of those Outside climbs (after Latigo and Gibralter last year)!

And here are a couple more great lists from John Summerson’s books, hard and big climbs in the USA and California. You can see the Sierra and Hawaii dominate there.

And as promised, here are those other lists I referenced: The top 10 of 100 ranked climbs in Best Cycling climbs in the US:

  1. Mt Washington, NH
  2. Haleakala, HI
  3. Onion Valley, CA
  4. Horseshoe Meadows, CA
  5. Mt. Equinox, VT
  6. White MTN, CA
  7. Mt. Baldy, CA
  8. Mt Graham, AZ
  9. Mt. Lemmon, AZ
  10. Palomar Mountain, CA
Bicycling Magazine (1987) list of “The 10 Toughest Climbs” in America:
Mt. Washington, NH
Mt. Mitchell, NC
Trail Ridge Rd, Rocky MT NP, CO
Mt. Evans, CO
Going to the Sun Hwy, Glacier NP
Mt. Graham, AZ
Mt. Wilson, CA
Mt. Diablo, CA
Mt. Haleakala, Hawaii
Hurricane Ridge, Olympic NP, Washington

Here are Outside Magazine’s 10 Tour de France-like climbs in the USA: from Outside Magazine, July 2007

Latigo Canyon (click here for map)
HIGHEST POINT: 2,122 feet VERTICAL GAIN: 2,016 feet LENGTH: 9.2 miles GRADE: 4.2% average, 12% maximum SIMILAR TO: Montée de Hauteville, Stage 8, July 15 (9.5 miles, 2,566-foot vertical, 4.7% average)
A winding, wide-open road that seems designed for bikes and convertibles, Latigo begins with a sharp hump, then settles into a steady but steep grade for about six miles as it rises into the Santa Monica Mountains. “It’s reminiscent of climbs in the Pyrenees, because there’s very little cover from trees and it can get really hot,” says Carmichael. The ride ends on Kanan Dume Road with a 50-mile-per-hour descent to the beach.

Gibraltar Road
HIGHEST POINT: 3,588 feet VERTICAL GAIN: 3,264 feet LENGTH: 9 miles GRADE: 6.9% average SIMILAR TO: Col du Galibier, Stage 9, July 17 (10.9 miles, 4,068-foot vertical, 6.9% average)

A narrow road with fractured pavement that heads up into the coastal mountains above Santa Barbara, Gibraltar was a frequent training climb for Lance Armstrong. “The effort it takes to get up that definitely compares to some of the climbs in the Tour,” says California resident Levi Leipheimer (see page 24). Yeah, but Tour climbs don’t have ocean views.

Ebbetts Pass
HIGHEST POINT: 8,718 feet VERTICAL GAIN: 3,016 feet LENGTH: 13 miles GRADE: 4.4% average SIMILAR TO: Port de Balès, Stage 15, July 23 (11.9 miles, 3,881-foot vertical, 6.2% average)

“The best place to simulate a Tour climb is right outside Carson City, Nevada,” says three-time Tour champion Greg LeMond, who regularly trained on Ebbetts Pass during his career. After six miles of a steady 4 percent grade, the climb kicks up to 22 percent in a hairpin turn and ultimately hits a roughly mile-long stretch of 15 percent up to the summit.

Pine Flat Road
HIGHEST POINT: 3,165 feet VERTICAL GAIN: 2,936 feet LENGTH: 11.1 miles GRADE: 5% average SIMILAR TO: Col de la Pierre Saint-Martin, Stage 16, July 25 (8.9 miles, 2,414-foot vertical, 5.2% average)

The vineyards surrounding the first mile of Pine Flat Road resemble terrain riders will pass through at the Tour, and the comparison holds to the summit. “It’s not steady,” says Leipheimer, who rides up Pine Flat twice a week during preseason training. “The grade changes a lot, and it’s nice and long.”

Mount Wilson
HIGHEST POINT: 5,699 feet VERTICAL GAIN: 4,827 feet LENGTH: 22.4 miles GRADE: 4.1% average SIMILAR TO: Col du Galibier, via 2006 route (26.6 miles, 6,220-foot vertical, 4.5% average)

“This would be a Category 1 climb in any grand tour,” says Discovery Channel pro Tony Cruz. With 17 miles of relentless climbing, save for a brief downhill scream near mile 11, Wilson’s only recent Tour equivalent is the Col du Galibier, via the 2006 route, which takes in much more of the alpine beast. Starting from the nearby Rose Bowl gets the mileage and vertical up to Galibier standards.

Mount Baldy
HIGHEST POINT: 6,314 feet VERTICAL GAIN: 4,669 feet LENGTH: 12.6 miles GRADE: 7% average SIMILAR TO: L’Alpe d’Huez, last used in the 2006 Tour (8.6 miles, 3,608-foot vertical, 7.9% average)

Baldy doesn’t have the 21 brutal switchbacks that make L’Alpe d’Huez the Tour’s most iconic climb, but it can nearly match it in grade and surpass it in length as it rises from the SoCal sprawl into Angeles National Forest. “I use it to prepare for big stage races,” says Cruz. “It has the look and feel of a European high-alpine climb.”

Appalachian Gap
HIGHEST POINT: 2,392 feet VERTICAL GAIN: 1,500 feet LENGTH: 6.3 miles GRADE: 4.5% average SIMILAR TO: Col de Tamié, Stage 8, July 15 (5.9 miles, 1,250-foot vertical, 4% average)
Don’t plan on getting into a rhythm on this one. The Appalachian Gap includes brief sections of 7, 12, 10, and 14 percent before settling back down near the finish. “It’s a bit short,” says Chris Carmichael, who trained on this road as a young pro in the eighties. “But it compares to Tour climbs in its steepness and varying pitch.”

Big Cottonwood Canyon
HIGHEST POINT: 8,705 feet VERTICAL GAIN: 3,852 feet LENGTH: 14.7 miles GRADE: 5% average SIMILAR TO: Cormet de Roselend, Stage 8, July 15 (12.4 miles, 3,959-foot vertical, 6% average)

A favorite training climb of Utah native and Team CSC pro Dave Zabriskie, Cottonwood snakes its way east from Salt Lake City. The steepest pitches come near Storm Mountain, after mile two, and between Solitude and Brighton ski resorts. “It’s a big road, and it can get really windy,” says Zabriskie. “The fun thing to do, when there’s no snow, is keep going up over Guardsman Pass.” From that 9,695-foot perch, you have the option of bombing down into Park City, 2,671 feet below.


Brasstown Bald
HIGHEST POINT: 4,741 feet VERTICAL GAIN: 2,065 feet LENGTH: 3.1 miles GRADE: 12.6% average, 21% maximum SIMILAR TO: Nothing in France compares.

The Tour de Georgia introduced Brasstown Bald to pro cycling in 2004, and the peloton has been wincing ever since. “It feels like your arms and head are going to explode,” says Discovery Channel climbing ace Tom Danielson. “Seriously, your arms feel worse than your legs, because you’re working them so hard just to keep moving forward.”

Mount Washington
HIGHEST POINT: 6,288 feet VERTICAL GAIN: 4,725 feet LENGTH: 7.6 miles GRADE: 12% average, 22% maximum SIMILAR TO: Nothing in France compares.

“When you combine the grade, the weather, and the gravel road, there’s nothing in the Tour de France like Mount Washington,” says Carmichael. Just two-thirds of the road is paved, hurricane-force winds can blow riders off their bikes, and the grade gets progressively worse the higher you go, finishing at a nearly impossible 22 percent.

Everest Challenge near Bishop, CA

Mosquito Flat
HIGHEST POINT: 10,250 feet VERTICAL GAIN: 6,100 feet LENGTH: 22 miles GRADE: 5% average, 12% maximum

South Lake
HIGHEST POINT: 9,835 feet VERTICAL GAIN: 5,800 feet LENGTH: 20.4 miles GRADE: 6% average, 17.5% maximum

Bristlecone Forest
HIGHEST POINT: 10,100 feet VERTICAL GAIN: 6,573 feet LENGTH: 21 miles GRADE: 6% average, 15% maximum

Here are the top 10 most difficult climbs from great outdoors.com:


1. Mt. Haleakala, Maui, Hawaii
Sea to summit – the ultimate

Rising to a towering 10,000 feet and offering spectacular high-altitude views, Haleakala is known for its distinctive moon-like terrain.

Directions: Begin the 37-mile climb in the town of Paia, near windsurfing’s world-famous Hookipa Beach, and follow the road to Makawao. Continue towards Highway 378 and Haleakala National Park, passing through several distinct climactic zones before reaching the summit parking area and the top of the crater.

Park info:

Haleakala National Park
P.O. Box 369
Makawao, Maui, HI 96768

(808) 572-4400
Open daily, year round

Bicycle Rental Companies:

2. Mt. Evans, Colorado
Finishes at over 14,000 feet

Directions: Begin the 28-mile climb in the historic mining town of Idaho Springs, at the Mt. Evans exit off I-70 in the mountains west of Denver. Follow State Route 103 to Echo Lake, and then Route 5 to the 14,250-foot summit. Be prepared for cold and snow at any time.

Related Links:

3. Mt. Lemmon, Arizona
Soars above Tuscon

The road winds past one spectacular view after another as it ascends the mountain. The route to the top of Mount Lemmon is a dramatic example of a sky island’s unique environment.

Directions: This 25-mile climb begins on the east side of Tucson, at the intersection of the Catalina Highway and Tanque Verde Road. Follow the Catalina Highway to the road’s high point at the Mount Lemmon Observing Facility.

Local Bike Shops:

Tucson Bicycles

4. Mt. Graham, Arizona
One of the “sky islands”

Directions: The 20-mile ride begins at mile post 115 along U.S. 191, across from the Federal prison south of Safford in southeast Arizona. Climb up the Swift Trail (State Route 366) to the finish at mile post 135, near the Snow Flat camp ground.

Related links:

5. Sandia Crest, New Mexico
Albuquerque skyscraper

Sandia Crest is located on the Turquoise Trail, a national scenic byway that passes through the Cibola National Forest connecting Albuquerque and Santa Fe.

Directions: Begin climbing just off I-40, at the Cedar Crest exit, 15 miles east of Albuquerque. Take the Sandia Peak ski area road, and follow it to the summit overlooking the city far below.

Camping contacts:

  • Cibola National Forest ranger station – (505) 281-3304
  • Turquoise Trail Campground & RV Park – (505) 281-2005

Local Bike Shops:

  • Albuquerque Bicycle Center, 3330 Coors Blvd. NW, 505/831-5739
  • Old Town Bicycle, 2209 B Central Ave. NW, 505/247-4926

Related Links:

Races take place each year on most of these peaks, and – except for Mt. Washington, which opens to bicycles only on race day – the paved summit roads are also rideable anytime conditions permit. How many of the Great Hillclimbs have you finished?

6. Mt. Charleston, Nevada
Leaving Las Vegas

Mt. Charleston’ s high, cool, forested landscape stands in sharp contrast to the surrounding desert landscape and the neon lights of Las Vegas.

Directions: The climb begins approximately 30 miles north of Las Vegas, along I-95 at the Lee Canyon exit. Follow Highway 156 upward to the ski area parking lot.

Local Bike Shops:

  • Bike World, 1901 S. Rainbow, Las Vegas, 702/254-1718
  • Peloton Sports, 911 N. Buffalo, Las Vegas, 702/363-1991

Related Links:

7. Mt. Baldy, California
Rises out of the smog

Mt. Baldy road offers many scenic vistas of the San Gabriels mountains and will take you into the heart of the Angeles National Forest, the “backyard” of Los Angeles.

Directions: Commencing in the city of Claremont, just north of Pomona, the ride follows the Mt. Baldy Road directly to the ski area finish.

Related Links:

8. Mt. Palomar, California
A San Diego tradition

Orange and avocado groves border your climb to rendezvous with the South Grade of Palomar Mountain. From there it’s a seven-mile, 7% grade of twisting switchbacks. You’ll pass the 3k, 4k, and 5000 foot altitude markers in quick secession. The uphill ends near the Palomar General Store. From there, it’s a few miles uphill through the trees to the observatory.

Directions: Get underway 40 miles northeast of San Diego, in the town of Santa Ysabel, at the intersection of Highways 78 and 79. From Dudley’s bakery, long a favorite with San Diego-area cyclists, follow Highway 79 to Highway 76, finally climbing up Route S7 to the summit – site of the world famous Palomar Observatory.

Related Links:

Palomar Observatory

Bicycle rentals:

9. Mt. Washington, New Hampshire
Perhaps the steepest of all

Breathtaking views will surprise you around every bend of the 8-mile path to the top of New England. The average grade of 12% slopes on the mostly paved road, reaching up more than a mile in the sky.

Directions: This eight-mile climb, open to bicycles only on race day each year, starts at the base of the Mt. Washington Auto Road, about 12 miles north of Jackson along State Highway 16. Even though the peak is only 160 miles north of Boston, be prepared for difficult conditions near the top of the northeast’s highest and steepest mountain road.

Related Links:

Mt. Washington Bicycle Hill Climb Race

10. Mt. Hamilton, California
Silicon Valley icon

Winding, twisting, turning, the 20 miles up Mt. Hamilton Road makes it one of the most challenging hillclimbs in California.

This photo looks westward at one of the many switchbacks on Mt. Hamilton Road and a hazy Silicon Valley from the Lick Observatory.

Directions: Start the climb at the Alum Rock exit off I-680 in San Jose. Follow Alum Rock Avenue north to the Mt. Hamilton Road (Highway 130), which climbs to the summit and its several astronomical observatories.

Related Links:


About zoomloco

I zoom-zoom loco like the pony express.
This entry was posted in Biking, Climbing, Great Nature, Lists, Physical Exertion, San Diego and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to I can ride my bike with no pacer cars: enjoying America’s top bike climbs

  1. Pingback: Palomar 130 Bike Ride | Zoom Loco

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