San Diego Christmas Bicycle Ride

A bicycle ride throught San Diego, Imperial and Riverside Counties

December 26-31, 1997

By Neil Mishalov


A bicycle ride of contrasts. That is my overall impression of the 1997 San Diego 6 Day Christmas Bicycle Ride. During the ride we rolled 372 miles, and climbed 16,100 feet. We encountered head winds, tail winds, black ice and snow on the road, 19° temperature during the night and 75° during the day. We climbed up to 4,300 feet, and dropped down to 180 feet below sea level. We viewed communities of extreme affluence and towns hanging on to their existence by their fingernails. We saw date palm, avocado, orange, lemon and tangerine groves. We rolled through the desolate desert, and along the sparkling Pacific Ocean. Yes, it truly was a ride of contrasts.

The ride was sponsored by American Youth Hostels, and this was the 41st annual event. The ride organizers provided a truck for your gear, so you rode unencumbered. They also had a sag wagon cruising the route if you needed assistance. The ride rolled through San Diego, Imperial and Riverside counties.

There were approximately 100 riders. Although the majority of the riders came from the San Diego area, there were riders from northern California, Arizona, Boston, New York, Chicago, Ohio and England.

I estimate that the average age of the riders was in the mid 30's, to the early 40's, and 20-25% were female. The ride started December 26 and concluded December 31. The route was a counter clockwise loop that started and ended at the University of San Diego.

The ride included 2 meals per day; breakfast and dinner. The rider was responsible for lunch. The meals were prepared by rider volunteers, and the clean up was also done by the riders. The food was good, plentiful and nutritious

I found out about the ride in late November via the internet. There was a notice about the ride posted on rec.bicycles.rides. I was intrigued. I was looking to get out of town during the holidays, and the ride itinerary covered an area of California that I have never seen before. The cost was right ($225), and so, I signed up for the ride.

I drove from Berkeley to San Diego, and spent the night before the ride in a dormitory room at the San Diego American Youth Hostel location. On Friday morning December 26, those riders who spent the night at the hostel drove 5 miles to the University of San Diego, the starting point of the ride. We assembled our bicycles, met the other riders, stowed our gear in the truck and started to roll at about 9:30 a.m.

Want to join us? You're invited, but may I suggest that you bring your full fingered cycling gloves, leg warmers, wool jerseys, booties, and heavy cycling jacket. OK, let's roll!

Day One: Friday, December 26

San Diego to Pine Valley

Distance: 51.4 miles

Elevation Gain: 3,850 feet


It was sunny and cool as we cycled east out of San Diego. For the first 25 miles we spent our time riding through the urban sprawl of San Diego and its satellite communities. We only climbed about 800 feet in the first 30 miles. Then we entered the Laguna Mountains and started our climb. After Alpine (elev. 2,000 ft.), we finally left the populated areas, and as we continued to ascend, the temperature continued to drop. By the time we cycled through Descanso (elev. 3,400 ft.), it was cold, overcast and windy.

As we continued to climb an unpleasant sight unfolded in front of us. Black ice and snow were on the road. It had snowed the previous week, and although the great majority of the road was clear and dry, those parts of the road that were in the shade during the day were icy and treacherous. You can not cycle on black ice. The riders who slipped and fell because of the ice can attest to that. Black ice is snow melt that has frozen on the asphalt or concrete road surface. It is very hard to notice, and it provides zero traction. Although we were on a secondary road, there was a surprising amount of traffic, and the traffic contributed to the increased danger of the roadway. I tried an innovative technique. When there was ice ahead, and a car coming up from behind, I stopped riding, dismounted and waited for the traffic to pass. We reached the high point of today's ride at Guatay (elev. 4,000 ft.), and now we had a 2 mile downhill into Pine Valley, our first night destination. I slowly descended, watching for black ice, and eventually arrived in Pine Valley (elev. 3,740 ft.).

That night we stayed at the Pine Valley Community Center. After a spaghetti dinner, most riders rolled their sleeping bags out on the floor of the community center. I brought my tent with me, and along with about 15 other riders, I camped outside. It got down to 19°, and it was the coldest night of the ride. I wore many layers of clothing inside my sleeping bag that night.

Day Two: Saturday, December 27

Pine Valley to Warner Springs

Distance: 46.5 miles

Elevation Gain: 3,070 feet


Don Schroeder, the trip leader for the past 8 years, changed part of today's route, due to the number of riders who fell yesterday because of black ice. The original route was to climb Sunrise Highway which goes up to 6,000 feet. However,the black ice situation was even more prevalent on the Sunrise Highway, so we did a route detour that traversed roads at approximatly 4,000 feet of elevation.

We took Highway 79 past Lake Cuyamaca, and cycled through some snowy slush in places, and yes, it was cold. We rolled into Julian (elev. 4,220 ft.) in the late morning. Julian was a surprise. It is a town that dates to 1870, and it was established because of the discovery of gold in its environs. Today the town is known for its apple pie and apple orchards. The town is quaint and it was crowded with tourists. A bicycle rider on the tour who lives in Julian said that the tourists are from the San Diego area, and they are there to view and play in the snow. I am pleased to say that Julian was the last place we rode that was cold. Thankfully, we dropped down from Julian, and rode through Santa Ysabel (elev. 2,984 ft.), and then headed north through the Santa Ysabel Indian Reservation to Warner Springs (elev. 3,132 ft., population 200). Although the temperature was warmer, and it made for a more pleasant ride, the scenery consisted of high desert, rolling hills and it was somewhat desolate.

Warner Springs was founded in 1844, and to the early immigrants who came to California via the southern route, Warner Springs was what Sutters Fort was for the immigrant who entered California via the central route. We camped at the Warner Springs Public School. The school and its grounds were clean and well maintained. We had chicken and some of Julian's famous apple pie for dinner. I camped out again, and was certainly pleased that the temperature was warmer than last night at Pine Valley.

Day Three: Sunday, December 28

Warner Springs to Palm Desert

Distance: 100.6 miles

Elevation Gain: 2,740 feet

This was the longest day of the ride, 100 miles. It started out badly. The first 7 miles required cycling into a strong persistant headwind. After we turned east on S22, the winds abated, and we cycled through Ranchita (elev. 4,050 ft.). Then we had a thrilling descent to Borrego Springs (elev. 750 ft.), The descent reminded me of the descent from Tioga Pass to Lee Vining. Now we were in the desert. There was sand, cactus, sand dunes and more sand. I took off some of the clothing I was wearing and rode through the Borrego Badlands to Salton City (elev. 180 ft. below sea level). To call this dusty jumble of nondescript buildings a city is ludicrous. I guess some real estate developers had big plans that never quite jelled.

Salton City sits on the west side of Salton Sea. The Salton Sea is an ancient lake bed that reformed in 1907. At that time a man-made canal carrying water from the Colorado River burst its banks due to flooding, and formed the shallow lake that is there now. I understand that the lake is badly polluted because of raw sewage and fertilizer runoff which enters from the Imperial Valley.

Now we have about 45 miles of mostly flat roads to reach our destination of Palm Desert (elev. 243 ft.). We rode north past the Anza-Borrego Desert Wilderness; before long the road was lined with date palm, lemon, orange and tangerine groves. We rolled past Thermal, Coachella, Mecca, La Quinta, Indian Wells and finally we entered the affluent resort community of Palm Desert. We camped at the Hope Lutheran Church.

Day Four: Monday, December 29

Palm Desert to Hemet

Distance: 62.7 miles

Elevation Gain: 2,920 feet


It took about 17 miles to roll through Palm Desert and Palm Springs. Some of the roads we past were named: Frank Sinatra Drive, Bob Hope Drive, Fred Waring Way and Gerald Ford Drive. I guess before long they will have Sonny Bono Drive.

After leaving the affluent twins, we cycled northwest on Highway 111, and then rode west on secondary roads which parallel Interstate 10. Banning (elev. 2,400 ft.) was an unpleasant sight. We rolled down the 6 mile long main drag, and the majority of the storefronts were shuttered. The nicest and newest building in Banning is the city administration building.

After Banning, we headed south on Highway 79, and dropped down into the Hemet Valley, an agricultural and farming area. We cruised into Hemet (elev. 1,596 ft.), and camped at the First Presbyterian Church Family Center. This was the only night I did not camp outside because a city ordinance prohibits camping within the city limits.

Day Five: Tuesday, December 30

Hemet to Fallbrook

Distance: 55.9 miles

Elevation Gain: 2,060 feet


The first 30 miles were mostly flat and we zoomed past agricultural land and new housing tracts. Then, just outside of Murrieta (elev. 1,093 ft.), we climbed up a big hill created by an earthquake fault scarp.

In my opinion the prettiest road of the ride was just ahead. De Luz-Murrieta Road is a winner. For about 10 delightful miles we rolled, twisted and turned on this isolated valley road. The road follows a creek bed, and there were miles of avocado groves lining the valley's steep slopes. It appears that the plants are watered by drip irrigation. We are now on the east side of the large Marine Corp base, Camp Pendleton, and after dropping down to the Santa Margarita River, we climbed up and out to Fallbrook (elev. 685 ft.).

Fallbrook is a small community located about 10 miles east of the Pacific Ocean. We spent the night at the First Church of Religious Science. This was the last night on the ride, and we were treated to some delicious lasagna for dinner. It was good to set up the tent again, and I camped outside.

Day Six: Wednesday, December 31

Fallbrook to San Diego

Distance: 54.7 miles

Elevation Gain: 1,540 feet


The last day of the ride, and I felt like a race horse who can see the barn. I couldn't wait to get back to San Diego!

We rolled down to Oceanside (elev. 47 ft.), and then we cycled south along the coast for the next 22 miles. We cruised through Carlsbad, Leucadia, Encinitas, Solana Beach and Del Mar. Del Mar was the loveliest community we rolled through. It was clean, upscale and classy. Then we climbed up Torrey Pines Hill, and rode past the Jonas Salk Institute, the University of California at San Diego, and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. After riding past Mission Bay we arrived back at the University of San Diego, the place where we started the ride 6 days previous.

What a nice ride! Both the riders and support personnel were top class. The only mechanical problem I had was a flat tire. However there were a couple of serious injuries. One rider left the ride after the first day because of an arm injury sustained by falling on the black ice. Another rider suffered a broken arm, when she had a low speed fall in Palm Springs. She was English, and had English health insurance. The first hospital they took her to required that before they treat her, she first consult with a hospital "financial consultant". She declined, and decided to go to a hospital that did not require a financial consultation prior to medical treatment.

There were many riders on the ride this year who have participated in the ride in previous years. It seemed that each day they had their own special route variations. The route that I took and described above was the official route. I hope to be back in 1998. If you are interested in doing this ride, and want an application, e-mail me, and I will provide you with the necessary information.


This article has been on the web since January 15, 1998

© 1998 by Neil Mishalov. All rights reserved.

Updated: 16 April 2014

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