45.89 Miles; 4,889 Feet of Gain; Oak Grove, CA to Idyllwild, CA
Rain pattered our campsite throughout the night as a gentle pour from the inland-stretching marine layer. We slept well. Morning was subsequently overcast and cool. A thick stew of clouds smeared atmospheric-opaquicity over Mt. Palomar rising about the campground. Mixes of blue sky wafting here and there suggested it wouldn't last long. We were in the desert for sure, but knew that we needed to descend even lower in elevation today before an all-day climb up into the cool pines of Idyllwild. The marine layer was affording us well-tempered temps we knew to take advantage of. Quickly, Janna and I packed up camp, ate breakfast, and pushed out onto the highway edge.
The brown grasslands of the desert surrounded us as live oak gave way to cholla. We stopped at the historical Oak Grove Stage Station before descending down to a low point at Aguanga, CA. Here, we swung a right and started up Rt. 371/Cahuila Rd. towards Anza. This stretch of highway was hellacious in all the dangerous ways for a cyclist: it had no shoulders, was packed with speeding vehicles (the speed limit was 55/65 mph to start with), all uphill with curves and steep drop-offs, and apparently a heavily-used commuter route during rush hour. We were smack dab in the middle of that car-time. Panicked and tense, I rode slowly up the hill taking care of my left knee (same injury I've had for years). The climb was incredibly steep and we pulled over in every dirt driveway/turnout joining the road to let a litany of vehicles rage past us. These pullouts afforded us an opportunity to mentally recuperate from the taxing aggressive and fast traffic. It was then that I took a moment to turn around and be mesmerized by the distant wrinkled folds of desert beaks in line against the plunging valley we were climbing from, all contrasted with gray cool clouds and blue distant sky. It was quite epic and beautiful.
As Janna and I climbed, a mess of rock jumbles peppered the high grassland desert hills around us. The clouds above us began dissipating in the reigning strength of rising sun. Finally, the steepness of this first climb of the day began to lessen as a centerpiece of desert savannah spread out around us on our approach to Anza. And there, distantly, sat the massive peak of Mount San Jacinto, just close enough to be seen, but just far enough to barely cusp the horizon. By now, the clouds of morning were gone and full Sun of a summer day was upon us. We shed layers damp with our sweat from exertion and breathed a sigh of relief at the worst traffic being behind us. We both agreed we would never want to ride that stretch of pavement ever again. Puddles of sage sat amongst the grasses and larger mountain peaks began to loom ever closer as we pulled into Anza at mid-day.
I pulled up Google Maps and saw there was a town park and a small grocery in Anza. We beelined it there and found a big ramada and restroom at Minor Park. I watched our bikes while Janna went into the Anza Village Market next door. The pickings were slim to none, but we found some good fruit at a stand across the road. As we ate in the shade of picnic tables in the gazebo a bunch of locals walking the area came over to talk to us. One had a bike and we talked for a while about biking in the area - he agreed the road we came up was stressful on a bike. The day's heat could really be felt now, so we felt pressed to continue on in an attempt to gain altitude before the heat got any worse. We packed up our food, doused ourselves with water from a couple of gallons we bought, and pushed on again into the desert. It was a 100 degrees now, a complete contrast to this morning when we were jackets and shivered.
A small shoulder opened up on the highway leading out of town and towards the foothills as non-shade really made us feel the sun's intensity. The road began to climb and heat-adapted pines sprung up in washes and ravines. A sign for entry into the San Bernadino National Forest appeared. We continued climbing through the heat of mid-day as grasslands continued to give way to pines. Suddenly, a short downhill brought us to the intersection with the Palms to Pines Scenic Highway. A right would take us down a massive downhill to Palm Springs and the low Mojave Desert. A left (our route) carries one up further into the San Jacinto Mountain range. We turned left and immediately a forest of ponderosa and Jeffrey pine thickly wooded-up.
Stellar views of rocky peaks piqued the horizon as substrate changed to pine need tuft and sandy loam. A massive mountain meadow opened up around Thomas Mountain. I kept stopping to take photos of the dramatic and beautiful peaks of the San Jacintos. We pulled into Lake Hemet Market to take advantage of shade and some snacks. It was a gorgeous area, and I was stoked to be up in the mountains like this. We used the restrooms, got more sunscreen on, and then pushed out up Highway 74. Lake Hemet came up on our lefts. We took a side-road to go look at the famous reservoir. It had gorgeous blue water under the summer sun. We turned around, rejoined the highway, and started the second long and steep climb of the day. Again, the shoulder disappeared as we pedaled up, sweating profusely, through an old burn scar in the mountains.
We descended from a saddle down through unburned pines to reach Mountain Center where we took a right up Rt. 243. The road twisted and climbed steeply up the mountain peaks. Rock became white granite set against a growth of evergreen pine. It was absolutely gorgeous and reminded me again of biking up Mt. Lemmon in Tucson. A couple of hours later we coasted into town. Both of us had no idea was Idyllwild was like and were blown away by how cool it was. It is actually a rather large town set in the sprawling pines of a valley high up in the San Jacintos. Downtown had quite a number of businesses, restaurants, groceries, and even a movie theater. We made our way slowly, making sure to take in all the sights. I've always had a firm belief that when I bikepack/tour, that I want to absorb not only the natural sights of the journey, but the cultural sights of the towns we pass through as well. It always lets me feel truly immersed in all qualities of an adventure route.
We biked over to Idyllwild Inn where our reservations were held. I had chosen this place for us to stay because it was recommended by the folks running the Stagecoach 400 bikepacking route and gave us a massive discount as cyclists for their smallest lodging in Cabin 9. Once we checked in and unpacked our gear, we walked around downtown. The center held a small green area where giant sequoias were planted. Janna and I also walked over to Nomad Adventures for me to get a new water bladder. I had an ultralight one I had used for years and it had sprung unrepairable leaks meaning all my water draining into my frame bag. Luckily, I was able to get a durable MSR 6L dromedary, that to this day is the same one I use with no issues. We spent the evening walking around town, grabbing some resupplies from the market, and getting some dinner out.