Wednesday, July 4, 2012

San Diego Steep Streets: Climbing the Short City Mesas (Part 1)

For a city with no major mountain within its limit (Mt Soledad is really just a big hill rather than a proper mountain, I think. It takes only 10 minutes or so to drive up to its top... not exactly alpine!) San Diego boast a surprising number of hideously slopey streets. With its succession of mesas, there is hardly a flat stretch of cycling to be had once you get inland from the immediate waterfront.
Lemon St heading toward Mt. Helix
After my escapade of a first group ride where I spent a morning staring at the rear ends of a group of 'advanced' cyclists and got repeatedly dropped whenever we went up a hill I've spent hours on the bike riding up a lot of hills mostly south of the I-8 in the San Diego city limit. It's been great! I'm still no mountain goat on two wheels (though may sound strikingly like one when the grade gets higher than 15%), but after two weeks I'm no longer the terminal pudgy slowpoke that can't handle a double digit slope grade either. Here are some of the steepest streets and notable climbs that have played host to my (sometimes barely) spinning wheels so far:

Tide Pool Hill in Cabrillo. If you get there before the park opens at 9AM you can play on this climb for free. Once the park opens there is a $3 entry fee, tho the pass is good for 7 days.
Tide Pool Hill in Cabrillo: This stretch of Cabrillo Road between the proper Cabrillo National Monument and its famous tide pool is neither the steepest nor the longest non-mountain climbs in the area, but it is just steep enough (avg 7%) and long enough (.8 mile) to serve as something of a landmark climb for 'beginner' cyclists to graduate to the 'intermediate' rank. The road is beautiful! It's smoothly paved, and there isn't much car traffic, which is just as well since it's narrow-ish. I don't know how crumbly the cliff it is etched into is, but there are occasional rocks and pebbles on the cliffside shoulder, so watch out for those.

Juan St from Haney to the Sunset Rd bend is not fun going up or down.
Juan Street in Old Town: Probably the best known 'steep street' to even non-cycling city denizens, this .4 mile long (measuring from the uptick at the intersection with Haney St in Old Town where Heritage Park and the Mormon Battalion are past the S-curve to the top of the climb where Sunset Rd turns into Sunset Blvd) is testy both for its 10% grade and its straightness. There is a stretch of faux level about halfway up the hill that provides a bit of respite before the nastiness continues. The surface is concrete pavement with cracks and bitty bumps. The road itself is pretty narrow from the parallel-parked cars (worse when there is a fest going on in Old Town), and there is no bike-lane. There is good view of the bay and the San Diego River to be had once you get to Sunset Rd.

I first went up this thing on my old heavy mountain bike and had to stop 5 times in the up-going process. The last time I passed through - on a much lighter road bike now - I climbed it nonstop and put in 2 repeats for good measure, though. The third time up was hard going (didn't rest enough after coasting down the 2nd time), but a car was tailing me so I couldn't really stop. That was better than having a cheerleader! At any rate, Juan St doesn't haunt me anymore!

Presidio Dr at The Indian and the intersection at the top of Cosoy/Jackson St.
Presidio St & Jackson/Cosoy St in Old Town: Presidio Dr is probably the least painful cycling route up to Mission Hill from the river. The narrow and curvaceous 7% grader even provides a mid-stretch flat relief for beginner cyclists in the form of the Serra Museum parking lot. The route is scenic all the way (tho you probably won't notice much view huffing up it on a bicycle). Once past the Mormon Battalion Memorial hill (and the worst of the climb) you can continues to wind up to Mission Hills proper (to connect with Ft Stockton Rd) past the park area, or loop back down the hill on Cosoy St which turns into Jackson Rd halfway down and connects to Old Town by bearing left on Mason St or continue on down until it turns into Presidio Dr back up the hill again. If you are feeling like a steeper climb than Presidio Dr you can climb up Jackson/Cosoy from Mason St instead. It is a shorter way up and steeper at around 10% (harder toward the crest). Both routes are very narrow, though. No bike lane (in fact there's hardly enough room for cars to pass each other going opposite way on the slopes!). 

Juniper St Dip in South Park: This dip between Felton & Commonwealth is what happens when the city engineers opt to pave a road down and up a ravine between mesas rather than making a short bridge across the chasm! Unlike Juan St where the thrill of downhill riding is ruined by the 4-way stop sign near the bottom of the hill (at Haney Rd), there is no speed brake in between the top of the mesas that Juniper St spans (this is to the east of 30th Ave), making this stretch a fun sling-shot of a ride. Indeed, I imagine it would be quite nasty to climb up either side of the road if you choose to stop at its bottom. I think it is steeper going west than east, with the steepest part about halfway up the hill (about 13% via eye-balling... the climb isn't long enough for me to accurately measure its grade).

South Park's Juniper St dip, North Park's Polk St out of Florida, B St east of Downtown
Polk St between Florida and Georgia in North Park: I chanced on this short block of horror while coasting about the neighborhood a while back and decided to have a go. It has a grade of 17%, which may seem intimidating, but its brevity makes it easier to conquer than you might think. This was the first >15% climb I tried my wheels on (and have since became a favorite 'repeat hill' whenever I roll through this area). If you haven't cycled up this steep a grade before, the most unsettling thing about it may be the sensation that the bike is trying to fall backward on top of you. Once you've sprinted up it standing up a few times it actually gives you a good shot of adrenaline rush! The surface is smoothly paved concrete, and it's a normal city backstreet (which means there's a 4-way stop at the top and the bottom of the hill... don't just roll on past the crest without checking the cross traffic first!).

B St between 20th and 21st in Downtown/Golden Hill: I found out about this out-of-the-way steep stretch of B St reading Matthew Alice's list of steepest streets in San Diego on the SD Readers and decided to check it out the next time I rolled into Downtown. With all the one-way designation thingy down there it was a bit tricky getting to this little slope that bites. B street is a one-way west going road from 19th St toward the bay. East of that it is a normal two way city street... except for the 22.5% gradient for the city block between 20th and 21st, of course! I'm afraid there is no view to be had, and this isn't the only (or best) route out of Downtown to South Park. The only attraction is the nastiness of the slope... but that in itself isn't unique either. The next street on the list features a section that is just as steep, but with infinitely more interesting views both above and below.

Laurel St at State St (Reynard Way going north) in Bankers Hill.
Laurel St in Bankers Hill: Truth be told, there is a whole neighborhood full of way-too-vertical slopes in this part of town, but the nastiest of them all has to be the block of Laurel St between State and Union. At 22.5% grade the block is something of a monster. Taken as a whole, though, climbing up Laurel St from the airport to Balboa Park is actually a good sporting route! The steep 3-4 blocks from the I-5 underpass up are naughty, but then you hit leveled out intersections that provide good breaks in the exertion. The planes' final approach to the airport runs just south of Laurel, so you are buzzed every few minutes by commercial jets that seem to descend down the hill nearly low enough to give the palm trees a close shave. The view down to the bay (and airport) from the various parts of the road is awesome. Then when you get to Front St there are a few really beautiful historic Victorian Era houses to peruse.... And then you get to the top and continues on El Prado into Balboa Park, cycling over the Cabrillo Bridge and the park's Spanish-themed west gate. Laurel St is one climb you have to make at least once to be a serious cyclist in San Diego!
Upas St from Florida Canyon up to Park Blvd. A nasty looking bit of pavement, isn't it?
Upas St between Florida St and Park Blvd in Balboa Park area: The whole stretch of Upas St between Florida St and Park Blvd averages 10% grade, but the long section between the curve near the bottom of the hill to the crest is an icky 20% grader. It is longer than the likes of Bandini, Polk, or B St, though the gradual leveling near the top comes just in time for fit cyclists to get up this thing without stopping, I think. Upas is a delightfully pitchy road in its entire length. Cyclists can keep going west on it past the boy scout camp (the road is closed to cars from that point on) down the old service road that now serves as a hiking trail and over the bridge across I-163 and then up the steep hairpin climb on the other side to pop up right by Marston House on the north end of Balboa Park. I don't necessarily recommend it for road bikes, though. The trail section has a lot of loose gravel, sand, and other debris along with quite a few pot holes.


Bandini St between San Diego and California Avenues in Old Town/Mission Hills: Riding my mountain bike northwest on San Diego Ave toward Old Town one day I espied this really naughty block of steep road going up the hill on the right side and decided to try to pedal up it. That was a bad call that resulted in a rather undignified method of dismounting and a lot more cussing than my mother would have approved of. I've since gone up it a few times on the lighter road bike, though. Once you cleared that icky first section the going is much easier as the road twists its way up toward Orizaba St that connects to Sunset Blvd into Mission Hills proper. Gorgeous mansion houses and great view of the bay from all over the place. Street surface is smoothly paved all the way up, too, and traffic is very light. A nice route up Mission Hills for sportive riders!
Bandini St (25%) and Torrance St (26%) in Old Town/Mission Hills.
Torrance St between Keating and Pringle in Old Town/Mission Hills: Just a few blocks to the southeast, going up Keating St from where India St turns into San Diego Avenue there is a queue of nasty steep blocks connecting Keating to Pringle (a good climb on its own at 13% average grade to Washington Pl). The nastiest of them all is Torrance St at 26% average grade. The first time I tried to pedal up the thing I died about 3/4 of the way up (about 10 yds past the beginning of the tarmac section) and the bike just fell over sideways. I have since climbed it, but in a decidedly undignified manner via zigzagging.
That's enough steep hills to entice you for the day, I think. More listing of San Diego's steeply cyclidelic streets to follow in a bit...


berenice said...

ah mister Smorg! another great post, i love the few steep streets we have in San Diego, it makes me think of San Francisco! and btw i am very familiar with Polk St between Florida and Georgia.. i live right there now!

Georg said...

Bonjour Smorgy,

Glad to hear that you prepare thoroughly for next year's Tour de France. You might even be able to replace the now retired Mr. Atmstrong.

Here is a German dicton about cycling: "wer sein Rad liebt, der schiebt".

All this will do you a world of good. Are you feeling it already?


Smorg said...

Hola Bella Bere: Hey, I didn't know you live by Polk St. If you ever spot a smorg repeat climbing that little hill, feel free to throw a banana at me or something. ;o)

I'm liking these short steep bits of road a bit too much. They are actually easier to sprint up than the less steep stuff that just go on and on (like that Texas St up from Mission Valley... that thing is nasty!).

Did you ever live in San Francisco? I only drove thru it once back in the mid-90's.. went down Lombard St, of course, tho apparently that isn't the steepest stuff they have there. The roads there are crazy!

Hallo Georgy: Ha! There is no hope for me for that tour, I'm afraid. I'm spent after 60 miles or so while those pros are doing over a hundred miles everyday for 3 weeks. :oP And they've got real mountains in France, I heard. ;o)

The cycling-mania is putting me in pretty good shape, tho. It's great not having to take the bus to go to most places. I'm thinking of catching the train or a regional bus out into the wilderness and then riding back, but it is getting a bit hot here (about time, too. The rest of the country has been cooking for the last week or two while we've been enjoying fantastic cool weather!). :oD

Hope your summer is going well! Hiking trips in the near future?

Anonymous said...

This is the steepest one I could find in England but I bet there are worse in Scotland and Wales!

Really fun to DRIVE up!

Smorg said...

Hiya Eyes: How cool! What an interesting road, too. If I ever get there I'll have to ride up that road and then look around for the Roman path. ;) Thanks a bunch for telling me about it!