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Mountain Biking Through Six Eco-Zones on Mount Laguna

Cruise through a 10-mile trail featuring pine forests, mixed oaks, snow, and a sub-desert of the greater Sonoran
James Murren rides through Noble Canyon Trail in Cleveland National Forest near Laguna Mountain
Photo Credit: Ana Ramirez

No, that is not John Denver crooning, “Rocky Mountain high, Colorado.

It is me, singing, “Laguna Mountain high, San Diego.

Up a mile in the bluebird sky of the Peninsular Ranges, I pedal away on my mountain bike from Penny Pines Trailhead, which sits off of Sunrise Highway, and go in the direction of the southern terminus of the Noble Canyon Trail, some ten miles away in Pine Valley.

It is a dandy of a trail, traveling through pine forest and mixed oaks before reaching the farthest edges of the Colorado Desert, a sub-desert of the greater Sonoran. Along the way, the traveler, whether on foot, horseback, or bike, descends through six eco-zones. During the winter, when rain and snow fall on the Lagunas, Noble Creek steadily—and sometimes heartily—flows through the canyon, a mountain-to-desert seasonal stream that fills the air with a refreshing and life-giving song.

James Murren mountain bikes over rocks at Noble Canyon Trail in Cleveland National Forest near Laguna Mountain
Photo Credit: Ana Ramirez

The Peninsular Ranges are characterized by what some consider to be “sky islands,” meaning that their uppermost peaks reach more than 6,000 feet. The Noble Canyon Trail begins in a pine and oak “island,” then drops in elevation from its northernmost point to its southern end. However, trail traversers also ascend some uphill sections here and there, the first one less than a mile into the trek.

In the far viewshed to the north, snow-capped San Gorgonio glistens in its winter cloak. In the foreground and its environs, the nearby Cuyamaca Mountains sit quietly, peaks like sentinels watching over the land. Cresting out, I go down and around, the trail undulating like a flamenco dancer.

Further on, the trail plummets. The pines seem taller as they reach skyward from the darker forest floor, and the sound of water starts trickling in my ear. Not long after that, there it is: Noble Creek, a narrow ribbon running through the forest on its way to the desert. I cross over it a few times, trying not to get my shoes wet.

Ladybugs congregate on a prickly pear cactus in the Cleveland Forest outside of San Diego
Photo Credit: Ana Ramirez

About midway down the trail, I arrive at the Tolkien Oak Forest (an affectionate nickname I’ve coined) waiting on the other side of one of the stream crossings. The ambient light is darker. The canopy of magnificent California Black Oaks is so thick that dappled light is all that hits the ground. I stay and quietly sit. This is my rehydration and snack spot, and it’s also where I refill my soul tank. To be here, in this moment, with these trees, is reason alone to make this 10-mile trek.

I continue, soul moderately quelled, knowing there’s more to discover still. Descending through more oaks with scattered pines that give way to desert chaparral and various cacti, I pedal methodically through the rock gardens, taking care not to crash and fall while still keeping pace. Soon, I arrive at the second place along Noble Canyon Trail that stops me in my tracks.

James Murren mountain bikes over rocky terrain near Laguna Mountain, San Diego
Photo Credit: Ana Ramirez

It feels as if I am biking through a keyhole, and, when I finally enter it, I unlock a door that opens to a stunning desert view with soaring ridgelines. Way down below, the stream is a silver snake winding its way through the hardscrabble landscape. Yuccas and beavertail cactus defy the odds, eons of evolution granting them the ability to thrive in an unforgiving landscape.

There’s no escape from the punishing sun. I pause, slathering some sunblock on my face and the back of my neck. The trail bends and meanders, ranging down and up and then down some more, with more rock gardens along the way. Decomposed granite dots the trail surface. When I reach the junction that requires me to turn left to stay on Noble Canyon Trail, I’m feeling a bit haggard, so I refuel with water and an apple, knowing a large sand trap is just around the way.

A chaparral yucca in the Cleveland Forest  near Mount Laguna in San Diego
Photo Credit: Ana Ramirez

I pedal quickly past another creek up the slope to the other side, which leads me to another ethereal oak grove where the sun passes through the leaves, illuminating the canopy like a natural cathedral. I sit to take it in.

The next stretch is gradually uphill, a long couple of miles of slight incline that I call “the slog” on account of the endless sand. It’s a put-your-head-down-and-go section of trail.

A mountain bike at the Noble Canyon Trail head near Mount Laguna, San Diego
Photo Credit: James Murren

Cresting out at the end of that slog, I carve my way along the trail as it passes downward through camel-colored boulders to my right and long views on my left. I continue to climb, eventually finding a manzanita forest, a gnarled, fragrant mess that always lures me in. I can never pass through without touching the trees’ silk-smooth bark.

Then, it’s all down-down-down to the parking lot, an exhilarating run. There are more oaks to admire and big rocks to navigate through, culminating in one final push, when the trail finally rolls like a soft magic carpet ride to its end point. I’m greeted by towering pines that whisper in the breeze, singing their own song.

By James Murren

James Murren is an award-winning adventure/travel writer, with nearly three decades of independent journalism experience. He's often having a good time in our local mountains, deserts and waters, when he's not teaching classes at SDSU.

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