Photos & words by David Bangor
Living in Los Angeles county can provide some incredible year around climbing through the Angeles National Forest, the San Gabriel National Monument, and the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. However, we are also lucky enough to find ourselves in the state of California, which provides a terrain of so much depth - the massive high altitude climbs of the Sierra Nevada mts, amazing coastal routes along hwy 1, craggy back roads spread all across the state, and hidden gems of little know service roads throughout the 19 National Forests covering 20% of the land in California.
With such amazing terrain within reach, it would be a shame not to get out and explore. That is exactly what Max and I set out to do when we headed up to Ojai and checked out the hwy 33 climb up to the Pine Mountain summit. Now I know this is a well known climb and what we were doing was nothing special, but for me it was about knowing the landscape, exploring as much as possible by bike, and looking for new terrain. Max had been here before, but this was my first time riding in the area and I was excited to head deep into the Los Padres National Forest.
Our original plan was a big day of heading out and back on hwy 33, then refueling in Ojai, and then adding a loop around Sulfur Mt. However, even though the weather reports claimed a mild temperature, as we pulled up to Ojai we could tell that the day was going to be much hotter than expected. This was a bit concerning with only two bottles since hwy 33 is basically a 30+ mile out and back with a solid amount of climbing, completely exposed for 3/4 of the climb, and no services or potable water along the way. But regardless, we parked at Sarzotti park right in the center of Oja, kitted up, and headed on our way.
The beginning of the climb was a nice cool canyon following along the North Fork Matilija Creek and passing through a series of three tunnels when the canyon walls get tight and expose a bit of hidden stone usually covered by dense chaparral. This canyon eventually passes by Wheeler spring and the Wheeler gorge visitor center where we stopped in to take a look. It was a nice shaded spot with a few locals going about what looked like their weekend routines of posting up on the porch and watching the cars pass by. I geeked out on a few maps, watched the humming birds ferociously fight over the multiple feeders hanging in the front, and talked to one of the older gentlemen who stated (in a surly tone) that there was water up the road, but "not potable according to Ventura County". This was the only place to pick up water before the real climbing began, but it was cash only and we both forgot to bring cash. Regardless, this was fairly early in the ride and with the shade providing lower temperatures in the canyons, we both were not going through much water, so we continued on our way.
As we left the visitor center the road kicked up and the oak trees gave way to chaparral covered hills. This was when the climb up to Rose Valley summit really started. The full climb averages a mellow 4.3% for 11.4 miles but the exposure and the freshly tarred asphalt reflecting the sun really turned up the heat. At the same time it is quite a beautiful ribbon of road that climbs along the southward facing slopes and wraps around a few ridges, providing a very scenic view of the climb once you reach the top. Once over the top we were treated to a short little descent, followed by 11.7 miles of false flat terrain rolling through the hills and continuously tricking you into thinking your not climbing, but you still are. Along the way we saw lots of hunters, a few compounds and abandoned structures, and a group of 4 cyclist on there way back down - some wearing camel backs, which I was beginning to realize was a good idea in this heat, as I was starting to go through my water much faster now. The terrain was a beautiful high desert feel while we cruzed along with a bit of a dry head wind, providing a bit of cooling but also probably dehydrating us well. The higher we went the vegetation began to change with more pines and large exposed rocks along the way as we approached the final 3 miles of climbing to Pine Mountain summit. An elevation sign marks the top of the climb and on the other side you get a view of Mt Pinos and Cerro Noroeste south western slopes. At this point we had planned on taking the 6 mile extra climb along Pine Mountain Ridge road but with temperatures in the high 90's, only half a bottle left, and 30+ miles to get back to Ojai (without doing the extra climb), we decided to just save it for another (cooler) day and head back down the mt. I believe this was the best decision since the wind direction had conveniently changed and was a tough head wind all the way back, plus the gradients are so low that you really need to keep pedaling the entire time to keep your speed up. Furthermore the dry wind just sucked the moisture out of us and continued to dehydrate us.
Along the way we spotted a big pack of water bottles in the shade of some hunters trucks parked along the road. We were both in serious need of water (even if we were trying to ignore it), so I rode over quickly snagged two bottles and sprinted off before anyone saw us. I mean sure I was "borrowing" some water from these hunters, but it was only two bottles and with the amount of dead deer I saw on the roof of hunters trucks all day, I didn't feel bad about it. This small bit of water made all the difference in getting us quickly over other side of the Rose Valley summit and the nice long descent back into Ojai. The tight canyons did create quite the wind tunnel, making it a bit of an effort to hammer through, but we eventually made it into town and immediately went to a little coffee shop, called the Ojai Coffee Roasting Company, to cool off and replenish our supplies.
As we sat there in the air-conditioned cafe, drinking some berry smoothies and regaining our composure, I realized how much the sun and heat had drained us. Watching the minutes go by while Max was trying to muster up the energy to take on the Sulfur Mt loop I decided to call it quits and not suffer in the hottest part of the day. We still got in a solid 4 hours of riding and hit that nice climbing to distance ratio of 1000:10. Overall it was a great bit of exploring and I now have a better idea of how to refine the ride when we come back next time. Definitely looking forward to completing the original intended route in a month or so.