Trails in Los Angeles?
Riding LAX With Jeff Kendall-Weed
Photography by John Watson // Video by Logan Nelson // Words by Jeff Kendall-Weed
On the west side of the city of angels, the deep blue ocean meets endless sandy beaches, creating an obvious frontier of sand against water. However, Los Angeles has a second, and lesser known, frontier that lies to the north--and it's one that we mountain bikers can embrace. The second frontier boasts a similar juxtaposition of opposites. A vast set of rugged, alpine mountains borders the LA valley, guarding it from the heat of the parched Southern California desert, making for some unbelievable views and even more unbelievable riding.
Exploring this northern boundary further, it's possible that within sight of one of the largest metropolitan areas in North America, this hideaway offers more than solitude and abundant wildlife. It's a playground of trails and features that will reward anyone who puts their tacky rubber to the granite.
One man's trash is another man's sketchy, DIY kicker ramp.
Growing up over 300 miles north in the black dirt and redwood rain forest of Santa Cruz, CA, I never thought much about the mountain biking further south. But, while attending university in San Luis Obispo, CA, my classmates and I would often headed south for races. We'd usually end up well-within city limits, pedaling past backyards and burned-out, junked cars. There had to be something better, we knew. We could see the jagged peaks surrounding us as we sprinted past fast-food restaurants and soccer games. I always wondered if those big peaks had trails…
Cue the release of a new bike, the Ibis Ripmo. I knew literally nothing about the bike the day it arrived on my doorstep in western Washington on a stormy evening in late February. While my preliminary snowy rides gave me a rough idea of what to expect of the bike, I figured: what better excuse than this new bike to finally commit to a trip exploring the mountains surrounding that city of cement and traffic and movie magic? It seemed fitting. I had a new bike that I had zero prior knowledge of, and a new mountain range to tackle with it. It was time to follow the Hollywood dream, or something like that.
Well, to LAX. A quick couple flights transported me from the legitimate mountain bike mecca (albeit a gray and cold one) that I call home near Seattle, to the sun and smog of Los Angeles. Was I crazy? I began to think maybe I was. But upon the final descent into the airport, I could see a fresh dusting of snow on the peaks surrounding LA. The scene looked like heaven--and by heaven, I mean the amazing conditions that moist decomposed granite soil offers.
To make the most of my mission south, I spoke with about a half dozen Los Angeles area riders to ask about the trails. I spoke with about a half dozen in all. While I wanted to include them all in the experience, time was limited. I needed to focus on riding foremost, but also on getting photos and videos. John Watson had shown me some amazing photos, so I figured he'd be a great guy to capture just how rad the bike and the trails could be. John had also shot photos all over the region, so he lent a knowledgeable perspective to the spots we'd ride. Plus, John's background in architecture made him look at the trail within the landscape in a way that only a true connoisseur of design, shapes, and textures could. All of this contrasted nicely with my "send it or leave it" approach. Once we linked up with John, it was on.
There's just something fun about finding natural jump lines. Bonus points if you can air over the local flora.
As is usually the case, once our knobbies hit the ground, time flew. We initially explored a network of trails near Simi Valley, which had some large sandstone formations overlooking--you guessed it--a freeway! With airplane legs and tired eyes, we rode and shot what we could. As the winds picked up, and temperatures began to drop, we watched the soaring vultures overhead and the random hikers flying drones among the grassy hills.
We moved on to Mt Lukens, with its massive-for-city-limits altitude of over 5,000 feet. Lukens did not disappoint. We enjoyed the fast turns with their postcard views of the expansive city below us. This is one of the original ideas that prompted the trip to the unlikely destination- the ability to not just ride so close to a major skyline, but to actually see it from our trailside vantage point. The trails were great, too- narrow singletrack, that descends a steep mountain via substantial bench cut, with poison oak consequences for any excessive speeds.
To complement the first couple days, we then began to get more alpine, moving up to Chilao region of the San Gabriel range, where we rode the Silver Moccasin trail. This area is amazing. It's like a Stonehenge of granite, a bit of a playground for anyone with an eye towards air-time and the patience required to find some lines. The trails are fun on everything from a rigid single speed, where simply cleaning the lines would be a challenge, all the way to a modern enduro shred-sled. The modern bike allows for even bigger sends and trail interpretation, though we could definitely understand how a more traditional bike would be a great, fun challenge on the trail as well.
After a full day on two wheels, we spent the night at Chilao, enjoying good company and the vacation from internet connectivity. While the mountains around us blocked much of the light pollution from Los Angeles, we were actually able to see the stars. Temperatures at these altitudes drop quickly, and we enjoyed discussing the days accomplishments and failures both around the campfire. In the big picture, we were glad that the snow had melted enough for us to ride, leaving amazing conditions. While this trip was not any sort of epic bike packing mission, it was indeed a bit of a push to end multiple days of filming and riding with a night in a tent.
Spinning up to the Silver Moccasin trail, in the proper alpine meadows.
Chasing shadows down rock spines. Or was that an ancient petroglyph? We didn't stop to examine further.
Granite is the among the most fun, most forgiving rock, providing ample traction and a smooth surface.
The following morning, we returned to the sandy trails after the classic camping breakfast of leftovers scrambled with some eggs, and packaged haphazardly in some frigid tortillas, dripping in hot sauce. We had some big tasks on hand, as we had to capture all the shredding that we couldn't fit into the first day at Chilao. This resulted in some extremely sore muscles, but that's par for the course with trips like these. It's always worth it. We did our best to pick up the pieces (or just pick our tired bodies out of our sleeping bags) and pull the infamous tree-ride trials move. But after about 100 failed attempts, we began to risk missing our return flight.
Carving turns is always fun, but it's especially amazing on really, really nice soil.
As paradisiacal as it might have seemed to avoid the Washington winter for a few more days, family was beckoning: it's tough to go more than a weekend without reading Sheep in a Jeep or Good Night, Moon with my one-and-a-half year old, even when she demands that we re-read the books again immediately.
We didn't clinch what would have been one final, banger move, but maybe that fits with the spirit of Los Angeles; we went there and did what we loved, but part of the dream was still elusive. As I sat in the two hours of traffic clogging the 36 mile drive to LAX airport, I marveled at the radness of the mountains.
Los Angeles--who knew?! You've got amazing mountains, with world-class singletrack crisscrossing down the steep slopes, among the chaparral and rattlesnakes. You've gotnuggets of radness a stone's throw nearly vacant campgrounds in the Alpine within an hour (sans traffic, of course) of downtown. I'm already planning a return trip for next winter.
Trails in Los Angeles? With Jeff Kendall-WeedProduced by: Jeff Kendall-Weed @jeffweed.
Cinematography: Logan Patrick Nelson @loganpnelson.
Photography and guiding: John Watson.
Supported by: Ibis Cycles, Camelbak, Kali Protectives, & Kitsbow Cycling Apparel.