A few years back, I put together my most essential climbs in LA (road bike), but Sycamore Canyon has always got me thinking about starting a another list.
While really seated in Ventura County, this vast canyon is the closing act to the western edge of the Santa Monica Mountains connecting Newbury Park to the Pacific Ocean.
The attraction isn’t just Sycamore Canyon which is a cool reprieve with many stream crossings depending on the time of the year.
A number of trails branch off to the west that bring a variety of hills, surface conditions and challenges that are required as part of the experience.
My first familiarity with the area came as a trail runner doing events starting out of the Ray Miller Trailhead.
That was a decade ago and while I remember epic views, the particulars like how bikeable the terrain is not at the top of my memory.
I don’t know quite the reasoning why we rode it since it wasn’t part of the ride, but I had been quite snobbish about taking my road bike onto dirt for something of this length.
The idea of doing this as fun soured as Phil flatted either two or three times making it one of the few times I beat him on the segment.
Phil Gaimon: Pro rider, dirt amateur
At the same time, Troy Templin from Road Bike Action Magazine disappeared from time to time on trails that looked gnarlier than what we were on, but emerged with no flats and just a smile on his face.
Hmm….mental note for someone who didn’t own a gravel bike yet.
Now that half my brain seems devoted finding rides to do on dirt, my synapses made the connection that it was time for my return.
For the past year, I’ve been traipsing around a few of the paths stretching out to try something new every time.
Starting off of Portero Road, there’s a bit of single track that you’ll cross a fair amount of hikers before you pass through the gated entrance about a mile off.
Before you take a deep dive into the canyon off of Satwiwa Culture Center, it’s hard not to take in the Boney Mountains especially if there’s a fog rolling through.
Getting ready to drop in
After the slick decent, the road stays paved for a bit giving you enough speed to miss the turnoff onto Ranch Center Road which recently got converted to full dirt.
It’s not a strenuous climb, but a nice little way to get some elevation to get a different perspective.
Staying to the right of the water tank you hit your first big downhill which is rocky enough to have caused my phone to jolt off more than once.
The fun resumes with a fun mile of rollers that don’t seem to quit until you hit a junction where you can decide how difficult you want to make the day.
Go straight and tackle Hell Hill which averages 17% over 1km which is excruciatingly worse on dirt than pave.
Lately, I’ve been throwing up the white flag and climbing Guadalasca Trail which is still a grind of its own.
Mainly single track, it’s a 4km climb that gains interest along the way.
At first you’re creek dodging heading mainly north for the first kilometer.
Then you start a series of switchbacks which takes you about halfway up to comprehend where exactly you’re headed.
As you peak, you view becomes clear east as you can look up the coastline to Ventura and beyond.
After the requisite amount of time taking it in, you have a fun little downhill that’s slightly technical at first, but spreads out and rips towards the end.
Vic is always all smiles, but even moreso at the top of Guadalasca
You then come upon an intersection with a bunch of options that are all fruitful.
The lesser frequented is doing the trails to the west in La Jolla Valley where there’s a mixture of single track and overgrown landscaping to avoid in the middle of the year.
To the east is the Backbone Trail descent which is a ton of fun for the technically oriented.
My favorite though is continuing south on the Overlook Trail as this is one of my favorite parts of any ride in LA.
Ready to dip down the Overlook Trail above the Pacific Ocean
This wide, sweeping downhill introduces you to the Pacific Ocean in a scale of majesty.
The road itself is perfectly engineered not just by conditions alone, but how these long turns heightens your perspective.
Unfortunately, the last ride I took was filled with fog, but this still gave the journey a beautiful framing, albeit different.
At the bottom, you can take a right and head to the campground and beach to grab water or continue elsewhere, but to finish the loop you head left to ride up Big Sycamore Canyon.
The last climb out of Sycamore Canyon is some payback for all the fun you had
While you’re technically going up, it’s a relatively flat go except the minor undulations that only happen at creek crossings.
Even though we had a rainy year, it was still surprising to find water still flowing in June.
Overall, you’ll make great time getting back except for that final 10% climb you’re backtracking on up to Satwiwa.
This is only about a 20 to 25 mile loop depending on how you break it down, but it’s one of the rides you’ll get the best bang for your buck.
Probably the best route to do year round, Sycamore Canyon is definitely on the top podium when it comes to gravel.