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The San Juan Trail is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful rides in all of Orange County. It’s technical, but not so technical that an intermediate rider can’t handle it.
Directions to the Trailhead: From the I-5 in San Juan Capistrano take Ortega HWY (74) East for about 12 miles. Turn left at the Ranger Station and go down the road for about 1/2 mile until you reach a large dirt parking lot in the trees. The trail is right beside the road. A Forest Adventure Pass is required to park here.
The ride starts with a set of challenging switchbacks (10 to be exact!) over about the first 1.6 miles. Choose your line carefully at the turns and you’ll avoid having to put your foot down and doing steep restarts. (NOTE: On the way down, please avoid the temptation to “power slide” through the switchbacks.)
The next section will be a hike-a-bike for many people. This is a good time to acknowledge the reality that help is a long way away should you decide to do something insane.
After the washouts you’ll progress up a few more switchbacks – but far less challenging than the first section. Around the 2 mile section you’ll be basically hanging on for dear life. Occassionally it’s better to just “go for it” through the drops so you can have enough momentum to get to the other side since there’s sometimes nowhere to put your foot down. You may have to get off your bike through these sections. At about the 4.5 mile mark (about an hour into the ride) you’ll get your first break. Enjoy the view and a brief downhill section. You’ll then continue grinding up, occassionally over large rocks. The rocks get progressively worse and looser as you continue up.
At the 6.6 mile mark, you’ll be at the junction of the Old San Juan trail which veers off to the left. You’ll see a whole bunch of people hanging around a rock formation. This is cocktail rock – a rest stop and turn-around point for many people. You’ll enjoy the ride down! For everyone else that wants to do the Upper San Juan loop, this is where it begins. Take a quick rest, and then start your way up the Old San Juan trail (left).
At about the 7.5 mile mark, you’ll enter a valley of Oak trees. Enjoy a brief and fun downhill section and watch out for roots! You’ll then be inside of a large grassy meadow. (NOTE: Imagine what this looks like in the spring!)
Go through the meadow and into the next set of Oak trees (approx. at the 8.5 mile mark). The San Juan Trail intersection is coming soon. Go RIGHT. You’ll soon pass another intersection: Chiquito Trail. Continue going straight on the San Juan Trail. The next couple miles is a neat little roller coaster section with some tight turns and lots of rocks. As you come out of a sort of “tunnel” area, you’ll see the Viejo Tie trail which intersects on your left. Continue going straight all the way back to Cocktail Rock (Approx 12.5 mile mark). After you’ve caught your breath, this would be a good time to put on those pads you brought for the ride down. (You might also want to drop the seat a little.)
The ride down is awesome. Enjoy the views, but keep your eyes on the trail! One split second of lost concentration on this downhill could lead to a serious injury or even death! If you’re riding with others, designate somebody for the front (point), and somebody for the back (sweep). The point should never be so far away that they cannot at least see the sweep. Again, remember how far away you are from emergency medical assistance! It can be hours before you’re rescued!
When you reach the switch backs, please avoid the temptation to power slide through them.
Photos of the San Juan Trail: