Friday, April 18, 2014

Jim Wilcher’s “Palms to Pines Scenic Byway” Ride

Author: Jim Wilcher
Date: April 12, 2014

While more than 90,000 young people came to rock-out at the world famous Coachella Music and Arts Festival, I planned a week of road riding in the Palm Springs area, culminating in a ride up the Palms to Pines Scenic Byway.

View from the Vista Point above Palm Desert. The switchbacks
 below represent the first 5 miles of climbing as you leave the valley floor.

A Little About The Coachella Valley
The Coachella Valley is 45 miles long, 15 miles wide and flanked by the San Jacinto Mountains to the Southwest and the Little San Bernardino Mountains on the Northeast. These mountains average 5,000 to 7,000 and peak at 10,000. The native Cahuilla Indians would migrate from the desert floor in the winter, high up into the mountains each summer to escape the blistering heat that can top out at 120 degrees.

The geology in this region is unique; it’s one of the few places in the world where the mountain ranges align along an East and West trajectory as opposed to usual North and South trajectory (such as the Cascades, the Rockies). The San Andreas Fault transverses the Northeast side of the valley, giving “rise” to the mountains (literally), which are growing at a rate of about an inch a year due to the tectonic motion of the Pacific Plate and the North American Plate.

The Palms To Pines Ride
The Palms to Pines Scenic Byway runs from Palm Desert on the valley floor (240 foot elevation) to the lovely town of Idyllwild (5323 feet). I had ridden this route a couple times before and felt prepared for the 80 miles and 7000 feet of climbing. I had already rented a 2013 Scott full carbon CR1 Comp from Kevin at the Bikeman, a local bike shop in Palm Desert. The night before the ride, I checked the weather. The temperature variant was a high of 95 degrees in the valley and 75 degrees at Idyllwild. However, the forecast did call for winds of 13 to 16 mph in the valley and the mountains. But I figured I could handle a little wind, so it was all system go.

This is the ride profile snatched from MapMyRide.

Goodbye Palm Trees
The palm trees swayed gently in the breeze at 8:00 am as I turned onto the Palms to Pines Scenic Byway (aka Highway 74). Soon I was climbing a wiggly tail of switchbacks, leaving the palms behind for cactus and desert scrub. Even though I felt very little wind, I could see a small dust storm blowing the entire length of the Coachella Valley below me. The wind was entering the Coachella Valley from the L.A. basin through the San Gorgonio Pass, one of the windiest places in California and home to thousands of windmills. I remember Kevin saying there is a reason why they put all those windmills in the valley. “Lucky for me, I would be riding above the dust storm and high into the mountains”... I thought.

The San Gorgonio Pass has over 3000 windmills.
The pass funnels wind from L.A. into the Coachella valley
resulting in a massive natural wind tunnel.

Riding Through Sub Ecosystems
After leaving the “Palms” and before arriving at the “Pines”, a cyclist has the opportunity to experience an array of sub ecosystems along the route. Leaving the classic desert motifs of beautiful rock formations and cactus behind at about 3500 feet, I entered the community of Pinyon Pines, named after the small Pine trees with edible nuts that grow in the dusty, dry environs of this mid mountain local. Miles of headwind would need to pass under my tires before I would see the grand and ancient Ponderosa Pine trees up at Idyllwild.

Pinyon Pines is the doorway to a long series of uphill rollers. The grade is not steep but the head wind makes up for it…and some. Not a problem though as I shifted the Scott, twenty-speed into a lower gear and knocked back some calories. The landscape here is a steppe ecosystem, a kind of sage scrubland very much like Eastern Washington. The wind whistled longingly, as I stomped away. There was a lonely silence, interrupted only by the occasional passing car. My breathing kept me company as I pedaled, but there was an eerie feeling of being alone, an almost spooky sense that I must keep my guard up and be careful.

I saw a sign for the Pacific Crest Trail and decide to stop for a snack. Several hikers crossed the road, offering me a chance for a short conversation. They started in Mexico and were on their way to Canada. They will need five more months to reach their goal – mine was only a few hours away. 

Encounter At Lake Hemet
The next section of easy riding passed the horse ranches of Forbes Canyon, graced by their majestic oak trees and white fences. At the far end of the canyon is Lake Hemet, a pool of deep blue, sitting amid green and beige grasslands. It is here that I noticed the wind licking the top of the wild grass into undulating waves of multi-hued greens. The wind was picking up.

Lake Hemet is a beautiful reservoir that helps provide water to
drought stricken Southern California.

While refilling my water bottles at the Lake Hemet store, I noticed a large, barrel chested man was looking at me oddly as he walked past. I said “hi”, but he just glared back and kept walking. A moment later, he came out of the store, he walked up to me and said, “you shouldn’t flip people off!” I could feel his anger. The ladies siting on the bench near us stopped talking. I remained calm and talked to him, giving him the respect that had been denied to him earlier by some other cyclist. We ended up shaking hands. Danger averted.

Jim enjoys a moment of rest on the way up to Idyllwild.

Saying Hello To The Pines
The next section is a nice steady climb up to Keen Camp Summit (4917 feet).  I had the feeling I was riding on air after getting out of that sticky situation back at Lake Hemet. The road descended 500 feet from Keen Camp summit to an area called Mountain Home. The Tour de California came through this town in 2013, and continued all the way down the route I had just come up. But the Tour did not turn off at Mountain Home and go up to Idyllwild -- too bad for them because this is a very scenic climb of about 700 feet vertical gain.

Idyllwild is like going back in time.  Think hippies,
ice cream, tourists and at least one very pleased cyclist.

Tahquitz peak at Idyllwild is a major rock climbing location.
This is also a wonderful area to hike and mountain bike.

Idyllwild is a destination that rewards the cyclist generously. It really is Idyllic. It’s also an outdoor activity mecca with world class rock climbing, mountain biking, hiking, fishing and more. My reward was in the form of a sandwich consumed in the midday sun sitting on the sidewalk. What more could a guy ask for? Well, just one more thing…a hot mocha to warm my bones before the big decent.

All Downhill From Idyllwild
I placed two plastic grocery bags under my jersey top, tightened my helmet and pointed by Scott CR1 Comp downhill. The decent to Lake Hemet was uneventful but fun, fun, fun. Riding the flat horse ranch section was a breeze. I really picked up speed in the rolling hills thanks to a formidable tail wind. Cars drive 50 to 60+ mph through this section of road and there is virtually no shoulder. I kept looking back for cars but none were coming. Thwack, thwack, thwack, I quickly shift to my highest gear and put the hammer down, but in just a few pedal strokes I was spinning out. The Scott carbon fiber and I are flying over the undulating tarmac and not a car in sight. Yeeehaaa!

I had been riding due east with a tail wind pushing me up to 50 mph. As I round a big sweeping corner, a crosswind hit me and the bike went into an extreme shimmy like the space shuttle trying to reenter the earth’s atmosphere. “Slow it down…come on Jim…slow it down” are the words I could hear myself saying. The bike continued to shake until I got it stopped. Whoa! I made an inner pact with myself…”I’ll take it slow the rest of the way back”.

The Decent Into Purgatory
There were 16 miles of downhill, high-speed danger in front of me. Many sections had little to no shoulder with precipitous drops to rocky canyons below. The only safe speed is about 10 miles an hour, which required me to keep the brakes clamped down hard to counteract the tail wind and downhill grade. Cars were definitely passing me at this point and they were moving – moving downhill that is, but not moving over to give me any room. My danger meter is redlined.

The Palm to Pines Highway seen from above. What you can't
see are the cliffs that gobble up errant car traffic.

On previous rides, this section of road never seemed so scary. I asked myself why. Is it this lightweight carbon fiber bike? Is it that I’m tired? Have I lost my nerve? The answer to these questions would not come until later. What was coming next would be the most nerve-wracking experience of my 25 years of road cycling.

At about 2500 foot elevation the road turned due north, placing my line of decent in the path of a severe side wind. The eight inches of shoulder that I had been ‘enjoying’ before was now replaced by a road engineers solution to water run-off; a one-foot high berm constructed of blacktop running parallel to the lane. I had to ride to the left of the white line at all times. If I veered to the right I would be catapulted over the edge of the cliff or slung back into the downhill traffic lane. The wind was coming in gusts. “Dammit, this is getting too dangerous” I said to myself in an audible outburst as I realized I was in survival mode.

With teeth clinched, hands on the drops, brakes pressed tight, and pedaling steady, I rode as slow as possible struggling for balance and fighting back a continuous volley of wind punches. The level of concentration was so intense that my head was beginning to hurt. The desert wind is sneaky. I couldn’t see or hear it coming because there is nothing for it to move, nothing for it to vibrate through. A gust would hit me and then suddenly subside; sending me weaving like a late night drunk.

Finally, I dismount the bike. Walking in my cleats was not much safer; I was still being blown off balance. The wind wanted me off that mountain and it was pushing for the quick way down. The last half-mile I just walked (more like staggering) until I saw a road sign reading, “Vista Point 500 feet ahead”. As I rounded the corner, there it was, a large turn out with a pickup truck – but he was starting to leave…without me. With one last tempting of fate I quickly mounted the bike, both shoes unclipped, legs flailing out to the side for balance like a 4 year old with his training wheels just removed. I was flung the last 100 feet downhill and just in time to catch the pickup truck before it left. I flashed the biggest smile possible and asked, “Can I put my bike in your truck bed and get a ride down?” “Sure” he said.

The Vista Point where I was "saved" by Mark who drove
me the last five miles down to my car.

Saved By Mark And Matthew
Mark was from Minnesota on a road trip back home with is son Matthew. Mark was pulling a trailer with a restored 1968 Shelby Mustang in it. He said, they had seen me on the way down and his son even mentioned, ”look Dad, that guy is getting blown up against the guardrail”. I thanked Mark profusely for driving me the last 5 miles back to my car. As we parted, I knew he now had a great story to tell his buddies about how he and his son helped save a crazy cyclist in California.

Here's Mark, my hero!

Reaching the Coachella valley floor was a relief to say the least, but it looked like a post nuclear blast zone.

This photo shot shortly after my ride ended and still during daylight
shows the sand storm covering the sun, forcing drivers to turn on their headlights.

While I was gone, the valley experienced a full on desert sand storm! Curiously, I checked the weather on my iPhone and found this...




Intellicast wind advisory on my iPhone.

Moral of the story:

  1. Always check the weather (even during a ride)
  2. Always be willing to abandon a ride in times of danger
  3. Always be friendly to motorists
  4. Ride like (not against) the wind!


  1. Jim, that was an awesome post!! What a great story and scary experience. I felt like I was doing the descent with you. My jaw was clenched, and I had that "anxious feeling in my stomach. Thank goodness for that truck driver - I couldn't have taken much more.
    Mike H

  2. Gripping account! We were glad to hear you made it safe to the desert floor!

  3. Gripping indeed! I'm just so glad you came home unscathed! Silly cyclist!

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