Onyx Summit, California

From the Desert to the Trees (In Reverse)

February 1989

Copyright ©1989, 1997 Jon Trent Adams

Saturday, eight AM: Our driver drops us off at Onyx Summit, elevation 8443 feet, about fifteen miles east of Big Bear on California State Route 38. The temperature is low, in the mid-thirties. Ice still coats the road in frozen rivulets, reminder of the cold night that preceded, and crusty patches of snow line the sides of the roadway.

This is the first trip we have made with the bikes in snow: we begin here at SR38, climb nearly five hundred feet toward the top of Onyx Peak (elevation 9114 feet), then cut out on the Pipes Canyon road, dropping into Yucca Valley; from there, blast down through Little Morongo Canyon in the Little San Bernardino Mountains to North Palm Springs, elevation 430 feet, where our driver will meet us at three PM today. The riders include myself, Paul and Joe.

Before the van drives away, I perform the final inspection of my machine; aside from a few nicks and scratches, all is in good working order. Donning helmet and gloves, I push off to lead the pack up the two-wheel drive road toward the top of Onyx Peak.

Old snow covers the road in patches, sometimes as much as a foot deep; the lead wheel finds a particularly low resistance track to follow while everyone else drops in file behind. Occasionally, the rear Blizzard encounters hard ice; the steel studs dig in and keep the tire from breaking loose.

The grade is mild - five hundred feet of elevation gain in two miles, barely a five-percent slope. Except for the cold, our first assault on snow seems to be going well.

Then suddenly, the front wheel caves in a not-quite frozen ice sheet, the bike heaves forward and stalls, and I watch the ground come at me as I go over the bars. I rotate in mid-air, hoping to come down rolling, but land heavily on my right shoulder, only half-completing my desperation move. Dazed, shaken, I turn over and sit up. Joe is off his bike and over to me; I check for broken bones or blood; the thickness of the cold weather clothing has protected me from anything more than some bruises. Landing in the snow, although hardpack and marginal, helps to pad the fall. The bike is standing cockeyed, mired in the icy muck that lies beneath the thin ice sheet.

Paul hauls the bike out of the slurry, wipes the rim and tire with a rag, and checks for damage. After a close inspection, it looks like the major damage was done to my ego. After a few minutes of counting my fingers and arms and coming up with the same number each time, we are off again.

More carefully this time, I plug up the hill, overcautiously inspecting each suspicious spot on the road; after a few hundred more yards I pay less attention and start to check out my surroundings. From the northwest to the east, I have an unrestricted view of the world: Big Bear Lake, nearly two thousand feet below, peeks out from behind the nearby pines; the Mojave Desert lays beneath and before me, visible from west of Barstow to the Arizona-Nevada state lines; the Sierra Nevada and the Spring and Panamint Mountains rise high into the troposphere, peering over the haze.

After a few surprisingly high drifts of crunchy snow have been dealt with, either by ingenuity, cunning or sheer force, the Pipes cutoff presents itself to us. From here, the Onyx road winds about two miles further up the west side of Onyx, gradually climbing to the top where there is a vast array of government and private radio relay equipment, all solar-powered.

The road to the east goes down Pipes Canyon; from here it will be nearly sixteen miles of downhill, with a total drop of nearly five thousand feet; almost all of it down the watercourse of Pipes Canyon itself.

The road cuts down to the east, rolling gradually off the humpback of Onyx, skirting its flanks, losing altitude gradually. The path is on the north side of the mountain; this allows the snow to remain a nuisance for us. Joe, new on his bike, leads us down the grade, feeling out the ruts with his front wheel, off the saddle and weight back. There's probably not too much to be concerned about right now as the snow keeps our speed down and makes us particularly alert.

Right now we're still in the drainage of Sleepy Creek, which drains off the north slope of Onyx and follows a course north of Pipes, flowing down into Antelope Creek; from there, Antelope Creek joins up with Pipes, about two miles below where we climb out of Pipes. This side of the San Berdoos is all desert; although there is some snow on the ground, the major amount of precipitation that falls here is during the summer when the big cumulonimbi roll through on their way to Arizona and New Mexico. There's nothing like being caught in one of their hydroelectric outbursts - you can hear it approach with the muffled sound of distant thunder, and see the electric bolts illuminate the distant horizon. Slowly, inexorably, the danger draws near as the nervous airmass is pushed your way. The air is heavy and humid, but sounds of birds and animals travel a great distance. You hear your own breathing. Then, the storm is upon you - the soft sounds of nature are replaced by the sounds of air molecules being ripped into plasma, only to come crashing together again in milliseconds. The charge leaders create a path from the ground to the cloud, then the electrons come rushing down the path in one fell swoop. What a rush.

Joe's about fifty yards ahead now, and I've fallen behind Paul a bit. The elevation must be less than about eight thousand feet now, but the trail still clings to the north slope of the ridge. Now the path bends a bit to the south and starts an uphill grade, climbing out of the Sleepy Creek watershed, over the ridge, and down into the Pipes. I hear the clatter of Joe's misadjusted rear XT shifter as he adjusts it to a lower ratio. Paul's up off the saddle, working hard this time, climbing this last major grade on the first stage of the ride; I follow suit almost immediately.

I crank this grade, still fresh and working to keep warm, pulling the seven- to ten-percent sets of switchbacks running a 38-front, 21-rear setup. No sweat yet. The snow still impedes travel a bit, and my shoulder is a little stiff, but I will soon be to the top of this mile-long climb.

Making a final assault on the ridgeline, I head west then bend south to the summit; in the final hundred yards I'm able to pass Paul and edge my way to the top of the pass. Now the view encompasses nearly due south to east, along with a magnificent view north. About thirty miles to the south-southeast, lies the city of Palm Springs, nestled at the desert base of San Jacinto. After resting for a few minutes, and drinking a little water, I'm ready to get out of the cold.

I lead off down the entry to Pipes, the trail hugging the south face of the ridge that extends east from Onyx some ten miles. The snow is very marginal here and the ground is clear for the most part. Already I am modulating the brakes, not quite ready for the full-speed possibilities of this grade. The bikes have spread out again, keeping at least ten yards of crashroom between us. Just over my sore shoulder, a bit behind now, lies the once-famous Onyx Mine, which hasn't seen activity in some seventy years now. A few remnants of its previous days can be found there, but not much else remains.

With increasing confidence, I stop converting quite as many joules of potential energy into thermal energy and let a few more of them add to my kinetic total. Speed up, off the saddle and weight back, my calves and thighs act as shock absorbers keeping the rough road from pushing the bike around. Wind chill is becoming a bit of a problem now. Although the elevation is slipping away quickly, the temperature rise is slow and with my twenty-mile-an-hour speed, the skin temperature is dropping faster. My eyes tear a bit.

Glancing back, I find that Paul is trailing and Joe is about twenty yards back. I can hear him cuss every once in awhile as he hits a rock or a rut that jars him. He'll get the hang of it before the ride is over.

We rumble past the Pipes Canyon Campground up above us on our left; in a few hundred yards we will leave the San Bernardino National Forest behind. The snow is completely gone now; there is no impedance now to our downhill flight, except common sense or death (or serious hurt). I warm up a little more, starting to practice my brake-slide turns on a few of the less hairball sweepers coming up. Rotating the pedals so that the inside is up, I swing my weight out over the outer pedal and apply some rear-brake to get the lockup going. The rear breaks loose and with the front turned to the direction I want to eventually go, the rear drifts around. At the moment that the rear lines up with the front, I pop the brake and the bike continues in the new direction. It's much easier to describe than it is to do. None of them are perfect. At least I don't dump it.

Taking the next turn in full drift mode, I edge precariously close to the steep dropoff that defines to outside of the turn - yow! What a sight! The view is magnetic, like any other object or place you try to avoid - if you look at it, you'll be drawn to it.

Within minutes, it seems, we've made the drop from the alpine elevations to the "flat lands" of the high desert; shredding the Pipes, going along some particularly nasty road (little better than a jeep trail), we ace our first crossing of the wash. There's a bit of water in the bottom, but the flow is wide and shallow, so with gravity and a little leg motion, I powerboat my way across the stream, getting just a bit wet in the process! I always did like racing stripes up my back and front. I climb the bank on the south side, the others catching up quickly, and then we cruise a little further east to the next fording point.

Again, we stagger-cross the stream, avoiding the bigger rocks visible in the water, but the other side of the stream has undercut the bank a bit and notched the road a bit; a little tricky maneuvering and a quick hop, pulling up the traps with the bars, and I'm over to the north side of the wash again, safe and wet.

Just down the dirt road, we meet up with Pioneertown Road, which we turn to the south on and follow on the way down through Pioneertown, about two miles south. This road climbs up over a small ridge first, then we screech down the south side of the ridge into town, doing better than thirty on the paved surface. Over the bridge on the Chaparrosa Creek, we can almost coast into Pioneertown.

Lunch is going to be at Yucca Valley; so we pass through town, flying low, avoiding the radar. Just south of town, there's the Sawtooths, which we have to climb over and from which we drop down through Water Canyon to Yucca. And MacDonalds! Or maybe Del Taco! (Nothing like junk food to keep the blood sugar level right up there!)

This little ridge proves more formidable than I thought. I pop the SIS into 38-21, stay up on the bars and crank out the grade. I hear Joe as he comes alongside of me and then watch as he powers away from me. Paul's a little further behind, but making good headway on the hill. A few more SIS sounds, and the crown of the ridge presents itself.

It's all downhill into Yucca. So, it being that way and the road being paved, we toss it into high gear and spin down the hill; the turns are large-radius and not too many blind spots; we veritably toast along. Yucca! Just like I remembered it! Skyscrapers and everything! Finding the local Arches, I polish off a quick meal, while the boys go on over to the Del down the street.

Like mom said, take it easy after lunch. Good advice. We cruise on over to High Desert Park, kick back and enjoy the warm noontime sun. I strip off my cold-weather gear, stowing it in my pack. It's in the high sixties, but there's no wind right now to spoil it, so we relax for awhile, soaking up both the harmful UV and the fine warming visible and infrared.

The land sharks are ready to cruise again! Keeping a light pace to warm up, we meander out of town to the west, towards the turnoff to Little Morongo Canyon. Making eyes at the occasional lightly-clad lady, I loiter along, easily and confidently. Within a mile we make the sweeper to the left, heading up a mild grade into the Little San Bernardinos.

A bit of an afternoon breeze has started up, off the high desert, providing us with a tailwind. As we chug along, bantering idly, listening to the air about us, I feel the warm sun on my skin, absorb the fabulous colors that the rocks and vegetation reflect back to me; I know that there is no place else in the world that I can experience this plethora of sceneries and environments and still be only a few hours out of the best city on the planet. It's great to be a Southern Californian.

We wind around the knolls and hills of Yucca Valley, pressing on into the mountains, making good time but not working too much. The grades are steep but short, as we are really on top of an escarpment formed by the San Andreas Fault system. From up here on the high desert, the hills are small; from down on the desert floor, looking up at the escarpment, they are the Little San Bernardino Mountains, nearly a mile high. Our final flight will take us down through a narrow canyon to that desert floor.

Eventually, without fanfare, we edge over into the Morongo Valley, and prepare for the big descent. This valley is narrow, about a mile wide, and about seven miles long and pretty steep. Little Morongo Creek dumps into this valley from its headwaters up in the San Berdoos south of Onyx Peak and east of San Gorgonio, coursing down barren, dry canyons and arroyos. Little Morongo drains the northeast end of this valley while Big Morongo Creek drains the southwest end of the valley down through the canyon of the same name. Since the faulting that has created the escarpment is still active, the escarpment height is increasing, which does not allow the washes to cut any more than narrow, treacherous canyons in their wild dash to the desert floor.

We drop into Little Morongo Canyon. The creek is below us, with little water visible. We must traverse the creekbed several times; I'm certain that there are no bridges so I'm glad there is likewise little water. The first turn sends us on a kamikaze run down a breakneck slope, forcing us to fire the retros regularly to keep from being OOC (out of control). We've spaced out again, with plenty of crashroom between us, but recognizing that the main danger is the path edge and the drop into the canyon bottom, we pay attention to that evanescent but very dangerous horizontal boundary between road and air. I cut a screaming left a little too tight and bounce off the wall, then shred the next opposing turn using the momentum I've gained. Up comes the creek for the first crossing; it looks clear so I climb off the levers and hydroplane across the surface, kicking up a wide fantail as I cut through.

Applying a little throttle to climb up, I clear the bank and drift left to avoid a particularly nasty boulder. Upstream a hundred feet I hear Joe's rebel yell as he hits the creek and clears it. Banking hard, I pull excess g's in a tight roundabout that leaves me dizzy; hanging on to the Salsa bars is becoming a real challenge now. I find myself dragging a foot now and then trying to level out a turn a little. Paul yells and in the next straightaway, rumbles past me to take the lead; I back off a bit to give me room, then cut into a sweeping right watching Paul's rear kick up a fierce roostertail ahead. The slope eases off for a few hundred yards and then the canyon narrows again, signaling more vertical.

The breeze up above has turned into a fresh wind pouring down the canyon, warming as it descends. It gives a push as we run the trail, sometimes lifting dust and debris which is carried along with us. We make two more crossings of the creek in quick succession, diving into it from the right and then back in, crossing to the west again; a muddy wet stripe is visible on Paul's back and I feel the one on mine. My goggles are flecked with dirt and watermarks; the bike jitterbugs as it flies over the washboard surface.

Another approach to the stream presents itself; this one looks especially tricky because of the preponderance of angular boulders and cobbles. I lean right, find a trajectory, lay into the final approach and hit the water doing twenty. The bike hits some underwater ridge and jumps high, staggering left; but with me off the seat, my center of gravity continues along, pulling the bike back under me.

Paul's now made it down into the final set of sweepers in the narrows below. I half-watch as he smoothly negotiates the harrowing turns with almost a superhuman nonchalance. I grin determinedly as I hit the same turns, shift left then right, staying nimble on the pedals, keeping the speed up and the wheels down, throwing cobbles and gravel aside as I whip past. I've made it past the worst now. Joe follows immediately.

The canyon opens to the south and the sun starts to peek over the west ridge; the Coachella Valley unfolds before us with the mighty snowcapped Santa Rosas and San Jacintos bounding the valley on the south and west. It's a beautiful, warm day on the low desert.

The wind now crosses our path. We angle west, following the course of the wash, keeping it to the left as we head toward the Mission Lakes where we bend left, out of the headwind, and blast down the pavement over four miles to Dillon Road. It's all downhill, at first steep, but as we get away from the foot of the escarpment the grade drops off.

At the corner, we judiciously stop at the sign, then make the right that will take us into North Palm Springs and the end of our adventure.

Back to Mountain Biking!