Day Trippin' - The San Juan Trail

Day Trippin' - The San Juan Trail

Mountain biking is the perfect catalyst for us to pursue our wildest adventures, taking us far and wide, allowing us to escape the rigors of daily life. It seems simple, right... but where do you begin? After many a wrong turn and downhills finished in darkness, we wanted to create a guide to some of our favorite trails, brought to you by our gang of avid #weridecb riders. So, without further explanation, welcome to Day Trippin’, our trail guide series focused on supporting all levels of riders to pursue their next adventure. 

To kick off Day Trippin’, we wanted to stay local, so we headed out to the San Juan Trail, located in the heart of Orange County, CA, a quick 30-minute drive from our Laguna Beach home. The trail is a living timeline of Orange County history, with parts tracing a route that served as a path from the coastal areas to the inland valleys for hundreds of years. 

Trail Information 

Length: 11 Miles / 17 Kilometers

Approximate time to complete(shuttling): 1.5 Hours

Approximate time to complete(climbing): 3 Hours

Trailforks Information: CLICK HERE

Trail End(Carpark): CLICK HERE

Trail Head: CLICK HERE

For our San Juan Trail adventure, we were joined by Laguna Local Max Sedlak, and his friend and teammate, Jakob Snow. Both up-and-coming racers on the North American Enduro scene, these two made quite the pairing for our adventure, filling the day with jibs, jumps, jokes, and we won’t even start on the political debates.  The day started bright and early from the Crankbrothers HQ with a drive out that took us through suburban Orange County before reaching the Santa Ana Mountains, seemingly a world away from where we’d begun.   

The San Juan Trail can be ridden using a retrieval shuttle, leaving one vehicle at the bottom of the trail for the end of the ride while driving to the top to begin the ride.  Max and Jakob seemed unlikely to agree on much, but when deciding whether to shuttle or not, they quickly agreed - shuttle. If you choose to climb, begin from the trailhead at the end of the Hot Spring Canyon Road, and head up the trail for approximately one hour of switchback climbing and Instagram-worthy views of the Santa Ana mountains.  

After making our way through the Ortega Highway, we turned onto the Main Divide Truck Trail. This paved, single-lane road wound its way through the National park, leading us straight to the trail entrance.  Reaching the trailhead, it was time for the pre-ride checks - tire pressure, suspension, tools, snacks, water, and we were ready to go.  

At this point, make sure you have absolutely everything you need for the day. Our recommendations for your backpack are:

  • 1 x Spare tube
  • 1 x M20 Multi-tool
  • 1 x Klic pump
  • 1 x Spare chain link
  • 2 - 3L of water
  • Plenty of snacks
  • Windbreaker

Leaving the Blue Jay Campground, the ride begins on a singletrack trail that feels like it might have been there since the dawn of time. Despite shuttling, the ride still includes a gentle climb to begin, allowing us to warm up and settle in for the day's adventure.

The top section of the trail is comfortably wide and meanders in and out of the trees. As Max sets off with Jakob in tow, the banter begins and with that, some kind of race we were unaware of. They hit section after section at a pace most could only ever imagine. At most points, sighting the next section of trail is easy; however, the corners will sneak up on you if you aren't concentrating.

Max yells “JAKE” as he nose bonks a rock trail side.. “Got it!,” Jakob replies.

Once at the bottom of the first descent, the trail opened up into a small meadow. Max yells “JAKE” as he nose bonks a rock trailside.. “Got it!,” Jakob replies. Here, you can decide between Old San Juan or New San Juan. Old San Juan is a more direct route but is a steeper and lesser maintained trail. New San Juan is a singletrack with a mixture of tech climbs and wide-open descents. After a quick snack break, we decided and headed off towards New San Juan.

If you're feeling extra adventurous and have a shuttle driver or impressive endurance, you can turn off onto the Upper Chiquita trail, a Black rated descent back to the Ortega Highway, then shuttle back to the top of the San Juan trail. This loop will add approximately 1 hour to your ride

New San Juan can be split into six distinct sections – three climbs and three descents. The first descent proves that things are about to get a little more challenging. The rocks are getting bigger, the trail narrower, and the trail sides a little rougher. However, it certainly didn’t slow Max or Jakob down.  

The second climb is very similar to the first, just longer. At this point, we were thankful for the water we packed as we exited the tree line into the open with virtually no shade - a common landscape for the trail. 

The subsequent descent gave us our first taste of the classic Californian trail - golden, hard-pack dirt. Both Max and Jakob made their way down, popping off any small lip they could find. The hard-pack nature of the trail can be a strange feeling if you're not used to it. The unforgiving ground is mostly confidence-inspiring, but you are still cautious that the side knobs on your tires will only grab so much when leaning into a turn. Over the years, the trail has been beaten down, with some sections resembling a deep rut.   

Heading into the woods for the last time, both Max and Jakob’s luck nearly ran out. With excitement at an all time high, both ventured off a small trailside take-off - a jump over a downed log. Hitting it blind, nether saw the deep and narrow rut for a landing. Nothing that couldn’t be laughed off with a quick “holy s*^t, we nearly died!” 

Next up was the biggest and most technical climb of the day. At around one mile long, this section of trail features multiple testing climbs. You know those sections where you set up at the bottom, find the right gear, attack it and immediately find yourself hopping, trying to keep your balance. This one particular section features a 90degree turn midway, while small rocks litter the surface. On his second try, Max paused near the turn and took a trials approach, hoping to re-align himself with the remainder. With Max completing it without dabbing a foot, Jakob couldn’t leave until he had to. 

When riding these sections, patience is your friend. Rushing into these sections will often result in not making it, but being patient with the section and calculating each little section will help to make sure you make it up in one go. 

One final short descent brought us to Cocktail Rock, marking the halfway point of our ride and the top of the climb for those who brave the pedal up. After a quick break to take in the view of Orange County and the Pacific Ocean, Max and Jakob were ready to set off, eager to embark on the 6 miles of downhill trail filled with long sweeping corners, switchbacks, and natural rollers just waiting to be doubled up. 

The downhill can be ridden in sections, and regular stops will certainly provide good rests for your hands and a chance to take in the view. For those on a different mission, SoCal legend Brian Lopes holds the fastest time for a full run...

You’ll want to be cautious of meeting riders climbing up from this point down. It is a two-way track, and you are bound to come across at least a couple of riders, especially on a weekend.

After some tight rocky sections to start, the trail widens, and your speed begins to build on the fast rolling, hard pack surface. It’s an uneasy feeling as you gain speed with very little effort, but you have little idea of how much the hard pack dirt can be trusted in a turn. Add the coating of small pebbles into the mix, and every turn becomes exhilarating.

Want to see what the trail is like to ride before you head out? Check out the video below of Max and Jakob riding the lower section of the trail.

Staying focussed is a challenge on the San Juan Trail, with such a long downhill, at times intimidating exposure and the constant view of the Pacific. The switchbacks seem never-ending, giving every rider a chance to progress as they go and with each passing turn working out the balancing act of riding these challenging corners. 

One corner stood out - the entry was a somewhat steep plunge into the sharp left-hander. The boys were eager to session it and both willing to risk it for a better photo than the other. We’ll let you be the judge. 

The trail’s final minutes provide one last challenge - the tightest set of switchbacks in Orange County, requiring all sorts of front brake maneuvers to carry speed and stay ahead of anyone chasing you down. As we bounced out into the parking lot, covered in dust and full of excitement, our day had come to a close. Making our way back to the top to collect the van, we could only wonder how this trail felt so secluded from everything but only a 30-minute drive from some of the busiest spots in SoCal. In respect to California’s long-standing mountain bike heritage, we grabbed burritos on the way home and chatted about where to go next. 


 Riders: Max Sedlak // Jakob Snow

Words & Photography: Jake Paddon

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