Noble Canyon is considered to be one of the best trails around Southern California. It is technically difficult with narrow single track, gnarly rocks and tight switchbacks. This ride takes you through three distinct ecosystems. You start out in alpine meadows and oak trees that transitions into typical Southern California chaparral and finally into the arid desert climate near the Anza-Borrego desert. At some times of the year you can start the ride will plenty of snow on the trail and by the end of the ride be in 85 degree desert heat. This is normally considered an advanced ride. This ride can be fun for strong intermediate riders but you will most likely find yourself doing some walking over and down obstacles and maybe beat up, bruised and leadking at the end.
Directions: There are several ways to do Noble Canyon. You can certainly do to the shuttle thing and start at the upper trailhead on Sunrise Highway. You can start at the lower trailhead at the Pine Creek Picnic Area and have yourself a really good climb up Deer Creek Road and Laguna Meadows Road to get to the upper trailhead and then go down Noble, My favorite method is to combine the Big Laguna Meadow and Noble Canyon together . The map here and the description should be enough for you to do what ever variation you desire.
A National Forest Adventure Pass is required at the Upper Trailhead and the Lower Trailhead as well.
Hazards: Treacherously technical trail with steep drop offs just off the trail in spots. Noble Canyon is not a place to bring a beginner or someone just breaking into the intermediate catergory. For San Diego locals, if Miner's Ridge Loop at Black Mountain gives you fits, you will most likely not be a happy camper on Noble Canyon. DO NOT underestimate the late spring to early fall heat or overestimate how long your hydration is going to last! The lower portions of the trail can get be much hotter than the general surrounding area with little shelter from the sun .
Route Descriptions: I will start off my describing the shuttle option, followed by the loop route, then the Laguna - Noble Point to Point RouteThe Shuttle Option :
After crossing Pine Creek Road, you will have a short climb. At this point you should have noticed some old fire damage. In 2003, this area got pretty toasted by a wildfire. The area has seen other wildfires since then, but the 2003 one was a doozy. The climb is over soon enough and you start descending in earnest. You will soon pass by the junction with the Indian Creek trail on your left that will take you out towards the Cuyamacas. You can use this trail to do a truly epic Cuyamaca to Noble Loop.
The next significant section further down the trail is the locally iconic "Stairway to Hell. A technical tight left hand switch back leads into the stairway. Orginally there was no "line" per se through this section. Just a bunch of rocks all over the place where speed, skill and good weight transfers were the name of the game here. No shame at all in wearing some extra protection through here. Over the last decade people have made a low line on the stairway to avoid some of features that made this section iconic. The orignal line is the far left (high) side of the trail. Folks have ridden that orginal line on 26er hardtails so you I don't think you get full credit by taking that right-hand low line. Why yes, yes I am having a "Back in my day we had to walk to school in the snow uphill both ways" moment. So you have options on Stairway To Hell these days. It is up to you wither you want to say you had bacon, eggs, and coffee for breakfast or wither you had a bowl of cream of wheat and a glass of pulp-free orange juice. (Full disclosure, I did a big fat Endo on the orginal line on a recent run down Stairway. The ground gets harder every year so maybe Cream of Wheat for breakfast is not too terrible)
After Stairway you will do some technical countouring and as well as some downhill bits to a trail junction. (You have about 7.3 miles at this point) If yo go to your right you will quickly come out on Pine Creek road. If you are already spent, beat up or broken your easiest/safest option is to turn left on Pine Creek road and head down to the Noble Canyon Trailhead. At this junction, Noble Canyon is the sharp left turn. After making that left the trail does its fourth creek crossing (Has water most of the year) and you then start a 1.5 mile climb. The trail here is not technical at all but can be sandy and while it is shaded at the bottom, you quickly get out into the desert scrub where the sun can be brutal when it is hot out. This climb is often referred to by various bad names as it can be brutal in the heat. The summit of the climb is obvious and it is a common regroup spot. About a 1/4th a mile over the summit, you come to the junction of the Deer Creek trail which peels off to the left and downhill as the Noble Canyon Trail bends to the right. Stay on the Noble Canyon Trail
From this point down to the lower trailhead is known as "Extra Credit". After a short bit of climbing normally easy (may not seem so easy at this point in the ride) you get into some swoopy fun non-technical downhill singletrack. Enjoy it while it lasts as the trail will soon be back to jumbly rock sections that are often unrelenting. The rocks in this section are different that what you had to deal with further up the trail but they are no less treacherous. Speed and good "Monkey Motion" will help keep you out of the front wheel grabbers. The rocky technofest continues until just short of the trailhead. You have certainly earned a tasty beverage!
You never know who you may run into on this trail. Here is two-time XC NORBA Champ Jimena Florit out "playing" with the guys in 2004. She totally schooled us all while not even appearing to break a sweat.
Make sure to read my Laguna Mountain Recreation Area review as I'm not going to talk about the whole area just the route here. This is one of favorite ways to do Noble Canyon. Combining the buffed single track with picturesque views of the Laguna Mountains adds a good cross country ride to the demanding thrill of a technical downhill ride. You will of course need two cars to do this ride as it is a point-to-point. Sure you could just continue on up Sunrise Highway to the top of Noble Canyon, but that would make you a shuttle monkey cheating the gravity gods. Besides you know that you need the exercise. The total mileage for this combination is around 19 miles with 1,200 feet of climbing and 3,400ft of descent.
Parking: Leave one vehicle at the lower traihead and take the other up to Redtail Roost where this ride will start.
The Gatos Ravine trail is a very fun bit of singletrack. There is a slight rise in the trail earlier on that goes up to a fantastic veiwpoint where on super clear days you can see downtown San Diego and Pt Loma. Continue on the Los Gatos passing the junction of the Chico Rivine connector on your left at 3.9 miles. The rest of the Gatos Raveine trail is very flowy with a little bit of tech and some nice optional feature to play on. On the trail comes out onto the meadow, take the Kemp Spur trail (aka as just the BLT) left and proceed around the meadow. When you get to the corner of a fence turn right. When you come to a cow/bike gate at 5.5 miles (Can ride your bike over, but cows won't step on it) go through it and climb up out of the meadow on a nice bit of singletrack. At the top of the climb you will come to the junction with the Water of the Woods trail. Turn right and enjoy another bit of nice singletrack back down to the meadow, where you will bear left at the next junction to stay along the edge of the meadow. When you get to the Water of the Woods pond, take continue on the trail around the pond passing the two junctions with the Sunset trail. Continue up with the west side of the meadow passing Big Laguna Lake on left. At the top end of the meadow you will pass the northern junction of the Sunset trail on your left before continuing around the north/upper end of the meadow to the junction of the Big Laguna trail at 9.0 miles. Hang a left and shortly you will come to the junction of the Filaree Flat Spur.
The 2003 San Diego wildfires devastated some our best trails. The upper portion of Noble Canyon was heavily damaged by the fire.
These pictures where shot by Mark Costantino on November 2nd, 2003
Looking West from Noble Canyon Trail
A fire crew from the Tahoe area doing mop up, they kindly
offered to remove debris from the trail. These guys rock!
Not much left
Here is a picture I took from Laguna Meadow Road on January 17th, 2004
This picture was taken by WINSTON (MTBR.com Handle) in June of 2004 and shows that the upper portion of Noble Canyon is recovering.