Known for its active culture, Laguna Beach has been home to mountain bikers—world-class and beginners alike—for decades.
By Larry Urish
If you live in Laguna Beach, you’ve surely seen that outdoor basketball court located on Main Beach, mere feet from the Pacific. Just for kicks, picture LeBron James, Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson and other NBA icons competing on this very court. Maybe one of them will ask you to join them for a little three-on-three.
That’s exactly what’s been happening for years in Laguna Beach—only the sport in question is mountain biking. Scores of riders from throughout SoCal, and around the world, tackle the web of trails that meander the hills overlooking the Pacific. World-class pros are frequently seen ascending and rocketing down these very same trails.
What is it about Laguna that draws these top athletes and so many other mountain bikers? The nearby hills are filled with trails—some suited for beginners and many more that can be described as hair-pinned, rock-pocked, single-track banzai runs, allowing a rider to work on their skills at any level and, perhaps, one day share a trail with a living legend.
A Mountain Biking Mecca
Laguna’s balmy climate and spectacular coastline were seemingly created for outdoor sports lovers: surfers, hikers, kayakers, runners and their active brethren. The town’s culture is rooted in good health, with gyms, salons, yoga studios and organic food eateries located throughout. So it’s no shocker that mountain biking is part of the mix.
“The climate and scenery here are great,” says racer Brian Lopes, a Mountain Biking Hall of Fame inductee with nine national championships, six Union Cycliste Internationale World Cup titles and four UCI Mountain Bike World Championships to his name. “As far as mountain biking, the hills here have a lot of great technical trails; it’s especially good for advanced riders.”
That’s why Lopes lives here. So does fellow biking legend Hans Rey.
“There are so many great trails so close to town, and it’s a beautiful place in general,” says Rey, who knows a thing or two about beautiful places. The multiple world champion in trails riding (negotiating highly technical courses) has ridden in more than 70 countries and pioneered extreme mountain biking. As a bike adventurer, Rey has ridden from the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and performed a “volcano dance” in Hawaii, among other feats. “Within a few minutes here in Laguna, you can be out of civilization and be in nature, encountering wildlife,” Rey says.
The area’s high concentration of trails has attracted far more than mountain bikers. “Many world-class athletes live here to train in the hills,” Rey says. “And many others visit here from throughout the world—not to vacation, but to ride.” The word got out, and many followed.
“Thanks to the climate, you have year-round riding here. That’s a huge appeal,” adds Kellen Trachy, global marketing manager of Laguna Beach-based Crankbrothers, which makes pedals, wheels and other mountain biking parts and accessories.
So many top athletes moved here that, around 35 years ago, they created an informal group composed of top athletes, including Rey and Lopes. The Laguna RADS helped make Laguna Beach a mecca for mountain bikers. The unofficial club has been so influential in the sport, it’s even in the Mountain Biking Hall of Fame. “I was introduced to the Laguna RADS when I was 20,” Rey says. “They made me a real mountain biker, and to this day I ride with them about once a week.”
Ride Smart, Ride Hard
It doesn’t take a new rider long to learn that there are essentially two ways to learn good mountain biking skills: Try it yourself, develop bad habits and do the requisite number of face plants, or work with an experienced instructor, who will help soften your learning curve without any YouTube-worthy moments.
“Riders of every level improve faster with lessons,” Lopes says. “New and beginner riders learn how to be better prepared for their rides, and riding with someone with more experience always helps.”
The learning never stops. “Even those with a lot of experience are surprised how much better they handle more difficult trails,” says Lopes, who provides one-on-one instruction and group clinics for all levels. “I’ve personally given lessons to expert- and pro-level riders, and found plenty of areas where I’ve helped them improve. … Even the very best riders can benefit when guided by someone who knows the trails.”
If you’re new, find a bike that’s the right size; ask an instructor or someone at your local bike shop for guidance. Protect yourself with a helmet and gloves, and wear padded shorts. Bring along water and snacks; a spare inner tube, patch kit, tire levers and pump; and a lightweight jacket and cellphone, just in case.
Begin on wide, flat trails, such as fire roads. Remember to look well ahead, keep your eyes moving and be aware of loose dirt, branches and rocks. Use your legs as shock absorbers. Keep just one or two fingers on the brake levers. And don’t worry about what others may think if you have a slip or need to stop. Watch others and learn from their technique.
As you gain experience, you may try narrower, steeper trails. Of course, your speed will increase, too. Consider using knee and elbow pads. Shift your weight back when going downhill, and remember to gear down before starting a climb. Once you’re ascending, shift your weight forward by sitting on the nose of the saddle. To maintain speed and balance when cornering, move to the outside of the trail as you approach a turn, move inside near the turn’s apex and drift back outside when coming out of the maneuver. Lean your bike into the turn and keep your inside pedal up.
Learn to apply different braking between the front and back wheels, depending on the situation. Practice this on a flat area to see how your bike reacts, and you’ll eventually learn to modulate your brake pressure. Lopes advises to be careful on the front brakes going through turns. Since the soil in local trails can be loose, it’s easy to lose traction.
On steeper downhill runs, move your butt behind the seat. Stop and lower your saddle when you know a particularly steep run is ahead.
You’ll learn faster and have more fun riding with a mountain a biking group. Local shops, such as Laguna Beach Cyclery and Crankbrothers, as well as several others in nearby communities, are home to informal groups. And middle- and high-school riders of all levels should check out the Laguna Beach Interscholastic Mountain Bike Team.
On the Right Path
A beginner starting out on a steep and narrow single-track trail is about as smart as a new skier bombing down a black-diamond run. For this reason, it’s important to ride the right trail for the right skill level. While the majority of mountain bike trails in Laguna Beach are advanced, other nearby trails, which connect to city trails or are minutes away, are great for beginners. Notably, to protect the local habitat—the prime reason Laguna’s open spaces exist—any trail that lacks signs is unauthorized and should not be ridden.
In Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park (on the east side of Highway 133), the Aliso Creek Trail East starts at Alicia Parkway, about 700 feet south of Awma Road, and heads 3 miles south. This flat path parallels the slow-moving Aliso Creek, passing coastal sage scrub and other native habitat. The same applies to the Wood Canyon Trail, another 3-miler, which runs north-south, connecting the Cholla Trail (near Highway 73), with Aliso Creek Trail (across the creek from Aliso Creek Trail East).
Also in the wilderness park, the West Ridge Trail, a steeper but nonetheless beginner-friendly route, runs north from Alta Laguna Park (near Top of the World) and includes 2 miles of rolling hills. Riders with a bit more experience should check out the steeper and more technical, 4.3-mile Stagecoach South Trail in Laguna Coast Wilderness Park (west of Highway 133). The trail starts at Nix Nature Center (just north of Highway 73) and heads south, paralleling Highway 133 and ending at Big Bend Trail.
It’s the difficult, highly technical trails that help make the area such a mountain biking hotbed. Due to the topography of the hills in Laguna Beach and up Laguna Canyon, these trails are narrow, steep and rocky, requiring the gamut of advanced skills and maneuvers. These banzai runs don’t include less-steep sections to give riders a break, says Mike Hall, trails consultant for Laguna Canyon Foundation. Once you head over the edge (or start ascending), riders are committed to the full run. This takes strength, endurance, balance and focus. The advanced trails include Laguna Ridge and Old Emerald Falls in Laguna Coast Wilderness Park, and Car Wreck, Mentally Sensitive and Rock-It in Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park, among many others.
So, grab your bike or rent one from a local shop and head into the hills for a workout with plenty of scenery as the reward—whether you’re cranking up the steep paths or cruising past the trees and creeks. With such a wide variety of trails criss-crossing Laguna’s wilderness, every ride allows you to choose your own adventure.
Local Biking Resources
Laguna Beach Cyclery: mountain bikes and gear for sale, repairs and rentals (lagunabeachcyclery.com)
Crankbrothers: mountain bike parts and accessories for sale (crankbrothers.com)
Laguna Beach Interscholastic Mountain Bike Team: a riding group for kids in grades 6-12 at Laguna Beach schools; update: the 2021-2022 season will start in November 2021 with a meeting in October. (lagunabeachmtb.org)
Brian Lopes: offers one-on-one mountain biking instruction and group clinics for all levels (brianlopes.com)
Hans Rey: offers step-by-step instructions on techniques from riding a switchback to popping a wheelie, complete with photos and videos on his website (hansrey.com)
On the 2018 article: Known for its excellent outdoor areas and active residents, it’s no wonder that legendary mountain bikers live in Laguna Beach and cruise the canyon’s hilly terrain. This article gives a glimpse into that lifestyle and tips for those starting out mountain biking on local trails.