A Two-Wheeled, Climb-Laden 4th Of July Celebration

In 1947 the United States entered a Cold War with the USSR, and in order to protect our country from a possible air assault, numerous Nike Missile sites were constructed throughout the country. Los Angeles County alone had more bases than any state, numbering 16. Over fifty years have passed since they’ve been decommissioned and there isn’t much to denote where they once stood, other than concrete launch pads and an abandoned building or two.

There are a couple of things these old sites all share in common: each one is perched atop a rather large mountain, and accessing them can only be done on aging roads that are a mix of broken pavement, rocks, and dirt, and best yet, they’re closed to traffic–all things that make for a great day on the bike.

Two years ago a handful of us decided to ride to three decommissioned Cold War Nike Missile sites in LA County. It was a memorable 150-mile day. This time around we found four sites that added a much greater challenge.

And what better excuse to do a ton of climbing followed by post-ride feasting than in celebration of Independence Day? On July 4th, my friends Jason Judy and Scott Evans rolled out with me at dawn to tackle nearly 100 miles through the Angeles National Forest en route to four decommissioned sites. About half of the miles were on either dirt roads or pavement that hadn’t been maintained for many decades, and on top of that, a cool 14,000 feet of climbing was on tap.

The morning fog was still burning off as we made our way up May Canyon toward the first site of the day at Camp 9.

LA-94 Nike base is now home to the Camp 9 fire station which is perched a few thousand feet above the sprawl of North LA and was stop number one for us. To get there we rolled out from our starting location at the Veterans Memorial park that sits at the base of the mountain and straight into a stiff five-mile climb on a closed road with aging pavement interspersed with sections of dirt. It’s one of my favorite roads due to the circuitous route up the side of the mountain, not to mention the fact there isn’t a single car to deal with.

Don’t worry, I know exactly where I’m going. Just don’t lose the pizza box.

Once at the summit we enjoyed what would be the only real descending we’d have for the next 30 miles as we entered Santa Clara Divide and yet again another section completely closed to cars. In fact, we wouldn’t see a car for the first six hours of the ride…considering the millions of people just a handful of miles from us made that all the more crazy. LA-98 Nike base on Magic Mountain was stop number two coming at mile 18. All that remains of the launch station are some TV/radio antennas that give little hint of what the area was once used for.

How about those views?

Onward we rolled and the decades-old broken pavement gave way to dirt as went further east and away from all civilization. A few months before this we might have had more in the way of human contact since Santa Clara Divide intersected the Pacific Crest Trail in a couple places, but at this time of year the thru-hikers were long gone and the only banter heard was from the three of us. LA-04 on Mount Gleason was the third site we visited and also represented the highest point of the ride sitting at 6,500 feet. We had only logged a mere 35 miles while having already hit 8,000 feet of climbing. To say we were looking forward to a little respite in the form of descending down to Mill Creek Summit would be an understatement, even if we knew what would follow after that.

It seemed like we had been climbing all day by the time we finally reached the summit of Mount Gleason and began our descent to Mill Creek Summit.

After a water refill at the Forestry station on Mill Creek Summit, we set off for the climb of Mount Pacifico, a loose dirt, three-mile ascent at 8 percent that sapped just about every last bit of energy out of our bodies. Surprisingly, the summit is not home to a Nike Missile site, but due to the severity of the climb we unanimously voted to give it honorary status. By the top, we were still shy of the 50-mile mark yet had already marked 11,000 feet in elevation gain, and I felt every foot of it.

The Mount Pacifico climb proved to be our undoing, but things got better once we were pointed downhill.

We were now headed back west on Hwy 2, descending our way toward Mount Wilson, or more specifically, Mount Disappointment and the final of four missile site. Even as buckled as we were the thought of just a few more miles of climbing did wonders to motivate. Unfortunately, it’s hard to navigate when you’re cross-eyed, so I managed to lead us right past the correct turn off and instead continued on the climb up to the observatory on Mount Wilson. Oops. That just about ruined us as we realized the mistake and that the last two miles of climbing we had just done was “bonus” elevation gain. Sorry guys.

Scott at the summit of Mt. Disappointment. Done and dusted.

I won’t lie, once we finally made the correct turn and headed up Mount Disappointment the pace was nothing more than a crawl, especially once hitting the final quarter mile to the LA-09 site that was at 14 percent. At the top, as we stared out toward the millions of people going about their 4th of July nearly 6,000 feet below, there was relief to know the final 20 miles we had left was nearly all downhill and nary a pedal stroke would need to be taken. By the end, I was completely cooked and happy that one of my bucket list rides was now just a memory. The BBQ and beer that night never tasted so good!

Check out the route here.