Page Contributor(s): Luke Hise, Phoenix, AZ, USA
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Cycling Nate Harrison Grade
Switchbacks dead ahead. We cycle up and over the mountain center of photo.
The Nate Harrison Grade bike climb is a very steep ride in northern San Diego County, California. The first mile is paved, but the majority of the climb is on a dirt fire trail with very steep grades. There is intermittent pavement along the seven mile stretch from miles one through eight, but we would estimate 90% of the climb is gravel and rock with miles five through eight being particularly challenging, with a couple of stretches that are barely manageable on a road bike. We used compact chainring with 30t cassette and 28mm tires on a Specialized Roubaix. Although extremely challenging, it is an epic and private climb. A good description of this ride is found at MountainBikeBill.
Before heading out on your Nate Harrison Grade cycling adventure, be sure to rely on our list of Things to Bring on a Cycling Trip, and use our interactive checklist to ensure you don't forget anything.
Pavement ends at mile 1.1 but picks up again at mile 8.
No one has suggested this is not a public road --
we think the “no trespass” means don’t go off the road.
Early morning -- our goal today: Nate Harrison Grade early a.m., then on to
Spectacular backdrops to this ride: Pauma Valley in background with Pacific Ocean beyond.
Harrison Serenity Ranch at mile 6.5.
Note in the mailbox at Harrison Serenity Ranch.
It’s all about the hairpins and views on Nate Harrison Grade.
Over 20 hairpins + spectacular views of Pauma Valley and Pacific Ocean on a clear day.
Pauma Valley and Pacific Coast: 25 miles on straight line in the background.
Can Nate Harrison Grade be ridden on a road bike?: Yes. In 2014 and again in March 2019 we road Nate Harrison Grade on road bike (2014) and road and cross bikes (2019). In 2014 we rode with compact chainring + 28t and 28mm tires and did not descend; it was a tough climb, but manageable. In 2019 we used a Specialized Roubaix (compact chainring + 42t cassette + 32mm knobby tires) and a Specialized Crux cross bike (28t chainring + 42t cassette + 38mm tires) and did descend. It was easier getting up on the bike in 2014 than descending in 2019. We recommend for the average but fit cyclist (one of us was 34 and an exceptional cyclist, the other 62 and average but fit cyclist) at least:
The old man’s bike used in March 2019.
Compact chainring, 42t cassette, 32mm knobs in back, 30mm road tires in front.
We apologize for the shaky video, but it IS bumpy, after all . . .
Shot before the DJI OSMO 😒
If it’s any consolation, this is the roughest spot and is manageable on a road bike.
Update: 2-10-21 - Luke Hise, Phoenix, AZ writes: I rode Nate Harrison yesterday. Early season conditions exist. The top dirt section was mtn bike only on account of the snow mediated mud. The first dirt section and the middle paved section all appeared manageable with a wide road bike tire. However, some of the steeper switches were loose and I had traction issues on my full suspension mountain bike with 2.5” tires. Furthermore, there will be mandatory rock slalom for anyone on a road bike. Overall, I would say that the climb is doable on a road bike with one caveat . I am concerned the top section will be chewed up once it dries. The mud ruts were robust already. And finally, the grade is not to be descended by anything save a mountain bike. See Luke Hise slideshow via “Photos & Videos link just below the featured image for this page.
The Short Story: We LOVE Nate Harrison Grade and strongly recommend this climb; just be sure to bring the right bike setup and gear. There are no provisions on the climb, but if you don’t descend and take the Nate Harrison Grade Loop linked above, you must stop at Mother’s Kitchen at the top of the Palomar Mountain climb (12.6 miles into the loop).
Mile 12.6 of the Nate Harrison Grade Loop.
We prefer the pastries but they do have main courses, too.
Beware the flies - Greg Matherly of Encinitas writes “ The only thing that sucks about NHG are the flies or fleas or whatever they are. Especially if it’s hot. And it seems they have gotten worse over the years. They torment the shit out of you! I carry a net I throw over my head when I get near the wooded areas.”
An excellent history of Nate Harrison Grade is found at San Diego Travel Tips - Nate Harrison Grade Page:
Nate Harrison Grade is approximately 12.5 miles east of the I-15 on Pala Road/CA-76. If you didn't know it, you'd drive right by it to explore Pauma Valley, Harrah's Rincon Casino and Mt. Palomar. Rather than taking the beaten path, make the turn onto Nate Harrison Grade road and you'll be in for a treat. Another obscure treat that we feel compelled to tell you about.
Who was Nate Harrison? Nate Harrison (1823-1920) a former slave, is known as the first African-American settler in San Diego County. The stories of his age, life and when he took residence on the mountain run the gamut. Stories suggest he was on the mountain as early as 1850 but artifacts tend to indicate it was closer to the 1890's. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. He came to the area during the Gold Rush and made the mountain his home. His roadside property stood along the only road up and down the mountain. He would provide water and rest to all those who made the journey up or down the mountain. He befriended all and shared stories, made up stories, and became a legend in those parts and subsequent to his death in 1920.
We have ridden Palomar Mountain five times and Nate Harrison Grade twice. On two trips we stayed at Harrah’s Casino (we don’t gamble, BTW) in the Pauma Valley which is just a few miles from the start of each climb. Rates are reasonable and they have a gas station and Subway shop next to the Casino.
Harrah’s as seen looking south, five miles from the start of the climb.
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