With California state parks re-opening (with some restrictions) after the COVID-19 related closures, I thought I'd take the opportunity to visit Chino Hills State Park with my cyclocross bike. This park is a great location for serious training or just leisurely exploring.
Winter and Spring is the best time to visit this park, before it gets too hot. Let's take a look at tips for using Chino Hills State Park for training on your cyclocross, gravel, or mountain bike.
When talking about Chino Hills State Park, we're really talking about two separate parks that are adjoining - Chino Hills, part of the state park system, and Carbon Canyon Regional Park.
Both parks form part of a wildlife corridor hemmed in by the 91, 57, and 71 freeways, so they're easy to get to by car.
Carbon Canyon Regional Park, at the western end, is best for families with small children. There are some grassy areas, covered picnic tables, and even a short walking trail to a grove of coastal redwood trees. There's no real off-road cycling here. This is where the parking is, however, which means many riders will start their rides here.
The actual trails you're probably interested in for cycling are primarily in Chino Hills State Park, to the East. This is the wilder, more rugged portion with more challenging trails for serious cycling.
The best time to visit Chino Hills State Park is in Winter and Spring. I love riding this park on cooler Spring days, when Southern California is covered with marine layer from the Pacific Ocean. Occasionally on the top of the South Ridge Trail, you can even catch a cool ocean breeze. The hills are green and the plants can grow taller than your head.
In Summer and Fall, Chino Hills State Park gets VERY hot and dry. Those previously green plants are now dead. The terrain offers very little tree cover, forcing riders to suffer on the steep climbs with no shade and no breeze.
Occasionally, warm desert winds (Santa Anas) blanket SoCal, turning Chino Hills State Park into a tinderbox for wildfires. Please exercise caution when visiting - no smoking or open flames.
Maps and where to park
Chino Hills State Park offers some remote locations, with no cell service, where you are far from help. If you're unfamiliar with the park, review and bring a map. This PDF file shows the entrances and trails.
Here are a couple key locations you'll find on the map:
- 4500 Carbon Canyon Road is the primary park HQ and entrance.
- 4721 Sapphire Road is a secondary park entrance with free street parking. Be respectful - this is a residential neighborhood - no loud music, littering, or changing clothes in public post-ride. The "intro ride" in my Strava file found with this article starts and ends here.
- Four Corners: a common meeting point where cyclists regroup for a sip of water or snack. Porta-potty and picnic table here. Singletrack heads off in a couple directions from this point.
- Rolling M Ranch: car camping with restrooms
You'll pay a parking or entry charge if you arrive in a car at the regular entrances. Arriving at the park on foot or by bike is free!
Which bike to bring
There's no question that the best tool for the job is a modern mountain bike. With plenty of vertical here, my preference would be a 4" travel full suspension MTB. Today I brought my cyclocross bike, for a couple reasons.
First, I'm looking for a little extra challenge, and it's fun to ride a bike with no suspension to keep your skills sharp. Second, there is some pavement and smooth dirt roads that are great for a cyclocross or gravel bike. Finally, I was doing some running drills, and of course I want the proper cyclocross bike for practicing that carry technique.
Save your long-travel DH or freeride bike for Skypark or Snow Summit. Chino Hills State Park has a speed limit, and more importantly, the terrain isn't really suited for long-travel bikes. There is nowhere to shuttle and no lift access. If you bring this style of bike, you're going to spend a lot of time struggling to ride (or push) it up the hills.
Trails and terrain
Let's get this out of the way - Chino Hills is steep and hard. It also has a huge variety of terrain, including fire roads, singletrack, and even some pavement that add up to more than 90 miles you can ride. This range of options makes it ideal for training for cyclocross because you can make it as hard as you like. You'll also encounter plenty of sections that are great for running, both on and off the bike.
I put together an intro loop on Strava you can review. This route starts on the Northeast side of the park and makes a figure-8 loop that introduces you to a variety of terrain and trails in the park, including fire roads and some fun singletrack. You'll also suffer on some extended, steep climbs. It will take you about 2 hours and 2,000 feet of climbing to complete this loop. When complete, you'll have a better idea of what to expect at the park and can plan your next visit.
The most populated, heavily-traveled trail in the park is the Telegraph Canyon fire road that runs from the western entrance to Four Corners. You'll encounter a lot of foot and wheeled traffic on this trail. It's one of the only trails in the park with much shade as well. Plenty of people walk or ride up Telegraph to Four Corners, take their Instagram photo, and turn around to head home without seeing much else.
Get further away from the visitors and popular spots, and you'll have the trail to yourself. Don't miss the Bovinian Delight and Sidewinder trails for working on your bike handling skills.
In the Southern area of the park, be aware of the Scully Ridge and surrounding trails for some of the most challenging rides. A look at the topography lines on the map show us these trails are STEEP. You'll want low gears and an iron will to train in this area.
When you get to the top of those ridges, watch your speed on the way down. The speed limit in the park is 15 MPH.
Looking to do some running training with your cyclocross bike on your shoulder? Check out the steep, narrow trail that heads north, leaving from the top of the campground. You can find the trailhead at the top of the paved campground loop road.
Expect a huge variety of wildlife depending on the season. This includes big predators like mountain lions (very rare), and smaller deer, bobcats, coyotes, and skunks. Common in the park are hawks and owls. You'll also find snakes (including rattlesnakes), and even tarantulas.
What to bring
You need to be very self-sufficient when riding here. You can be hours away from help if stranded. This means you need to bring:
- Plenty of water and food
- Ability to fix a flat tire and make other common repairs on your bike. If you can't fix it, you're looking at a long walk out.
- Cell phone (but don't count on having coverage)
The primary organization working on preserving natural spaces in this region is Hills for Everyone. Give them a read if you're interested in learning more about the history of the park and how you can help preserve it.
Chino Hills State Park offers a drive-in (or ride-in) campground, it was closed temporarily due to the pandemic, but is now open again. If you're getting into bikepacking for the first time, this is a great place for a dry run. You're still pretty close to civilization, but the trails and campground are real, giving you an opportunity to test your equipment, sleeping system, and backcountry cooking skills (sadly, no campfires due to high fire risk.)
If you're interested in putting together a full weekend of training, you can ride in, setup camp, drop your gear, ride some more, camp overnight, then pack out the next day.
At the Southern end of the park, you can also connect to the Santa Ana River Trail bikeway for longer rides. This opens the opportunity for longer touring or multi-day bikepacking to or from Riverside, Corona, or the beach cities.
Before you go
The main thing to worry about when planning a trip is trail closure due to rain. Chino Hills State Park has clay-based soil that gets very muddy with even a little rain. The park's official Facebook page carries updates about trail open/closed status following rain. Please don't ride on closed trails.
Note: as of this writing, some park features are closed due to the Coronvirus pandemic.
Enjoy your visit to Chino Hills State Park and thanks for reading.