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April 18, 2011 / elodie kaye

San Ysidro Trail

I think of San Ysidro as the plain, neglected sister.  It’s starts out charmingly enough, wooded with impressive rock walls, the rolling melody of tumbling water, and the reward of a high, delicate waterfall for your efforts.  The upper part up to Camino Cielo has some nice views, but on the whole it’s a lot of work — hot and exposed to sun.  Most people stick to the lower part, or use it as a connector to make loops with other, more glamourous front country rivals, like Romero (Trail, not Road) Cold Springs, Buena Vista, or easier ones like McMenemy with equal vistas.

A week ago, the up-and-back was the second in a small local trail series, about 30 finishers.  The podium finishes were predictably filled by local runners, but Lance Armstrong took fourth.  The race series is such a low-key affair it would’ve stayed completely under the radar if not for his tweet about it.  It’s a tough course, climbing almost 4000 ft. in a little over 4 miles.  San Ysidro is the only front country trail where the incline alone forces me to walk the whole way up.  Even at a powerhike, I need to pace my walking to hedge against trashing my legs for the steep return.  There are technical segments that slow the descent too, but not as rugged at the moment as upper Romero Canyon Road.  The dry, upper elevations are littered with loose rocks, with blunted angles and more susceptible to erosion, less painful anyway than the shale on Romero Road.  San Ysidro lulls you with the insistent monotony of its demanding ascent to the ridge, switchback after switchback on sandy yellow limestone, but then around a hairpin turn the trail can transform to a stunning red sandstone, great towers of it above you on fire from the sun.  It’s scattered with startling moments of beauty like this.

The surface varies from dark, packed soil, some scrambling on exposed rock, sandy loose stones small and large, and loose gravel with uniform grains about the size of rice.  The climb is not quite even.  The lower two miles meanders a little following San Ysidro creek, and then you climb in earnest for the upper half.  The land becomes more arid; coming down that slope is more skiing than running.  In half a dozen spots, the mountainside is so steep the traverse has almost sheared away.  A few days after the trail race, I could still make out the line that most of the runners had chosen and key foot plants that had given way.  In spite of the rain, the geology here offers little foothold for grasses to anchor the gravel.  A slip down the side would be a fast trip concluding with an exclamation at one of many boulders.  At each of those treacherous crossings, I breathed a little prayer and speculated with some awe if Eric Forte and those behind him had forged the courage and skill to run through there.

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