Words and photos by Neil Shirley
In 1947 the United States entered a Cold War with the USSR, and in order to protect the country from a possible air assault, numerous Nike missile sites were constructed throughout the U.S. 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.
And what better excuse to test my new Mega XL GPS and its navigation features than out on a massive ride exploring roads that few even know exist? On tap was nearly 100 miles through the Angeles National Forest en route to four decommissioned Nike 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, we’d hit a cool 14,000 feet of climbing. Since there would be almost zero human contact outside of my riding buddies and no cell service, having a GPS device that had long battery life and dependable navigation was imperative to us making sure the day didn’t turn into a mis-adventure.
Three of us departed at the break of dawn and headed East into the mountains from San Fernando Valley on our way to the first Nike site, LA-94. Perched a few thousand feet above the sprawl of North LA, the site is now home to the Camp 9 fire station. But to get there, it’s a stiff five-mile climb on a closed road with aging pavement interspersed with sections of dirt. It also happens to be 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.
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.
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.
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 hit 11,000 feet in elevation gain, and I felt every foot of it.
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 sites. 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, even when my Mega XL GPS was beeping at me, 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.
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 day nearly 6,000 feet below, there was relief to know the final 20 miles was nearly all downhill and nary a pedal stroke would need to be taken. By the end, my Mega XL GPS still had plenty of battery life to keep the adventure rolling, but it was I that needed a recharge and was happy that one of my bucket list rides was now just a memory.