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The rustic East County communities of Harbison Canyon and Crest are separated by only a mile of horizontal distance. Harbison Canyon shelters amid oak woods in a deep-cleft hollow, while Crest, some 700 feet higher in elevation, clings to slopes dotted with granite outcrops and scrubby chaparral. Both areas were swept by the mammoth 1970 Laguna Fire and by the even more mammoth and more destructive (in terms of properly loss) 2003 Cedar Fire.

You can tour these communities by bicycle on the following 16-mile, looping route -- but only if you have the mettle to tackle one extremely steep uphill grade and two others of lesser challenge. The best (and far safest) time to enjoy the ride is early any Sunday morning, when traffic is near nil.

A convenient place to begin is the intersection of Granite Hills Drive and Dehesa Road on the southeast edge of El Cajon. Ample parking is available along nearby Washington Avenue. Head east on Dehesa Road, climbing for a long mile to a low summit. A breezy downgrade follows, with a panoramic view of the Sweetwater River valley ahead. Down below, Singing Hills Golf Course spreads like a green carpet on the flood plain.

After meeting Willow Glen Road at the bottom of the grade, Dehesa Road flattens and straightens out. Continue east, staying on Dehesa Road for another 3.3 miles. When Dehesa Road veers east toward the Sycuan casino, stay straight (north) on Harbison Canyon Road. This is where traffic might significantly increase for a while due to patrons traveling to and from the casino. Climb moderately for another 2.6 miles, and arrive in the oak-bowered hamlet of Harbison Canyon.

Watch for Frances Drive, on the left. Within two blocks, Frances becomes Mountain View Road and real labor begins. As you inch up the sharp grade toward Crest, try to get a glimpse of the panorama widening behind you. Near the top, the road dips momentarily, and after that you climb to a final summit and the intersection of La Cresta Road. Most of the hilltop community of Crest lies to the south. On very clear days, lucky Crest residents (many of whom are rebuilding their houses) get an eyeful of the distant ocean spreading along the western horizon. If you're ready for a pause that refreshes, head a half-mile south to Nancy Jane County Park, a spot of green with water and picnic tables.

The loop route continues west down the lazily curling, descending La Cresta Road, which carries a busy stream of cars during peak travel periods. After an eight- to ten-minute glide, you arrive at Greenfield Drive. Turn left and pedal 0.6 mile uphill to Madison Avenue. Turn right and coast 0.3 mile to Granite Hills Drive. Make a left there and follow the remaining 1.5 miles of Granite Hills Drive as it curves back to the starting point.

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