Twisting and Horsing Around Bonsall: Curves, Curves Curves in North County

The very common question came from a reader at the recent San Diego International Auto Show.

“How long does it you take to research your drives? How do you find those roads?”

The answer? The road’s just up ahead, around the corner. Get behind the wheel and drive.

This San Diego day trip is typical of roads that can be found just around the corner. Take, for example, West Lilac Road. This column has been over the stretch between Valley Center and Old Highway 395, a thrilling, twisting turn through the hills. But what’s west of the old highway? Happily, it’s more of the same.

Today’s trail takes us over some of the old farm roads in and around the community of Bonsall, a place seemingly populated by more horses than people. It’s one of those areas where the lots are separated by four-foot-high fences, barriers perfect for keeping in equine wanderers.

West Lilac twists along the edge of the hills above the San Luis Rey River, offering spectacular views of the surrounding peaks. But drivers, don’t enjoy the hills too much, though, as the road has severe twists and kinks.

Just before crossing the San Luis Rey River, West Lilac ends at Camino Del Rey in the historic heart of Bonsall. Just on your left, you’ll see the original one-room Bonsall schoolhouse, a few yards from its original location; today it’s Bonsall Elementary School. The community has come a long way since it opened in 1895.

A drive in the country should always include a stop for lunch; my first choice was the restaurant advertised at the San Luis Rey Downs Training Center, an auxiliary horse racing track and stables. It’s just like Del Mar but missing the betting, grandstands and, as I found out, a restaurant. It looked long closed, but the facility is still running. I could have gone down the road to the golf course to see if their restaurant was open, but I opted for another choice and it was a good one.

It might look like part of an abandoned motel and gas station but Estrella’s Family Restaurant No. 1 (5584 Mission Road, at Camino Del Rey, 760-758-0310) is an indoor oasis of great family style Mexican food. I traded the usual burger or sandwich for a great carne asada burrito, with char broiled beef, sauce, avocado and other goodies wrapped up in a fresh tortilla. Good stuff.

Leaving Estrella’s, I headed across busy Mission Road (SR-76), past the McDonalds and up into the hills of Bonsall. Another fantastic old farm road, Olive Hill Road was a new experience that reminded me of the roads around Julian. Even in January, there were a few golden trees showing fall colors, as well as oaks creating a canopy over the road. It also had one of those rare, ultra hairpin turns, with several large yellow 10 mph caution signs. You might want to heed the recommended speed, as this twist is not only sharp but on a hill.

Find your way to the top of Olive Hill and resist the urge to cruise into Fallbrook; rather, take the left at Burma Road (we are near Camp Pendleton) and into Morro Hills. At the top of Burma Road, make the left onto Sleeping Indian Road. Like Burma, regular readers have been over Sleeping Indian before, but on a clear day it’s well worth the repeat visit. Over the next mile or two, the elevation drops about 500 feet, switching from views of the fields and ocean to the west, to the rugged canyons and valleys to the east. Sleeping Indian has some nice straightaways, broken up by a few twists, so drivers can enjoy the view just a bit. Oranges, avocados and flower fields remind us that agriculture is still big business in San Diego County.

From there, head west along North River Road, a nice throwback to the agricultural days that contrasts busy and developed Mission Avenue on the south side of the San Luis Rey. After a short stretch on busy Pala Road (SR-76), it was back through Bonsall and I-15. Running along on the south side of the ridge we traversed on West Lilac Road, Camino Del Rey is almost as fun, giving drivers a good exercise before dropping onto the freeway.

This little corner of San Diego County is a hidden treasure. Big homes are lurking up long driveways and across groves of avocado and citrus, pastures or oaks. Tucked away are a few bed-and-breakfast inns. For the driving enthusiasts, its one of the best. ⚙

Talk about a hairpin curve: West Lilac Road.
Caution curve sign.
Mind the sign.
Neighborhood caution sign.
Let the folks have their safe neighborhood; slow down.

Route and Info

Distance

  • About 32 miles from I-15. Exit I-15 at Old Highway 395 exit, abut 37 miles north from central San Diego.

Difficulty

  • Challenging with hairpin turns, narrow lanes and heavy traffic along SR-76. Be sure to pay attention to speed limits and cautions on curves.

Directions

  • I-15 to Old Highway 395 exit; go north (left from I-15 north).
  • Left at West Lilac Road
  • Right at Camino Del Rey. Continue right toward Mission Road.
  • Continue across Mission Road onto Olive Hill Road.
  • Left at Burma Road.
  • Left at Sleeping Indian Road.
  • Left at North River Road.
  • Left at Mission Road (SR-76).
  • Right at Camino Del Rey.
  • Right at Old Highway 395.
  • Right at Mountain Meadow Road to I-15.

Green Hills: Spectacular show as mountains come back to life

Who says we don’t have seasons in Southern California?

At 4,000 feet, in the mountains east of San Diego, there are golden leaves in the fall, snow in the winter, and in the spring, wonderful green valleys and peaks.

There are also fabulous wilderness roads that are easy enough for any grocery-getter SUV to tackle.

Leading to it is Mesa Grande Road, a fun, twisting highway through pasture land and an Indian Reservation. Our route also includes a cruise by two lakes — Wohlford and Henshaw, a couple of Indian casinos and nice twists.

This is really one of my favorite routes, so let’s hit the road.

One of the best is Black Canyon Road, which heads south from Mesa Grande to Ramona. It’s a nice, maintained dirt road and even has a historic bridge. I’m taking a new route this time; rather than going north from Ramona, I decided to come south from Mesa Grande. Drives, especially on back-country trails, can look very different depending on the direction you’re going, so even if you’ve taken this route before, switch it up. You’ll enjoy it.

Escondido was the first stop, and rather than taking the through-route east on West Second Avenue, I went out Grand Avenue, home to Cruisin’ Grand, one of the great car shows around. I plan on attending April 17, so check out the Blog for my impressions.

While traveling through the fast-food mecca that is East Grand Avenue, I stopped in for lunch at Farmer Boys, a burger chain I hadn’t seen before. Well, I hope I just caught them on a bad day…

After passing the vegetable stands, it was a right-turn into the rugged hills along Lake Wohlford Road. A great contrast to the wide switchbacks of Valley Center Road, it goes by the historic Lake Wohlford Resort, whose restaurant is now open again, according to San Diego Union-Tribune auto editor Mark Maynard, who stopped there a few months back. Still full from the unfortunate Farmer Boys lunch, I didn’t stop.

Damage from brush fires in recent years is still eveident, but this spring, with lots of green growth, you’ve got to look hard to find it. Of course, you’ll notice the difference if you’ve been there before, but relax and take it as it is… beautiful.

Twisting through the back hills of Valley Center, Rincon and up to Lake Henshaw is material for other stories… but believe me that this is a beautiful drive. Resist the urge to stop at Bates Nut Farm, the Valley View and Harrah’s Rincon casinos — or stay overnight at the Harrah’s high-rise hotel.

Then there are the Lake Henshaw Resort, just before you turn, and the Hideout Steakhouse, where you turn to Mesa Grande Road. The Hideout is popular on the weekends with the Harley touring crowd and is worth a visit. The Henshaw resort has cabins.

Leaving SR-76 is where the drive really begins. Mesa Grande Road has been profied here a few times, most recently in 2007 when I tore around it in a Saturn Sky. Mesa Grande has just about anything a driving enthusiast would like… nice curves, not much traffic and great scenery. The Subaru Forester ate up the curves… not quite the WRX I tested last year, but as close as I’ve experienced in a grocery-getter SUV.

The road kinks through private grazing lands and the Mesa Grande Indian Reservation. Keep your eyes on the road and be careful; it’s not hard to wander over the center line on those blind, hairpin turns.

Look for the old Mesa Grande Store (it’s pretty much the largest building you’ll see), then make the right turn to Black Canyon Road.

About 12 miles of dirt from Mesa Grande to the edge of Ramona, Black Canyon Road runs along the edge of a spectacular canyon.

And it’s an old road. Back when I drove this in 2003 for Weekend Driver San Diego, I did a bit of research and found it not only pre-dates the Automobile Age, it probably goes back to the Native Americans who lived in the area before European settlers came in the late-1700s.

As the area developed, it was an important connection between Warner Springs, an outpost for travelers coming to and from the desert, and Ramona, which was an important agricultural center on the way to San Diego.

And although paved roads have gone elsewhere and trade routes have changed, Black Canyon Road remains open and shows signs that the County is still maintaining it, as it does for about 150 miles of dirt roads.

Drivers today get to enjoy one of the pristine nature areas in the county. Between the Cleveland National Forest and the Mesa Grande Indian Reservation, most of the road is in protected areas. Much of the road clings to the cliffside, with a shear drop on one side. Signs warn to “use horn at one lane curves” and you’d better believe it. Talk about blind curves… there’s only one, narrow lane. Your Hummer H2 would be challenged not because of the terrain, but because your wide track and fat tires might scrape the edge of the road, sending little pebbles cascading down 50 feet or more to the bottom of the canyon.

The Subaru Forester was perfect… comfortable, nice handling, the all-wheel-drive was sure-footed on the at-times sandy road. It allowed me to enjoy the views.

One of the high points along the road are the falls, located about a third of the way down from Mesa Grande. When water’s running through the creek, folks are known to go for a swim in the chilly water. It is very rocky, however, and Park Rangers say they have to rescue banged up swimmers a couple of times a year. Hike down the hill and enjoy the water… safely.

Farther down is the Black Canyon road bridge. Seemingly out of place probably even when it was constructed in 1913, the bridge has a historic designation and is being replaced… earthquake safety, you know. When I visited, construction was under way and the sign said the price tag was $2.1 million. Pretty good for a bridge in the middle of nowhere.

There was a fair amount of construction equipment around when I visited on a Saturday morning and it may have been construction workers leaving who passed me earlier. Be alert in this area, no matter what day of the week you visit.

From here, it’s pretty stark — Southern California chaparral — and a dusty road. The canyons have their own natural beauty. Not much traffic; enjoy the solitude.

The road ends in Ramona, and from here I chose to take SR-78 west, through the beautiful San Pasqual Valley, by the Wild Animal Park and through Escondido back to I-15.

All in all, a beautiful day. Certainly going the other way I’d have ended up at the casinos and might have spent more time (and money) out on the road. But, since I’m not much of a gambler, the casinos were best left for another day.

Black Canyon Road… one of the best. Take it in the spring and enjoy the flowers and water. ⚙

Falls along Black Creek flow in wet years.
Falls along Black Creek flow in wet years.

Route and Info

Distance

  • About a 69-mile loop from Escondido.

Directions

From Central San Diego

  • I-15 North to Centre City Parkway Exit in Escondido.
  • Right on West Grand Avenue.
  • Continue onto East Valley Parkway.
  • Right at Lake Wohlford Road.
  • Right at Valley Center Road.
  • Right at Pala Road (SR-76).
  • Right at Center Loop/Mesa Grande Road (watch for sign).
  • Right at Black Canyon Road (look for old Mesa Grande Store).
  • Continue onto Magnolia Avenue in Ramona.
  • Right at SR-78.
  • Right at Pine Street to stay on SR-78. Continue onto San Pasqual Valley Road and N. Ash Street in Escondido.
  • Left at E. Washington Street to stay on SR-78.
  • Right at N. Broadway to SR-78 freeway and I-15._one_last]

Wild Ride on the Rim of the World

James Bond Would Love San Bernardino Highway

The yell came from the other pump island at the gas station near the base of the San Bernardino Mountains.

“Going drifting in that thing?” asked a curious fortysomething who probably shouldn’t have even been thinking about drifting, being that he was refueling a Dodge Caravan. He was admiring the speeding-ticket red 2009 Nissan Z Nismo edition that was my ride for the week, all tricked out with ground effects and 306 horsepower under the hood.

“No drifting, but I am going up Rim of the World,” I said.

Nissan Z Nismo Edition
Nissan Z Nismo Edition

With his voice and facial expression drifting away, he replied only, “sweet.”

And so it went, heading up one of the most spectacular roads anywhere, and it’s just a couple of hours north of San Diego: the Rim of the World Highway.

According to the Rim of the World Historical Society, the road opened in 1915, a 101-mile loop from San Bernardino up and through the mountains. Today, it connects to the towns of Crestline, Lake Arrowhead, Big Bear, down to Redlands and back to San Bernardino.

For my trip, I took only the western end, from the valley up to Lake Arrowhead and back, with a loop around Lake Arrowhead and a look-see at Crestline, about a 61-mile round trip.

Rim of the World Highway is truly one of the great roads on the planet. If it was in the Alps, it would have been used for one of the obligatory car chase scenes in a James Bond movie.

Old rim postcard
Old Rim-of-the-World postcard

The west end rises from San Bernardino, elevation 1,150 to the Crestline exit, at about 4,400 feet and is marked as a freeway. Two lanes in each direction, with, amazingly, mostly no barrier in the middle. It‘s banked like a NASCAR track in some spots, but I’d like to see Jimmy Johnson try it at 150 mph. It twists and turns; I lost count of how many, but the view from Google Earth showed at least 25 on this “freeway” stretch.

In many spots, builders created a shelf in the side of the mountain for the road. Most of the time, drivers are between a shear rock cliff going straight up, and the sky. Because of the banking, there isn’t always any land visible off the edge of the road.

Lake Arrowhead Village
Lake Arrowhead Village

Nothing for the faint of heart.

So, of course, it’s one of the great weekend drives around.

And it‘s an interesting mix of traffic. I was lucky enough to take it on a weekday in the fall, when traffic was light. Folks in pickups knew every curve — at least I assumed they knew every curve — because some were blowing past me in the Nismo, and I was going just a bit above the posted speed limit of 55 mph. Ever seen a slightly lifted Ford Ranger with big tires leaning on a curve? It’s scary.

I saw three CHP officers on this stretch during my trips up and down; their patrols are needed to keep speeds down, or at least call for the air ambulance if anything goes wrong.

The Crestline exit, SR-138, is a heart attack all its own and marks the end of the “freeway.” Sure, you‘ve managed to make it up the hill but the turnoff really made me think I was in some sort of old movie, where the late-model sedan flies off the side of the road, shattering the guardrail, then exploding on the side of the cliff.

Old postcard
Old postcard shows snow on the Rim road.

A full-on freeway interchange, the Crestline exit’s bridges soar into space, twisting and climbing about 100 feet to connect with SR-138. A few more twists, and it’s downtown Crestline. Returning to the Rim of the World Highway, the onramp circles around and probably infects first-timers with vertigo, if they didn’t succumb on the way up.

Heading east from the Crestline exit, Rim of the World narrows to a more traditional mountain byway: one lane in each direction, speeds drop closer to the posted limit and there are rest areas with spectacular views (on a clear day, which it wasn’t when I visited). This is in the San Bernardino National Forest; parking in some areas requires a Forest Service Adventure Pass, which can now be purchased online.

The Nismo was well up to the task, more than her driver on this sunny day. The abundant horsepower running through the six forward gears, the super-responsive steering and sticky tires were up to James Bond standards. I’ve done this road in the Miata, with a third the horsepower but 1,000 pounds lighter, and it’s just as fun.

My dad must have had blast in our old ’64 Pontiac Catalina, hauling us up and down this hill back in the mid-1960s, when we spent a few summer vacations at Lake Arrowhead.

Lake Arrowhead
Lake Arrowhead

At 5,162 feet, the lake is just 23 hair-raising miles up Rim of the World from San Bernardino. A mountain resort that’s been welcoming families since the 1920s; the village has since been rebuilt and today is home to not only the usual restaurants and shops, but also a small outlet center.

The clear, blue lake, surrounded by pine forests and exclusive homes, reminds visitors that this area was to Los Angeles what the Catskills were to New York… except on a much smaller scale. Everyone from celebs to factory workers would head up to the cool mountains in the summer, escaping toasty LA.

Today, there are a lot of full time residents and folks who have really big second homes. There are plenty of lodging options. Ski areas are further over in more middle class Big Bear, but if you’re looking for a great mountain weekend, check out Arrowhead.

Coming back down the mountain was another thrill. With the challenge of heeding the “Watch Downhill Speed” signs and the feeling of less control, I was happy to reach North Sierra Way in San Bernardino, and the end of the Rim of the World Highway. If you’re up for the challenge, take it easy and be careful. Let James Bond and the bad guys pass.⚙

Route and Info

  • From November 2008

Difficulty

  • Challenging, particularly driveup Rim of the World Highway. Mountain roads throughout.

Distance

  • 61 miles from Interstate 215 and State Route 259 exit. Note: The former SR-30 is still shown on some maps; it has been renumbered in sections as SR-259 and SR-210. Interchange is about 93 miles north of central San Diego.

Directions

  • From central San Diego, take I-15 north.
  • Exit at I-215 north in Temecula. Note construction and wandering path of I-215 through Moreno Valley, Riverside and San Bernardino.
  • Exit at SR-259 north in San Bernardino.
  • Continue onto SR-210 east.Exit North Waterman Avenue (SR-18).
  • Turn left onto North Waterman Avenue; follow signs toward “Mountain Resorts.”
  • Left at SR-173 to Lake Arrowhead Village.
  • Loop around the lake from Lake Arrowhead Village:Exit village to Lakes Edge Road (SR-189). Turn right.
  • Right at North Bay Road in Blue Jay.
  • Right at SR-173 and return to Lake Arrowhead Village.

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