Even a Half Day’s A Treat On Highway 94

Chocolate, Old Trucks and Pie Add Fun To Twists East of Campo

With the county home to so many twisting roads, parts of some of the best can make for great San Diego day trips. Such was the case a few weeks back when daylight started to run out in the early stages of a planned east-to-west mountain crossing over state Route 94.

But it was still a great day of spirited driving, old vehicles and great eats. What else is needed?

Wanting to see what a 2007 Infiniti G35 coupe would do on some serious curves, the backcountry mountain segment of Highway 94 was selected not only for its sometimes hair-raising turns and twists, but also for the sites along the way.

First on the list was chocolate shopping at the Wisteria Candy Cottage in Boulevard; a visit to the Motor Transport Museum in Campo because it was Saturday, the only day of the week the museum is open — for sure; the old stone store in Campo; and possibly the train museum.

Further west, if the timing was right, lunch at the Barratt Junction Cafe or Dulzura Cafe, and a pop-in to drool over the restored classic cars and travel trailers at Simpson’s Nursery in Jamul.

It’s been a few years since I took the whole trip and I was looking forward to exercising the Infiniti.

But, after getting a late start, I just made it a loop from Boulevard to Campo, then north on Buckman Springs Road and back to I-8. Disappointed? Not on your life.

The eastern end of Highway 94 is one that I haven’t been able to really enjoy, since it’s usually at the end of the the drive. After passing under the old steel railroad viaduct at Campo Gorge, fatigue usually has set in and I haven’t been able to enjoy the end of the trip.

But those last five or six miles are some of the most challenging driving and most beautiful.

So, the east-to-west trip went on the schedule.

Heading east on I-8, the G35 coupe proved itself to be a fine freeway performer, if a bit noisier than I expected. The 3.5 liter V-6 turning the rear wheels through a six-speed manual transmission gobbled up the mountain grades on the freeway. The 60-mile trip from central San Diego passed in no time.

Exit at Ribbonwood Road, SR-94, then head south to Boulevard. Highway 94 ends in this small mountain town, where the two old main highways to the Imperial Valley once met. U.S. 80, replaced by I-8, and SR-94, which was originally an trail used by the Native Americans, have a long history in linking San Diego to the east. By the 1880s, today’s 94 was a wagon road connecting the small farming communities. The numerical designation came in the early 1930s, with the familiar highway signs in the shape of a miner’s spade marking the route ever since.

I couldn’t pass through Boulevard without making a stop at the Wisteria Candy Cottage, 39961 Old Highway 80, (800) 458-8246. It’s one of those nostalgic roadside attractions that folks think have completely disappeared in Southern California. And the  chocolate is great — made right on the site.

Loaded up with supplies, I headed west, making sure I took the left at the fork just past Ribbonwood Road. Although Highway 94 has been improved in places (especially west of Jamul), out here it’s not much more than the old Indian road. It hugs the sides of the hills, leaving the fertile farmland in the valley floor for production. And hug it does. The 13 miles from Boulevard to the Motor Transport Museum in Campo are a lot of fun, but take it easy on the speed.

You’ll want to keep it at or under the speed limit not only because of all the sharp curves (I lost count at a dozen), but so you can enjoy the view. The valley isn’t wide, and the jagged, rocky hills do a lot of protruding into the flat.

The crop out here seems to be mostly horses, although you’ll see a few cows and chickens along the way. It’s dry and windy, cold in the winter and hot in the summer. The area has among the most extreme temperatures in the county.

The Infiniti didn’t disappoint, hugging the road as a sports car should. I didn’t quite get the hang of the six-speed manual, though, and one downshift I ended up in second gear rather than fourth, sending the tachometer spinning wildly.

After passing the Campo Gorge viaduct, the road climbs a bit and twists some more before gliding into the Campo valley. Just after crossing the Imperial Valley Railroad tracks, I pulled into the Motor Transport Museum, a spot where the posh Infiniti really looked out of place.

The grounds of the 1924-vintage feldspar mill are covered with 150 trucks, buses and other old vehicles, a few in really good condition, others in varying degrees of decay. Included in the collection is a Nash Quad, arguably the first commercially successful four-wheel-drive vehicle, and a truck used in the 2004 movie, “The Aviator.”

With the museum open, the volunteers’ latest project, restoration of a 1924-vintage bus on a Cadillac chassis, was available for viewing. On my visit, the restored wooden body was just about ready to be reinstalled onto the pristine-looking chassis. Paint and interior touches are still to be finished, but this rolling bit of history is getting close to test-drive. It once ran the route from the end of the railroad in Lakeside or Foster (now under San Vicente Reservoir) to Julian, and is the second vintage Julian coach that’s been restored at the museum.

The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays; 31949 Highway 94, (619) 478-2492.

It was getting late in the day, so rather than pushing on, a dinner stop was made at the Campo Diner, 1367 Dewey Place, (619) 478-2888, where the fish dinner was good, but the homemade pie was even better. By the way, the address is Dewey Place, but it’s at the corner of Highway 94; you can’t miss it. And while the post office says this is Campo, the locals know this area as Cameron Corners. (Update: I understand the ownership has changed and the pie is gone…)

From there, with the sun starting to set, it was north on Buckman Springs Road and back to I-8. Because of the late start, there just wasn’t time to go by the Gaskill Brothers’ Store or the Pacific Southwest Railroad Museum. Not even time to check out the new tract homes being built way out here.

Buckman Springs Road is mostly straight, but the curves tend to pop up unexpectedly. Watch the area around Mountain Empire High School.

It wasn’t dark yet, so I popped over Old Buckman Springs Drive and Old Highway 80, before joining I-8 at Sunrise Highway.

I didn’t leave San Diego until 2:30 p.m. but still had an afternoon of spirited driving, transportation history and good eats. Now, if I could only get the hang of that six-speed manual transmission…_last]

Bucoloic country road is the east end of Highway 94.

Directions and Info

Distance

  • About 30 miles.

Difficulty

  • Moderate to difficult, with challenging curves.

Directions

  • Interstate 8 to Ribbonwood Road/SR-94 exit, about 60 miles east of central San Diego (I-8/I-15 interchange). Go south (right when exiting from eastbound I-8) on Ribbonwood Road.
  • Right at Old Highway 80 to Wisteria Candy Cottage. For detour to Wisteria Candy Cottage, turn right; cottage is about a half-mile east.
  • Left at Campo Road/SR-94.
  • Right at Buckman Springs Road (County highway S1).
  • Left at Old Buckman Springs Drive.
  • Left at Old Highway 80 (County highway S1).
  • Left at Interstate 8 to return to San Diego.
Motor Transport Museum is in old mineral mill.
One of the few running trucks at the Motor Transport Museum.
Time for eats at the local diner.
Nice road for an afternoon cruise in the country.

Hybridding Through The Desert

Green SUV Up To Task On Easy Anza-Borrego Roads

  • From December 2006

Coyote Canyon, in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, has enough history to fill a book. It’s the stuff of controversy, human civilization, geology, plant and animal life, and convenience.

It’s also a good place for city-dwelling desert newbies to get a little off-road time, get advice from Anza-Borrego experts, make it out to the sand and back to San Diego in a day. That there are fun, twisting mountain roads along the way makes it just that much better.

Coyote Canyon is a wide valley heading north from the town of Borrego Springs. It’s home to bighorn sheep and other wildlife, attracted to one of the few streams in the area that runs year-round. Today’s human visitors like it because it’s close to Borrego Springs, making it one of the busier areas in the desert.

Getting there involves going over some of the narrowest and most twisting highways in the county.

They’re the type of roads favored by driving enthusiasts; since the destination is the desert, there can be a lot of traffic from fat-tired pickups with toy haulers filled with desert bikes. Throw in a few motor homes and a weekend drive can be less than enjoyable.

But hang in there, as the desert’s always a prize.From wherever you are, get to Julian, whether it’s on state Route 78 or 79, via Pala Road, Ramona or, the route I chose, up Cuyamaca Highway from Interstate 8. Allow at least two hours, more if you stop in Julian for apple pie. Then it’s down Banner Grade and another turn or two to Borrego Springs.

My first stop was at the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park Visitor Center, 200 Palm Canyon Drive, (760) 767-5311. Knowledgeable rangers, staff members and volunteers can help plan a map for the day. A status board also lets drivers know the state of the roads. Winter rains can rough up the dirt trails, so it’s always a good idea to check the board before heading out.

I also stopped for lunch and supplies in Borrego Springs before traveling the five miles north to Coyote Canyon. Even though I’d left home early in the day, it was now nearing 2 p.m. and the sun sets fast in desert canyons. So, maybe I didn’t go as far up the canyon as I planned, but I still had a good day and was back home in early evening.

A little background on the canyon, courtesy of Anza-Borrego A to Z, Diana Lindsay’s dictionary-style book on everything about the park. Named for the Wiamiistam (which means people of the coyote), the Native Americans who once lived here, the canyon leads north from Borrego Springs. The San Jacinto Fault — yes, an active earthquake fault — created this valley. It has been preserved over the years despite plans ranging from running highway through it connecting to Los Angeles, to building a dam and filling it with water.

Trails and roads connect north to SR-371, then onto SR-79 and I-15. Controversy and court cases have raged over the years. Currently, the road is closed completely from June 1 to October 1, according to the official State Park map.On the warm, sunny day I visited, the trail was very much open. It was busy with off-roaders, hikers and folks just sitting around enjoying the sun.

It’s just a few minutes up the road from Christmas Circle in Borrego Springs. Once the pavement ends on DiGregorio Road, the trail was sandy but, except for a few spots, in decent shape.

This was my second off-road trip in the 2007 Mercury Mariner hybrid; the automatic four-wheel-drive handled the sand just fine. Its ground clearance was adequate to avoid most of the rocks in the road and the suspension soaked up many of the bumps.

Along the way was Desert Gardens, with picnic benches and hiking trails. If I’d been smart, I’d have packed a lunch at home and eaten it here. A couple on horseback were enjoying the day, as were several carloads of visitors. There’s a parking area here, so drivers can pull off the narrow, sandy road. Past Alcohol Pass, the road gets a bit rocky, worn from the traffic, occasional rains and wind. It can get a bit bumpy and this is where a car’s suspension might have trouble — or end up with trouble after a drive over the bumps.

The road up the canyon crosses Coyote Creek in several spots. With water running here almost all year, I was warned that it at the first crossing it can be as high as two feet deep. When I visited in November, there hadn’t been much rain yet, but water still flowed. If your visit comes after winter storms, be careful.

Between the first and the second creek crossings, the road was packed with rocks… very bumpy and requiring some maneuvering to avoid the biggest rocks. The road also runs through its own rut, higher than the bottom of the Mariner’s side windows. Since it’s narrow, be alert to passing vehicles… and I found more than a few that weren’t interested in yielding. In one spot, a group in a Saturn sedan sped by with barely enough room for both vehicles between the dirt side walls. They looked like they were having fun.

I only went as far as the second crossing, where a family was enjoying the day, kids splashing around, mom and dad enjoying music and cold beverages. The Mariner didn’t have any trouble in the mud. Beyond, Visitor Center volunteers advised the road narrows considerably.

On the trail, I wasn’t driving more than 25 mph most of the time, so the electric motor was powering the wheels. The only sound was the crunch of the tires, one of the benefits of driving in a hybrid. Power from the gasoline engine kicked in instantly when needed, so with its high ground clearance and automatic 4×4, the Mariner was just fine navigating this easy trail. And I got around 30 miles per gallon on my round-trip.

On the way back, I was surprised to see a Toyota Prius parked off to the side. I hope that meant that its owners were off hiking, not that the Prius got stuck. I wouldn’t take one out there, as it rides close to the ground.

Because it’s so near to Borrego Springs and a through route to the north, Coyote Canyon is popular and can be a busy place on the weekends. There’s camping at Sheep Canyon and a horse camp. For those looking to drive on a little sand and get an introduction to the desert, it’s a great place to start. ⚙


Mercury Mariner Hybrid

Note that I tested a 2007 Mariner hybrid. The SUV was redesigned for 2008 but was discontinued along with the rest of the Mercury brand. Ford still has an Escape hybrid.

Directions & Info

Difficulty

Easy to difficult. Cuyamaca Highway and Banner Grade can be challenging with twists and turns. Narrow Coyote Canyon road can be rocky, sandy, muddy and crowded.

Distance

About 22 miles from Christmas Circle in Borrego Springs. Borrego Springs is about 90 miles from central San Diego.

Directions

  • Interstate 8 to state Route 79 North, Japatul Valley Road. After exiting, left onto Japatul Valley Road.
  • Left at Cuyamaca Highway to stay on SR-79.
  • In Julian, right at Main Street onto SR-78. Continue onto Banner Grade.
  • In desert, left at Yaqui Pass Road.
  • Left at Borrego Springs Road to Christmas Circle.
  • To Park Visitor Center, take Palm Canyon Drive west (exit toward business district) in Christmas Circle. Visitor Center is at the end of Palm Canyon Drive.
  • To Coyote Canyon, exit Christmas Circle east on Palm Canyon Drive.
  • Left at DiGregorio Road. Continue on to Coyote Canyon. Retrace your route to return.

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