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Flying Through Tierra Del Sol: Old ‘Hipass’ and McCain Valley Get The SUV Dirty

Sometimes these great twisty roads that driving enthusiasts like to frequent end up on the front page of the newspaper.

For example, Border Field State Park, in the Tijuana River Regional Park, is the site of a proposed expanded U.S. — Mexico border fence that’s received a lot of debate recently.

Well, Tierra Del Sol Road had been on my list of extended San Diego day trips for a long time, and when the area appeared the short list of new airport locations (erroneously called the “Campo” site), I decided to head east for a fresh look. (Note: This column was written in March 2005. The airport plan has been abandoned, like 5,000 other airport plans in San Diego.)

I’d been out here a few times with friends that like to stargaze… serious folks who own telescopes, not the celebrity hounds that hang out near Brad Pitt’s alleged new home in Del Mar.

The area off Tierra Del Sol Road, just west of Boulevard, is known for its dark and still skies… perfect for the amateur astronomer.

It’s a wide, flat plain, much of which is south of the border. At some points, it’s only a few hundred yards to Mexico. Lights of Interstate 8, cities and towns are blocked by hills and mountains. It’s hard to imagine how dark it can get out there at night.

During the day, it’s a beautiful area; a plateau that’s accessible at either end, making a perfect drive for a sunny day.

I headed east on Interstate 8 to the Kitchen Creek exit, swinging over to Old Highway 80. Just a couple of miles east is La Posta Road, where I headed south. It’s another six miles down La Posta Road to Campo Road and state Route 94. Make a right, and about another mile and a half is Shockey Truck Trail. Take it south.

Shockey Truck Trail is at the east end of the beautiful valley that includes Campo (about 10 minutes west) and Cameron Corners. A couple of miles after leaving Highway 94, Shockey Truck Trail turns to dirt. I’d left the Miata home in favor of a Jeep Liberty on loan from DaimlerChrysler, so that wasn’t a problem.

It’s amazing how the back country has turned green this year. Not quite like Ireland, but certainly a big contrast to the usual grey-green and brown of the chaparral.

It’s a wonderful drive up to the plateau, with great views to the west and, later, the south. Not a steep climb, but rutted and rocky just the same, what with all the rain we’ve had this year. I took my time, stopping at several spots to enjoy the vistas.

Not to dwell on what more than 24 inches of rain can do to our open space, but the green chaparral, contrasting with the light-tan granitic rock popping through in our rugged mountains, create a beautiful contrast.

The strong breeze never stopped during my visit, which I’m told by locals is very common. Weather is extreme, with winter temperatures dropping below freezing (especially with the wind-chill) and summers topping 100. Dress accordingly and bring water, as it can be dry even when it’s cold.

About the only thing marring the horizon are some high-voltage power lines, which announce drivers’ entry to the Tierra Del Sol plateau. The lines are here because of the terrain, as are the old the San Diego and Arizona Eastern Railroad tracks.

In his book, “San Diego County Place Names,” the late Lou Stein wrote that the area was dubbed Hipass by the railroad builders, at an elevation of 3,660 feet, it was the highest point on the “Impossible Road” that connected San Diego to markets in the east, which is once again carrying freight.

It also avoids the rugged mountains to the north, making it an easier crossing for the railroad tracks, not to mention high voltage power lines.

With a turn, you’re on Tierra Del Sol Road. Watch for the ruts and mud. Ranches dot the plateau, becoming more frequent the closer you get to Boulevard. It’s a nice drive. Put an airport here? Well…

After touring Tierra Del Sol, I headed east to Boulevard, then north to the McCain Valley Conservation Area. Located north of Interstate 8 from Boulevard, the area offers dirt roads, off-highway vehicle trails, camping, picnic areas and even hunting. It’s a great place to give that 4×4 SUV or truck a bit of exercise, even if you’re an off-road novice like me.

The McCain Valley Conservation Area is 38,692 acres in the In-Ko-Pah mountains, and with that much space, there’s almost something for everybody. It’s cooperatively managed by several government agencies and local stockmen, so there are ranches and cattle around.

Several trails lead north. There’s the Cottonwood Campground, about 10 miles from the area’s entry; Lark Canyon off-highway-vehicle area and campground; Carrizo Overlook, which offers views of the north end of the Carrizo Gorge; and Sacatone Overlook, which has views of the south end of the gorge.

I decided to take the Sacatone Overlook, which is about 2.5 miles from the area entry. It’s a nice, easy, twisting yet narrow road leading to a great view of the Carrizo Gorge and Colorado Desert, which includes the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, Algodones Dunes and, on a clear day, Yuma, Arizona.

San Diego and Arizona Eastern tracks also ride the edge of the canyon. Several tunnels are visible, but the spectacular Goat Canyon Trestle is on the other side of the ridge line.

Overall, it’s a fun ride through a very isolated area, easily accessible from Interstate 8 if you decide to skip the drive through the possible future site of the San Diego International Airport.

One of the reasons I like taking drives like this is to see for myself what all the fuss is about, as politicians, developers and others debate what open land should be carved up next. Sure, it’s my civic duty to be an informed citizen, but I might as well have some fun at the same time.

Jeep on the trail.
Jeep on the trail.
View from Shockley Truck Trail.
View from Shockley Truck Trail.


On the trail.
On the trail.

Route and Info

  • From March 2005


  • Moderate. Four-wheel-drive recommended.


  • About 38 miles. Kitchen Creek Road is about 50 miles east of central San Diego.


  • Interstate 8 east to Kitchen Creek Road exit.
  • Right to Old Highway 80.
  • Left on Old Highway 80.
  • Right at La Posta Road.
  • Right at Campo Road, SR-94.
  • Left at Shockey Truck Trail.
  • Left at Tierra Del Sol Road. Road takes several turns before meeting up with Campo Road, SR-94.
  • Right at SR-94.
  • Continue onto Old Highway 80 in Boulevard.
  • Left at McCain Valley Road.
  • Follow signs to Sacatone Overlook.
  • Retrace route back to Old Highway 80.
  • West (right) on Old Highway 80.
  • Right at Ribbonwood Road.
  • West on Interstate 8 to San Diego.


Route of "The Impossible Road."
Route of “The Impossible Road.”
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Flying With Durante: Palms-To-Pines Is Great Movie Location, Weekend Driving

I have to admit, I can’t resist squiggly lines on a map.

I also have a soft spot for old, goofy comedy movies.

So when there’s a chance to combine both, what’s there to keep me at home? Well, this combination is about 140 miles away and runs from Palm Desert to Banning in Riverside County. Interstate 10, you might say. About 30 miles. All freeway

Fine. Take the freeway. Then exit at Monterey Street and head south to state Route 74 and the Palms-To-Pines Scenic Byway, which runs up into the San Jacinto Mountains. Leave SR-74 for SR-243 at the town of Idyllwild and zigzag north to Banning.

You’ll have a great time and pass one of the great movie locations of all time… the place where Jimmy Durante’s 1957 Ford sedan passed a Volkswagen Beetle convertible, a ’62 Plymouth wagon, a Ford moving van, and a ’62 Imperial convertible.

Movie buffs might recognize this as the opening scene from “Its A Mad Mad Mad Mad World,” Stanley Kramer’s wacky 1963, star-studded road picture.

Durante’s Ford went flying off the side of the highway (don’t try this yourself) on a ramp created especially for the movie, according to Gerry Chudleigh’s great web site showing shooting locations.

Drivers Jonathan Winters (the truck), Buddy Hackett and Mickey Rooney (Volkswagen), Milton Berle (Imperial), and Sid Caesar (Plymouth) witness the spectacular crash, climb down the hill and find Durante, still alive.
I think I saw the spot where the movie crew built the ramp that launched the Fords skyward (in the movie, it looks like at least two different cars were used). Today, it’s just a wide spot on the other side of the guardrail. There’s no room to stop and take a look.

Durante’s character, escaped bank robber Smiler Grogan, told the all-star cast that there’s a fortune buried “under a big dubbya,” at the “Santa Rosita State Park.” For those of you who haven’t seen the movie, I’ll leave it at that.
The road today is very similar to what probably scared moviegoers in flat states back in 1963. Also known as the “Seven Level Hill,” these switchbacks snake up the side of the hill from Palm Desert, elevation 243 feet, to the settlement of Pinyon, at over 4,000 feet.

To make the trip, take I-15 north to Temecula, veering northeast onto I-215. I then took SR-60 through the mountains to I-10. Driving time was about 2.5 hours to get to Monterey Avenue in Palm Desert. It’s a straight shot south to SR-74, and the Palms-To-Pines highway.

Just after leaving Palm Desert, the visitors center for the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument is on your left. A visit is well worth the time, as knowledgeable staff can help plan your day.
The National Monument lands, as well as those under state, local and tribal jurisdiction, have preserved more than 200,000 acres. Inhabitants include the endangered Peninsular bighorn sheep, as well as more than 500 plant and animal species.

If hiking or camping is on your itinerary, the visitor center can help you locate facilities. You may need a special pass to use National Forest or state park lands, so be sure to check before you go.

Aerial camera shots gave moviegoers thrilling pictures of the cars racing up (or was it down?) the mountain in “Mad Mad World.” For drivers, though, there’s only really one place to see the seven levels, from a view spot about halfway up. But beware… if you’re heading south, you’ll have to cross the northbound lanes on a curve. Please don’t end up like Smiler Grogan.

Further up is the Cahuilla Vista, which commemorates the Cahuilla Tewanet, Native Americans that once lived in this area. A somewhat creaky deck gives visitors a great vista of Sheep Mountain, elevation 5,141, and Martinez Mountain, elevation 6,548.

At Pinion Pines, around 4,000 feet, the road straightens a bit as you pass the Sugarloaf Cafe and Market. Although timing didn’t allow me to stop for lunch on my visit, friends have endorsed the food here. The cafe was built in 1931 as a general store to supply the road crews, who, by hand, hacked out the roadway over a two-year period. The cafe’s open today for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Garner Valley has beautiful ranch lands, especially green with this year’s rain. The rugged mountains, dusted with snow here and there, provide a great backdrop. The valley also allows the road to straighten out, so drivers with nerves frayed by the twists can take a break here.

If you’ve had enough, take SR-371 south to SR-79. From there, you can head west through Temecula to I-15. Or, turn south to Warner Springs, Santa Ysabel, Ramona and San Diego. But I continued on the Palms-to-Pines Scenic Byway, past beautiful Lake Hemet and on into Idyllwild. To reach the town, make the turn at Mountain Center to SR-243. A few more twists in the road and you’re in Idyllwild.

A mountain town of just 3,504 residents at 5,500 feet, Idyllwild is known for its rustic charms, antique stores and art galleries. Look for the Idyllwild Visitors Center just north of town. My day was spent driving, but many friends have taken time to roam around.

There wasn’t any snow in town during my visit, but the surrounding mountains were dusted. The Palm Spring Aerial Tramway, which is off SR-111 on the north side of the mountain, looked to have snow at the top when I drove by.

Follow SR-243 through Idyllwild and into twisting gorges and canyons on your way to Banning. The terrain is rugged and so is the driving, so pay attention. Rock was blasted in numerous spots to create the highway and its age — dating to the 1930s — means it is very narrow.

Try to enjoy the view as much as possible while driving. There are several vista points looking north to the San Gorgonio Pass, and southwest toward Hemet. It’s a bit reminiscent of the panorama from SR-180 through Kings Canyon in central California.

I stopped at a couple of spots, including the vista point near Mt. Edna, which looks southwest toward the new Diamond Valley reservoir. The air was dusty from a Santa Ana condition, but the view was still spectacular.

The road drops quickly into Banning, through more switchbacks, with tighter twists than on the Palm Desert side. From Banning, drivers can catch I-10 back home.

As the movie capital of the world, there are spots all over Southern California that have been captured on film. I had a great time looking for one historic spot, then exploring the San Jacinto Mountains. Hope you have a good time, too.

Palms-To-Pines Highway
Palms-To-Pines vista.
Map of the Palms to Pines

Route and Info

  • From March 2005


  • About 73 miles from I-10 in Palm Desert to I-10 in Banning. Palm Desert is about 145 miles north of San Diego.


  • Moderate. There are scary curves, but it’s all paved.


  • I-15 north from San Diego.
  • I-215 north from Murietta.
  • SR-60 east at Moreno Valley. Join I-10 at Beaumont.
  • Exit I-10 at Monterey Avenue in Palm Desert. Head south. Monterey Avenue becomes SR-74, the Palms-to-Pines Highway, south of Palm Desert Drive (SR-111).
  • Right at Idyllwild Road (SR-243) in Mountain Center. Follow SR-243 back to I-10 in Banning.
  • In Banning, left at Lincoln Street.
  • Right at Eighth Street to Interstate 10.
Downtown Idylwild
Snow is visible on mountain peaks from downtown Idyllwild.
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Prius Could Be Toyota’s SUV-Killer

The Hummer might be the flashiest vehicle families can take to the mall, but there’s a new threat that the hulking sport utility can’t overcome.

It’s the latest generation of the Toyota Prius.

Because smart families will be laughing all the way to the bank at their foolish neighbors in massive, fuel guzzling SUVs and minivans, while enjoying gas mileage in the mid-40s mixed with all the comfort of a midsize sedan, plus the utility of a hatchback.

Now nearly the size of its sister, the popular Toyota Camry, the new Prius is highly competitive with anything on the road in the midsize category.

And that makes it a practical alternative for any family, couple or single looking for today’s traditional American sedan.

All for prices starting at $20,810… if you can afford to wait for one. (Note: This was the price Prius I tested back in April 2004.)

Having spent many weeks behind the wheel of rental mid-size cars, such as the Ford Taurus, Chevrolet Malibu and Pontiac Grand Am, I found the Prius far superior in driving experience, comfort and utility.

And none of those cars can touch the average 43 miles per gallon I got during my week cruising around Southern California’s city streets and freeways.

But this is not you mother’s mid-size. It’s high-tech from first glance, with slipstream aerodynamic styling on the outside and ultra techo gizmos on the inside.

The driving experience does take some adjustment. For example, there’s “by wire” driving. There was no key for my car, which was equipped with the optional Smart Entry and Start System.

Drivers get something that looks like a conventional alarm/lock/unlock paddle. Once you’re in the car, though, you don’t have a key to insert and turn. If you like, you can slip the paddle in a slot next to the steering wheel. But the car will start (using a start button) if the paddle is anywhere in the car. So leave it in your purse or pocket.

There’s no gear shift, just a knob that tells the computer if the driver wants to go forward, reverse or use engine braking (“B”) for better economy.

All that technology makes itself known in more ways than just starting and shifting. A big screen in the center of the dash provides displays on everything from what’s pushing the car (gas, electric or a combination of both), to charging efficiency, to gasoline usage and battery level.

Also accessed through the touch screen are audio and climate controls, plus the optional GPS navigation system. Buttons to control the stereo are also on the steering wheel.

All this technology does have a learning curve. I only drove the car for a few days and had yet to master the stereo and GPS system. If your VCR is still blinking at “12:00,” you might need formal training to master the Prius interior.

Otherwise, the interior is roomy and very utilitarian, without looking cheap or stark. Back seat room was adequate for my 6-1 frame and would work fine for kids on long trips. With the back seat folded down and the huge rear hatch, you’ll have enough room for almost anything you’d expect to put in an SUV or minivan.

On the road, Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive combines a thrifty and ultra low emissions 1.497-liter gasoline engine with an electric motor and sophisticated computer technology. Working together, they produce enough oomph to cruise all day at Southern California freeway speeds approaching 80 mph (when there’s no traffic or Highway Patrol presence).

Unlike Honda’s Civic hybrid, the electric motor operates the car at low speeds — 10-20 mph — before the gasoline engine makes a virtually silent startup. That means pedestrians won’t hear you coming, so beware.

Connecting the engine to the wheels is an electronically controlled continuously variable transmission which constantly adjusts the gear ratio for optimum performance. There’s a lot of subtle motion coming from not only the transmission, but the gasoline engine, electric motor and charging system clicking on and off. Most folks won’t even notice it.

Styling is very aerodynamic, which isn’t a problem, except for the low ground effects. More than once, I heard the plastic skirts scraping on driveways and road-drainage dips. Beware, as more than one Prius owner has left an exhaust system on the road, leading to expensive repairs.

But would I buy and recommend one of these? Certainly. No vehicle is perfect, and certainly there’s a lot to get used to driving an SUV… tipping over on curves, a huge turning radius that makes parking impossible and blind spots, to name a few.

The Prius is a practical family sedan that happens to get fantastic gas mileage. Oh, and by the way, you can buy two for the price of one Hummer H2, so if you’ve got a lot to haul, take both Priuses and leave the tanks to the military.

About the Car

  • Vehicle: 2004 Toyota Prius
  • Reviewed: April 2004
  • Time with car: One week
  • Miles: About 1,000.
  • Vehicle supplied by Toyota for review.
  • Web site link


  • If you buy one of these used, be sure to get an extended warranty as the batteries can be very expensive to replace. Otherwise, newer models have a bit more power.
  • Gas mileage is a controversial issue. I quote the mileage I actually got on my test trip.
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See where you can visit on a Joyride Guru journey.


Old Highway 80 The well-preserved former U.S. 80 in eastern San Diego County has all the charms of driving on an old country highway. It's Chapter 1 in Joyrides Around San Diego.
Blair Valley Take an easy, off-pavement drive on the western edge of the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. It's good for off-road novices with all-wheel-drive vehicles. Discover beautiful desert vistas, history and have fun all in a couple of hours from San Diego. Chapter 9 in Joyrides Around San Diego.