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Laguna Lunch: Scenery, Sandwich Yummy; Quick Mountain Trip Worth The Drive

With all the mountains in San Diego County, a picnic in the wilderness is only a few minutes away for the thousands who have high-ground-clearance vehicles. Qualifying are most of the SUVs on the road, including crossovers.

The Mount Laguna area, at around 6,000 feet, has all the necessary features — trees and dirt roads. Pick a day like I did, when there’s hardly anyone around, and it makes for a perfect afternoon getaway.

My vehicle for this San Diego day trip, back in the summer of 2007, was a bit more than just something with high ground clearance. It was a 2007 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon, the four-door version loaded to the gills with bigger tires, assorted skid plates underneath, a hard top and interior almost as comfortable as a passenger car. Clearly too much for the roads, but fun nonetheless. The version you find today in your local Jeep showroom will be about the same.

Head east on Interstate 8, but don’t forget to pick up a sandwich along the way. I stopped at one of my favorite delis, located at Alpine Frontier Liquor, 1730 Alpine Boulevard, unit 201. Exit I-8 at Tavern Road; it’s located in the same center as the Carl’s Junior, right off the freeway. One caution… the sandwiches are huge.

Continuing on I-8, I exited at Sunrise Highway, taking the pleasurable drive up the hill. It has a couple of designations: county Highway S-1 and the Sunrise Highway Scenic Byway. Whatever it’s called, drivers curve up the sides of the hills, passing the timber line after a few minutes.

At the top is the small community of Mount Laguna. Mostly inside the Cleveland National Forest, there’s the Laguna Mountain Lodge, with small store, restaurant, cabins, and where I made my first stop, the Visitor Information Center. There, knowledgeable volunteers will help plan a day in the mountains. Trail maps are available, as are National Forest passes ($5), needed only for parked vehicles. Cruising around is free.

If you’re looking for formal picnic areas, the volunteers can direct you to one of several that are on the mountain. My plan was to just park somewhere, pull out my folding chair, and enjoy the secluded spot, rather than go to an official picnic area.

Most of the roads are closed to private vehicles. One that is open, at least for 2.5 about miles, is Los Huecos Road, which runs west from the visitor center.

An easy, well maintained dirt road, it’s one place a passenger car wouldn’t have any trouble. It was still a bit early to eat, so I stopped back in at the visitor center to get some more directions. While there, I ended up chatting with a couple of volunteers who were having their lunch at the picnic table behind the center; I joined them and managed to eat half the huge sandwich I picked up in Alpine.

There was another road to explore, Thing Valley Road, which is about a mile south on Sunrise Highway. A sign posted says the gate is closed three miles ahead, but it was still worth the trip.

Thing Valley Road is named after the Thing family, which still owns property near Las Posas Road and Interstate 8. On Mount Laguna, the road winds through a beautiful forest. It is narrow, rutted and rocky in spots, so it was a bit more of a challenge for the Wrangler. And although I put the Jeep in four-wheel-drive high at one point just to make sure it was working, any vehicle with high ground clearance would have an easy time on this road.

This trail does have its ups and downs. It rises and falls about 500 feet, with the highest point I saw being 6,040 feet, according to the Jeep’s built-in GPS system, which actually had Thing Valley Road in its database.

And off road, what a nice Jeep it was. The last time I drove a Wrangler — a second-generation model — was back in 2002. The new-for-2007 third-generation still looks back to its CJ and World War II roots, with removable top and doors, and a Spartan (at least for 2007) interior. This one has a V-6, replacing the inline 6 that originally powered the American Motors Rambler. With four doors and a big tire hanging out back, it seemed a bit long.

On the twisting drive up Sunrise Highway, it was fun. On the freeway, however, it seemed a bit underpowered, with the automatic transmission doing a lot of shifting and my right foot spending a lot of time near the floorboard. Still, it was quiet and much more civilized than that 2002 Wrangler. I can see why the factory in Toledo, Ohio, can’t keep up with demand.

After a pleasant drive through the trees for a mile or so, the road hugs the edge of Quail Springs Meadow. A beautiful open patch surrounded by peaks, its grasses were a patchwork of green and gold in the sun when I visited in mid-August. If I hadn’t eaten lunch back at the visitor center, this would have been the spot.

A few minutes down the road are several homes, and about the only traffic I saw that day was on Thing Valley Road, where a couple of residents and a Ranger Sally, who patrols the area for the Forest Service, drove by. It’s a one-lane road, but there are turnouts here and there. Be polite and back up, if you’re the closest to the turnout.

Sure enough, the gate was locked about four miles in. There was plenty of room to turn around, and the drive back was as pleasant as the drive in. Since the trip back to Sunrise Highway was mostly a gentle uphill grade, it was here that I shifted into 4WD high, just to give it a test.

Sure, this wasn’t a long drive, but it did put me in nature for a few hours. The sandwich and the company at the visitor center were great, and the Jeep got a little exercise. Stake out some time to give your senses and your SUV a little exercise.

Jeep on the trail at about 6,000 feet.

On the trail.

Route and Info

  • From September 2007


  • An easy, off-road drive.


  • 33-mile round trip from Interstate 8. Exit is about 45 miles from central San Diego.


  • Interstate 8 east to Sunrise Highway (S-1).
  • Turn left onto Sunrise Highway after exiting freeway.
  • Visitor Information Center is about 10 miles north.
  • Los Huecos Road runs west adjacent to the visitor center.
  • From the visitor center, Thing Valley Road is less than a mile south (toward I-8) on Sunrise Highway and runs east.
  • Return to I-8.
Jeep at 6,000 feet.
Jeep at 6,000 feet.


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Riding a Roller Coaster in a Pocket Rocket

Lyons Valley Loop Around Jamul Is Twisty Fun

  • From August 2007

If there’s a road in San Diego County that mimics the Giant Dipper Roller Coaster at Mission Beach, it must be Lyons Valley Road, near Jamul.

And cruising it in a nimble pocket rocket like Nissan’s new-for-2007 Sentra SE-R Spec V can be more fun than flying around on the wooden monument at the beach. And a warning… whatever your vehicle, if you don’t like twisting roads, avoid this one.

Lyons Valley Road, running northeast from Jamul, is one of the oldest roads in the county, dating to 1851 when Army Capt. Nathaniel Lyon mapped out the route, looking for a faster way east. Compared to this, the Giant Dipper, built in 1925, is a young pup.

There isn’t much traffic out here and most of the through drivers use Skyline Truck Trail, avoiding most of the serious twists. Bicyclists, a few motorcycles and what looked like locals were the only drivers I saw on a recent Saturday morning.

Nissan Sentra SE-R at the Lyons Valley Trading Post.

Heading east, I chose to take Jamul Drive, rather than state Route 94 (Campo Road) from Rancho San Diego. Jamul Drive is a narrow and twisting, leading up from Steele Canyon. Residences are typical of the Jamul area, small ranchettes with usually hidden driveways. The trees, sharp curves and possibility of a surprise meeting with the neighbors means it’s a place to keep the speed down.

Turn left onto Lyons Valley Road and head north, but don’t miss the next turn, a right at Skyline Truck Trail, to stay on today’s route. From here, Lyons Valley Road starts out innocently enough, gently curving through the homes on the northern hills of Jamul. But once it passes the Mormon church and the “End 40 MPH” sign, things get a bit more serious. First, it starts a more aggressive climb. Then, the twists begin.

And what great twists they are. While it may have changed a bit since Capt. Lyon first marked the road, it probably hasn’t changed much since, most likely, it was first paved in the early part of the last century. It’s one of those roads with no shoulder, no ditch to the side, no turnouts.

In other words, loads of fun.

While the twists are usually banked the right way, it’s never been smoothed out. Adding to the roller coaster effect are several ups-and-downs on near straightaways.

Twists along Honey Springs Road.
Twists along Honey Springs Road.

Watch for those yellow “15 MPH” signs with the big arrow pointing one way or another. The county road engineers that placed the signs were serious; Lyons Valley Road has, for its length, among the most number of hairpin, blind and any other descriptor for dangerous curves that the thesaurus can come up with.

Several stretches are on shelves — spots where there was no place to build a road, so a cliff was blasted or excavated (possibly by hand, as the road appears to be that old) to create a shelf. That means one side is an unforgiving cliff rising 50 feet or more; the other side a drop-off, with bottom another 50 feet down.

The rocky terrain around Jamul leads to a few more hazards on the course. Round, weathered boulders protrude into the lane — or at least seem to be that way. One even seems to curve out a dozen feet or so above the traffic.

Signs at either end warn that Lyons Valley Road isn’t a place for big trucks. I’d trust the advice, even if your truck is just a lifted full-sized pickup.

The Sentra didn’t have any problem, with the pocket rocket really showing its stuff on the roller coaster. I don’t think I ever had it above 40 miles per hour so the 200 horsepower engine pulling a 3,078 lb. vehicle was never even breathing hard.

One feature of the Sentra I couldn’t enjoy was the G-force meter at the top center of the dashboard. Yes, Nissan puts a gravity gauge in this car, as it’s become a popular after market toy for the tuner crowd.

After the twists, the Lyons Valley Trading Post was a welcome sight. In 2007, it was owned for the last few years by local and Castle Park High School grad Bob Johnston, there are plenty of cold beverages and munchies in stock.

From there, make the right turn at Honey Springs road to return to Highway 94, or stay on Lyons Valley Road north to Japatul Road and I-8. I opted for Honey Springs, a gentler, but still fun drive.

Simpson's Nursery really has plants... but also lots of cars.

Just after the turn on Honey Springs Road, look up at the top of the Lyons Peak and you’ll see the old fire tower. No longer staffed, lookouts used to be on guard for brush fires in the area. Cameras now keep watch.

Honey Springs is a great road heading north, but going south, as in today’s route, is a totally different experience. The twists are still there, but the southern most portion — a mile or so from SR-94 — open up vistas of hills covered with gold. This was once grazing land for Rancho Jamul and is now the Hollenbeck Canyon Wildlife Area. This, and the Rancho Jamul Ecological Reserve south of Highway 94, are now owned by the state of California, meaning this view will be preserved.

At Highway 94, I turned west back to Jamul. Traffic can be heavy here, so be careful on the two-lane road. In Jamul, I visited two of my favorite spots: Filippi’s Pizza for lunch, and Simpson’s Garden Town Nursery, for another look at owners Lee and Cathy Smith’s collection of cars. The lines of 1940 Fords, Model T’s and travel trailers make Simpson’s worth a visit. Oh, and the plants aren’t bad, either.

Few road paved roads in the county are as challenging as Lyons Valley Road. Even in a minivan, take it slow and easy and you’ll make it just fine.

Just make sure to stay on your side of the yellow line… and watch out for those rocks.

Route and Info


  • About 34 miles from end of SR-94 freeway.


  • Challenging. Some of the kinkiest roads in the county and if you miss a turn, you fall off a cliff.


  • SR-94 east. Continue onto Jamacha Road at Campo Road.
  • Right at Willow Glen Drive.
  • Right at Steele Canyon Road.
  • Left at Jamul Drive.
  • Left at Lyons Valley Road.
  • Follow Lyons Valley Road to the right at intersections with Skyline Truck Trail and Honey Springs Road.
  • Right at Honey Springs Road.
  • Right at SR-94.
  • Follow SR-94 back to freeway in Casa de Oro.
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Riding the Curves from Pala to Temecula

Exercise a Sports Car While Crossing the Riverside-San Diego County Line

  • From July 2007

A sunny day and a new Mazda Miata cry out for a trip over some twisting mountain roads.

The selection on a recent Saturday afternoon was a route over a couple of classics between Pauma Valley and Temecula: Rice Canyon Road and the Pala-Temecula Road.

These two roads run through the rugged mountains between the valleys carved out by the Santa Margarita and San Luis Rey rivers. A bit to the east and these mountains really get serious: they peak at Palomar Mountain, which climbs to more than 5,000 feet.

These roads follow the passes at lower elevations. Narrow and twisting, they’re perfect for old, skinny highways that follow the contours. It’s on roads like these that a tiny skateboard of a car like the Miata really shines. It’s one of those spots where you’re in control of the roller coaster ride — otherwise you’ll end up in a field, tree or telephone pole.

Just follow the yellow-lined road.

Take Interstate 15 to the state Route 76 exit, then east on Pala Road toward the Las Vegas of San Diego county, where there are a half-dozen Indian casinos within a few miles. The casino traffic has turned SR-76 from a fun drive to real pain so exit early, taking the left onto Rice Canyon Road just a couple of miles east of I-15.

And old farm road, Rice Canyon snakes north and quickly rises in elevation. It’s one of the least improved through roads in the county. And what does “least improved” mean? In spots its two lanes aren’t much wider than a pair of Model A Fords set side-by-side. Mostly, there’s no shoulder. Trees and telephone poles intrude into the lane. Curves are banked the wrong way. A road still set up for horse and wagon.

No problem. I was fortunate enough to have snagged a 2007 MX-5 Roadster from Mazda for the weekend, so my classic ‘91 Miata was left home in the garage. True to the original in all but its more plush appointments, the ‘07 MX-5 (with the retractable hard top, no less) ate up Rice Canyon like it had been specifically designed for this road.

They say vehicles are just mechanical things, without a soul, but their designers are always striving for a certain experience for the driver, whether its the rolling living room comfort of an SUV on the freeway, or the sports-car thrill of low-speed twisties (I don’t think I ever got above 45 miles per hour). Mazda’s design center is in Irvine, so while behind the wheel I can imagine designers and engineers testing a prototype of this third generation of the world’s best-selling roadster right here in Rice Canyon.

In any event, it seems this car was destined for this road from the time it came out of the factory in Hiroshima.

The expression of driving enthusiasts checking out this car always fell when they noticed the six-speed automatic transmission. In fact, after booking the vehicle, the folks at Mazda quickly called me back to apologize for the Activematic and asked if I still wanted the car.

I took it.

I ended up driving Rice Canyon Road three times just to get the hang of the manual option in the Activematic, with paddle shifters sprouting from the steering wheel. Engine braking and higher-revving acceleration — areas where automatics tend to fail — returned in manual mode. Manual-transmission driving allows the right foot to reduce the times it slips over to the brake pedal; the Activematic in manual mode pretty much simulated the manual driving experience. Except my left foot was a bit lonely.

These types of roads are all over this area. Just south of Rice Canyon Road is Couser Canyon Road, another fantastic twisty. East County has Japatul Valley Road and much of Old Highway 80. These are the roads that will put a twinkle the eye of any driving enthusiast, whether their car is a Mustang, Pantera or Miata. Even the Dodge Avenger I had last month would have been fun here, although a bit of a challenge on the narrow highway.

Pala Mission.

One of the good things about Rice Canyon Road is that it’s usually pretty open. Not much traffic here, so drivers can go at their own pace. And keep the speed down, otherwise you’ll end up wrapped around that old tree that intrudes into the right side of the road.

All too quickly, Rice Canyon Road reaches its summit in Rainbow, a little settlement dominated by nurseries. Where 8th Street meets Camino Rainbow, you’ll see the back of a bit of classic automobilia — the first of two old gas stations. This was once part of U.S. 395, the through route in these parts now mostly called Interstate 15. Back in the day, this little two lane road snaked north from San Diego to Perris, Riverside and San Bernardino, through farming communities like Rainbow.

This station has been wonderfully preserved, including an old gas pump with its big, glass container. It’s now a real estate office. A bit up the road is another old gas station which has survived but isn’t in great shape.

Old gas station in Rainbow is just about the right size for the Miata.

Still heading north, drivers cross into Riverside County, through the Temecula Creek Inn Golf Course and a block or two of tract homes, make a right at Pechanga Parkway (S-16). The huge Pechanga Resort Casinolooks more like Las Vegas every year; if you haven’t stopped in, make a point to.

Like almost every other square foot of land in this area, homes are either complete or under construction, even in this extreme southern end of the city. But as soon as the elevation starts to rise, the road narrows, rural Southern California returns and we’re heading back into San Diego County.

On the map, Pala-Temecula Road is a lot of squiggles with a big hairpin curve in the middle. It’s traversing a canyon north of the small, historic Indian community of Pala. Vistas are beautiful as drivers hug the edge of the canyon. Classic Southern California mountain driving.

Watch the curves on Pala-Temecula Road.

I did see a few buses from the casinos here and there, plus a semi hauling what might have been a tanker trailer full of milk. There are still a couple of dairies in the area and the Pauma Valley is still primarily agricultural, all casinos aside.

An advantage of an auto/manual like the Activematic is that drivers can select the automatic in traffic, making the stop-and-go a bit more pleasant. I took manual control for awhile on the Pala-Temecula Road, making for a more involved experience. When I caught up with a motorhome, I let the transmission do the work, sat back and enjoyed the scenery.

In Pala, visitors can stop in at Mission San Antonio de Pala, which boasts that it’s the only California mission that still serves its original Native American population. An Asistencia, it was built around 1816 as an adjunct to Mission San Luis Rey in Oceanside. Its bell tower — separate from the church — is a unique feature. The little hamlet of Pala also has a few shops, including a taco stand.

After a right turn, you’re face-to-face with the giant Pala Casino Resort and Spa, another spot worthy of Las Vegas. Stop in here to complete your casino tour, if you have any money left from Pechanga. It’s just another five miles west on Pala Road and back to I-15.

On my way back, I took another turn on Rice Canyon Road, giving the MX-5 a bit more exercise. I’ve been here before in my ‘91 and I’ll be back again.

It’s just what driving is all about.

Directions and Info


  • About 28 miles


  • Challenging, especially on narrow, twisting Rice Canyon and Pala-Temecula roads.


  • Interstate 15 to SR-76/Pala Road. Go east.
  • Left at Rice Canyon Road. Continue onto Eighth Street.
  • Right at Camino Rainbow. Continue onto Rainbow Valley Boulevard, Frontage Road and Rainbow Canyon Road.
  • Right at Pechanga Parkway, County Highway S-16. Road changes name to Pala Road, then, after crossing into San Diego County, Pala-Temecula Road.
  • Right at Pala Mission Road, County Highway S-16.
  • Right at Pala Road/SR-76 to Interstate 15.
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Loop De Luz: Take Mountain Byway through Avocado Groves

Among the twisting byways in our region, De Luz Road has to rate as one of the best. Winding over the mountains from Temecula to Fallbrook, it goes up and down over the peaks and valleys, past avocado groves and along the edge of breathtaking canyons.

What a great spot to test the road legs of a Subaru Impreza WRX hatchback.

Head north on Interstate 15 about 55 miles north from central San Diego (let’s say Qualcomm Stadium), allowing at least an hour, maybe more if there’s traffic. From the suburban clog in Temecula, head west over Rancho California Road.

The highway rises quickly, providing views of the Temecula valley and a bit of fun driving right away, rising about 1,000 feet in only about three miles of driving. After reaching the peak, be sure to check out the custom homes dotting the ridge tops. Looks like folks have built more than a few dream palaces in the hills.

There are also quite a few ranchettes in this area: large homes on an acre or more with room enough for horses. Moving west, this area of Riverside County is a point of land between Camp Pendleton to the south and the Cleveland National Forest to the north.

There are only a couple of ways in and out of here, and we’re driving one today. That makes the risk high for problems when there’s a brush fire; there are fire-danger signs posted along the route to educate visitors and residents alike.

Join up with De Luz Road and continue heading south. The road twists and turns, flies up and down … an extremely fun time. Don’t exceed the posted speed limit, mostly 45 miles per hour or less, as there are spots where one hairpin turn leads to another.

There are also residents and workers on these ranches. I saw several semis headed the other direction. During the harvest season, not only are there large trucks running up and down the roads, there are also stacks of packing crates along the side — and sometimes in — the road. In some ways, this is an industrial area and the industry is farming.

The Impreza WRX proved to be a very enjoyable ride on this most challenging highway. Equipped with the turbo and all-wheel drive, it ate up the curves. Quick shifting with the five-speed manual kept the RPM gauge running up and down, but the low speeds on the narrow, twisting road mostly kept the turbocharger from kicking in. The suspension is firm, so there was minimal lean around the curves, but not so firm that the ride is jiggly on the freeway. This wasn’t the STi showroom-to-racetrack version, but the base WRX’s wide body and 17-inch wheels keep the car glued to the road.

The spots that are both scary and delightful along De Luz are where the road dips into ravines, fording the streams that run through the area. Even in late spring, water can still be flowing across the road, which is what it’s designed to do. There’s only one bridge along this route and it crosses the Santa Margarita River. The rest of the dips in the terrain are followed by the road; they’re well marked, so pay attention. They’re usually under the canopy of natural oaks and other trees, which are a nice break during hot weather.

De Luz Road spends part of its life in the rugged and wide open northeastern edge of Camp Pendleton and another part in the Santa Margarita Open Space Preserve, two non-developments that have resulted in the area looking much as it did when European settlers moved into this area in the 1880s.

In the midst of this is the De Luz Nature Study Center, located in the old one-room De Luz School, which operated from 1927-1968. I didn’t have time to stop during my visit, but the center is open to the public. Call the center at (760) 723-7070 for details.

Leaving the mountains, De Luz Road makes one final sharp turn, then runs straight south into Fallbrook. Its quaint downtown is dotted with restaurants, art galleries and antique shops, making it a favorite with weekend drivers. If you have time, park and walk around.

It was along Main Street that I saw the first “Historic Route U.S. 395” sign. Recently added by the County of San Diego and spearheaded by the Fallbrook Chamber of Commerce, the historic routing traces the original path of old U.S. 395, which wandered south from Temecula to Escondido through Fallbrook, Vista and San Marcos. (Update: There’s now a 395 Facebook page.)

Of course, it’s fun to retrace old highways, but it’s better to make your destination one of North County’s great burger stands: George Burgers in San Marcos. That it took me mostly over old U.S. 395 was just so much the better.

From Fallbrook, I headed south through Bonsall to the sometimes traffic-clogged Pala Road, east over the San Luis Rey River (looking for the old Bonsall Bridge to the west), over East Vista Way to Escondido Avenue and South Santa Fe Avenue. From there, it was east, following the old Santa Fe railroad tracks (route of the new Sprinter light-rail passenger service) and into San Marcos. A right turn at Palomar College and we’re at 217 N. Las Posas Avenue.

George Burgers has been operated since 1976 by the George Papoutsis family, where things have been upgraded a bit since they were relocated up the street in 2004 after state Route 78 was widened. They have a huge menu, including many Mexican and Greek items, but it’s the burgers I love.

From here, head south a block or so to state Route 78; east is Escondido and I-15, while west goes to Oceanside and I-5.

If burgers aren’t your passion, it’s OK to finish your San Diego day trip at Pala Road, making a left to go back to I-15 and home. But a George’s #1 Combo with cheese had my name on it, so I wound 12 miles through the traffic in Vista and San Marcos for George Burgers.

Not a bad way to spend the day.

Along De Luz Road.
Watch the curves on De Luz Road.

Route and Info

  • From May 2007


  • About 44 miles from Temecula to San Marcos.


  • Challenging through De Luz. Traffic on Pala Road and through Vista and San Marcos.


  • Interstate 15 north to Temecula.
  • Exit I-15 at Rancho California Road. Turn left onto Rancho California Road.
  • Left onto Rancho California Road.
  • Left at De Luz Road.
  • Continue onto De Luz Murietta Road.
  • Left at De Luz Road.
  • In Fallbrook, continue onto North Pico Avenue.
  • Left at West Mission Road.
  • Right at Main Street.
  • Right at Ammunition Road.
  • Left at South Mission Road.
  • Right at Pala Road (SR-76).
  • Left at East Vista Way.
  • Left at Escondido Avenue.
  • Left at South Santa Fe. At Rancho Santa Fe Road in San Marcos, road changes name to Mission Road.
  • Right at Las Posas Avenue and SR-78.

Web Sites

WRX enjoyed the curves.
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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.