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Taking the High Road in Corral Canyon

Wilderness Area Is A Real San Diego County Gem

In La Mesa, Interstate 8 and State Route 94 nearly meet, coming within a couple of miles of each other, connected by SR-125. Before meeting up in Boulevard, they form the shape of an eye heading east, with the widest spot coming near where I-8 passes Pine Valley and SR-94 hits Campo.

The center of that wide spot is our destination for today’s San Diego day trip, one of the most remote, rugged and beautiful spots anywhere in the county — the Corral Canyon Off Highway Vehicle Area.

It’s also home to the last operating fire observation tower in the county… and the friendly fire watcher is happy to welcome visitors, so let’s make her day and stop on in.

With more than 50 miles of trails ranging in elevation from 3,400 to 4,169 feet, Corral Canyon allows drivers to sample challenging rock trails, dirt and paved roads. Campgrounds are also in the area, which has lush coastal chaparral and native trees at this writing, not having had a major fire since the early 1970s.

Maps show the off-highway vehicle area being smack in the middle of a largely unpopulated area, surrounded by the Pine Creek Wilderness, just southwest of Pine Valley, and the Hauser Wilderness, east of Lake Morena. It’s one of the biggest open spots anywhere in the county.

So, on my way back from a late-season visit to the desert (by the way, this is about six hours from Phoenix) and driving a four-wheel-drive equipped Explorer courtesy of Ford, I pulled off at the Buckman Springs Rest Area to check it out.

The trip alone from the Rest Area to Corral Canyon Road is worth the drive in any vehicle. Buckman Springs Road is a beautiful, twisting highway with many parts shaded by old oaks. Keep the speed down as you pass Mountain Empire High School.

Off Buckman Springs Road is even better… if you have the driving skill and at least an SUV, truck or other vehicle with high ground clearance. The Miata was best left at home today.

The turn to Corral Canyon Road is well marked with signs pointing to the Off Highway Vehicle area, campground at Lake Morena and Camp Morena, a post that since 1940 has had several different uses by the U.S. Army, California Army National Guard and other military units.

Oaks surround and cover the early parts of Corral Canyon Road as it passes Camp Morena and a few private ranches on the way. When I visited in mid-May, things were still green and blooming following the late-winter rains. The spring aroma was wonderful.

Even when things are green, remember that this is fire country, something I was reminded of when I met Angela Cook and her firefighting crew about seven miles in at the Four Corners area, the official entry to the Off Highway Vehicle area.

According to Cook, it’s a serious off-roading place, with some of the trails a challenge even to experienced rock-crawlers. It’s also best to leave the kids at home, she said, pack water and supplies, and plan ahead.

“There’s no cell service out here,” she added, recommending that serious off-roaders always come in pairs of vehicles… in case one rock-crawler gets stuck, the other can go get help.

At the Four Corners lot, there are large maps showing the Off Highway Vehicle area and outlining the rules. Permits are required for off-highway vehicles.

While the Explorer had seemed capable off road on an earlier trip in the desert, Cook didn’t recommend I try any of the off-road trails in the area for a couple of reasons. First, because I was alone, she advised that I come another time and bring other folks along in another off-road equipped vehicle, just in case there’s trouble.

Second, she thought the Explorer’s large size would be a problem even on some of the easier trails, since, she said, even vehicles as small as a Jeep Wrangler sometimes are a tight squeeze.

She did recommend I take a trip up to the top of Los Pinos Mountain, where a fire observation tower is located at elevation 4,805 feet. The rangers, she said, are always happy to see visitors and the view is great.

So, I headed up the road — recently paved — to what I found out is the only operational fire observation tower in the county. There, fire observer JoEllen Scully and her partner, Norm Mitchell, keep a vigil almost every day of the year.

With a view that on a clear day can stretch to the Coronado Islands, the drive up the narrow, twisting road was well worth the visit. There was fog and the “May gray” haze to the east, but I swear I could smell the ocean from the peak. Scully said yes, they do get ocean breezes here, and it was cooler than down in the valley.

A throwback to the days before satellites and other high-tech fire monitoring techniques, Scully spends her days in the tower keeping an eye out for puffs of smoke that might end up as blazes as large as 2003’s Cedar Fire, which burned a few miles to the west.

“It’s the best office in San Diego County,” she said, adding that visitors are always welcome.

The 2006 Explorer did a great job getting up and down the mountain, even if it did seem to be filling the entire width of the narrow, but paved trail. Four-wheel-drive wasn’t needed, even on the two miles of dirt from Buckman Springs Road to Camp Morena. The 4.6 liter V-8 mated to a six-speed automatic overdrive transmission had no problems getting up and down the hills.

According to the computer readout on the dash, gas mileage was around 16.5 miles per gallon on the off-road segment, down from the 18-19 it was getting on the freeway. That isn’t bad for such a large vehicle.

Vigilance is needed, however. Nobody was going the other way as I went up Los Pinos Road, but on the way out, a guy in a Jeep Wrangler was coming the other direction on Corral Canyon Road. He was nice enough to pull over while I passed. The nice leather seats, cut-pile carpeting and cold air-conditioning were in contrast to his rig, which looked like a basic Wrangler with only a tarp between the windshield header and roll bar as protection. Some folks go for utility, others for comfort.

These days, a lot more folks have vehicles like this Explorer, rather than the rough-and-ready Wrangler. If you’re one of them, check out Corral Canyon. Both Scully and Cook said I should be able to make the drive around the off-highway vehicle area with no problem.

It’s a 12-mile loop around the southern section, past the Bobcat Meadow and Corral Canyon campgrounds. From Four Corners intersection heading in from Corral Canyon Road, either go straight on Corral Canyon Road or turn right onto Skye Valley Road. Taking Corral Canyon Road, the maps show they meet about 4 miles southwest; taking Skye Valley Road, you’ll find Corral Canyon Road after almost 8 miles.

Unless you’re a serious off-roader, Cook advised staying off of Skye Valley Road west of Corral Canyon Road, as the trail had some serious rocky areas as a result of the winter rains.

However, I didn’t have time to take a drive around the park. The day was ending after spending time yacking with Scully and enjoying the view at the fire lookout tower. So, I headed home.

This is one of the best open space areas in the county — and one of the best I’ve seen in Southern California. If you go, be careful, pack out anything you bring (including trash) and be safe. You’ll have a great time.

Fire tower at Corral Canyon.
Fire tower at Corral Canyon.

Route and Info

Distance

  • At least a 20 mile round-trip from Buckman Springs Rest Area. Buckman Springs is about 45 miles east from central San Diego.

Difficulty

  • Moderate to Difficult, including dirt access road. Trails inside Corral Canyon Off Highway Vehicle area can be hazardous; don’t attempt unless you’re a serious off-roader.

Directions

  • Interstate 8 to Buckman Springs Road. Head west from freeway to Buckman Springs Road. Continue south on Buckman Springs Road.
  • Right at Corral Canyon Road, posted with Off Highway Vehicle Area signs and a large sign pointing to Camp Morena.
  • To Los Pinos Lookout, turn right at “Four Corners” parking lot onto Los Pinos Road.

Web sites:

View from fire tower.
View from fire tower.
A reminder to keep on the roadways.
A reminder to keep on the roadways.
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Golfing Through the Dene: A Great Drive, Plus Links, North of Escondido

North of Escondido is some of the most rugged terrain in San Diego county.

Among the peaks and valleys the some great roads on today’s itinerary. And, of course, there’s just a bit of history along the way. Our route twists over peaks and ravines, past avocado groves, a gaggle of golf courses and ends up crossing a graceful, award-winning bridge.

So gas up the bike, convertible or sports car, and come along for a great San Diego day trip.

After exiting Interstate 15 at El Norte Parkway in Escondido, cut through the suburban mishmash and head north on Broadway past Escondido High School and the Reidy Creek Golf Course (the first of five we’ll pass today). Turn left to a real hidden gem, the community of Jesmond Dene.

I’ve always had a soft spot for the name — Jesmond Dene. As a kid cruising around in the back seat of my parents’ Pontiac, I always though there was something funny about the name. To a six-year-old, Jesmond Dene became Jimmy Dean, the country singer and sausage maker Jimmy Dean. However, that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Turns out, the name comes from Newcastle-upon-Tyne in northeastern England, reports Leland Fetzer in his book, “San Diego County Place Names A to Z.” Two guys named W.G. Morgan and W.G. Moore developed it as a “cabin subdivision” in 1927. They hoped the image of green, rolling hills and Olde England would help sell homes in rugged, dry San Diego county.

And by the way, dene is a British English word for valley, according to Merriam-Webster.

“Downtown” is marked by the Moose Lodge (No. 1874), where there’s not only a hall, but a small campground out back for members.

The winding, sometimes tree-shaded road terminates at the northern end of Centre City Parkway at the Thunderbird Driving Range, (760) 746-0245 (we’ll count it as golf course No. 2), which is the old U.S. 395 — the highway that preceded today’s Interstate 15.

Along here, it’s not much more that the freeway’s frontage road, but it connects to our next turn, Mountain Meadow Road.

The sign says “no outlet,” but it’s worth looping around. A more recent suburb, Hidden Meadows, is up the hill at an elevation of 1,500 feet. Neatly kept homes pepper the hills, surrounding the Meadow Lake Country Club (golf course No. 3). Enjoy the drive through this lovely neighborhood; information and history is available online.

Maps will show connections west other than Mountain Meadow Road, but they’re all blocked by gates… at least the ones I was able to find. Still, I had fun driving around the hills.

Back at old U.S. 395, we head north, where it’s now called Champagne Boulevard. The section is named after the Welk Village Resort and surrounding developments, which were started by late bandleader Lawrence Welk. His bubbly “Champagne Music” continues to be a TV staple in PBS reruns but started back in the 1950s when his show was called the “Dodge Dancing Party.” Sometimes old postcards show up on eBay with Welk standing next to a swell ’61 Dodge convertible… but that’s another story.

I didn’t visit the village during my drive, but it includes a restaurant, theater and golf course (No. 4).

Take a right at Circle R Drive to the Castle Creek resort (and golf course, No. 5), where I stopped for lunch. I never learned how to play the game (always figured I had enough problems), but I have found that golf courses usually have nice restaurants.

When you’re out on the road, there are usually only a few places to stop to eat. A gas station/convenience store might have a deli, but chances are they’ve only got those factory-made sandwiches designed for long shelf life. Possibly better than a military MRE, but not by much.

A road house restaurant with a gaggle of motorcycles parked out front is a must those of you on two wheels. But another option: San Diego county is covered with golf courses and their “19th hole” eateries generally have good food with a better view than either the gas station or road house. Most are open to the public.

The restaurant at the Castle Creek Country Club didn’t disappoint. Aptly named “The View Restaurant,” it has a vista of the greens, surrounding homes and hills. The food and service weren’t bad, either. In addition to the golf course, Castle Creek has a spa and hotel.

From there, it was back to the twists and curves. Circle R Drive quickly climbs the hills, providing rich views back to I-15 and over to Valley Center, depending on which side of the hills you’re on. The twists and turns are even more enjoyable as traffic can be light, especially if you’re lucky enough to take your cruise on a weekday.

Circle R meets up with West Lilac Road and continues west, through stables, groves of avocado, a few greenhouses and fields growing a variety of crops. Ranchettes here have a few acres and a large home. Where I-15 meets West Lilac Road, engineers blasted through the ridge to reduce the grade as the freeway heads south from Pala Road. There’s no interchange at West Lilac, but a graceful, single-arch bridge that’s a local landmark. Driving across the bridge, you don’t realize its beauty, but from the freeway, do check it out.

The 695-foot span won several awards when it opened in 1979, according to Caltrans spokesman Hayden Manning.

Reaching Old Highway 395 (so signed in this area), I turned left to return home. Rather than entering the freeway a mile or so south, I opted to cruise back down the old highway as far as Mountain Meadow.

North County’s jagged terrain has some real gems for roads, not to mention some hidden communities and lots of golf courses. I’ll waive to all you duffers as I’m cruising by.

Teeing off on one of today’s courses.

Route and Info

  • From June 2006

Distance

  • About 20 miles.

Difficulty

  • Moderate; lots of hills and twists.

Directions

  • Interstate 15 to El Norte Parkway.
  • East on El Norte Parkway to Broadway.
  • Left on Broadway.
  • Left on Jesmond Dene Road.
  • Right on Centre City Parkway.
  • Right on Mountain Meadow Road. At Hidden Meadows Road, turn left to stay on Mountain Meadow Road.
  • Right at Meadow Glen Way East.
  • Continue onto Granite Ridge Road.
  • Continue onto Hidden Meadows Road.
  • Right at Champagne Boulevard.
  • Right at Circle R Drive.
  • Continue onto West Lilac Road.
  • Left at Old Highway 395. Return to Interstate 15.
Lawrence Welk sells a full-size Dodge Dart back in the day.
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Orange Blossom Special: Leave the Top — Or Windows — Down During Cruise In Farm Country

Springtime in San Diego County’s vast agricultural area is a wonderful time to take a country drive. The meadows can be green (if we’ve had rain) and flower fields are beginning to sprout.

But the real treat is finding spots that still have Southern California’s signature crop growing… groves of orange trees. There’s just nothing like the fragrance of an orange grove in bloom. It’s one of those times when open-air driving is at its best… whether the top’s down on the convertible, you’re on a motorcycle, or just have the windows down on the minivan.

Growing up in the 1960s, we would head north in the spring to visit relatives in the Long Beach or Disneyland (not much difference). A highlight was the curve on Interstate 5 just north of the Ortega Highway. Back in those days, there were groves on both sides of the freeway; my folks would roll down the windows on the Pontiac to take in the aroma. The stands are long gone, but a few places are still around where drivers can take in all that an orange grove has to offer.

A couple of easy-to-access spots in San Diego county offer a drive through the trees. One is on Bandy Canyon Road, just east of the San Diego Wild Animal Park in San Pasqual; another is our drive today, north of Escondido and Valley Center in the rugged hills around the Pala Indian Reservation.

Just a few words about keeping out of the groves: They’re private property, the farmers are in business to grow and sell oranges or avocados, so even if there isn’t a fence, don’t walk off the road onto private property.

That said, we’re heading over some of the most twisting roads in the county, plentiful in the Valley Center area. Old Castle Road is a wonderful challenge for drivers, zigzagging up a hill while providing great views of the Castle Creek Country Club.

Early on are the first groves, mostly avocado but a few orange here and there. If the trees are still in bloom, you’ll pick up the scent of the oranges right away. It will do more to freshen the interior of any car than any cardboard tree you’d hang around the rearview mirror.

All of today’s roads are the usual backcountry variety… narrow and twisting. There aren’t any shoulders in most spots, and sometimes not even a ditch or dirt parking area. It’s important to keep the speed down and drive carefully, as there are many driveways and side streets along the way. Lot size might be large in western Valley Center, but there are still many homes fronting these streets.

Just the same, your sports car or motorcycle should be able to get all its suspension parts working on these roads. They’re a fun drive. And if you’re taking something less sporting, just keep the speed down and enjoy the drive.

Almost six miles after exiting I-15, Old Castle Road ends at Lilac Road. If you’re hungry, go straight onto Lilac Road and into the town of Valley Center, where there are several restaurants. I was saving lunch for the Pala Casino, so I turned left onto Lilac Road, heading north.

Up to where West Lilac Road splits off, Lilac Road runs through canyons, sometimes shaded by oaks and marked by sharp turns. Typical of an old highway, the road generally isn’t banked the correct way, so driving is a bit of a challenge.

Passing West Lilac, the road twists a bit more before opening up to a beautiful meadow just where drivers pass the south end of Old Lilac Road. On my visit, after an early spring rain, the meadow and surrounding hills were as green as they come. A convenient and unusual wide spot in the road provided a perfect photo point.

Turn here if you’d like to visit The Keys Creek Lavender Farm, a nursery that grows lavender, as well as processing it into soap and other products. It’s website says the ranch is open to the public in May and June only. It hadn’t opened for the season yet when I visited, but I plan to return soon.

It is a 1.5 mile drive on a dirt road to reach the Lavender Fields at 12460 Keys Creek Road, which splits off from Old Lilac Road. Even though the nursery was closed, I drove up Keys Creek in my 1991 Mazda Miata (which has probably been on more dirt roads than most SUVs). I took it slow and found the road in mostly good shape, with only a few big ruts and no rocks.

Just a note on dirt roads (since this drive includes two): there are around 150 miles of unpaved, public roads in San Diego county, most in the unincorporated areas. The county of San Diego tries to re-grade many of them at least twice a year, and if they don’t get a lot of traffic they are passable for an average passenger car.

I’ll check them out in the Miata, which has extremely low ground clearance, and turn around if they’re too rutted, or at all rocky.

Many dirt roads, including one we’ll drive a bit later, are in better shape than some of the city streets around San Diego. For comparison, drive First Avenue north from Market Street in downtown San Diego; Keys Creek Road was a bit rougher and more rutted than First Avenue.

Back on the paved road (for awhile at least), it was back to the fun twisties. Near Bandy Canyon Road, the orange groves reappear. When I visited in April, they were not only in full bloom, but fruit from last year’s blooms were orange and almost ready to pick.

Just beyond Bandy Canyon, the pavement on Lilac Road ends. Using the First Avenue scale, most of the unpaved Lilac Road is better than First Avenue, and I made it all the way in the Miata.

If you don’t want to risk dinging the clear-coat on your Ferrari, then head north on Bandy Canyon Road to SR-76 to pick up our route. Otherwise, enjoy the slow speed as Lilac Road twists down into the San Luis Rey River valley. There are views of the Pala Casino and Pala Indian Reservation, ridges of the Palomar Mountains and the blue sky looking north.

At the bottom of the grade, you’ll drive through parts of the reservation. Some are marked as private roads, some are unmarked, but I kept on Lilac Road just to make sure I wasn’t trespassing.

Reaching Pala Road (SR-76), I checked out Magee Road, which quickly rises north into the hills about three miles before turning private.

Views to the south are of the Pala Reservation and the rich agricultural Pauma Valley lies to the east. Then, around a curve, the road plows right through the middle of a grove, with avocados on one side and oranges on the other. Nothing says “Southern California” more than this drive, so slow down and smell the orange blossoms. What a fabulous aroma.

Where the public road ended, I turned around and headed back to Pala Road, with my next stop the Pala Casino for lunch. I wish I’d changed my plans and stopped at the Pala Mission first, because across the street is the Pala Store, which has been the community’s grocery, cafe and post office for more than a century. Nothing against the casino, but I wish I’d grabbed a burger or burrito from the small kitchen at the store, then enjoyed it in the park across from the Mission.

An assistencia, or annex, of Mission San Luis Rey in Oceanside, the church was built in 1816 by Father Antonio Peyri and boasts that today it is the only California mission still serving its original Native American community. The grounds are beautiful and are a focal point of the Pala Reservation community, anchoring one side of a town square that includes a Boys and Girls Club, child care and school. Off the main highway, the Pala town center is a real throwback to another era in Southern California.

The casino is just west, and worth a visit. If a picnic in the park isn’t in your plans, the casino has great food; my sandwich was delicious and spending an hour or so cooling off inside wasn’t a bad idea, either.

From there, I headed west to I-15, past the now-closed dairy, as Pala Road hugs to the south side of the wide valley created by the San Luis Rey River. I was luckier with the traffic than I was in the casino… there were few cars on the road, a contrast to what can be heavy traffic on the two-lane SR-76.

There isn’t a more Southern California experience than driving through orange groves, touring a mission and cruising on twisty roads. Hope you enjoy your day.

dirt road
Unpaved Lilac Road.

Route and info

  • From April 2006

 Distance

  •  About 32 miles

 Directions

  • Interstate 15 to Gopher Canyon Road/Old Castle Road Exit.
  • East to Champagne Boulevard.
  • Right at Champagne Boulevard.
  • Left at Old Castle Road.
  • Left at Lilac Road (Old Castle Road ends).
  • Lilac Road is unpaved a mile north of Bandy Canyon Road; for a paved alternative: left at Bandy Canyon Road.
  • Right at Pala Road (state Route 76).
  • Left at Magee Road. Turn around at gate where public road ends.
  • Right at Pala Road (SR-76).
  • Right at Pala Mission Road to Pala Mission.
  • Continue west on Pala Mission Road to return to SR-76. Continue west to I-15.

 

Pauma Valley vista.
Pauma Valley Vista. That’s the Rincon Harrah’s casino in distance.
Pala Mission.
Pala Mission.
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