Fields of green and gold, babbling brooks aside winding paved roads, damp dirt trails and streams crossing dirt roads. It must be spring in San Diego’s mountains.
Arguably the area with the most variety surrounds Lake Henshaw and Warner Springs, in the extreme northeastern corner of San Diego county.
There’s usually not a lot of traffic up there, but stop by the side of state routes 76 or 79 around Morettis Junction and passing by at one time or another can be herds of Harleys. Spend some time just watching the road and you’ll also see exotic sports cars such as Corvettes, even a Ferrari and Mitsubishi 3000GT, as well as plenty of Porsches.
Off-roaders — usually dirt bikes stored in the toy hauler — pass through here on their way back from the desert, using the gentler Montezuma Grade rather than challenging the Banner Grade downtown Julian. A few also venture off into the mountain peaks around the lake, where we headed on the gorgeous first day of spring 2008.
The goals were simple — check out someplace new to eat and find a dirt road to test a Hyundai Tucson four-wheel-drive SUV on loan. The Lake Henshaw area provided both, plus enough eye candy to last until next spring.
This winter’s rains have done a lot for desert flowers and even more in the mountains. Scars from the October fires have been covered by non-native grasses and flowers while many of the scorched trees are sprouting leaves. Yellow and lavender flowers — possibly verbena — are in bloom and carpet the meadows where cattle graze.
To get a better view, I took Lost Valley Road up into the hills. A Cleveland National Forest road, it heads seven miles up to the Indian Flats Campground, which is open only from June through February. The road is paved to the campground and may also be used by local residents. Be careful… the road is pretty much only wide enough for one vehicle and is full of blind curves.
In spots, it follows the Pacific Crest Trail, which runs border to border from Canada to Mexico; a 2,650 mile hike.
At the Indian Flats Campground, this San Diego day trip heads up the unpaved fork (Forest Road 9505) to the right and continues north. This was a wonderful dirt road that started out sandy and ended up rocky. It ran through several stream beds, with that unusual feature (in our mountains) of running water as it has been a good winter up here. There’s even a sign asking that not disturb the area because the stream beds are the breeding ground of the endangered Arroyo Toad.
After a few miles on the dirt, you’ll reach a “t” in the road. Having actually found this road on my Thomas Guide, I turned right (north) to Chihuahua Valley. The left turn apparently takes drivers back to SR-79; I didn’t go this direction but the Forest Service map shows it as Forest Road 9504.
Heading over Forest Road 9505, it’s a rocky, narrow byway, requiring at least a vehicle with high ground clearance. I tested the part-time and full-time 4×4 features of the Tucson and found it to be quite at home on this bumpy road.
On rocky, rutty roads like this, at low speeds, I found that using the 4×4 lock made the drive smoother, as the automatic system seemed to lurch a bit coming on and off. Still, if you have something 2-wheel-drive with high ground clearance, you’d probably make it just fine; just take it slow.
Reach the top of a hill and the view starts to include more trees and a few rooftops in the distance. It’s the Chihuahua Valley community. Forest Road 9505 twists around some more before entering the settlement. It meets up with Chihuahua Valley Road and is marked there as Puerta La Cruz, where Forest Service signs point back to the Indian Flats Campground.
Chihuahua Valley Road is a fun, twisting road back to SR-79, hooking up just north of the Oak Grove Fire Station.
The flowers and view along SR-79 were the most spectacular in the areas around the Warner Springs Airport. Nobody would mistake this for Ireland, but as spring 2008 dawned, it was a spectacular site.
As for the second goal for the day… finding a new lunch spot. Less than a mile south from Morettis Junction is the Santa Ysabel Casino, which sits on top of a hill. The dining room has a window wall, overlooking the lake and Mt. Palomar; sharp-eyed diners can even see a couple of the observatories on Palomar.
The casino and restaurant weren’t crowded at midday on a Saturday but there were a few classic cars and Harleys in the parking lot.
The Lake Henshaw/Warner Springs area is great to explore. It’s close — a bit more than an hour from San Diego — with twisting paved roads and lots of dirt in the hills. Get out and see the green while it’s there.
Route and Info
- Moderate on both paved and unpaved roads.
- About a 50-mile round trip from Morettis Junction, where state routes 79 and 76 meet east of Lake Henshaw.
From central San Diego
- I-15 to Scripps Poway Parkway, east.
- Left at SR-67.
- In Ramona, continue onto SR-78. Continue on SR-78 to Santa Ysabel.
- Left at SR-79 north.
- Santa Ysabel Casino is approximately five miles north of intersection with SR-78. Morettis Junction is about a mile north.
From urban North County
- Take SR-78 to Santa Ysabel, or SR-76 to SR-79 at Morettis Junction. SantaYsabel Casino is about a mile south of Morettis Junction.
- SR-79 south to Warner Springs. Morettis Junction is about 9 miles south.
- Loop from Morettis Junction
- Go north on SR-79.
- Right at Lost Valley Road, approximately 11 miles from Morettis Junction (where SR-79 meets SR-76).
- Keep right at dirt road (Forest Service Road 9505) near Indian Flats Campground.
- Right at “t” to stay on Forest Service Road 9505 (identified on some maps as Puerta La Cruz Truck Trail).
- Left at Chihuahua Valley Road.
- Left at SR-79. Continue to Morettis Junction.