Even in the middle of suburbia, the crowded Interstate 15 corridor, just around a corner is one of San Diego County’s most challenging country byways.

Highland Valley Road is hard to even see, since it seems to drop off the side of busy Pomerado Road at the north end of Rancho Bernardo. From here, the highway snakes east and north through the south end of San Pasqual Valley and over the rugged hills to southwestern Ramona.

For a little variety after the twists and curves on today’s trip is a visit to Amy Strong’s castle near the base of Mt. Woodson. Completing the loop is a stop by another anachronism in the suburbs, the Bernardo Winery.

All in all, a nice day in the country, but portions of this route are one of the most challenging anywhere in the county; it’s usually high on any crazy driver’s list of the best. Highland Valley Road is just that — a road that goes into highlands and valleys.

A bit of personal history. I first remember taking this road one evening in high school when I was navigating on a time-and-distance road rallye, squeezed into the back seat of some friends’ then-new Volkswagen Super Beetle (the one with the curved windshield). I say friends, because twins Mark and Paul shared the Bug, but that’s another story.

This article has a bit of history of its own. I drove this route back in September 2007, projecting it as the November 2007 column for the San Diego Union-Tribune. A few weeks after my drive, a devastating brush fire blew through the area. The story went on the shelf until this week, when I re-drove it. It’s worth a drive today and is even more famous, as part of the final leg of the Tour of California bicycle race on September 22, 2009.

While I’ve traversed Highland Valley Road many time since, I don’t remember ever going west-to-east the whole distance and, somehow, it was less scary this way. The severe twists near the east end seemed easier to take, perhaps because my twisting instincts were warmed up by the time I reached the top of the drive. Then again it could have been a car, a 2008 Honda Civic Si four-door that gobbled up the real estate on my first column-drive back in 2007, but my old ‘91 Miata loves this road. So did Mom’s 2007 Volvo S40, which enjoyed the Sweden-like rainy weather in February 2009.

Well, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Leave Interstate 15 at the Pomerado Road/West Bernardo Drive exit. Pomerado Road (once designated U.S. 395, the I-15 predecessor in these parts) hits the freeway twice; this is the northern exit, on the south edge of Lake Hodges. The new interchange here is under construction.

The road falls quickly away from Pomerado and into the south end of the city of San Diego’s Agricultural Preserve. Since the early 1960s, the city has leased this land only to farmers. One of the uses is a a pick-your-own pumpkin patch, so if you haven’t gotten yours yet, get a fresh one from the field. Or return later (with the SUV, as I hope you’re driving the sports car today) and cut your own Christmas tree.

The 2007 fire really toasted this area, blowing through the Christmas tree farm and the surrounding brush. When I re-drove the route in February 2009, it was raining and there were several spots with mud and shallow flooding. Keep an eye out for hazards even if you’re driving in dry weather.

After a short time curving through the flat, which is occasionally under water when Lake Hodges is really full, Highland Valley Road heads up into the highlands. It twists, curves and kinks through the foothills before straightening out again for a bit. Outside the preserve, this area is either agricultural or homes on acre lots.

Then it’s back into the hills, overlooking Ramona to the east.

Near the highest elevation on the road (unfortunately, the Honda wasn’t equipped with an altimeter, but I believe it’s higher than Ramona’s official elevation of 1,391 feet) are the extreme twists. On a map, this part of the road looks like the cartographer had a severe case of the shakes.

This is where the drive seemed to be less scary heading east, rather than west. Back in the day, the Volkswagen Super Beetle did a lot of leaning and the passengers a lot of screaming as we headed west. Even in the Miata, the westbound drive is heart-pounding fun.

Going east, maybe it’s that drivers are looking into more turns, rather than having the road disappear behind a cliff or boulder.

Either way, the curves are scary but at least the road is paved. Do take it easy on the speed.

Eastbound in the Honda was a blast. The six-speed manual transmission always seemed to have the gear I needed as we twisted up the hill. Tight steering and sticky tires made for a very enjoyable afternoon. And the air conditioning helped greatly, as the heat was extreme when I took the Honda on the route in late August 2007.

On my 2009 drive, the Volvo enjoyed the drive as well. Weather conditions in February ‘09 were a bit raw for San Diego — rain and drizzle, with standing water in spots, mud and partial flooding of the road. The little Volvo at it all up.

Almost on cue, just when you’re ready for a break, appears the Mt. Woodson Golf Club, home to the Amy Strong castle. A lovely setting for a course, at the base of Mt. Woodson, the door to the castle was open when I visited. Finished in 1921, the 12,000 square foot home is reminiscent of country castles of Europe, with Southern California touches. In her day, Strong was possibly the leading dress designer in the region.

The golf club’s snack bar offered a great sandwich and a welcome respite from the heat; I took this drive during the hot spell we had in late summer and the temperature outside was above 100 degrees. (On the cool, damp Volvo day in 2009, the course was empty but all looked well; the fire missed this area.)

From Archie Moore Road (named for the famous local boxer), I headed south on state Route 67 and back to I-15 via three roads: Poway, Espola and Pomerado. It was a bit toasty to stop anywhere (the temperature by now was 103 degrees), but beautiful Lake Poway, the Blue Sky Ecological Reserve, Poway Center for the Arts and Bernardo Winery are all along the route.

I stopped in at the winery, Southern California’s oldest, which is has been able to hang on as a country attraction in the middle of suburbia. In addition to wine tasting, there’s a restaurant and curio shops. The winery survived the 2007 fire and really looked great in the drizzle, although it was pretty quiet on the day I visited in 2009. Still there were several folks doing tastings… my mom even got into the act.

I’d have to put Highland Valley Road on my top five lists of twisty roads in San Diego County. Even if your vehicle isn’t a hot Honda Civic Si — or even a Volvo S40 or Mazda Miata — almost anything that isn’t too big will be a fun ride on far less than a tank of gas .

Along Highland Valley Road.
Highway signs
Watch for the road signs.

Route and Info

  • From September 2007

Distance

  • About 25 miles.

Difficulty

  • Challenging, with extreme turns and poor visibility around curves on Highland Valley Road. Rocks and dirt can cover parts of road due to mud flows from fire-scarred terrain.

Directions

  • Interstate 15 to Pomerado Road/West Bernardo Road exit (north of Rancho Bernardo and south of Escondido). Head southeast on Pomerado Road.
  • Left at Highland Valley Road.
  • Right at Archie Moore Road.
  • Right onto SR-67.
  • Right at Poway Road.
  • Right at Espola Road.
  • Right at Pomerado Road to I-15.
Amy Strong’s castle.

1 comments

  1. Stephen Mathews

    Thank you for this article, it made my trip to San Diego one to remember. My friend and I made this run in a F360 and it was awesome. One of the better roads I’ve driven in the US.

    Thanks!
    Stephen

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