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 late, great web site that showed shooting locations then and now. Chudleigh’s website has gone away, so here’s a YouTube video that does almost as well. Here’s another video on the making of this epic.
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.
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.