A route with twisting roads, spectacular views, history around every turn, fancy homes, great restaurants and shops, plus tons of local color has got to be out in the back country somewhere.
Julian? Dulzura? Valley Center? Sure, those are all great places to visit, but today’s San Diego day trip isn’t out of town; in fact it couldn’t be any more urban.
It starts in Old Town and runs 11 miles through some of San Diego’s original suburbs in the hills north of downtown, through Balboa Park and past a couple of auto museums.
There are a lot of directions, so have a passenger be your navigator, keeping an eye out for street signs and turns. San Diego’s builders left more than a few quirks in the road layout, so be alert.
Take Interstate 5’s Old Town Avenue exit to San Diego Avenue and enter the Old Town State Park area.
Highlights along this part of the route include the haunted Whaley House, 2482 San Diego Avenue, which was the county courthouse until 1871, and, overlooking Old Town at Juan and Harney streets, Heritage Park. Stately homes from the gingerbread period of the 1890s have been moved here; some were originally in the path of nearby Interstate 5.
Across from Heritage Park is the Mormon Battalion Museum, 2510 Juan Street, honoring the soldiers who arrived here in 1847 to support the U.S. troops in the Mexican War.
Certainly, exploring Old Town is enough to fill a day — or week — but press on for more driving fun, twisting up the narrow Jackson Street and Presidio Drive to Presidio Park and the Serra Museum.
What looks like a mission at the top of the hill is a museum, operated by the San Diego Historical Society, and built in 1929 by local department store magnate George Marston. Just down the hill is the site of the Spanish presidio, the military outpost used by San Diego’s first European settlers.
The mission, however, was only here for a short time before relocating east of today’s Qualcomm Stadium.
One of the most popular spots for weddings and parties is Fort Stockton, just above the museum. Circled by Presidio Drive and Cosoy Way, it’s frequently booked on weekends but is a great picnic spot.
There have been a number of turns and twists already in our route, but we’re just getting started. Follow Presidio Drive into one of San Diego’s oldest and most exclusive communities, Mission Hills.
Anybody who was anybody in the first half of the 20th Century lived in Mission Hills. Today there are still some mansions around, many restored to their craftsman or Spanish-style prime.
Like many older neighborhoods there are small businesses here and there, places the local folks could walk to in the days before automobiles. Many of these small shops are now delightful restaurants and coffee houses.
Mission Hills Nursery is one of those businesses, open since 1910. Stop in if you have time and pick up some information on walking tours, hosted by the Mission Hills Garden Club.
After a turn to Goldfinch Street, continue south across Washington Street, University Avenue and down the hill to Reynard Way. Keep your eyes peeled for the left turn to Arroyo Drive, where we’ll climb out of the canyon and experience the somewhat goofy but typical drive across these bluff tops.
It seems the surveyors and developers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries only had one way of laying out streets… the traditional grid pattern.
Unfortunately, the grid doesn’t work well on terrain with steep hills and sharp canyons.
A case in point is the area above Reynard Way. We’ll make a whole bunch of turns to get up to Balboa Park, going on and off of Redwood Street a couple of times, for example. Maps show pieces streets here and there, with lots of gaps. Those gaps are canyons; few auto bridges were never constructed.
But there were several footbridges built, including one on our route. Connecting two ends of Spruce Street and running between Brant and Front is a suspension bridge. Stop and take a walk if you have time.
Assuming you’ve made it through the twists up the hill from Reynard Way, head into Balboa Park and cross the Cabrillo Bridge. Drive south past the Spreckels Organ Pavilion to what might be know as the “guys’ museums” in the park… the Automotive Museum, Aerospace Museum and Hall of Champions, all located in Pan American Plaza.
The Automotive Museum has a fantastic collection and a rotating exhibits; a “Fabulous Fifties” show begins May 27. A few cars are on permanent display, including a 1948 Tucker Torpedo.
Next door is the Aerospace Museum, in what was the Ford Motor Company exhibit during the 1935-36 California Pacific International Exhibition. The mounted SR-71 Blackbird and Convair Sea Dart jets are out front of this art deco-style, figure-eight building. Inside, a mural from the Ford days documents the history of transportation from prehistoric times to 1935… and into the future seen in that Depression year.
Take the little road around the back for a great view of downtown San Diego. Although just the back of the museum today, notice the large stairways (now closed) coming from the building. During the exposition, they lead to an exhibit, where visitors could drive a Ford “around the world.” The short route simulated mountains, deserts and far-off places folks could visit in their Fords.
Head north on Park Boulevard, out of the park and toward Hillcrest, another of San Diego’s first suburbs.
The streetcar was the primary mode of transportation when the first exposition was held in Balboa Park in 1915. It continued on up Park Boulevard to University Avenue and beyond.
The hill to the west, topped with Georgia Street, was too steep for the railway to climb, so in 1914, University Avenue was cut through the hill. The arched bridge, still in use today, connects Georgia Street.
Next up on our right is the another showcase for historic autos and other goodies, the J. A. Cooley Museum, 4233 Park Blvd. The private collection, owned by Jim Cooley, includes 25 cars, plus antique trains (some from the old Frank the Train Man collection), cameras and typewriters.
Cars in the museum are mostly from the earliest days of the automobile, converted buggies with one- or two-cylinder engines. Cars include a three-wheeled 1886 Benz, 1904 Cadillac and what may be the oldest Chevrolet in the world, a 1918 Model F-40.
Cooley’s a slice of San Diego history himself — a native who’s parents planted the Sixth Avenue portion of Balboa Park around 1906, well before the exposition grounds were developed for 1915-16.
Back on the road, the intersection at El Cajon and Park boulevards contains a bit of history. Before the freeway in Mission Valley was constructed, El Cajon Boulevard was U.S. 80, the transcontinental highway that ran all the way to Savannah, Georgia.
Longtime residents will note the old Tower Chrysler-Plymouth location on the northeast corner is still selling cars (now Lusti Motors, which regularly services my old Miata), although strictly used cream-puffs these days.
To the west, easily visible as we make the turn, is a leftover from San Diego State University’s days in this location, now the San Diego Unified School District’s headquarters.
Before it moved in 1931, today’s SDSU, once known as the San Diego Normal School, occupied this location. The two-story building, directly at the end of El Cajon Boulevard, is the old elementary school. Normal Street and Normal Heights were named for the school.
Follow the signs onto Washington Street and another automotive relic, the SR-163 interchange. When built in the 1940s, it was the junction of two major highways, U.S. 395 and U.S. 80.
From here, take 163 north or south to return home, or continue onto Washington Street for more shopping or eating in Hillcrest and Mission Hills.
It’s been a long, fun and interesting day circling through San Diego. These communities are often overlooked as commuters zoom past on the freeway. But they’re among the most historic and today’s vibrant culture make them well worth a visit.
Route and Info
- About 11 Miles.
- Moderate, with some narrow, twisting roads and lots of turns.
- Interstate 5 to Old Town Avenue.
- North on Old Town Avenue.
- Left at San Diego Avenue.
- Right at Harney Street.
- Left at Juan Street.
- Right at Mason Street.
- Left at Jackson Street. Continue onto Presidio Drive and Arista Street.
- Right at Ft. Stockton Drive. Follow “Scenic Drive” signs.
- Right at Goldfinch Street. Continue onto Reynard Way.
- Left at Arroyo Drive. Continue onto Eagle Street
- Right at Palm Street.
- Left at Curlew Street.
- Right at Spruce Street.
- Left at Brant Street.
- Right at Upas Street.
- Left at Albatross Street.
- Right at Walnut Street.
- Right at Fourth Avenue.
- Left at Upas Street. Continue onto Balboa Drive in Balboa Park.
- Left at El Prado.
- Right in Plaza de Panama.
- Continue into Pan American Plaza area of Balboa Park, south to San Diego Automotive Museum and San Diego Aerospace Museum.
- Take road to right of Aerospace Museum around back of museum.
- Right to exit parking lot to Presidents Way.
- Left at Park Boulevard.
- Left at Lincoln Avenue.
- Left at Washington Street to SR-163.