Here’s a bit of a time capsule: A look back at the very first Weekend Driver column in the San Diego Union-Tribune, published on July 1, 2000. It’s a trip around some great roads in the South Bay region of San Diego, past the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, the Otay lakes, Otay Lakes Road and state Highway 94.

Even today, this route is a lot of fun, especially Otay Lakes Road, which twists from eastern Chula Vista to near Jamul and Honey Springs Road. The drive over Honey Springs and Lyons Valley roads is one of the best anywhere. The stretch of 94 heading back through Jamul to Casa de Oro is also a lot of fun.

In the last 15 years, there have been a few changes, as you might think. The southeastern section of Chula Vista was rolling hills and a still-active cattle ranch when this story was published. The Olympic Training Center (then with naming rights from the ARCO oil company) sat isolated on a hill above the Lower Otay Reservoir. Olympic Parkway wasn’t completed. Eastlake was the housing development and Otay Ranch was still in the future; today, homes go up to the north and west boundaries of the training center.

Other than that, you’d probably find the area much as I described it back in 2000. Then, as now, it’s a great San Diego day trip.

I rewrote this drive for my first book, Weekend Driver San Diego that was published in 2003. I’ve also taken parts of it as other drives over the years for the paper and might use this for the basis of one of my new Joyride Guru books; at some point I will have to include Lyons Valley Road for all of you who like seriously twisting roads.

So take the drive on your July 4 weekend and enjoy.

Lyons Valley Road in 1999
Lyons Valley Road in 1999

Otay to Rancho San Diego: Exploring South County

The rolling hills of southern San Diego county used to be home to some of the largest cattle ranches in Southern California. Thousands of head of cattle used to roam Otay Ranch, Rancho Jamul and other spreads just north of the Mexican border.

Today, these agricultural lands are quickly become home to new herds that feed at McDonald’s instead of on the lush grasses — subdivisions are growing like weeds in this area.

This drive will take you through what’s left of these ranches and some areas that are likely to be preserved for future generations. It will also traverse one of the crookedest roads in the county and over its approximately 45 miles go from civilization to the middle of nowhere, and back to civilization.

From eastern Chula Vista, we’ll wander around the southeastern mountains and on up to Jamul, through rolling hills and craggy mountains, then back to the bustling, developing community of Rancho San Diego. This is a fairly challenging drive, through one of the narrowest and twisting roads in the county (Lyons Valley Road), so be careful.

Otay Lakes Rd. in 1999
Otay Lakes Road east of Lower Otay Resevoir in 1999

From Interstate 805 take eastbound Telegraph Canyon Road. The urban beginning of today’s drive will be a quick six miles through the Otay Ranch and Eastlake developments. If you haven’t been through this part of the county recently, you’ll be shocked. Telegraph Canyon Road, once a two-lane country byway, is now a six-lane expressway. In a few minutes, you’ll be whisked past the last outposts of dense civilization.

Signs (much smaller than the real estate signs) are pointing to the ARCO Olympic Training Center; after Eastlake Parkway, watch for the colorful banners saluting the sportsmen and women at the center.

Rolling into the Salt Creek valley, civilization will start to disappear. But take in the view — bulldozers are already carving up the meadow adjacent to an old Otay Ranch house.

Over the next hill, at mile seven, its time for the first turn, a right onto Weste Road to visit the ARCO Olympic Training Center. Travel a mile south to the Center (on Olympic Parkway), or take the sharp left turn and stay on Weste to the park adjacent to Lower Otay Reservoir.
Weste is narrow and twisting, so here’s your first chance to drive carefully. Athletes sometimes ride bicycles or jog on Weste, so take it easy; we don’t want to lose a future gold medal winner.

If you decide to check out the Olympic Training Center, its worth the visit. Home to many of America’s Olympic hopefuls, the training center has a nifty gift shop as well as both guided (9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday-Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday) and self-guided tours. There’s also a movie on the center and America’s Olympic movement. I recommend a guided tour; the knowledgeable docents provide lots of trivia about this still-developing center. If you decide to stop and take a tour, wear your walking shoes as its more than a mile walk around the complex.

There is no food service at the Copley Visitors Center, only soda machines. But, there are lots of places to picnic, with both tables and wide lawns, so bring your own munchies if you like.

The park at the Lower Otay Reservoir is a bit rustic, but also worth a visit. Under fragrant eucalyptus trees, there’s room to picnic and fish on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. There is no charge for using the park, but be sure to get a license if you want to fish. Swimming isn’t allowed, but boats are available for rent. The tiny store carries only fishing supplies, junk food and beer. If that doesn’t fit your palliate, bring your own lunch.

Lower Otay Reservoir is owned by the City of San Diego and is one of the oldest serving the city water system (yes, you might be drinking water from this reservoir). In the great flood of 1916 (the basis of the play and movie, “The Rainmaker”) the dam broke. From the park area you can see the top of the dam, but there’s no public road that offers a view of the front.

Leaving the Olympic Training Center and Lower Otay, take Weste Road back to Telegraph Canyon Road which, here at Weste, changes its name to Otay Lakes Road. Make a right turn from Weste onto Otay Lakes Road, which follows the north shore of Lower Otay.

At the first sharp curve, take a quick glance to the left and you’ll see the dam of the Upper Otay Reservoir. On your right, you’re still curving around Lower Otay, but on the left, cattle can sometimes be seen foraging on the craggy hills. These are beef cattle, fattening up in the Southern California sun.
Next up on the right is the San Diego Air Sports Center, so if skydiving is your thing, stop in and take a jump. It is also a home for ultralights and a paintball-game company.

Ahead is the first real twisty section. Otay Lakes Road is a bit bumpy these days, so take it easy on the speed. In addition to curving back and forth, the road also goes up and down through gorges and streams with names like Dulzura Creek, Cedar Creek and Little Cedar Creek.

This is a hot, arid area, with hills covered with our standard Southern California chaparral, also known as coastal sage scrub. Tinder-dry this time of year, the fire hazard is extreme.

Thousand Trails campground is still east of Otay lakes.
Thousand Trails campground is still east of Otay lakes.

But the scrub is interrupted from time-to-time by valleys filled with native oaks, giving a cool respite from the open chaparral. At mile 15 is a Thousand Trails resort, offering campsites and a little store. Well stocked with all the essentials, you’ll want to load up on liquids at this point since you won’t see another market for 30 miles. There are picnic tables out back.

Leaving Thousand Trails, continue on Otay Lakes Road for another bumpy three miles to Highway 94. Especially on the weekends, 94 is pretty busy, so be careful. Make a left onto 94, then an immediate right onto Honey Springs Road. Heading north, you’ll rock and roll through hills, valleys, gorges and ravines by places such as Deerhorn Valley, a collection of ranchettes on the western edge of the Cleveland National Forest. Enjoy the drive and watch the speedometer. Watch the road, too.
The next turn is at Lyons Valley Road, where you’ll want to go to the left. This is the most challenging part of the drive, 18 miles of narrow, twisting asphalt. If you’ve had enough of hairpin turns already, go straight onto Skyline Truck Trail, which will get you to Jamul (our next stop) with far fewer twists (just follow the signs to Jamul).

Highlights along Lyons Valley Road (if you can take your eyes off the road for a second) include an ostrich farm and the quaint Lyons Valley Trading Post (drinks and munchies only). Mostly, though, you’ll be driving on the edge of cliffs as the road winds up and down the sides of this rugged valley. At mile 42, you’ll merge back with Skyline Truck Trail and head into Jamul.

One of San Diego County’s horse capitals, there may be more equines than humans here. Enjoy the views of the lovely homes and the shade of the trees.
Jamul has a number of quaint restaurants and unique places to shop. Locals like the Greek Sombrero (yes, Greek and Mexican food), El Coyote and El Campo (Mexican) and Tatsus (Japanese). Shopping includes Simpson’s Nursery and the Ranch Feed Store (tack and supplies). “Downtown” Jamul runs mostly from Jefferson Street to the west along Highway 94 to Steele Canyon Road. Gasoline is also available, something not seen since Telegraph Canyon Road.
When done touring Jamul, head west on 94 (Campo Road) back towards San Diego. Although a busy road, 94 takes its time winding through the foothills. Ranchettes dot the hills and frontage, but overall it is a pleasant drive.

The last “country” site is the old Campo Road trestle, replaced a few years back by the modern highway bridge now in use. If you want to stop, the bridge is still open to foot traffic and bicycles.

Civilization makes its reappearance in a big way. Commercial development in Rancho San Diego has exploded in the past few years, with a Target, Kmart, movie theaters and the other usual stores lining Jamacha Road. At the junction with Jamacha, follow 94 by making a left. A couple of miles later, you’re back on the freeway.

South county is developing fast, but it still has some of the most spectacular roads in the region. There are still unspoiled square miles within a few minutes’ drive of most of central San Diego.

Route and Info

Distance

  • About 45 miles

Difficulty

  • Easy to moderate

Route

  • Telegraph Canyon Road exit from Interstate 805, head east to Otay Lakes Road.
  • Right at Weste Road.
  • Right at Olympic Parkway to Olympic Training Center.
  • Return to Otay Lakes Road, heading east (a right turn from Weste Road).
  • Left at stat Highway 94 (Campo Road).
  • Right at Honey Springs Road.
  • Left at Lyons Valley Road.
  • Right at California 94 (Campo Road).
  • Left onto Jamacha Road (staying on Highway 94; freeway begins at junction with Highway 125).

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Explore San Diego County's backroads, beaches, mountains and deserts with Joyride Guru® and award-winning author Jack Brandais. Make them your San Diego day trip.
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