What’s your favorite road for a San Diego day trip?

For many two- and four-wheel driving enthusiasts that know this county, a pair between Ramona and Lake Henshaw are high on the list: Old Julian Highway and Mesa Grande Road.

Both have prerequisites for greatness: twists, curves, and a minimal amount of traffic, since their missions as through highways have long been supplanted by more direct bypasses.

Centering an online map or GPS system on the small settlement of Santa Ysabel shows several roads heading out in all directions. To the west is Ramona, north are Lake Henshaw and the historically important town of Warner Springs, east is the old mining town of Julian.

In the early days of the county, Warner Springs was an important stop for travelers in or out of Southern California through what’s now the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. There, John Trumbull Warner built a store and ranch.

Although a bit north of today’s route, the popularity of Warner Springs lead to the improvement of small trails that ran to it. Both of our favorite roads were once part of the main trail between Warner Springs and Ramona.

Use your favorite route to Ramona, located about 45 miles from downtown San Diego. From North County, use state Route 78, past the Wild Animal Park; from East County, use SR-67 through Lakeside. And, from central and south county, take I-15 to either Scripps-Poway Parkway or Poway Road to SR-67 north. The two state highways meet at the corner of Main and 10th streets.

Head northeast on SR-78 along Main Street, making the right turn at the Sizzler to Third Street, which, after a few blocks, turns into Old Julian Highway. If you’re driving on a weekday, watch for construction delays.

Look on a map and you’ll see that this road mostly parallels SR-78. And while 78 is no straight line through this area, Old Julian Highway looks like it was drawn with a shaky hand. It has extremely tight turns, doubling back on itself in a couple of spots. Now mostly filled with ranchettes on lots of an acre or more, there are lots of horses, a few cows, llamas and even camels in the pastures.

The twisting roads are a lot of fun, especially if your vehicle is made for it. I took the trip in a 2007 Saturn Sky Redline roadster, which ate up the turns. It’s not a place for speed — nothing on today’s route is good for that — but a lot of enjoyment can be had at 25 or 35 miles per hour. You won’t want to go much faster than that, because between the sharp curves are a lot of driveways, an occasional pedestrian and a fair number of bicyclists, as well as horses and riders. Stay alert and keep the speed down.

Rejoin SR-78 at the Ballena junction. Mountain peaks in the area resemble whales, hence the adoption of the Spanish word for whale, ballena, according to author Leland Fetzer’s “San Diego County Place Names A to Z.” East on SR-78 from here is less challenging but still includes a fair number of kinks in the two-lane road. Traffic can be an issue so drive defensively, even though the speed limit is 55 mph.

Santa Ysabel is a must-stop spot, which I visited in both directions. A good break after the challenges of the Old Julian Highway, I just popped into Don’s Market, 30250 Highway 78, (760) 765-3272, for water and a snack. I kept the town’s big attraction, Dudley’s Bakery, for dessert on the way back.

From here, head north on SR-79, past Mission Santa Ysabel to Morettis Junction, which, according to Fetzer, was named for the Moretti family, who had a dairy here in the late 19th century.

SR-79 is a nice, fairly straight byway from Santa Ysabel to Morettis, a bypass of Mesa Grande Road, which we’ll drive later. At Morettis, travelers going south from Warner Springs would head east a bit to where I stopped for lunch, which today is a biker favorite, the Hideout Saloon.

Turn left at Center Loop, once part of SR-76, to the Hideout Saloon, 27413 Highway 76, (760) 782-3656. A cafe and gas station were here back in the day; it reopened as the Hideout in 1999, a favorite of the motorcycle crowd. Since it’s off the main highway, there’s lots of parking and on any weekend, bikes line the road. Yes, they welcome folks in four-wheeled vehicles and the food is good, so the Sky and I pulled in.

In fact, the bright yellow Sky was a big hit with the bikers. Rather than a quick stop for a burger and warmup (it was in the mid-50s, with cold, dry Santa Ana winds blowing up a storm), I spent more than an hour demonstrating the operation of the convertible top and showing off the Sky’s under-hood features, including the Redline’s turbocharger. Tough looking guys (probably conservative businessmen during the week) in leather were knocking on the plastic body panels and talking about how their wife wanted on. Somebody somewhere in the General Motors universe must have been smiling.

The start of today’s best road is just a few feet south of the Hideout. It’s the north end of Mesa Grande Road, and with all due respect to Old Julian Highway, it’s one of the top five enthusiast roads in the county. Running through parts of the Mesa Grande Indian Reservation and a few ranches, it ends up near Mission Santa Ysabel.

If this was a ski slope, it would be marked with a black diamond… it’s that challenging. Immediately after leaving the Hideout, it kinks up and over a ridge, then twisting down the other side. I lost count at a dozen on the number of turns, preferring to concentrate on throwing the Sky around the corners rather than keeping a running count. Lets just say this is a drive for the experienced curve-taker in a vehicle that is made for it.

The payoffs are a road covered in spots by a canopy of native oaks, gorgeous vistas of valleys green from winter rains and usually not a lot of traffic. Truly, it’s one amazing spot, considering it’s less than an hour’s drive from a dense, metropolitan area. Still, there are residences and an Indian reservation along Mesa Grande, so remember you’re in their neighborhood and be courteous.

The wind and cold were a bit much for open air driving so I kept the top up most of the day. The strong crosswinds didn’t seem to bother the Sky. The top was tight, the heater worked just fine and the tires stuck to the road.

Mesa Grande Road ends at SR-79, just north of Santa Ysabel and near the Mission. After lunch at the Hideout and the challenging drive over Mesa Grande, the reward was a stop at Dudley’s Bakery, 30218 Highway 78, (800) 225-3348. Long a San Diego legend, Dudley’s is known for its wide selection breads, pastries, cookies and other goodies. There’s also a swell curio shop with rocks, crafts and books on local subjects.

There are also antique shops, the Julian Pie Company bakery store and Apple Country Restaurant, along with Don’s Market, in Santa Ysabel. They’re all well worth visiting.

I headed back to Ramona over SR-78 which, although less challenging than Old Julian Highway, has its share of twists and turns, not to mention a fair amount of traffic. Take it easy and don’t tailgate.

These roads probably aren’t special to the locals that drive these roads every day. But for us city folk, a day in the country is something truly special. For a driving enthusiast, there’s almost nothing better than Old Julian Highway, Santa Ysabel and Mesa Grande Road. Hope you enjoy your trip.

Hideout Steakhouse
Busy day at the Hideout.

Route and Info

Distance

  • About 54 miles.

Difficulty

  • Severe twists on Old Julian Highway and Mesa Grande Road.

Directions

  • Use SR-78 or SR-67 to Ramona, which is about 45 miles from central San Diego.
  • From the SR-78/67 junction at Main and 10th streets, head northeast on SR-78.
  • Right at Third Street. Continue onto Julian Highway. Note that Old Julian Highway makes a sharp left at Vista Ramona Road; continuing straight puts you on Vista Ramona Road.
  • Right at Julian Road (SR-78).
  • Left at SR-79.
  • Left at SR-76.
  • Left at Center Loop.
  • Left at Mesa Grande Road.
  • Right at SR-79.
  • Right at SR-78 to Ramona.

The Car

Don't speed on his roads.
Don’t speed on his roads.
Tree-shaded Mesa Grande Road.
Tree-shaded Mesa Grande Road.

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