Wandering through the mountain town’s trails

Ramona is one of the special places in San Diego county.

Not just because the low-mountain scenery provides great vistas around every corner, but its bucolic roots and surrounding terrain make for great road and wonderful day trip.

Our route this time takes us over the county’s newest and technologically advanced freeways and some of its oldest routes. It’s a challenging, but fully paved drive that is a treat for drivers ranging from minivans to motorcycles. The most challenged are classic cars featuring old-fashioned steering and solid rear axles; be prepared for steering-wheel winding and making sure your speed doesn’t kick out the rear end too much. Other than that, our Ramona roundabout should be great fun.

Fun it was in our car of the day, a 2011 Mazda 2. One of the best examples of the sporty, fun and functional mini-cars being built today, the 2, equipped with a five-speed manual transmission, ate up the curves and hills. More on that later.

Start your day at the interchange of Interstate 15 and state Route 52, at the south end of MCAS Miramar. Head east to Santee and watch as you pass SR-125 onto the new extension of 52 to SR-67. It’s a beautiful few minutes avoiding all those stop lights on Mission Gorge Road.

After a jaunt through Lakeside past the Rodeo Grounds, head up Wildcat Canyon Road. If you’re up for a stop, don’t lose too much money at the Barona Casino. A little further up the road is the Barona Culture Center and Museum, which gives the history of the local native culture.

Another monument on the way is the Barona Speedway and drag strip, the only track now operating in San Diego county.

Wildcat Canyon Road is twisting and narrow, with sometimes heavy traffic due to the casino. From Lakeside to the casino, it can be tedious if you’re stuck behind a bus or a city slicker not used to mountain driving and thinking of nothing but nickle slots. Beyond the casino, traffic usually lightens up and it’s a very pleasant drive in the country.

At the top of Wildcat Canyon Road, veer right to San Diego Country Estates, a wonderful community nestled east of Ramona. Mountains ring this small valley, also home to two equestrian centers and a golf course. One of the centers is named for hall-of-fame rider Casey Tibbs, a longtime resident of Ramona who died in 1990.

From here, our San Diego day trip runs to another one of my favorite roads, Old Julian Highway. Just as SR-52 is brand new and stretch of I-15 we’ll take later is state-of-the-art design, Wildcat Canyon Road and Old Julian Highway are relics of another time when roads started out as migration trails for native animals and native peoples. They twist, turn, go around obstacles like boulders and trees, following nature’s terrain.

Old Julian Highway is a great alternative to Julian Road (SR-78) if you’re headed to-or-from the mountains. It zigs and zags around the farms north and east of town. We’re joining it about a third of the way from town to where it meets SR-78 just east of the Oasis Camel Dairy (www.cameldairy.com; check the website for open days).

Fresh eggs here

On these twisting roads, the Mazda 2 really showed its stuff. Although it shares its 98-inch wheelbase with the Ford Fiesta, it’s a bit roomier inside and has tighter steering, a bit more power and lots more fun. As a longtime (20 years!) Miata driver, I can say that Mazda’s put quite a bit of the convertible’s fun into this four-door hatchback city car.

And why are they always called city cars? These little cars with their high-revving four-cylinder engines, little wheels and light weight are a blast on country roads. Just don’t load them up with four big adults and lot of stuff, because 100 horsepower only goes so far. But for an afternoon out on the road with your spouse and a picnic basket, the commuter car is more than up to the task. Shift up, shift down, use the power, use the clutch, have some fun. And for those of you that don’t use or know how to use a manual transmission, you’re missing a lot of what driving’s all about.

After spying the camels, we’re headed back into town on Julian Road. At one time, poultry was big in Ramona; it was even known as the turkey capital of the world. Today, there’s just a few egg ranches left with one of them, Pine Hill Egg Ranch, still sporting its roadside stand (25818 Highway 78, Ramona, 760-789-0195). Stop in for some of the freshest eggs you’ll ever crack open.

From there, take the spectacular drive down SR-78 through the San Pasqual Valley back to I-15. Rugged and raw, much of the valley has been preserved as part of either the San Dieguito River Park, the city of San Diego’s agricultural preserve, or the San Diego Zoo’s Safari Park (formerly Wild Animal Park). There are couple of parking lots along the way to stop and take in the view, plus hiking trails on both sides of the highway in the upper canyon. In the lower valley, take the side roads for genuine Southern California orange groves.

All too soon we’re back at I-15, at the north end of the high-tech highway that’s just been completed. Note the “zipper lanes,” traffic sensors in the pavement, carpool lanes and other goodies designed to get too many cars from here to there. It’s a long way from the paved foot path through the chaparral that we’ve been driving. Savor the drive and enjoy those eggs and pie picked up along the way.

Wildcat Canyon Road

Route and Info

Distance

  • About 66 miles.

Difficulty

  • Challenging.

Directions

  • I-15 to SR-52 east.
  • North on SR-67.
  • Right at Woodside Ave.
  • Left at Ashwood St. Continue onto Wildcat Canyon Road.
  • Right at San Vicente Rd.
  • Left at Gunn Stage Rd.
  • Left at Arena Way.
  • Right at Del Amo Rd.
  • Left at Gymkhana Rd.
  • Right at Sargeant Rd.
  • Left at Vista Ramona Rd.
  • Right at Old Julian Highway.
  • Left at Julian Road (SR-78).
  • Right at 10th St. Follow SR-78 onto Pine Street, West Haverford Rd. and San Pasqual Valley Rd.
  • Left at Bear Valley Parkway to I-15.

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