Lyons Valley Loop Around Jamul Is Twisty Fun

If there’s a road in San Diego County that mimics the Giant Dipper Roller Coaster at Mission Beach, it must be Lyons Valley Road, near Jamul.

And cruising it in a nimble pocket rocket like Nissan’s new-for-2007 Sentra SE-R Spec V can be more fun than flying around on the wooden monument at the beach. And a warning… whatever your vehicle, if you don’t like twisting roads, avoid this one.

Lyons Valley Road, running northeast from Jamul, is one of the oldest roads in the county, dating to 1851 when Army Capt. Nathaniel Lyon mapped out the route, looking for a faster way east. Compared to this, the Giant Dipper, built in 1925, is a young pup.

There isn’t much traffic out here and most of the through drivers use Skyline Truck Trail, avoiding most of the serious twists. Bicyclists, a few motorcycles and what looked like locals were the only drivers I saw on a recent Saturday morning.

Nissan Sentra SE-R at the Lyons Valley Trading Post.

Heading east, I chose to take Jamul Drive, rather than state Route 94 (Campo Road) from Rancho San Diego. Jamul Drive is a narrow and twisting, leading up from Steele Canyon. Residences are typical of the Jamul area, small ranchettes with usually hidden driveways. The trees, sharp curves and possibility of a surprise meeting with the neighbors means it’s a place to keep the speed down.

Turn left onto Lyons Valley Road and head north, but don’t miss the next turn, a right at Skyline Truck Trail, to stay on today’s route. From here, Lyons Valley Road starts out innocently enough, gently curving through the homes on the northern hills of Jamul. But once it passes the Mormon church and the “End 40 MPH” sign, things get a bit more serious. First, it starts a more aggressive climb. Then, the twists begin.

And what great twists they are. While it may have changed a bit since Capt. Lyon first marked the road, it probably hasn’t changed much since, most likely, it was first paved in the early part of the last century. It’s one of those roads with no shoulder, no ditch to the side, no turnouts.

In other words, loads of fun.

While the twists are usually banked the right way, it’s never been smoothed out. Adding to the roller coaster effect are several ups-and-downs on near straightaways.

Twists along Honey Springs Road.
Twists along Honey Springs Road.

Watch for those yellow “15 MPH” signs with the big arrow pointing one way or another. The county road engineers that placed the signs were serious; Lyons Valley Road has, for its length, among the most number of hairpin, blind and any other descriptor for dangerous curves that the thesaurus can come up with.

Several stretches are on shelves — spots where there was no place to build a road, so a cliff was blasted or excavated (possibly by hand, as the road appears to be that old) to create a shelf. That means one side is an unforgiving cliff rising 50 feet or more; the other side a drop-off, with bottom another 50 feet down.

The rocky terrain around Jamul leads to a few more hazards on the course. Round, weathered boulders protrude into the lane — or at least seem to be that way. One even seems to curve out a dozen feet or so above the traffic.

Signs at either end warn that Lyons Valley Road isn’t a place for big trucks. I’d trust the advice, even if your truck is just a lifted full-sized pickup.

The Sentra didn’t have any problem, with the pocket rocket really showing its stuff on the roller coaster. I don’t think I ever had it above 40 miles per hour so the 200 horsepower engine pulling a 3,078 lb. vehicle was never even breathing hard.

One feature of the Sentra I couldn’t enjoy was the G-force meter at the top center of the dashboard. Yes, Nissan puts a gravity gauge in this car, as it’s become a popular after market toy for the tuner crowd.

After the twists, the Lyons Valley Trading Post was a welcome sight. In 2007, it was owned for the last few years by local and Castle Park High School grad Bob Johnston, there are plenty of cold beverages and munchies in stock.

From there, make the right turn at Honey Springs road to return to Highway 94, or stay on Lyons Valley Road north to Japatul Road and I-8. I opted for Honey Springs, a gentler, but still fun drive.

Simpson’s Nursery really has plants… but also lots of cars.

Just after the turn on Honey Springs Road, look up at the top of the Lyons Peak and you’ll see the old fire tower. No longer staffed, lookouts used to be on guard for brush fires in the area. Cameras now keep watch.

Honey Springs is a great road heading north, but going south, as in today’s route, is a totally different experience. The twists are still there, but the southern most portion — a mile or so from SR-94 — open up vistas of hills covered with gold. This was once grazing land for Rancho Jamul and is now the Hollenbeck Canyon Wildlife Area. This, and the Rancho Jamul Ecological Reserve south of Highway 94, are now owned by the state of California, meaning this view will be preserved.

At Highway 94, I turned west back to Jamul. Traffic can be heavy here, so be careful on the two-lane road. In Jamul, I visited two of my favorite spots: Filippi’s Pizza for lunch, and Simpson’s Garden Town Nursery, for another look at owners Lee and Cathy Smith’s collection of cars. The lines of 1940 Fords, Model T’s and travel trailers make Simpson’s worth a visit. Oh, and the plants aren’t bad, either.

Few road paved roads in the county are as challenging as Lyons Valley Road. Even in a minivan, take it slow and easy and you’ll make it just fine.

Just make sure to stay on your side of the yellow line… and watch out for those rocks.

Route and Info

Distance

  • About 34 miles from end of SR-94 freeway.

Difficulty

  • Challenging. Some of the kinkiest roads in the county and if you miss a turn, you fall off a cliff.

Directions

  • SR-94 east. Continue onto Jamacha Road at Campo Road.
  • Right at Willow Glen Drive.
  • Right at Steele Canyon Road.
  • Left at Jamul Drive.
  • Left at Lyons Valley Road.
  • Follow Lyons Valley Road to the right at intersections with Skyline Truck Trail and Honey Springs Road.
  • Right at Honey Springs Road.
  • Right at SR-94.
  • Follow SR-94 back to freeway in Casa de Oro.

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