South Bay Cruise Promises a Chance of Less Traffic, Delivers Great Views

San Diego in the summertime. Time for a beach cruise.

But where to go? That’s the challenge.

Traffic from the fair and beaches can make Old Highway 101 north of Torrey Pines pretty grim. South of Torrey Pines, La Jolla, Pacific and Mission beaches, as well as Mission Bay, are pretty clogged. Ocean Beach? Forget it.

So keep heading south for your best shot at least a little open road — if you’re lucky. Imperial Beach and the Silver Strand generally are good cruise routes even in the summer. Coronado brings drivers back to gridlock, but it’s a small island and the payoffs are great restaurants plus cool ocean and bay breezes.

We’ll top it off with a bit of Barrio Logan and a run up Fifth Avenue in the Gaslamp.

This South Bay cruise is one of my favorites, featuring just a few twists (on Monument Road), genuine country roads, freeway-speed sightseeing (the Silver Strand) and two contrasting beach towns (Imperial Beach and Coronado). This is also an update and extension of Drive 11 in my 2003 book, Weekend Driver San Diego.

This week we’re driving in a 2008 Saab 9-3 Turbo-X, which is a lot of fun on the curves but a bit jiggly on the freeway. Still, it made for a great ride.

Even in these times of skyrocketing gas prices (this was written in Summer 2008, when prices passed $4 a gallon for the first time), the Estuary and Strand are just minutes from most of central San Diego, via I-5.

Vista of Tijuana River Estuary
Vista of Tijuana River Estuary

This is around 40 miles, plus your distance to the start at I-5 and Dairy Mart Road, and home from I-5 and Fifth Avenue in downtown. That’s less than some folks’ commute to work. According to the in-dash readout, the Saab returned about 20 miles to the gallon, so the trip cost me about $15. Cheap entertainment, just like it was when I was a kid and we’d pile into the Pontiac for a day in the mountains.

In case you’re geographically challenged, Imperial Beach is the south westernmost city in the continental United States. Even many locals have an image of this part of the county being the clogged San Ysidro border crossing, certainly not a good place to find open-road driving. But just to the west is a real treat, the Tijuana River Estuary, which is part farms and part nature preserve.

The roads through the area are generally fun and open, but watch for bicyclists and horses. Yes, horses as the area is full of stables.

If the gate to Border Field State Park is open (it wasn’t the day I drove) and you don’t mind a dirt road, pay the $5 and take the drive up to the true southwest corner of the U.S. The park sits on a bluff above the Pacific, with Tijuana’s 21,000-seat (also known as the Bull Ring By the Sea) and Playas neighborhood just south of the border fence. To the north, on a clear day, the views run all the way to Point Loma.

The Saab really enjoyed Monument Road, which has a few decent twists and turns. With a six-speed manual transmission, turbocharger and tight suspension, the four-door Turbo-X was such a blast it made me forget that this drive would have been really perfect in a Saab convertible. My test car did have a sunroof, though.

The terrain rises when you leave the estuary for the community of Palm City, a portion of the City of San Diego between Imperial Beach and I-5. We’re headed north on Hollister Street to a real automotive landmark, the South Bay Drive In Theater. At night, it still shows movies; Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday it’s a swap meet.

By the way, Imperial Beach was one of the first cities in the nation to complete posting of Tsunami Hazard Zone signs and have an evacuation program. I guess that makes the visit a bit more comfortable, just like the hurricane evacuation route signs in towns all over the midwest and south.

Tsunami warning sign in Imperial Beach, Calif.
Tsunami warning sign in Imperial Beach, Calif.

After a stop at the Estuary Visitors Center, cruise south to the end of Seacoast Drive and then back north to the Imperial Beach Pier. It’s a wonderful walk out to the end of the pier, a very popular pastime on the weekends. If you decide to eat at the Tin Fish Restaurant, perched on the end, be prepared for a long wait for your food; they get backed up on busy days.

Next, it’s up the Strand. Watch for the spots where both the bay and ocean are visible on this narrow spit of land. Stops can include the Silver Strand State Beach and the Grand Caribe Shoreline Park in Coronado Cays. By the way, the streets are public in the Cays, so you don’t have to stop at the guard gate. The Saab seemed especially at home here.

Another spot where you don’t have to talk to the guard is at Avenida de las Arenas, smack in the middle of the Coronado Shores condos. Don’t tell anybody, but there’s public beach access and a public parking lot there.

Looking north on the Silver Strand.
Looking north on the Silver Strand.

In Coronado, turn left past the Hotel Del Coronado (another must-see, if you’ve never visited) at Dana Place to cruise Ocean Boulevard. Then wander around Coronado to the bay side, where there are three little parks with spectacular views of downtown San Diego: Bayside Park, Harbor View Park (also known as SDG&E Park) and Centennial Park, where the car ferry from San Diego used to dock. Just east on First Street is the Ferry Landing Marketplace.

Hungry? There are so many good places to eat in Coronado, from fancy to fast. I like the food and Navy atmosphere at McP’s Pub (1107 Orange Avenue, just a couple of blocks where we turned off of Orange at the Hotel Del). The Coronado Brewing Company is on our route at 170 Orange Avenue.

The high point (literally) on any visit to Coronado is a trip over the San Diego-Coronado Bay Bridge. Arching 200 feet over the bay, it’s a spectacular bit of engineering and a real pleasure to drive.

From here, I looped around under the bridge, past historic Chicano Park (check out the murals), down Caesar Chavez Way (past the now-closed Chuey’s, which was one of San Diego’s great Mexican restaurants) and up Harbor Drive.

Wide, made of concrete and bumpy, this was once U.S. 101. This wasn’t a favorite road for the Saab, with its low ground clearance and taut suspension. Replaced by I-5 in the 1960s, Harbor Drive still gets heavy traffic from the busy Port of San Diego. Look for the 10th Avenue Marine Terminal, where your Dole Pineapple might be imported to the U.S.

Drive past Petco Park and turn right at Fifth Avenue to cruise under the Gaslamp Quarter sign north to I-5 and home. And if you’re hungry, there are a couple of restaurants in the Gaslamp — actually more than 75.

There it is… a day at the beach, country, resort towns and urban excitement, all in about 40 miles. Cheaper than a movie for two even with rising fuel costs. ⚙

Route and Info

Distance

  • About 40 miles.

Difficulty

  • Easy, except for a few moderate curves along Monument Road. Traffic may be an issue in Coronado and downtown San Diego.

Directions

  • I-5 South.
  • Exit Dairy Mart Road. Turn right. Continue onto Monument Road.
  • Right at Hollister Street. (To visit Border Field State Park, continue on Monument Road to park gate.)
  • Left at Coronado Avenue. Continue onto Imperial Beach Boulevard.
  • To Tijuana Estuary Visitor Center: left at Third Street, left at Caspian Way. Return to Imperial Beach Boulevard and turn left to continue route.
  • Left at Seacoast Drive to south end and return north.
  • Right at Palm Avenue.
  • Left at Rainbow Drive.
  • Left at Silver Strand Boulevard (State Route 75)
  • To Grande Caribe Shoreline Park: Right at Coronado Cays Boulevard. Continue to right past guard gate. Left at Grand Caribe Causeway to park. Return to northbound Silver Strand Boulevard.
  • Left at Dana Place. Continue onto Ocean Boulevard.
  • Right at Ocean Drive. Keep left to stay on Ocean Drive. Continue onto Alder Street.
  • Right at Cabrillo Avenue.
  • Left at Tenth Street.
  • Left at Alameda Boulevard.
  • Right at First Street.
  • Right at Orange Avenue (continue on First Street to visit Ferry Landing Marketplace).
  • Left at Fourth Street to San Diego Coronado Bay Bridge.
  • On San Diego side, exit National Avenue (right lane). Right onto National Avenue.
  • Left at Cesar Chavez Parkway.
  • Right at Harbor Drive.
  • Right at Fifth Avenue. Interstate 5 ramps are north of Cedar Street.
  • From July 2007

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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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