James Bond Would Love San Bernardino Highway

The yell came from the other pump island at the gas station near the base of the San Bernardino Mountains.

“Going drifting in that thing?” asked a curious fortysomething who probably shouldn’t have even been thinking about drifting, being that he was refueling a Dodge Caravan. He was admiring the speeding-ticket red 2009 Nissan Z Nismo edition that was my ride for the week, all tricked out with ground effects and 306 horsepower under the hood.

“No drifting, but I am going up Rim of the World,” I said.

With his voice and facial expression drifting away, he replied only, “sweet.”

And so it went, heading up one of the most spectacular roads anywhere, and it’s just a couple of hours north of San Diego: the Rim of the World Highway.

Nissan Nismo Z cools off in the mountains.
Nissan Nismo Z cools off in the mountains.

According to the Rim of the World Historical Society, the road opened in 1915, a 101-mile loop from San Bernardino up and through the mountains. Today, it connects to the towns of Crestline, Lake Arrowhead, Big Bear, down to Redlands and back to San Bernardino.

For my trip, I took only the western end, from the valley up to Lake Arrowhead and back, with a loop around Lake Arrowhead and a look-see at Crestline, about a 61-mile round trip.

Rim of the World Highway is truly one of the great roads on the planet. If it was in the Alps, it would have been used for one of the obligatory car chase scenes in a James Bond movie.

Old rim postcard
Old Rim-of-the-World postcard

The west end rises from San Bernardino, elevation 1,150 to the Crestline exit, at about 4,400 feet and is marked as a freeway. Two lanes in each direction, with, amazingly, mostly no barrier in the middle. It‘s banked like a NASCAR track in some spots, but I’d like to see Jimmy Johnson try it at 150 mph. It twists and turns; I lost count of how many, but the view from Google Earth showed at least 25 on this “freeway” stretch.

In many spots, builders created a shelf in the side of the mountain for the road. Most of the time, drivers are between a shear rock cliff going straight up, and the sky. Because of the banking, there isn’t always any land visible off the edge of the road.

Lake Arrowhead Village
Lake Arrowhead Village

Nothing for the faint of heart.

So, of course, it’s one of the great weekend drives around.

And it‘s an interesting mix of traffic. I was lucky enough to take it on a weekday in the fall, when traffic was light. Folks in pickups knew every curve — at least I assumed they knew every curve — because some were blowing past me in the Nismo, and I was going just a bit above the posted speed limit of 55 mph. Ever seen a slightly lifted Ford Ranger with big tires leaning on a curve? It’s scary.

I saw three CHP officers on this stretch during my trips up and down; their patrols are needed to keep speeds down, or at least call for the air ambulance if anything goes wrong.

The Crestline exit, SR-138, is a heart attack all its own and marks the end of the “freeway.” Sure, you‘ve managed to make it up the hill but the turnoff really made me think I was in some sort of old movie, where the late-model sedan flies off the side of the road, shattering the guardrail, then exploding on the side of the cliff.

Old postcard
Old postcard shows snow on the Rim road.

A full-on freeway interchange, the Crestline exit’s bridges soar into space, twisting and climbing about 100 feet to connect with SR-138. A few more twists, and it’s downtown Crestline. Returning to the Rim of the World Highway, the onramp circles around and probably infects first-timers with vertigo, if they didn’t succumb on the way up.

Heading east from the Crestline exit, Rim of the World narrows to a more traditional mountain byway: one lane in each direction, speeds drop closer to the posted limit and there are rest areas with spectacular views (on a clear day, which it wasn’t when I visited). This is in the San Bernardino National Forest; parking in some areas requires a Forest Service Adventure Pass, which can now be purchased online.

The Nismo was well up to the task, more than her driver on this sunny day. The abundant horsepower running through the six forward gears, the super-responsive steering and sticky tires were up to James Bond standards. I’ve done this road in the Miata, with a third the horsepower but 1,000 pounds lighter, and it’s just as fun.

My dad must have had blast in our old ’64 Pontiac Catalina, hauling us up and down this hill back in the mid-1960s, when we spent a few summer vacations at Lake Arrowhead.

Lake Arrowhead
Lake Arrowhead

At 5,162 feet, the lake is just 23 hair-raising miles up Rim of the World from San Bernardino. A mountain resort that’s been welcoming families since the 1920s; the village has since been rebuilt and today is home to not only the usual restaurants and shops, but also a small outlet center.

The clear, blue lake, surrounded by pine forests and exclusive homes, reminds visitors that this area was to Los Angeles what the Catskills were to New York… except on a much smaller scale. Everyone from celebs to factory workers would head up to the cool mountains in the summer, escaping toasty LA.

Today, there are a lot of full time residents and folks who have really big second homes. There are plenty of lodging options. Ski areas are further over in more middle class Big Bear, but if you’re looking for a great mountain weekend, check out Arrowhead.

Coming back down the mountain was another thrill. With the challenge of heeding the “Watch Downhill Speed” signs and the feeling of less control, I was happy to reach North Sierra Way in San Bernardino, and the end of the Rim of the World Highway. If you’re up for the challenge, take it easy and be careful. Let James Bond and the bad guys pass.

Route and Info

  • From November 2008

Difficulty

  • Challenging, particularly driveup Rim of the World Highway. Mountain roads throughout.

Distance

  • 61 miles from Interstate 215 and State Route 259 exit. Note: The former SR-30 is still shown on some maps; it has been renumbered in sections as SR-259 and SR-210. Interchange is about 93 miles north of central San Diego.

Directions

  • From central San Diego, take I-15 north.
  • Exit at I-215 north in Temecula. Note construction and wandering path of I-215 through Moreno Valley, Riverside and San Bernardino.
  • Exit at SR-259 north in San Bernardino.
  • Continue onto SR-210 east.Exit North Waterman Avenue (SR-18).
  • Turn left onto North Waterman Avenue; follow signs toward “Mountain Resorts.”
  • Left at SR-173 to Lake Arrowhead Village.
  • Loop around the lake from Lake Arrowhead Village:Exit village to Lakes Edge Road (SR-189). Turn right.
  • Right at North Bay Road in Blue Jay.
  • Right at SR-173 and return to Lake Arrowhead Village.

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