Dating back to the 1920s, U.S. Highway shields are a familiar site in most of the rest of the country, but in Southern California you’ve got to go north to downtown Los Angeles before one appears… U.S. 101.
These routes have been replaced by Interstates with red-white-and-blue shields, or remarked as state highways with the familiar green, bulging triangle.
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At one time, three U.S. highways ended lengthy runs in San Diego: the transcontinental U.S. 80, and two that ran to the Canadian border, U.S. 101 and U.S. 395. All three are still identified – if you know where to look – for those seeking a piece of history; today we’re heading north on the inland route, U.S. 395.
According to the excellent Finding US 395 Web page authored by UCSD alum Casey Cooper, the highway began in downtown San Diego at Pacific Highway (old U.S. 101) and Broadway. (Update: Check all my Highway 395 posts.)
Most of us are familiar with the freeway through Balboa Park, including the stretch under the arches of the Cabrillo bridge. This was originally U.S. 395, opened in the 1940s and still marked on maps as the Cabrillo Freeway.
Caltrans staff has attempted to note the historic nature of this route, as U.S. 101 has been marked along the coast of San Diego County. They haven’t been able to get it right. First, the sign had a U.S. highway 163 shield; U.S. 163 is in Arizona, running through the famous Monument Valley. It doesn’t come to San Diego.
They’ve since replaced it with a marker containing a California highway 163 shield. The correct historic sign would include a U.S. 395 shield, but that’s another story.
With a few exceptions, SR-163 and Interstate 15 follow U.S. 395’s final alignment north to Escondido. Our route today begins where Interstate 15 today veers west at Centre City Parkway.
Heading north from the North County Fair (now Westfield North County) mall, this stretch of old U.S. 395 has all the earmarks of a 1940s “improved” highway: four lanes, a wide median, fewer cross streets, but not quite a freeway.
Old motels, gas stations and restaurants are still here as well, the kind that get Route 66 enthusiasts all misty-eyed about the good old days. One of the old cafes is the Wagon Wheel, which proudly advertises that it opened in 1953.
This area also has great memories for me. When I was a kid, we used to drive up here on Sundays to fill the 20-plus-gallon fuel tank in the Pontiac.
Why? From Felicita Avenue north were gas stations that engaged in something unthinkable today… a price war. Even in the mid- to late-60s, we could get premium for less than 30 cents a gallon. Saving as much as a nickel a gallon made it well worth it for my dad to take the drive from City Heights.
Today, although there are still gas stations, but nobody’s selling ethyl for 26.9 cents per gallon.
Centre City Parkway is a pleasant drive with many characteristics of California highways from the immediate post-World War II era. Most prominent are the tall eucalyptus trees, which provide cool shade during those hot, inland North County days.
As an “expressway,” most of the businesses are on side roads. U.S. 395 once took Escondido Boulevard, so for the through-traveler from the late 40s through I-15’s opening in the 1970s Centre City Parkway really was an express way.
Observant drivers will also notice some U.S. 395 artifacts along Centre City Parkway. Bridges are marked with their completion year of 1948 and there’s still a milepost that says “395 SD” near one of the bridges.
Just past Country Club Lane, most of the traffic will veer left onto I-15; stay to the right for North Centre City Parkway.
From here on, old 395 is generally in sight of the freeway, functioning as its frontage road. And from here, the driving gets much more fun. There are also many places to stop along the way… attractions that most drivers miss on I-15.
This is one of those roads popular with the old-car set. Almost every sunny day – even during the week – drivers of classics can be seen cruising down old 395. On a weekday, I saw a couple of Chevrolets from the 60s. On a Sunday, a Morgan and a pristine Triumph TR6 (with right-hand drive, no less) were on the road. I suspect there was a British car meet nearby, as coming south later I saw several English cars, fittingly, broken down along I-15.
Old 395 has a number of nurseries along the way, specializing in everything from roses to palms. This is an easy route, so motorists with a truck or SUV, and a big yard in need of plantings, can meet practically all their landscaping needs and have a great drive, all in the same day.
At the intersection with Mountain Meadow Road, old 395’s name changes, giving you a big hint of what’s coming up. This is Champagne Boulevard… not named after the drink, but a kind of music.
The street name honors band leader Lawrence Welk, who once lived in this area. He developed Lawrence Welk Village, a residential community with shops, restaurants, a golf course and theater. The tribute to the late “champagne music” conductor draws tourists from all over. Don’t miss the bronze statue of the maestro.
Next door is the Deer Park Winery and Auto Museum, which, sadly, is now closed to the public (2017 update: it’s now open).
At Gopher Canyon Road, which runs over to Bonsall, the road’s name changes to Old Highway 395, which it keeps to nearly the Riverside County line.
Just a bit further, at Circle R Drive, is the Castle Creek Country Club, a golf course, inn and restaurant with a bit of a story. It was built by notorious San Diego financier J. David Dominelli, who called it the “Bavarian Health Resort” and imported lavish furnishings from Germany.
North of the Old Highway 395 exit from I-15, the road swings west of the freeway, climbing to West Lilac Road and a ridge overlooking the San Luis Rey River.
This area brings back memories… not all good. As a novice driver back in the late ‘70s, I have recollections of some white-knuckle drives through these hills on U.S. 395… heavy traffic, lots of trucks.
Today, the drive is much more fun as the semi’s are lined up on I-15. The view of the San Luis Rey River valley is wonderful, with Lancaster Mountain, at nearly 1,500 feet, towering to the east. Lou Stein’s “San Diego County Place Names” says the mountain is named after the Lancaster family, which homesteaded near its base around 1890. With a housing development on the west and the Pala Casino on the east, I’m not sure they’d recognize the area today.
This is also avocado country, with groves covering many of the rugged hills.
Past another golf course and resort, the Pala Mesa, be sure to watch for the right turn at Mission Road to cross the freeway and continue into the town of Rainbow. Just south of the Riverside County line, there are a couple of U.S. 395 routes to follow.
The pre-1950s route runs over Rainbow Valley Boulevard and includes a pair of real automobilia treats… two original gas stations. The first, at the curve where Rainbow Valley Boulevard meets Eighth Street, is today Chris Ohlson’s Rainbow Real Estate office, 2043 Rainbow Valley Boulevard.
Ohlson he bought the place in 1991 and believes it was built in the 1920s. Originally a Red Crown Gasoline station, it closed when 395 moved west in the 1950s.
One of the original gas pumps still sits out front and Ohlson has the place nicely decorated with old signs and other period pieces. It’s been designated a historic structure.
Further north is another station from about the same era, this one abandoned.
If you stay on today’s Old Highway 395, there’s a great dining spot: The Oaks of Rainbow Cafe. A leftover from the main highway days, it’s now a popular gathering place for the locals and those passing through.
From Rainbow, continue north into Temecula or just explore the areas and head back to San Diego via I-15.This is a nice, easy drive. If you’re worried about getting lost, it’s almost impossible here as I-15 is within sight most of the time. If I-15 is part of your regular commute, try this as an alternative as it might only add a few minutes to your drive.
What’s important is to get off the freeway and enjoy a day in the country.
Route and Info
- Difficulty: Easy
- Distance: Around 20 miles from south Escondido to Temecula.
- I-15 north to Centre City Parkway in Escondido.
Continue onto North Centre City Parkway, Champagne Boulevard and Old U.S. 395.
- Optional Rainbow Loop: Right at Rainbow Glen Road. Continue onto Rainbow Valley Boulevard.
- To Temecula: In Riverside County, continue onto Frontage Road and Rainbow Canyon Road.
- Left at SR-79 to I-15 and Old Town Temecula.