Get a video preview of a great San Diego day trip, Old Highway 80 in eastern San Diego County. Enjoy it while I eat a great burger in Pine Valley.
Get a video preview of a great San Diego day trip, Old Highway 80 in eastern San Diego County. Enjoy it while I eat a great burger in Pine Valley.
The latest Joyride Guru book for Kindle takes drivers on a historic road in the southern San Diego County. Forget Route 66… this is the best old road.
“What are all those trucks parked over there?” in the cul-de-sac to the right at the I-8 – Pine Valley Boulevard exit?
After celebrating the end of World War II 60 years ago, perhaps by jumping in the Horton Plaza fountain on V.J. Day, drivers who spent the duration in San Diego were finally heading back to perhaps Texas or Louisiana in that worn-out Hudson.
At the time, they didn’t look for the red, white and blue shield of Interstate 8. The signpost up ahead was for U.S. 80, and in San Diego, that meant El Cajon Boulevard.
The original El Cajon Avenue dates to the horse and buggy days… it was used as a wagon road before the advent of the automobile. Drivers were heading to El Cajon and points east.
Over the years, the road was improved, culminating in the 1937-vintage artery we see today, its opening celebrated in that Depression year with a parade of 80 floats and speeches by dignitaries including Gov. Frank Merriman. The events are recounted from Donald Covington’s book, “Once Upon a Time in North Park” on the El Cajon Boulevard Business Improvement District’s web site.
The district, which runs from Park Boulevard to 54th Street, has posted a 2003 historic survey, which includes a map, photos and details of the buildings you’ll see along the way. The Web site also includes passages from Casey Cooper’s online history, where he says the thoroughfare was the Bob Seger’s inspiration for his song, “Main Street.” And while I wasn’t feeling lonely and beat, I did decide to take a cruise on the Mid-City’s main street. It brings back a lot of personal memories, as we used to live in the area and El Cajon Boulevard was one of our “main drags.”
Unique neighborhoods surround the major intersections… North Park at 30th Street, City Heights at Fairmount, College Area at College Avenue, the La Mesa line at 70th Street, and downtown La Mesa at La Mesa Boulevard.
The report notes that the boulevard includes some excellent examples of 20th century architecture, including Colonial Revival, Spanish Colonial Revival, Art Deco and Streamline Modern. The driving experience goes back more than a half-century… cruising through life at 35 miles per hour, with plenty of stop lights.
It’s only eight miles from Park Boulevard to Baltimore Drive, but during that time you’ll see a lot of San Diego’s past, plus the diversity of its present and future. If you’re headed somewhere east for the day, or just want a leisurely trip, El Cajon Boulevard is the route to take.
For example, try breakfast at Rudfords, a classic American diner near 30th Street. Then, cruise on up to the San Diego Collection past 70th Street to check out the classic car collection. Lunch can be at the nearby Leonardo’s for Italian food (now closed), or double back to the collection of Asian restaurants around Euclid Avenue, or back down to the Chicken Pie Shop at Idaho Street.
Your drive starts off with two classic buildings at the corner of Park and El Cajon boulevards. A Piggly Wiggly store was once was anchor tenant on the southeast corner, “A-rated” by the 2003 survey. I just wish the Piggly Wiggly was still there. Next door is Jim Cooley’s museum, one of the best car collections open to the public.
The Tower Chrysler-Plymouth dealership was on the northeast corner. Still a car lot today (Lusti Motors), it was the first of many of San Diego’s finest dealers that once were along the boulevard. Note the Chrysler blue trim that remains on the building.
Between here and Interstate 805 are a number of old, if not historic, bits of San Diego’s past. Here are just a few noted in the 2003 survey.
At 40th Street and Interstate 15 are some symbols of the City Heights revitalization. On the bridge over I-15 is the still-under-construction transit center, with its large metal sculpture arcing over the boulevard. Just past is Pearson Ford’s (now closed) annex and fuel stop, which not only has gasoline but several kinds of diesel and other alternative fuels.
A couple of blocks east was Guarantee Chevrolet, where I bought my first car in 1978 (a used 1974 Opel Manta). The lighted marquee was visible from all over, with the letters “CHEVROLET” spelled out; it’s now a shoe warehouse store. Look for the second-floor display window; did they actually put a car up there or was it just a big photo?
The remnants of the old auto row blend into what was once one of the city’s premier furniture shopping districts just before you reach Pearson Ford’s main location at 43rd Street. Lloyd’s Furniture occupied two large buildings between Van Dyke Street and Fairmont Avenue, both remain, one as SDSU’s Dede Alpert Center for Community Engagement.
Pearson is the last of what were perhaps a dozen new-car dealers along the boulevard… it does, as the jingle says, “stand alone.” (Update: Pearson is gone.)
Passing Hoover High, you’ll enter an area now dominated by residents of Southeast Asian descent; some are Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodians who came to San Diego following the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. Restaurants, groceries, shops and other businesses are centered around the Asia Business Center, at 47th Street.
El Cajon Boulevard then heads up the hill towards the College Heights area and College Avenue. This area was dominated by small shops and motels in the U.S. 80 days; a few remain today with worn out neon signs and peeling paint.
A car landmark that’s more recent is a private auto museum, the San Diego Collection, at 7215 El Cajon Blvd. Owner Chuck Swimmer shows off some of his personal vehicles and automobilia, as well as offering vehicles for sale and restoration services. On display at this writing (2005) are a 1954 DeSoto Adventurer II concept car by Ghia, a 1938 Peugeot Darl’mat Roadster and 1947 Bugatti Type 57 Stelvio.
The end of this stretch of El Cajon Boulevard comes at its replacement, Interstate 8. If you’re headed east, keep on going as the boulevard just goes straight. If you’re headed west on Interstate 8, make a left at Baltimore Drive.
Of the many San Diego highways with parts frozen in time, El Cajon Boulevard is one of the best. From the Piggly-Wiggly to Rudfords to the Auto Collection, visiting this artery is a great way to spend a San Diego day trip.
Sometimes these great twisty roads that driving enthusiasts like to frequent end up on the front page of the newspaper.
For example, Border Field State Park, in the Tijuana River Regional Park, is the site of a proposed expanded U.S. — Mexico border fence that’s received a lot of debate recently.
Well, Tierra Del Sol Road had been on my list of extended San Diego day trips for a long time, and when the area appeared the short list of new airport locations (erroneously called the “Campo” site), I decided to head east for a fresh look. (Note: This column was written in March 2005. The airport plan has been abandoned, like 5,000 other airport plans in San Diego.)
I’d been out here a few times with friends that like to stargaze… serious folks who own telescopes, not the celebrity hounds that hang out near Brad Pitt’s alleged new home in Del Mar.
The area off Tierra Del Sol Road, just west of Boulevard, is known for its dark and still skies… perfect for the amateur astronomer.
It’s a wide, flat plain, much of which is south of the border. At some points, it’s only a few hundred yards to Mexico. Lights of Interstate 8, cities and towns are blocked by hills and mountains. It’s hard to imagine how dark it can get out there at night.
During the day, it’s a beautiful area; a plateau that’s accessible at either end, making a perfect drive for a sunny day.
I headed east on Interstate 8 to the Kitchen Creek exit, swinging over to Old Highway 80. Just a couple of miles east is La Posta Road, where I headed south. It’s another six miles down La Posta Road to Campo Road and state Route 94. Make a right, and about another mile and a half is Shockey Truck Trail. Take it south.
Shockey Truck Trail is at the east end of the beautiful valley that includes Campo (about 10 minutes west) and Cameron Corners. A couple of miles after leaving Highway 94, Shockey Truck Trail turns to dirt. I’d left the Miata home in favor of a Jeep Liberty on loan from DaimlerChrysler, so that wasn’t a problem.
It’s amazing how the back country has turned green this year. Not quite like Ireland, but certainly a big contrast to the usual grey-green and brown of the chaparral.
It’s a wonderful drive up to the plateau, with great views to the west and, later, the south. Not a steep climb, but rutted and rocky just the same, what with all the rain we’ve had this year. I took my time, stopping at several spots to enjoy the vistas.
Not to dwell on what more than 24 inches of rain can do to our open space, but the green chaparral, contrasting with the light-tan granitic rock popping through in our rugged mountains, create a beautiful contrast.
The strong breeze never stopped during my visit, which I’m told by locals is very common. Weather is extreme, with winter temperatures dropping below freezing (especially with the wind-chill) and summers topping 100. Dress accordingly and bring water, as it can be dry even when it’s cold.
About the only thing marring the horizon are some high-voltage power lines, which announce drivers’ entry to the Tierra Del Sol plateau. The lines are here because of the terrain, as are the old the San Diego and Arizona Eastern Railroad tracks.
In his book, “San Diego County Place Names,” the late Lou Stein wrote that the area was dubbed Hipass by the railroad builders, at an elevation of 3,660 feet, it was the highest point on the “Impossible Road” that connected San Diego to markets in the east, which is once again carrying freight.
It also avoids the rugged mountains to the north, making it an easier crossing for the railroad tracks, not to mention high voltage power lines.
With a turn, you’re on Tierra Del Sol Road. Watch for the ruts and mud. Ranches dot the plateau, becoming more frequent the closer you get to Boulevard. It’s a nice drive. Put an airport here? Well…
After touring Tierra Del Sol, I headed east to Boulevard, then north to the McCain Valley Conservation Area. Located north of Interstate 8 from Boulevard, the area offers dirt roads, off-highway vehicle trails, camping, picnic areas and even hunting. It’s a great place to give that 4×4 SUV or truck a bit of exercise, even if you’re an off-road novice like me.
The McCain Valley Conservation Area is 38,692 acres in the In-Ko-Pah mountains, and with that much space, there’s almost something for everybody. It’s cooperatively managed by several government agencies and local stockmen, so there are ranches and cattle around.
Several trails lead north. There’s the Cottonwood Campground, about 10 miles from the area’s entry; Lark Canyon off-highway-vehicle area and campground; Carrizo Overlook, which offers views of the north end of the Carrizo Gorge; and Sacatone Overlook, which has views of the south end of the gorge.
I decided to take the Sacatone Overlook, which is about 2.5 miles from the area entry. It’s a nice, easy, twisting yet narrow road leading to a great view of the Carrizo Gorge and Colorado Desert, which includes the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, Algodones Dunes and, on a clear day, Yuma, Arizona.
San Diego and Arizona Eastern tracks also ride the edge of the canyon. Several tunnels are visible, but the spectacular Goat Canyon Trestle is on the other side of the ridge line.
Overall, it’s a fun ride through a very isolated area, easily accessible from Interstate 8 if you decide to skip the drive through the possible future site of the San Diego International Airport.
One of the reasons I like taking drives like this is to see for myself what all the fuss is about, as politicians, developers and others debate what open land should be carved up next. Sure, it’s my civic duty to be an informed citizen, but I might as well have some fun at the same time.
On a sunny Sunday, I set out to visit the remnants of the Old Plank Road, the first “reliable” connection across the Algodones Dunes near the Colorado River in Imperial County.
It was a breezy, late summer day in the Colorado Desert, with brown clouds of dust on the horizon; sand was being kicked up by the west wind.
Having missed the exit at Gray’s Well, where historical markers and a fence protect a small section of the old road, I ended up across the Arizona border in Yuma.
Following a conga line of loaded tractor-trailers, the dust and sand swirled, limiting visibility and tossing around an otherwise sure-footed Volvo S60R. Glad I left the Miata at home, as I’d surely have had sand in my teeth (and almost everywhere else) if I’d been driving with the top down.
What prompted this visit was my guide for the day, Eric Finley’s The Old U.S. 80 Highway Traveler’s Guide, a breezy little book that documents the old “Broadway of America” from Phoenix to San Diego. My goal was to retrace old 80 from the Plank Road monument to Miller’s Garage — and a possible former Stuckey’s — just east of the Mountain Springs Grade.
I’ve been out here before, but after visiting planks preserved at the San Diego Automotive Museum in Balboa Park, I decided to see how the Gray’s Well stretch was doing. It’s a bit worse for wear on this windy, dusty day, but the old road is still there.
While wood plank roads were fairly common in the 1800s, the location is what makes this one unique.
Because of the shifting sands and the state of road technology in 1912, planks were the only solution at the time for completing a road from San Diego to the east. There’s a full history of the Plank Road at the San Diego History Center.
The short version is that in 1912 — and after considerable debate — San Diegan Ed Fletcher (Fletcher Hills) committed San Diego’s dollars if Imperial Valley would furnish the labor and select the most direct route. That ran through the dunes.
The 1,500-feet of the road preserved at Gray’s Well shows what’s left of the sections that were installed by the state of California in 1916, replacing the original 1912 planks. It was used until the paved U.S. 80, just to the north, was completed in 1926.
The freeway in this area opened in 1961.
Exit I-8 at Gray’s Well, then head west over old U.S. 80 about four miles to the Plank Road monument. When you visit, there will probably be lots of campers and off-roaders enjoying the dunes. It’s a popular vacation spot during the fall, winter and spring. You’ll have to retrace your route back to the Gray’s Well freeway exit, as the next exit, at Gordon’s Well, is within view of the Plank Road monument but not accessible.
Following Finley’s route west, I exited at Gordon’s Well and followed old 80 parallel to modern I-8 for several miles.
If you’re not a real student of old highways, stay on the freeway. This stretch of the old road, named for Imperial Irrigation District official Evan Hewes, hasn’t been repaved in years. To call it washboard is an understatement and, since it runs within a few yards of I-8, you don’t miss anything by sticking to the interstate. So save your suspension and teeth… take the freeway.
Exit at state Route 115 if you took the freeway and head northwest to stay on old 80. This stretch has been paved fairly recently and is a nice, straight drive through date groves and the agricultural area of Imperial Valley.
According to Finley, we’re beginning to run across Lake Cahuilla, an ancient lake that once filled much of the valley.
Next up is Holtville, population 5,612, which will give Midwest natives a flashback. The center of town has a square park, surrounded by shops (now mostly closed). It looks like thousands of farm communities in America’s heartland.
W.E. Holt established the town in 1903 during Imperial County’s first farming boom after canals were completed from the Colorado River. Holt built an interurban railway to El Centro, a power plant, church and newspaper.
Old U.S. 80 ran along Fifth Street. At the park, a replica of an old Auto Club directional sign marks the 28 miles we’ve come from Gray’s Well and the 133 miles we have to go to get back to San Diego.
After a twist around the tracks that remain from the Holton Interurban Railroad, old 80 widens to an “expressway,” a four-lane divided road. It’s that way through the farms and roadside businesses until we hit the tracks of the now-Union Pacific, and San Diego and Arizona, railroads in El Centro.
The county seat and largest city in the valley, El Centro was once a major railroad junction. Just before hitting downtown are two old depots, one used by Southern Pacific (now Union Pacific) on its transcontinental lines, the other by the San Diego and Arizona. Folks heading east or west from the coast would transfer from one line to the other at these adjacent stations.
The railroad, known as the “impossible road,” then traversed the rest of the desert and the Laguna Mountains before dipping into Mexico at Tecate, running through Tijuana and then to San Diego. It opened in 1919 and closed in the 1970s. Promoters are still trying to get it reopened for freight service.
If you’re a train buff, park and take a look at the stations and other buildings around this rail hub. It must have been quite a busy place from the 1920s through World War II, the height of rail passenger service.
Nearby is El Centro’s arcade-covered downtown. There’s a couple of these buildings left in El Cajon and a others in places like Phoenix and Palm Springs, but nothing like El Centro. In the days before air conditioning and shopping malls, downtowns in hot-weather spots had covered sidewalks, which at least provided a little protection from the summer heat.
Old 80’s pretty narrow through here and the main highway was rerouted around the old downtown in the 1940s. The mostly shuttered shopping district goes to Imperial Avenue, where we’ll make a right, then left at Adams, go continue.
Just west of town is the Naval Air Facility El Centro, winter home of the Navy’s precision flying team, the Blue Angels. Every March, the Angels have their first show of the year right here. Many San Diegans, tired of battling 200,000 people at Miramar, make the trip here to see the famous flyers. Check out the base’s web site for more information.
Not much more than an intersection is the town of Seeley, which is the last place to get gas, water and food for awhile. We’re heading to Plaster City, across the Colorado Desert.
You’ve heard of factory towns, well this is a town that’s a factory. Plaster City is the home of the U.S. Gypsum plant, which takes ore mined near Fish Creek (and Split Mountain), where we traveled a few months back) and turns it into plaster of Paris, wallboard and other materials.
Old 80 crosses a number of creek beds in this area over a series of small bridges built in 1949. On a less dusty day than when I visited, there would be a great vista of the eastern edge of the Laguna Mountains. Off-roaders enjoy this area as the Plaster City Off-Highway Vehicle Area. To the north are a couple of bombing and artillery ranges, so if you explore, be careful.
As you drive, take a look to the south. Between today’s Evan Hewes Highway and the old San Diego and Arizona railroad tracks are more remnants of an older highway. The concrete ribbon, now cracked and sandblasted, was the original U.S. 80, built in the 1920s.
It’s probably around 10 feet wide, a great contrast to today’s interstate highways — and even the 1940s version of U.S. 80. It’s within walking distance of the Evan Hewes Highway, so stop and take a look for yourself.
The through road ends at Ocotillo, so you’ll have to continue your journey back to San Diego on I-8. But before entering the freeway, continue on to the south side and the gas station/restaurant.
There, identified as the now-closed Desert Kitchen, was, as far as I know, the most southwestern Stuckey’s. When I was a kid, the pecan-log shops were in their heyday and doing a lot of TV advertising. This was the only one I remember seeing — until, as an adult, I traveled east. Then again, after this story was published in the Union-Tribune back in 2004, I received an e-mail from a woman who said her sister owned the place when it was built, and it was never a Stuckey’s. Sorry, but I’ve never done the research to find out who’s right… my 40-year-old memory fragment or an e-mail from somebody who said they were there.
One last desert landmark is on the north side of the road just west of Ocotillo. Miller’s Garage was a classic “last chance gas” spot until bypassed by the freeway. Now it’s a ghost town.
As we speed down today’s freeways, it’s sometimes fun to glance in the rear view mirror at just how far our road system has come in less than a century. Just imagine if today’s SUV and trucks had to use a Plank Road.
Some of the best roads don’t always get you from here to there. Take, for instance, today’s drive. It’s a zig-zag through the East County communities of Lake Morena, Campo, Cameron Corners, La Posta, Live Oak Springs and Boulevard, plus the Campo Indian Reservation.
If you stay on the freeway, from our beginning exit, Buckman Springs Road, to the ending exit, Ribbonwood Road, it’s just a 15-mile trip on Interstate 8 that blows past in a few minutes at the posted 70 miles per hour speed limit. Taking the side roads, the trip is more than twice as far and, if you’re lucky, it will take the whole day.
Along the route are some of the prettiest oak groves on any drive in the county, a popular and historic lake, vintage trucks and trains, a casino and the real pot of gold at the end of this rainbow, homemade candies.
From central San Diego, head east on Interstate 8 to the Buckman Springs Road exit. The large rest site sits between the east and westbound lanes of the freeway, so if you need a stretch after the hour or so drive from home, take advantage of the available pit stop.
Otherwise, head south from the freeway, following the signs toward Lake Morena on Buckman Springs Road. It’s a nice, two-lane country road with just enough twists and curves to make it interesting. There’s not a lot of traffic, but if you’re not comfortable with the twists and can’t keep up with the 55 miles per hour speed limit, be sure to pull over and let folks pass.
Also, be careful of the school zone… this route goes right past Mountain Empire High School.
Buckman Springs was once a water stop for horses, and later cars, on the long trek over the mountains from San Diego to the desert. With water come natural oaks, creating a wonderful canopy over the road. There’s also a neat, 1950-vintage bridge crossing Cottonwood Creek.
And speaking of oaks, follow Oak Drive as it cuts west to Lake Morena, a small community surrounding one of the city of San Diego’s oldest reservoirs. The few shops in the town include the Oak Shores Malt Shop, where I ended my New Year’s diet resolution.
Just beyond is the John Lyons Lake Morena County Park, which includes picnic areas for day use, camp sites, RV hookups and cabins. It’s just $2 per car for day use. Fishing and boating are also allowed in the lake.
The reservoir has been providing water to city residents since 1912. Just three years later, a drought lead the City Council to hire Charles Hatfield, who claimed he could make it rain. For $10,000, he would fill Morena by the end of 1916.
Not only did Morena fill, the storms washed out Mission Valley, cut off San Diego from the outside world by downing telegraph lines, washed out bridges and contributed to the collapse of the dam at the Lower Otay Reservoir. Two plaques, one at the park and another at the Oak Drive-Buckman Springs Road intersection, honor The Rainmaker.
On my visit, the lake level was pretty low (where are you, Hatfield?), but there was a bit of snow, left over from the Christmas Day storm.
Heading south from the lake, watch for the elaborate, rock lined water channel along Lake Morena Drive. It’s one of the legacies of the WPA, the depression-era Works Project Administration that built many public projects in the area. There are several carved stones that say “WPA.”
Pick up eastbound SR-94 at Cameron Corners, just across the valley from the San Diego Railroad Museum in Campo. Watch for trains crossing SR-94 as you head east.
If you’re driving on a Saturday, the Motor Transport Museum is along our route and worth a stop. It’s visible from miles around, located in the old feldspar mill. The 200 or more trucks in various state of disrepair date back to the beginning of the motor vehicle. The museum is only open on Saturdays.
We’ve completed our first zig, so it’s time to zag back to the freeway. Just past the museum, look for left turn to La Posta Road, which heads north. Be careful crossing the railroad tracks at the top of the hill before twisting around into another nice valley.
Here are more oak groves, some cattle and fantastic driving. Look to the west for the La Posta Microwave Station, a large dish antenna headed skyward. The Navy conducts mountain warfare training in the rugged area, in addition to operating the antenna facility. Watch for the vista of the Interstate 8 bridge as you head north.
At Old Highway 80, make a right to one of the lesser used portions of this historic route to the east. It’s largely unchanged from when the freeway opened in the 1970s, with the frequent expansion joints making a great thump-thump-thump as you motor along.
The construction of the Crestview Drive exit from I-8 created a kink in Old 80 and you’ll need to turn right to stay on the route. The Golden Acorn Casino is on the left; I stopped in, left a few dollars in the slot machines and continued to ruin my New Year’s diet by munching on one of the huge donuts on sale at the pastry counter.
To the right of the entrance to Golden Acorn is Church Road, which winds down the hill into the reservation. We’ve zagged again to yet another beautiful, oak shaded drive, ending up back at SR-94. The reservation’s church, the road’s namesake, is near the intersection.
We’re back at Highway 94, where a quick look to the west gives a great view of the San Diego and Arizona Eastern bridge crossing the valley. We’re headed east, past Live Oak Springs Road through cattle, llama and horse ranches to the hamlet of Boulevard. Here, 94 meets up with Old 80 and Interstate 8.
But before making that turn back to San Diego, go a bit further to the Wisteria Candy Cottage and join me in finishing off that New Year’s resolution. Open since 1921, stop in and say hi to Dana Eacobellis, the third-generation of the family to run the business. They make and sell chocolates and other goodies from this small building, which was once Boulevard’s school house.
In a matter of minutes, traffic westbound on Interstate 8 goes from Boulevard to Buckman Springs. And while the view is nice from the freeway, it’s much better up close. Spend your San Diego day trip wandering around and you never know what you’ll find.
Note: Wisteria Candy Cottage is less than a mile east of Ribbonwood Road on SR-94 and is worth a visit.