Green Hills: Spectacular show as mountains come back to life

Who says we don’t have seasons in Southern California?

At 4,000 feet, in the mountains east of San Diego, there are golden leaves in the fall, snow in the winter, and in the spring, wonderful green valleys and peaks.

There are also fabulous wilderness roads that are easy enough for any grocery-getter SUV to tackle.

Leading to it is Mesa Grande Road, a fun, twisting highway through pasture land and an Indian Reservation. Our route also includes a cruise by two lakes — Wohlford and Henshaw, a couple of Indian casinos and nice twists.

This is really one of my favorite routes, so let’s hit the road.

One of the best is Black Canyon Road, which heads south from Mesa Grande to Ramona. It’s a nice, maintained dirt road and even has a historic bridge. I’m taking a new route this time; rather than going north from Ramona, I decided to come south from Mesa Grande. Drives, especially on back-country trails, can look very different depending on the direction you’re going, so even if you’ve taken this route before, switch it up. You’ll enjoy it.

Escondido was the first stop, and rather than taking the through-route east on West Second Avenue, I went out Grand Avenue, home to Cruisin’ Grand, one of the great car shows around. I plan on attending April 17, so check out the Blog for my impressions.

While traveling through the fast-food mecca that is East Grand Avenue, I stopped in for lunch at Farmer Boys, a burger chain I hadn’t seen before. Well, I hope I just caught them on a bad day…

After passing the vegetable stands, it was a right-turn into the rugged hills along Lake Wohlford Road. A great contrast to the wide switchbacks of Valley Center Road, it goes by the historic Lake Wohlford Resort, whose restaurant is now open again, according to San Diego Union-Tribune auto editor Mark Maynard, who stopped there a few months back. Still full from the unfortunate Farmer Boys lunch, I didn’t stop.

Damage from brush fires in recent years is still eveident, but this spring, with lots of green growth, you’ve got to look hard to find it. Of course, you’ll notice the difference if you’ve been there before, but relax and take it as it is… beautiful.

Twisting through the back hills of Valley Center, Rincon and up to Lake Henshaw is material for other stories… but believe me that this is a beautiful drive. Resist the urge to stop at Bates Nut Farm, the Valley View and Harrah’s Rincon casinos — or stay overnight at the Harrah’s high-rise hotel.

Then there are the Lake Henshaw Resort, just before you turn, and the Hideout Steakhouse, where you turn to Mesa Grande Road. The Hideout is popular on the weekends with the Harley touring crowd and is worth a visit. The Henshaw resort has cabins.

Leaving SR-76 is where the drive really begins. Mesa Grande Road has been profied here a few times, most recently in 2007 when I tore around it in a Saturn Sky. Mesa Grande has just about anything a driving enthusiast would like… nice curves, not much traffic and great scenery. The Subaru Forester ate up the curves… not quite the WRX I tested last year, but as close as I’ve experienced in a grocery-getter SUV.

The road kinks through private grazing lands and the Mesa Grande Indian Reservation. Keep your eyes on the road and be careful; it’s not hard to wander over the center line on those blind, hairpin turns.

Look for the old Mesa Grande Store (it’s pretty much the largest building you’ll see), then make the right turn to Black Canyon Road.

About 12 miles of dirt from Mesa Grande to the edge of Ramona, Black Canyon Road runs along the edge of a spectacular canyon.

And it’s an old road. Back when I drove this in 2003 for Weekend Driver San Diego, I did a bit of research and found it not only pre-dates the Automobile Age, it probably goes back to the Native Americans who lived in the area before European settlers came in the late-1700s.

As the area developed, it was an important connection between Warner Springs, an outpost for travelers coming to and from the desert, and Ramona, which was an important agricultural center on the way to San Diego.

And although paved roads have gone elsewhere and trade routes have changed, Black Canyon Road remains open and shows signs that the County is still maintaining it, as it does for about 150 miles of dirt roads.

Drivers today get to enjoy one of the pristine nature areas in the county. Between the Cleveland National Forest and the Mesa Grande Indian Reservation, most of the road is in protected areas. Much of the road clings to the cliffside, with a shear drop on one side. Signs warn to “use horn at one lane curves” and you’d better believe it. Talk about blind curves… there’s only one, narrow lane. Your Hummer H2 would be challenged not because of the terrain, but because your wide track and fat tires might scrape the edge of the road, sending little pebbles cascading down 50 feet or more to the bottom of the canyon.

The Subaru Forester was perfect… comfortable, nice handling, the all-wheel-drive was sure-footed on the at-times sandy road. It allowed me to enjoy the views.

One of the high points along the road are the falls, located about a third of the way down from Mesa Grande. When water’s running through the creek, folks are known to go for a swim in the chilly water. It is very rocky, however, and Park Rangers say they have to rescue banged up swimmers a couple of times a year. Hike down the hill and enjoy the water… safely.

Farther down is the Black Canyon road bridge. Seemingly out of place probably even when it was constructed in 1913, the bridge has a historic designation and is being replaced… earthquake safety, you know. When I visited, construction was under way and the sign said the price tag was $2.1 million. Pretty good for a bridge in the middle of nowhere.

There was a fair amount of construction equipment around when I visited on a Saturday morning and it may have been construction workers leaving who passed me earlier. Be alert in this area, no matter what day of the week you visit.

From here, it’s pretty stark — Southern California chaparral — and a dusty road. The canyons have their own natural beauty. Not much traffic; enjoy the solitude.

The road ends in Ramona, and from here I chose to take SR-78 west, through the beautiful San Pasqual Valley, by the Wild Animal Park and through Escondido back to I-15.

All in all, a beautiful day. Certainly going the other way I’d have ended up at the casinos and might have spent more time (and money) out on the road. But, since I’m not much of a gambler, the casinos were best left for another day.

Black Canyon Road… one of the best. Take it in the spring and enjoy the flowers and water. ⚙

Falls along Black Creek flow in wet years.
Falls along Black Creek flow in wet years.

Route and Info

Distance

  • About a 69-mile loop from Escondido.

Directions

From Central San Diego

  • I-15 North to Centre City Parkway Exit in Escondido.
  • Right on West Grand Avenue.
  • Continue onto East Valley Parkway.
  • Right at Lake Wohlford Road.
  • Right at Valley Center Road.
  • Right at Pala Road (SR-76).
  • Right at Center Loop/Mesa Grande Road (watch for sign).
  • Right at Black Canyon Road (look for old Mesa Grande Store).
  • Continue onto Magnolia Avenue in Ramona.
  • Right at SR-78.
  • Right at Pine Street to stay on SR-78. Continue onto San Pasqual Valley Road and N. Ash Street in Escondido.
  • Left at E. Washington Street to stay on SR-78.
  • Right at N. Broadway to SR-78 freeway and I-15._one_last]

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