Springtime in San Diego County’s vast agricultural area is a wonderful time to take a country drive. The meadows can be green (if we’ve had rain) and flower fields are beginning to sprout.
But the real treat is finding spots that still have Southern California’s signature crop growing… groves of orange trees. There’s just nothing like the fragrance of an orange grove in bloom. It’s one of those times when open-air driving is at its best… whether the top’s down on the convertible, you’re on a motorcycle, or just have the windows down on the minivan.
Growing up in the 1960s, we would head north in the spring to visit relatives in the Long Beach or Disneyland (not much difference). A highlight was the curve on Interstate 5 just north of the Ortega Highway. Back in those days, there were groves on both sides of the freeway; my folks would roll down the windows on the Pontiac to take in the aroma. The stands are long gone, but a few places are still around where drivers can take in all that an orange grove has to offer.
A couple of easy-to-access spots in San Diego county offer a drive through the trees. One is on Bandy Canyon Road, just east of the San Diego Wild Animal Park in San Pasqual; another is our drive today, north of Escondido and Valley Center in the rugged hills around the Pala Indian Reservation.
Just a few words about keeping out of the groves: They’re private property, the farmers are in business to grow and sell oranges or avocados, so even if there isn’t a fence, don’t walk off the road onto private property.
That said, we’re heading over some of the most twisting roads in the county, plentiful in the Valley Center area. Old Castle Road is a wonderful challenge for drivers, zigzagging up a hill while providing great views of the Castle Creek Country Club.
Early on are the first groves, mostly avocado but a few orange here and there. If the trees are still in bloom, you’ll pick up the scent of the oranges right away. It will do more to freshen the interior of any car than any cardboard tree you’d hang around the rearview mirror.
All of today’s roads are the usual backcountry variety… narrow and twisting. There aren’t any shoulders in most spots, and sometimes not even a ditch or dirt parking area. It’s important to keep the speed down and drive carefully, as there are many driveways and side streets along the way. Lot size might be large in western Valley Center, but there are still many homes fronting these streets.
Just the same, your sports car or motorcycle should be able to get all its suspension parts working on these roads. They’re a fun drive. And if you’re taking something less sporting, just keep the speed down and enjoy the drive.
Almost six miles after exiting I-15, Old Castle Road ends at Lilac Road. If you’re hungry, go straight onto Lilac Road and into the town of Valley Center, where there are several restaurants. I was saving lunch for the Pala Casino, so I turned left onto Lilac Road, heading north.
Up to where West Lilac Road splits off, Lilac Road runs through canyons, sometimes shaded by oaks and marked by sharp turns. Typical of an old highway, the road generally isn’t banked the correct way, so driving is a bit of a challenge.
Passing West Lilac, the road twists a bit more before opening up to a beautiful meadow just where drivers pass the south end of Old Lilac Road. On my visit, after an early spring rain, the meadow and surrounding hills were as green as they come. A convenient and unusual wide spot in the road provided a perfect photo point.
Turn here if you’d like to visit The Keys Creek Lavender Farm, a nursery that grows lavender, as well as processing it into soap and other products. It’s website says the ranch is open to the public in May and June only. It hadn’t opened for the season yet when I visited, but I plan to return soon.
It is a 1.5 mile drive on a dirt road to reach the Lavender Fields at 12460 Keys Creek Road, which splits off from Old Lilac Road. Even though the nursery was closed, I drove up Keys Creek in my 1991 Mazda Miata (which has probably been on more dirt roads than most SUVs). I took it slow and found the road in mostly good shape, with only a few big ruts and no rocks.
Just a note on dirt roads (since this drive includes two): there are around 150 miles of unpaved, public roads in San Diego county, most in the unincorporated areas. The county of San Diego tries to re-grade many of them at least twice a year, and if they don’t get a lot of traffic they are passable for an average passenger car.
I’ll check them out in the Miata, which has extremely low ground clearance, and turn around if they’re too rutted, or at all rocky.
Many dirt roads, including one we’ll drive a bit later, are in better shape than some of the city streets around San Diego. For comparison, drive First Avenue north from Market Street in downtown San Diego; Keys Creek Road was a bit rougher and more rutted than First Avenue.
Back on the paved road (for awhile at least), it was back to the fun twisties. Near Bandy Canyon Road, the orange groves reappear. When I visited in April, they were not only in full bloom, but fruit from last year’s blooms were orange and almost ready to pick.
Just beyond Bandy Canyon, the pavement on Lilac Road ends. Using the First Avenue scale, most of the unpaved Lilac Road is better than First Avenue, and I made it all the way in the Miata.
If you don’t want to risk dinging the clear-coat on your Ferrari, then head north on Bandy Canyon Road to SR-76 to pick up our route. Otherwise, enjoy the slow speed as Lilac Road twists down into the San Luis Rey River valley. There are views of the Pala Casino and Pala Indian Reservation, ridges of the Palomar Mountains and the blue sky looking north.
At the bottom of the grade, you’ll drive through parts of the reservation. Some are marked as private roads, some are unmarked, but I kept on Lilac Road just to make sure I wasn’t trespassing.
Reaching Pala Road (SR-76), I checked out Magee Road, which quickly rises north into the hills about three miles before turning private.
Views to the south are of the Pala Reservation and the rich agricultural Pauma Valley lies to the east. Then, around a curve, the road plows right through the middle of a grove, with avocados on one side and oranges on the other. Nothing says “Southern California” more than this drive, so slow down and smell the orange blossoms. What a fabulous aroma.
Where the public road ended, I turned around and headed back to Pala Road, with my next stop the Pala Casino for lunch. I wish I’d changed my plans and stopped at the Pala Mission first, because across the street is the Pala Store, which has been the community’s grocery, cafe and post office for more than a century. Nothing against the casino, but I wish I’d grabbed a burger or burrito from the small kitchen at the store, then enjoyed it in the park across from the Mission.
An assistencia, or annex, of Mission San Luis Rey in Oceanside, the church was built in 1816 by Father Antonio Peyri and boasts that today it is the only California mission still serving its original Native American community. The grounds are beautiful and are a focal point of the Pala Reservation community, anchoring one side of a town square that includes a Boys and Girls Club, child care and school. Off the main highway, the Pala town center is a real throwback to another era in Southern California.
The casino is just west, and worth a visit. If a picnic in the park isn’t in your plans, the casino has great food; my sandwich was delicious and spending an hour or so cooling off inside wasn’t a bad idea, either.
From there, I headed west to I-15, past the now-closed dairy, as Pala Road hugs to the south side of the wide valley created by the San Luis Rey River. I was luckier with the traffic than I was in the casino… there were few cars on the road, a contrast to what can be heavy traffic on the two-lane SR-76.
There isn’t a more Southern California experience than driving through orange groves, touring a mission and cruising on twisty roads. Hope you enjoy your day.
Route and info
- From April 2006
- About 32 miles
- Interstate 15 to Gopher Canyon Road/Old Castle Road Exit.
- East to Champagne Boulevard.
- Right at Champagne Boulevard.
- Left at Old Castle Road.
- Left at Lilac Road (Old Castle Road ends).
- Lilac Road is unpaved a mile north of Bandy Canyon Road; for a paved alternative: left at Bandy Canyon Road.
- Right at Pala Road (state Route 76).
- Left at Magee Road. Turn around at gate where public road ends.
- Right at Pala Road (SR-76).
- Right at Pala Mission Road to Pala Mission.
- Continue west on Pala Mission Road to return to SR-76. Continue west to I-15.