Riding the Curves from Pala to Temecula

Exercise a Sports Car While Crossing the Riverside-San Diego County Line

  • From July 2007

A sunny day and a new Mazda Miata cry out for a trip over some twisting mountain roads.

The selection on a recent Saturday afternoon was a route over a couple of classics between Pauma Valley and Temecula: Rice Canyon Road and the Pala-Temecula Road.

These two roads run through the rugged mountains between the valleys carved out by the Santa Margarita and San Luis Rey rivers. A bit to the east and these mountains really get serious: they peak at Palomar Mountain, which climbs to more than 5,000 feet.

These roads follow the passes at lower elevations. Narrow and twisting, they’re perfect for old, skinny highways that follow the contours. It’s on roads like these that a tiny skateboard of a car like the Miata really shines. It’s one of those spots where you’re in control of the roller coaster ride — otherwise you’ll end up in a field, tree or telephone pole.

Just follow the yellow-lined road.

Take Interstate 15 to the state Route 76 exit, then east on Pala Road toward the Las Vegas of San Diego county, where there are a half-dozen Indian casinos within a few miles. The casino traffic has turned SR-76 from a fun drive to real pain so exit early, taking the left onto Rice Canyon Road just a couple of miles east of I-15.

And old farm road, Rice Canyon snakes north and quickly rises in elevation. It’s one of the least improved through roads in the county. And what does “least improved” mean? In spots its two lanes aren’t much wider than a pair of Model A Fords set side-by-side. Mostly, there’s no shoulder. Trees and telephone poles intrude into the lane. Curves are banked the wrong way. A road still set up for horse and wagon.

No problem. I was fortunate enough to have snagged a 2007 MX-5 Roadster from Mazda for the weekend, so my classic ‘91 Miata was left home in the garage. True to the original in all but its more plush appointments, the ‘07 MX-5 (with the retractable hard top, no less) ate up Rice Canyon like it had been specifically designed for this road.

They say vehicles are just mechanical things, without a soul, but their designers are always striving for a certain experience for the driver, whether its the rolling living room comfort of an SUV on the freeway, or the sports-car thrill of low-speed twisties (I don’t think I ever got above 45 miles per hour). Mazda’s design center is in Irvine, so while behind the wheel I can imagine designers and engineers testing a prototype of this third generation of the world’s best-selling roadster right here in Rice Canyon.

In any event, it seems this car was destined for this road from the time it came out of the factory in Hiroshima.

The expression of driving enthusiasts checking out this car always fell when they noticed the six-speed automatic transmission. In fact, after booking the vehicle, the folks at Mazda quickly called me back to apologize for the Activematic and asked if I still wanted the car.

I took it.

I ended up driving Rice Canyon Road three times just to get the hang of the manual option in the Activematic, with paddle shifters sprouting from the steering wheel. Engine braking and higher-revving acceleration — areas where automatics tend to fail — returned in manual mode. Manual-transmission driving allows the right foot to reduce the times it slips over to the brake pedal; the Activematic in manual mode pretty much simulated the manual driving experience. Except my left foot was a bit lonely.

These types of roads are all over this area. Just south of Rice Canyon Road is Couser Canyon Road, another fantastic twisty. East County has Japatul Valley Road and much of Old Highway 80. These are the roads that will put a twinkle the eye of any driving enthusiast, whether their car is a Mustang, Pantera or Miata. Even the Dodge Avenger I had last month would have been fun here, although a bit of a challenge on the narrow highway.

Pala Mission.

One of the good things about Rice Canyon Road is that it’s usually pretty open. Not much traffic here, so drivers can go at their own pace. And keep the speed down, otherwise you’ll end up wrapped around that old tree that intrudes into the right side of the road.

All too quickly, Rice Canyon Road reaches its summit in Rainbow, a little settlement dominated by nurseries. Where 8th Street meets Camino Rainbow, you’ll see the back of a bit of classic automobilia — the first of two old gas stations. This was once part of U.S. 395, the through route in these parts now mostly called Interstate 15. Back in the day, this little two lane road snaked north from San Diego to Perris, Riverside and San Bernardino, through farming communities like Rainbow.

This station has been wonderfully preserved, including an old gas pump with its big, glass container. It’s now a real estate office. A bit up the road is another old gas station which has survived but isn’t in great shape.

Old gas station in Rainbow is just about the right size for the Miata.

Still heading north, drivers cross into Riverside County, through the Temecula Creek Inn Golf Course and a block or two of tract homes, make a right at Pechanga Parkway (S-16). The huge Pechanga Resort Casinolooks more like Las Vegas every year; if you haven’t stopped in, make a point to.

Like almost every other square foot of land in this area, homes are either complete or under construction, even in this extreme southern end of the city. But as soon as the elevation starts to rise, the road narrows, rural Southern California returns and we’re heading back into San Diego County.

On the map, Pala-Temecula Road is a lot of squiggles with a big hairpin curve in the middle. It’s traversing a canyon north of the small, historic Indian community of Pala. Vistas are beautiful as drivers hug the edge of the canyon. Classic Southern California mountain driving.

Watch the curves on Pala-Temecula Road.

I did see a few buses from the casinos here and there, plus a semi hauling what might have been a tanker trailer full of milk. There are still a couple of dairies in the area and the Pauma Valley is still primarily agricultural, all casinos aside.

An advantage of an auto/manual like the Activematic is that drivers can select the automatic in traffic, making the stop-and-go a bit more pleasant. I took manual control for awhile on the Pala-Temecula Road, making for a more involved experience. When I caught up with a motorhome, I let the transmission do the work, sat back and enjoyed the scenery.

In Pala, visitors can stop in at Mission San Antonio de Pala, which boasts that it’s the only California mission that still serves its original Native American population. An Asistencia, it was built around 1816 as an adjunct to Mission San Luis Rey in Oceanside. Its bell tower — separate from the church — is a unique feature. The little hamlet of Pala also has a few shops, including a taco stand.

After a right turn, you’re face-to-face with the giant Pala Casino Resort and Spa, another spot worthy of Las Vegas. Stop in here to complete your casino tour, if you have any money left from Pechanga. It’s just another five miles west on Pala Road and back to I-15.

On my way back, I took another turn on Rice Canyon Road, giving the MX-5 a bit more exercise. I’ve been here before in my ‘91 and I’ll be back again.

It’s just what driving is all about.

Directions and Info

Distance

  • About 28 miles

Difficulty

  • Challenging, especially on narrow, twisting Rice Canyon and Pala-Temecula roads.

Directions

  • Interstate 15 to SR-76/Pala Road. Go east.
  • Left at Rice Canyon Road. Continue onto Eighth Street.
  • Right at Camino Rainbow. Continue onto Rainbow Valley Boulevard, Frontage Road and Rainbow Canyon Road.
  • Right at Pechanga Parkway, County Highway S-16. Road changes name to Pala Road, then, after crossing into San Diego County, Pala-Temecula Road.
  • Right at Pala Mission Road, County Highway S-16.
  • Right at Pala Road/SR-76 to Interstate 15.

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