Snails and Shakes

Nearby East County Hills Offer A Great Cruise Route

Admit it… that sports car, collector car, sports bike, or Harley hasn’t been on the road for awhile. The excuses for why its tires are beginning to develop flat spots and the paint has a coating of dust are the same as always… too busy, too hot, too much traffic, gas is too expensive.

Sorry, none of those are valid in San Diego.

With the region’s hilly and mountainous terrain, a fun, challenging drive is within a few minutes of most county residents. And they don’t have to be long drives, so even as gas prices go through the stratosphere, a 20-30 mile round trip can still cost less than a movie ticket.

Driving enthusiasts should always have a map at hand to check out when something interesting pops up in the windshield. And for thousands of commuters in the East County, what appears in the windshield is Mount Helix. It’s one of those natural landmarks, at a bit over 1,000 feet, that freeways — three of them — go around, not through.ne]

A map check of the Mount Helix area finds a lot of twisting roads, not to mention several parks and old major highways. Add a dash of local knowledge — such as where a good burger joint might be — and it’s the perfect recipe for a few hours of cruising.

Since this is an urban route we’re taking in the summer, expect two things: heat and traffic. So, a morning drive, finishing with lunch, is preferred. My cruise started around 8:30 a.m. and I was chowing down by 11.

This cruise starts where SR-125 meets SR-94, a few minutes from anywhere in the south county. The big interchange has only been open a couple of years but can’t be missed; look for the Spring Street/SR-94 East exit, then follow the signs to Campo Road.

One of those old major highways, the western end of Campo Road, still has some of the bucolic charm remaining from the days when this was a major road to the east (SR-94). Most of the traffic now flows on the freeway, known as the Casa de Oro Connector.

Turn at Bancroft Drive (the old main road north to Grossmont), a delightful, twisty road that was the old main road from Spring Valley to Grossmont and El Cajon. The twists hide a few things, including the sign marking the entrance to our first stop, Eucalyptus Park.

One of the oldest in the county, a bronze plaque set into a boulder tells a bit of the park’s story. Local resident Walter S. Leiber donated the land in 1929, but the eucalyptus trees date to 1880 and were planted by Charles S. Crosby.

In the days when this was “way out in the country,” city slickers would go to Eucalyptus Park for a picnic. Included in that group were my mom’s family, who during the Depression years would load up their Oldsmobile touring car for a day away from Logan Heights and the aroma of the nearby tuna cannery. Must have been nice then; still is today.

From there, head over Edgewood Drive, which skirts the southeastern side of Mount Helix. Several spots have great views of Spring Valley and Case de Oro, while the terrain is a reminder of other areas of the county, such as back roads of Valley Center and Fallbrook.

After a couple of quick left turns at Fuerte and Mount Helix drives, the road spirals up to the top of the mountain. This route is best driven slowly, not just because the speed limit is 25 mph, but there’s so much to see. Beautiful estate homes line Mt. Helix and where there isn’t a house, there’s sometimes a view of the city, ocean and mountains.

According to the San Diego Historical Society’s account, Mount Helix got its name in 1872 when scientist Louis Agssiz discovered a European snail, Helix aspersa, living in the area. The snail had been inadvertently introduced to the area in the early 1800s and continues to munch in local gardens.

With that, local ranch owner Rufus Porter christened the spot Mount Helix. Porter, who bought most of this area in 1865, is considered the “Father of Spring Valley,” which he also named.

Back to the road, the Helix snail isn’t the only thing with twists on this mountain. The road spirals around to the top, frequently single-laned — one way up, one way down. Pay attention to the signs pointing to the top.

And at the top is a beautiful amphitheater topped by a cross. Parking is severely limited, even more so in the summer and fall when the local theater groups put on shows here.

The land was donated by Ed and Mary Fletcher, local pioneers who helped develop the area beginning about a century ago. Fletcher was also instrumental in building the plank road in the desert and the Mountain Springs Grade, but that’s another story.

Descending the helix, our drive winds through the Grossmont and Fletcher Hills neighborhoods. The first food point of interest is Anthony’s La Mesa — as unique here, where it surrounds a lake, as the downtown location on San Diego Bay. They’re open for lunch.

After bridging the trolley tracks, check out Grossmont High School, which has managed to retain its classic, gray stone building in this era of earthquake-proof structures. It was very similar to the “old gray castle” that once was downtown’s San Diego High School. Today, Grossmont High is a throwback to the era when communities were proud enough of their schools that they built them as architectural monuments, not just utilitarian boxes.

Continuing north is the small Amaya neighborhood, where the trolley has changed the landscape in recent years. According to a history on the Pacific Southwest Railroad Museum’s web site, the San Diego, Cuyamaca and Eastern built the railroad here in the late 1880s. The trolley started running more than a century later, prompting La Mesa to concentrate apartments around the Amaya station.

Sevrin Drive runs up to Fletcher Hills, getting a name to Garfield Avenue when crossing the line into El Cajon. Fletcher Hills (named after the same Ed Fletcher) is a very nice neighborhood of El Cajon, on the hills west of the basin. Today’s route takes drivers to the northern edge of the neighborhood, then down to the valley.

And what a trip down. Swallow Drive is one of the steepest streets in the county, making a nearly straight line from Hacienda Drive to Cuyamaca Street. Back in high school, I rode my bicycle up this hill a few times; haven’t tried it lately and don’t think I will.

When heading up Fletcher Parkway back to “downtown” Fletcher Hills, be sure to slow up a bit and look to the right, in what appears to be a grove of eucalyptus trees. There, you’ll see the old narrow concrete strip that was once Fletcher Parkway. It’s very unusual to see roadway that old, abandoned in the middle of the city.

Back in Fletcher Hills, it’s time for lunch at the Beef ‘N Bun, a true East County landmark. Located at 2477 Fletcher Parkway, it’s known for its milkshakes (particularly the peanut butter milkshake, which I haven’t tried), burgers and fries. One of the few remaining original independent drive-ins in the area.

The whole drive took just a couple of hours, including stops to enjoy the view and smell the eucalyptus. After lunch at Beef ‘N Bun, I was back home by 1 p.m.

The car got some exercise, I got some fresh air and good food. All in all, a morning any driving enthusiast would be proud of.

Directional sign

Route and Info

  • From August 2006

Distance

  • About 14 miles

Difficulty

  • Challenging on Mount Helix and Swallow Drive; easy the rest of the way.

Directions

  • SR-125/SR-94 to Spring Street exit in La Mesa. Follow signs to Campo Road and head east.
  • Left at Bancroft Drive.
  • Right at Edgewood Drive.
  • Left at Fuerte Drive.
  • Left at Mount Helix Drive. Follow to top, then back down.
  • Left at Fuerte Drive. Cross Interstate 8.
  • Right at Murray Drive.
  • Left at Water Street.
  • Left at Amaya Drive.
  • Right at Sevrin Drive. Continue onto Garfield Avenue.
  • Right at Katherine Street.
  • Left at Brockton Street.
  • Left at Hacienda Drive. Continue to end.
  • Left at Swallow Drive.
  • Right at North Cuyamaca Street.
  • Right at Navajo Road to SR-125.
Eucalyptus Park
Eucalyptus Park
Monument at Mt. Helix
Monument at Mt. Helix.
Classic Beef 'n' Bun.
Classic Beef ‘n’ Bun.

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