Well here are some unexpected sights and sites that pop up on almost any trip to San Diego County’s mountains. You see, this is nirvana for many driving enthusiasts in the southwestern corner of the US… whether they’re from San Diego, the Los Angeles area or even Las Vegas or Phoenix. They park the Lexus for the weekend and bring out The Car… a Cobra, Pantera, Porsche… you name it. And they head to San Diego’s back country for the best roads anywhere.
Here’s a story and a trip from a few years back where I found nothing but surprises. Yes, Porsches, Panteras and a couple of Cobras. And what about that Buddah… and I’m not talking about the Buda engine in an old Crosley.
It was a beautiful late-spring morning and I was cruising over SR-79 north of Santa Ysabel, headed toward Warner Springs on a San Diego day trip.
The Saturday congestion hadn’t arrived, so most of the drivers appeared to be locals, or enthusiasts riding motorcycles, with a classic Triumph TR6 or Chevrolet Chevelle tossed in now and then.
After passing the junction with SR-76, the view opened up, revealing a very full Lake Henshaw and the mountain peaks to the west. As sometimes happens in June, there was a dense fog bank along the coast, with clouds thick enough to cover everything as far inland as Ramona, at about 1,500 feet above sea level. There had even been some drizzle as I headed up SR-67 from El Cajon.
At Lake Henshaw it was sunny, but to the west, the clouds looked like cotton candy sitting on the peaks, making for a striking panorama worth a photo.
As I was shooting pictures, I noted heard the rumble of a big American V-8 coming up the road… a Pantera, to be specific. The American-Italian hybrid was imported by Ford in the early 1970s; there’s an active club in San Diego County.
It wasn’t the only one I’d see today.
As I drove away from my Lake Henshaw vista, in my rear view mirror appeared a whole line of classics — maybe close to a dozen. These were Shelby Cobras, Panteras and a Dodge Viper, about a half-mile back.
As we twisted along SR-79 through the rolling hills that make up the upper Henshaw area, it reminded me that this is what makes a day on the road special for the driving enthusiast: being able to use these machines as they were intended. Car shows are fun, but the road is where they belong.
Well, the group was still a ways behind me and I really wanted to snap a photo. The problem: I wasn’t ahead far enough to pull over, stop on the gravel shoulder, get out of the car with the camera, set up and snap the picture. Think about it… even stopping on gravel (without sliding and kicking up too much dust, which would ruin the shot) takes a few seconds, and although they were still a half-mile behind me, they’d be by in a few seconds.
Sure enough, when I finally found a spot where the shoulder was partially paved (in front of the Warner Springs fire station), the group blew past just as I got out of the car. I was only able to snap a photo after they’d passed, but did manage to capture a straggler, a nice Cobra cruising by. Everybody waived, however, to the guy with the camera and the old blue Miata, as they continued their great day of back country cruising.
By this time, I was in Warner Springs, a historic community that for more than 150 years has been a waystation for everything from the Butterfield Stage Line to Cobras, Panteras and Miatas out for a cruise.
There’s a lot of history at Warner Springs. In his hilarious book, “Fallout from the Skeleton’s Closet,” legendary San Diego journalist Herbert Lockwood wrote about the Garra uprising, a revolt by local Native Americans in late 1851. Juan Verdugo, one of the participating Cupeno Indians, was captured and hanged in San Diego’s Old Town, at the spot where the Whaley House now stands. According to Lockwood, Verdugo is one of the spirits that still haunts the Whaley House.
I didn’t see any ghosts or uprisings on my drive. A spa, resort and golf course are at Warner Springs today. The restaurant at the golf course (31652 Highway 79, 760- 782-4200) is open to the public and timing worked out that it was my lunch stop for the day. There are only a couple of road houses and convenience stores between here and my destination, Temecula, so it was a smart stop.
Of course, if you want to leave the car at home, there’s an airport at Warner Springs, just off the highway. As I was driving by a small plane was landing at about the same speed I was driving. The airport’s web site notes that the landing strip is open only for gliders and guests of the Warner Springs Ranch, so, John Travolta, be sure to make reservations at the Ranch before taking your vintage Boeing 707 up here.
Just north of Warner Springs is one of those funny coincidences or something planned by a person with a good sense of humor. The San Diego Sheriff’s Department has an adult honor camp in the area, Camp West Fork. It’s on Fink Road.
Also in the area is the Shadow Mountain Winery (34680 Highway 79, 760-782-0778); I didn’t have time to stop in.
The small community of Sunshine Summit is next along SR-79. It includes a restaurant, which appeared busy as I cruised by, and a grocery store.
Up ahead, I turned east onto Chihuahua Valley Road, a 14-mile round trip into a beautiful valley. The road twists up a canyon into the wide valley at the northern edge of San Diego county. There isn’t much here, save for a few stables and a very unexpected site, the Lieu Quan Meditation Center.
Statues of Buddha appear to be 20- to 30-feet high and are visible from the road. I later spoke with one of the center’s members, Johnny Vu, who said the facility is open to visitors on weekends (31130 Chihuahua Valley Road, 951-767-7332).
Families might know the Chihuahua Valley as home to the Schoepe Scout Reservation at Lost Valley, operated by the Orange County Council of the Boy Scouts. The 1,400-acre property is another 11 miles in, over a dirt road, and includes two areas, Camp Grace and Camp Irvine, according to its web site.
Seven miles in, Chihuahua Valley Road ends and I made my way back down the ravine to SR-79. But the drive was well worth the visit.
Still heading north, SR-79 passes through the tiny Oak Grove, where there’s a store and restaurant. Oak Grove is also a place with a lot of history, as two historical markers note along the highway. From 1861-66, it was home to Camp Wright, which guarded “the line of communication between California and Arizona,” according to its marker.
Also nearby is the Oak Grove Stage Station marker, which notes the Butterfield Stage Line stopped here from 1858-1861. Butterfield ran horse-drawn stagecoaches through here on a route that ran from San Francisco to St. Louis and Memphis. The stages ran U.S. mail, with the first passing through on Oct. 6, 1858; the last was in 1861.
The junction to SR-372 pops up just after crossing into Riverside County at the community of Aguanga. If you’re up heading to Palm Spring, Hemet or Idyllwild, head north on SR-372, which connects to SR-74, the Palms-To-Pines Highway.
I stayed on SR-79 toward Temecula. This broad valley is the upper end of Temecula Creek and the upper San Luis Rey valley.
The road continues some gentle twists as it descends toward suburbia. It’s a fun drive… but watch out, as traffic grows as you get closer to Temecula. If you’re up for wineries, follow the signs at Anza Road toward the wineries in the Temecula area.
A great drive ends abruptly at Butterfield Stage Road, where Temecula traffic really kicks in and the road widens to six lanes. Follow the road through the sometime gridlock to Interstate 15, then head home.
No matter what your vehicle, a day of driving can be full of surprises… whether it’s a giant statue of Buddha or a line of Shelby Cobras. Warner Springs and SR-79 is one of many routes around San Diego county that are full of history, beauty, and if you catch the right day, classic cars. Enjoy.
Route and Info
From June 2005
About 81 miles from Ramona to Temecula
Easy to Moderate
Take SR-78 or SR-67 to Ramona.
North on SR-78 (Main Street) to Santa Ysabel.
Left at SR-79.
Right at Chihuahua Valley Road. Take to end, return to SR-79.
Continue north on SR-79 to Temecula.
South on Interstate 15 to San Diego county. Temecula is about an hour north of downtown San Diego.