Mid-City Ramble: Euclid and Adams Avenues Drive Through City’s Spine

Euclid Avenue is one of the city’s oldest and longest thoroughfares, running from National City to the rim of Mission Valley. It twists and dips through some still open canyons and unique neighborhoods.
Those neighborhoods contain some great history, revitalized business districts and unique places to eat.

Our San Diego day trip takes Euclid from Imperial Avenue, in the Valencia Park neighborhood, to near its end in Talmadge. Then we’ll twist around to Kensington and head over Adams Avenue, another of San Diego’s great boulevards, to University Heights.

A big city is made up of many small villages, and this drive will take you through some called Valencia Park, Webster, City Heights, Talmadge, Kensington, Normal Heights and University Heights. The sites aren’t always pretty, but it does provide a great slice of our big city.

And, if you’re looking for diversity, here’s where to find it, with neighborhoods full of African Americans, Latinos, Laotians, Cambodians, Vietnamese and just about every other ethnic group you can imagine.

Market Creek Plaza amphitheater
Amphitheater at Market Creek Plaza.

Our drives usually include a stop at a restaurant and on my trip, it was my first destination… the legendary Huffman’s Barbecue at 5039 Imperial Avenue. Sadly, the restaurant closed in 2012, but here’s a little bit on the restaurant that I wrote when this story was published in 2005.

Family owned and operated since 1967, the menu includes barbecue favorites as well as soul food, including gumbo, gizzards and chitterlings. It’s open for lunch and dinner.

There are many other restaurants in this area serving soul food, as well as Mexican and Asian specialties, so be sure to bring your appetite. Mine was filled by Huffman’s hot link sandwich and a side of red beans and rice.

Imperial Avenue meets Euclid at the top of a hill, which gives drivers a great view north to mountains and south to the San Diego Bay on clear days.

This is the heart of San Diego’s African American community. The annual Heritage Day Parade runs along this portion of Euclid; it’s held annually.

There’s a lot happening around the intersection of Market Street and Euclid Avenue, the next big cross street on our route. As drivers head north on Euclid, they see the bustling Market Creek Plaza on the left. The $23.5 million development brought a Food4Less market, specialty shops and restaurants to an abandoned factory site.

A real treat is to visit the amphitheater and bridge over Chollas Creek, which provides a pastoral oasis in the middle of the city. A couple of the restaurants in the center offer creek-side dining.

After passing the tracks of the San Diego Trolley and Market Street, look east to the Malcolm X. Library and Performing Arts Center (5148 Market St., 619-527-3405). This architecturally unique facility opened in 1996 and has helped revitalize the area.

Heading up the hill to the interchange with state Route 94, drivers see the haphazard development pattern of this area, which was one of San Diego’s first suburbs. Tract homes, many built in the 1940s and 50s, sit on the hilltops, but there are still many open areas.

And while new urban developments talk about mixed use being small shops and cafes clustered with condos, this area still mixes in auto repair shops and other non-compatible businesses, as it was done in the “good old days.”

Another busy intersection is at Federal Boulevard and Euclid Avenue. It’s hard to imagine today, but before SR-94 opened in the late 1950s, this was the main highway from downtown to Lemon Grove and El Cajon.

When I was a kid, we’d shop in this area, which had a Fedco department store, as well as several markets, including a Safeway and DeFalco’s (there’s a name that only old-time San Diegans will remember). This area has also been revitalized, with much local effort through the Diamond Business Improvement District, local residents and the city of San Diego.

From here, stay on Euclid Avenue as as 54th Street veers to the right. Euclid then curves down into the Chollas Creek canyon. The city has planned hiking trails for this area and hopes to restore the watershed, which runs to San Diego Bay. If you’d like to take a look, detour at Chollas Drive to Quince Street, where there is creek access.

And, to give you an idea of how rural this area once was, until the early 1960s, a dairy was located just south of where Euclid crosses the creek.

Euclid dips and twists as it crosses the creek, heading past Ridge View Drive and Altadena Avenue before dropping down again and meeting up with Home Avenue. At the turn, look for City Farmers Nursery, 4832 Home Avenue, (619-284-6358).

Euclid next goes up the hill to the City Heights neighborhood and some urban archaeology where it meets University Avenue. Don’t miss the Egyptian Garage (Big City Liquor, since 1957) on the southeast corner. It was built in the 1920s, around the time that the opening of King Tut’s tomb started a craze for all-things Egyptian.

Just a bit east on University at Reno Drive is The Tower, a one-time soda fountain topped by a 110-foot art deco-style tower (www.thetowerbar.com). San Diego’s original streetcar line ended here.

Historic Normal Heights street sign.
Historic sign marks Normal Heights. Sign was originally installed by streetcar company.

The Tower was built in 1932, a 110-foot monument marking the east end of the University Avenue streetcar line. By 1999, the tower was as tipsy as some of its patrons and was lobotomized. A decade later, the City of San Diego found some money and replaced the hat, restoring the landmark to its original glory, although a bit more colorful this time.

On the northeast corner is the old Silverado Ballroom, where East San Diegans used to dance to big band tunes.

The buildings show a fascinating mix of cultures, with signs in English, Spanish and a variety of Asian languages and alphabets. Both University Avenue and El Cajon Boulevard have many unique shops and places to eat; if you have time, take a detour.

North of El Cajon Boulevard is the Talmadge neighborhood, one of two developments dating to the 1920s on our route. Named for the Talmadge sisters, who were big in the silent movie days, this area and Kensington, just to the west, were built in the early days of the automobile.

We’ll dip down to Aldene Drive, through the canyon and under Fairmount Avenue, then up the hill to Van Dyke Street and the western portion of Adams Avenue.

Egyptian Garage
Egyptian Garage has been Big City Liquor for decades. This photo is from 2005; note the tower-less Tower bar across the street. The spire has since been replaced.

Kensington is one of San Diego’s favorite neighborhoods, with its old overhead sign (the original was built by the streetcar company), coffee houses, cafes and the Ken Theater. Cross Interstate 15 and you’re in Normal Heights; west of I-805 is University Heights.

There are spectacular views of Mission Valley and unique homes to check out on the streets north of Adams Avenue, so make a right turn at your convenience.

Don’t miss Trolley Barn Park in University Heights. On the site of the old San Diego Electric Railway streetcar facility, the park offers a great vista of Mission Valley from its north edge. Trolley-themed playground equipment, checkerboard tables and sidewalks in a grid pattern, replicating the area’s streets, compliment the expansive lawn.

Where Adams and Park Boulevard meet was once Mission Cliff Gardens, which is commemorated by all the ostrich symbols in the area. The gardens, according to the San Diego Historical Society, were developed by the streetcar company and operated from 1891 to 1942. They’re long gone except for the street name, Mission Cliff Drive, and the decorative posts at the north end of Park Boulevard.

Another revitalized neighborhood is University Heights, where at Mission Avenue and Park Boulevard are a charming collection of restaurants, coffee houses and even a massage-supply store. Stop under the big sign if you have time.

Where El Cajon Boulevard, Normal Street and Park Boulevard meet are some historic buildings and a hidden, private auto museum. At the east end of the intersection is the 1910-vintage Teacher Training Annex, a remnant from when this was the location of the San Diego State Normal School, predecessor to San Diego State University. The university moved to Montezuma Mesa in 1931.

The building is now part of the San Diego Unified School District’s headquarters complex. Its main building, just south, is one of the best examples in San Diego of mid-century modern architecture, largely untouched since it opened in 1952.

Across two streets, at 4233 Park Blvd., is the J.A. Cooley Auto Museum. It’s the private collection of Jim Cooley, who will probably be there, who says he has one of the largest collections of one-cylinder cars in the world. I’m not going to dispute him, as the cars are wonderful pieces of century-old history. There are about 18 cars on display, plus assorted photos of the neighborhood dating back decades, Army and Navy recruiting posters, antique toys and more. It’s well worth a visit.

From here, take Park Boulevard to Balboa Park, or cut over Normal Street and Washington Street to SR-163. Or head back up El Cajon Boulevard or University Avenue to explore more of San Diego’s Mid-City. You won’t believe what’s here. ⚙

Route and Info

Distance

  • About 13 miles.

Difficulty

  • Easy for those used to city traffic.

Directions

  • Interstate 805 to Imperial Avenue exit.
  • East on Imperial Avenue.
  • Left at Euclid Avenue. Follow Euclid north at 54th Street and Home Avenue.
  • Left at Monroe Avenue. Continue onto Aldene Drive and Van Dyke Avenue.
  • Right at Adams Avenue.
  • Left at Park Boulevard.
  • Right at Normal Street.
  • Right at Washington Street to SR-163.
  • From January 2005; updated July 2012
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Ultimate Watering Holes

County’s Lakes Are Great Destinations

Today we’re in search of lakes — north, south and east on this San Diego day trip. I assume you can find the big lake to the west.

For a region known for its beaches, San Diego county has too many lakes to count. The City of San Diego alone operates 10 lakes, reservoirs for our drinking water; water districts generally run the rest of them.

We’re veering from our normal format today, giving trips to visit three of the largest. These lakes are open only on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday and charge an entry fee; check the City’s lakes website or call (619) 465-3474 for more information. Let’s start in the south.

South: Lower Otay Reservoir. It’s an easy drive to the Lower Otay. Exit Interstate 805 at Olympic Parkway, head east and when you see the water, turn right. Lower Otay dates back to 1897 and holds many places in San Diego history. Historic photos show when the original dam burst during the 1916 flood, the famous Hatfield the Rainmaker storm.

Lake Hodges
Lake Hodges

Today, it and the Olympic Training Center provide the dividing line between Chula Vista’s Eastlake neighborhood and the back country. The U.S. rowing teams can at times be spotted on the lake. The lake offers boating, picnicking and fishing. The shoreline is 25 miles.

Most recently, the lake was in the news when a U.S. Navy SB2C Helldiver was pulled up from the bottom.

After turning onto Wueste Road from Olympic Parkway, it’s a pleasant, curving road around the water’s edge to the parking/picnic/boat launch area.

From here, head back down Olympic Parkway (and take the tour of the Olympic Training Center if you have time) to the freeway, or north to Otay Lakes Road, then east out to state Route 94 for some really spirited driving.

Lower Otay Reservoir
Lower Otay Reservoir

East: El Capitan Reservoir. You’ve probably seen it a dozen times, that lake to the north of Interstate 8 just west of Alpine. It’s El Capitan, another City of San Diego lake far outside of the city. Dating to 1935, it boasts 22 miles of shoreline but only a couple are accessible by car. Water skiers and personal water craft can be seen on this lake, the only City lake that allows them. Fishing, hiking and picnic areas are there as well.

No visit to lakes in San Diego County could be complete without going to Lakeside. There’s three accessible from Lake Jennings Park Road — the namesake Lake Jennings, which is just off of I-8, El Capitan and Lindo Lake.

Getting to El Capitan is half the fun. It’s more than seven miles up a scenic gorge to the lake, past stables, citrus (looked like lemons to me) groves and other small farms. Lakeside is known today mostly as a bedroom community, but the drive gives visitors a look into the old days in the back country. You’ll pass El Monte County Park, another hidden gem, along the way.

The reservoir fills a fairly narrow canyon with three fingers that was once part of the Kumeyaay Indian Reservation. Visitors in the picnic/boat launch area can’t even see the north end.

El Capitan
El Capitan Reservoir

North: Lake Hodges. Visible from I-15 between the Via Rancho Parkway and Pomerado Road exits, Hodges has a 25-mile shoreline and the largest picnic area. It’s reachable by Del Dios Highway or Via Rancho Parkway from I-15. From either direction, the congestion disappears once drivers turn onto the access roads.

The small, tree shaded community of Del Dios is along the northeast shore and includes one of the classic county restaurants, Hernandez’ Hideaway. The margarita was reportedly invented by the original owner, but that’s another story.

The thick trees provide a welcome canopy for drivers, with a couple of parking and picnic areas before reaching the ranger station. It’s a beautiful oasis in urban North County ripe for a San Diego day trip.

During especially wet years, Hodges dam can spill, providing spectacular views from Del Dios Highway.

Others worth noting are Lake Cuyamaca (near Julian), close-in Lake Murray (exit I-8 at Lake Murray Boulevard) and Lake Morena (near Campo). You can count yourself a real local if you can provide driving directions to the Mt. Helix and San Dieguito reservoirs, or Jack’s Pond (no relation).

Sorry, all you midwesterners longing for sticky bottom lake swimming; I don’t know of any that allow humans or dogs to take a dip. But all of our lakes are in scenic locations and along great routes for a drive. ⚙

Route and Info

Difficulty

  • Moderate. All of the access roads to the lakes are narrow and twisting.

Directions

Lower Otay Reservoir

  • Interstate 805 to Olympic Parkway. Go east.
  • Right at Wueste Road.

El Capitan Reservoir

  • Interstate 8 to Lake Jennings Park Road. Go north.
  • Right (east ) at El Monte Road.

Lake Hodges

  • Interstate 15 to Via Rancho Parkway. Go west.
  • Left at Lake Drive.

Websites

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A Bullitt in the Hills

Ford’s Commemorative Pony Car on Hills Steve McQueen Would Have Loved

Go back a century and a new community, Mission Hills, sprouts north of downtown San Diego. Automobiles are The Next Big Thing and early adopters—just the kind of upscale clientele building homes in Mission Hills—were testing them on the steep roads leading up from San Diego Bay.

Go back to 1968 years and movie icon Steve McQueen plays a detective named Frank Bullitt, chasing the bad guys around the hills of San Francisco in a Highland Green 1968 Mustang GT 390 Fastback.

In 2008, Ford created another special edition of the Mustang to mark the 40th anniversary of the movie (the first was a 2001).

Laurel Street
Ready to launch from Laurel Street.

So how to connect and commemorate these events and have a fun day of driving? San Diego isn’t San Francisco and nobody’s Steve McQueen, but there are some seriously steep streets in San Diego’s urban neighborhoods, especially in the transition from the sea-level downtown and bay to Mission Hills.

This loop is around 10 miles and is among the most challenging drives anywhere in the county. It starts with a nice cruise through Balboa Park along state Route 163, heads over Cortez Hill, through Little Italy, Bankers Hill and Laurel Street.

Then our drive curves through the neighborhood clinging to the southwestern cliffs of Mission Hills in search of the pre-World War I “test street” for so many early automobiles. We end up in Old Town.

All in a 2008 Mustang Bullitt Edition, its big V-8 and taught suspension rumbling all the way. Not as nostalgia-cool as McQueen’s ’68, but probably much more enjoyable for the driver.

And nobody will mistake you or the Weekend Driver for Steve McQueen.

Please, don’t get crazy on these streets. They’re all neighborhoods, with kids, cross traffic, folks on bicycles, neighbors walking dogs and life in general. Some are extremely narrow and have limited sight lines. Enjoy the challenge of driving but keep it sane. You’re not a professional driver, this is not a closed course, to paraphrase the disclaimer on so many TV commercials.

Head south from Interstate 8 on one of the gentlest and prettiest drives anywhere, state Route 163 through Balboa Park. Just past the multilevel I-5 interchange, take the last freeway exit, to Ash Street. The climb is sudden and dramatic, with the old El Cortez Hotel (once arguably the city’s swankiest hotel and now condos) rising dramatically through the windshield. Downshifting and revving the powerful 4.6 liter V-8 under hood, the Mustang’s power kicks out the rear tires as Bullitt crosses cracks and expansion joints.

At the top, between Seventh and Eighth avenues, San Diego Bay unfolds majestically.
In the movie, McQueen in his Mustang and the Bad Guys in their contemporary Dodge Charger fly down the hills, hitting leveled-off cross streets. Slow-motion photography in some shots shows the cars bodies flexing and suspension bottoming out, with clouds of dust flying.

Don’t do this. In fact, I’m always careful when going over Ash Street because it’s the only place I remember my dad getting a ticket. Driving our big Pontiac over the hills, probably in the late 1960s, he couldn’t muscle the drum brakes enough to stop as the traffic signal turned yellow. After proceeding through the intersection, a San Diego Police officer decided he’d run the light and issued a ticket. Although brakes are better today, stale yellow lights are still there, so watch your speed.

At Third Avenue, when the road has nearly leveled off, turn north, through the Bankers Hill neighborhood, to Laurel Street. Laurel makes a sharp drop from Brant to State streets; the city has installed a stop sign to make sure drivers don’t fly over the top. More spectacular vistas of the bay, downtown, the airport and Point Loma, if you have a chance to glance at something other than the road.
Head up State Street to Reynard Way, through a canyon, then hang a left at Redwood Street (look for the 7-11). This little stub of Redwood runs into Falcon Street, winding up to the area where Mission Hills (streets run north-south/east-west) meets Middletown (streets, some with the same names, run on a diagonal… well, pay close attention to the directions).

Zigzagging through Mission Hills requires a lot of tight turns and caution. The streets are narrow, with lots of parked cars. Because the canyons dot the neighborhood like Swiss cheese, it takes a lot cot street changes to get from here to there.

If you’ve watched the movie, pay attention to McQueen’s hands flying around the steering wheel. One of the biggest difference between old cars and new is the steering. Just a flick of today’s leather-wrapped wheel turns the car; Steve’s Mustang required many turns for the same result. Also, watch for the suspension hop and lean on the ’68; our ’08 sticks to the ground and corners on a dime, especially with the 17-inch premium aluminum wheels and 3.73 limited slip axle on the Bullitt package.

In Mission Hills
In Mission Hills.

We’re headed to the “test hill.” In researching a couple of books, Bill Swank, the San Diego baseball historian, came across several, pre-World War I newspaper stories about intrepid drivers testing their brass-era automobiles on the hill. The conclusion: steam and electric cars did the best. Smelly, noisy gasoline cars first had to back up the hills (gas flowed by gravity — fuel pumps came later) and would frequently stall.

The location? The best Bill can figure is that it was Thorn Street between India and Columbia. A San Francisco-style challenge for all the 21st Century technology in our Mustang? No, sorry. While the hill is visible just to the northwest of the Aero Club bar, it’s not paved. We route around the top, then down what was probably just as challenging, on Sassafras Street, and the bottom, along India Street.

Stop at the classic El Indio or other restaurants in the area if you like, then cruise up Washington Street, along a 1940s freeway stub that connected the road east, U.S. 80, to the road north, U.S. 101 (Pacific Highway). Exit at University Avenue to head into Mission Hills proper, Fort Stockton Drive and Sunset Boulevard.

This stately neighborhood, celebrating its centennial this year, was the end of the streetcar line, offered beautiful vistas of the bay and was — and still is — home to many of San Diego’s elite.

One last roller coaster ride down Juan Street and we’re at San Diego’s first settlement, Old Town, just in time for freshly made tortillas and a favorite libation.

The Bullitt gobbled up the road, with its tight suspension and quick steering., probably much more enjoyable than a Mustang of McQueen’s vintage. Steve would have had a great time. ⚙

Route and Info

Distance

  • About 10 miles

Difficulty

  • Challenging. Steep hills and a lot of directions to follow.

Car Review

Directions

  • South on state Route 163.
  • Exit Ash Street.
  • Right at Third Avenue.
  • Left at Laurel Street.
  • Right at State Street. Continue onto Reynard Way.
  • Left at West Redwood Street. Continue onto Falcon Street.
  • Left at West Thorn Street.
  • Right at Hawk Street.
  • Left at West Walnut Street.
  • Right at Ibis Street.
  • Left at West Brookes Avenue.
  • Left at Kite Street.
  • Right at West Upas Street.
  • Left at Union Street.
  • Right at West Thorn Street.
  • Left at Columbia Street.
  • Right at Sassafras Street.
  • Right at India Street. Keep right to stay on India Street at San Diego Avenue.
  • Right at West Washington Street.
  • Exit right at West University Avenue.
  • Left at Goldfinch Street.
  • Left at Fort Stockton Drive.
  • Left at Sunset Boulevard. Continue onto Sunset Road.
  • Right at Juan Street. Follow signs to freeways.
  • Originally published in October 2008

Summer on the Strand

South Bay Cruise Promises a Chance of Less Traffic, Delivers Great Views

San Diego in the summertime. Time for a beach cruise.

But where to go? That’s the challenge.

Traffic from the fair and beaches can make Old Highway 101 north of Torrey Pines pretty grim. South of Torrey Pines, La Jolla, Pacific and Mission beaches, as well as Mission Bay, are pretty clogged. Ocean Beach? Forget it.

So keep heading south for your best shot at least a little open road — if you’re lucky. Imperial Beach and the Silver Strand generally are good cruise routes even in the summer. Coronado brings drivers back to gridlock, but it’s a small island and the payoffs are great restaurants plus cool ocean and bay breezes.

We’ll top it off with a bit of Barrio Logan and a run up Fifth Avenue in the Gaslamp.

This South Bay cruise is one of my favorites, featuring just a few twists (on Monument Road), genuine country roads, freeway-speed sightseeing (the Silver Strand) and two contrasting beach towns (Imperial Beach and Coronado). This is also an update and extension of Drive 11 in Weekend Driver San Diego.

This week we’re driving in a 2008 Saab 9-3 Turbo-X, which is a lot of fun on the curves but a bit jiggly on the freeway. Still, it made for a great ride.

Even in these times of skyrocketing gas prices (this was written in Summer 2008, when prices passed $4 a gallon for the first time), the Estuary and Strand are just minutes from most of central San Diego, via I-5.

Estuary
At the Tijuana River Estuary.

This is around 40 miles, plus your distance to the start at I-5 and Dairy Mart Road, and home from I-5 and Fifth Avenue in downtown. That’s less than some folks’ commute to work. According to the in-dash readout, the Saab returned about 20 miles to the gallon, so the trip cost me about $15. Cheap entertainment, just like it was when I was a kid and we’d pile into the Pontiac for a day in the mountains.

In case you’re geographically challenged, Imperial Beach is the south westernmost city in the continental United States. Even many locals have an image of this part of the county being the clogged San Ysidro border crossing, certainly not a good place to find open-road driving. But just to the west is a real treat, the Tijuana River Estuary, which is part farms and part nature preserve.

The roads through the area are generally fun and open, but watch for bicyclists and horses. Yes, horses as the area is full of stables.

If the gate to Border Field State Park is open (it wasn’t the day I drove) and you don’t mind a dirt road, pay the $5 and take the drive up to the true southwest corner of the U.S. The park sits on a bluff above the Pacific, with Tijuana’s 21,000-seat Plaza de Toros Monumental (also known as the Bull Ring By the Sea) and Playas neighborhood just south of the border fence. To the north, on a clear day, the views run all the way to Point Loma.

The Saab really enjoyed Monument Road, which has a few decent twists and turns. With a six-speed manual transmission, turbocharger and tight suspension, the four-door Turbo-X was such a blast it made me forget that this drive would have been really perfect in a Saab convertible. My test car did have a sunroof, though.

The terrain rises when you leave the estuary for the community of Palm City, a portion of the City of San Diego between Imperial Beach and I-5. We’re headed north on Hollister Street to a real automotive landmark, the South Bay Drive In Theater. At night, it still shows movies; Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday it’s a swap meet.

By the way, Imperial Beach was one of the first cities in the nation to complete posting of Tsunami Hazard Zone signs and have an evacuation program. I guess that makes the visit a bit more comfortable, just like the hurricane evacuation route signs in towns all over the midwest and south.

Tsunami warning sign
Just in case…

After a stop at the Estuary Visitors Center, cruise south to the end of Seacoast Drive and then back north to the Imperial Beach Pier. It’s a wonderful walk out to the end of the pier, a very popular pastime on the weekends. If you decide to eat at the Tin Fish Restaurant, perched on the end, be prepared for a long wait for your food; they get backed up on busy days.

Next, it’s up the Strand. Watch for the spots where both the bay and ocean are visible on this narrow spit of land. Stops can include the Silver Strand State Beach and the Grand Caribe Shoreline Park in Coronado Cays. By the way, the streets are public in the Cays, so you don’t have to stop at the guard gate. The Saab seemed especially at home here.

Another spot where you don’t have to talk to the guard is at Avenida de las Arenas, smack in the middle of the Coronado Shores condos. Don’t tell anybody, but there’s public beach access and a public parking lot there.

At the Imperial Beach Pier.

In Coronado, turn left past the Hotel Del Coronado (another must-see, if you’ve never visited) at Dana Place to cruise Ocean Boulevard. Then wander around Coronado to the bay side, where there are three little parks with spectacular views of downtown San Diego: Bayside Park, Harbor View Park (also known as SDG&E Park) and Centennial Park, where the car ferry from San Diego used to dock. Just east on First Street is the Ferry Landing Marketplace.

Hungry? There are so many good places to eat in Coronado, from fancy to fast. I like the food and Navy atmosphere at McP’s Pub (1107 Orange Avenue, just a couple of blocks where we turned off of Orange at the Hotel Del). The Coronado Brewing Company is on our route at 170 Orange Avenue.

The high point (literally) on any visit to Coronado is a trip over the San Diego-Coronado Bay Bridge. Arching 200 feet over the bay, it’s a spectacular bit of engineering and a real pleasure to drive.

From here, I looped around under the bridge, past historic Chicano Park (check out the murals), down Caesar Chavez Way (past the now-closed Chuey’s, which was one of San Diego’s great Mexican restaurants) and up Harbor Drive.

Wide, made of concrete and bumpy, this was once U.S. 101. This wasn’t a favorite road for the Saab, with its low ground clearance and taut suspension. Replaced by I-5 in the 1960s, Harbor Drive still gets heavy traffic from the busy Port of San Diego. Look for the 10th Avenue Marine Terminal, where your Dole Pineapple might be imported to the U.S.

Drive past Petco Park and turn right at Fifth Avenue to cruise under the Gaslamp Quarter sign north to I-5 and home. And if you’re hungry, there are a couple of restaurants in the Gaslamp — actually more than 75.

There it is… a day at the beach, country, resort towns and urban excitement, all in about 40 miles. Cheaper than a movie for two even with rising fuel costs. ⚙

Route and Info

Distance

  • About 40 miles.

Difficulty

  • Easy, except for a few moderate curves along Monument Road. Traffic may be an issue in Coronado and downtown San Diego.

Directions

  • I-5 South.
  • Exit Dairy Mart Road. Turn right. Continue onto Monument Road.
  • Right at Hollister Street. (To visit Border Field State Park, continue on Monument Road to park gate.)
  • Left at Coronado Avenue. Continue onto Imperial Beach Boulevard.
  • To Tijuana Estuary Visitor Center: left at Third Street, left at Caspian Way. Return to Imperial Beach Boulevard and turn left to continue route.
  • Left at Seacoast Drive to south end and return north.
  • Right at Palm Avenue.
  • Left at Rainbow Drive.
  • Left at Silver Strand Boulevard (State Route 75)
  • To Grande Caribe Shoreline Park: Right at Coronado Cays Boulevard. Continue to right past guard gate. Left at Grand Caribe Causeway to park. Return to northbound Silver Strand Boulevard.
  • Left at Dana Place. Continue onto Ocean Boulevard.
  • Right at Ocean Drive. Keep left to stay on Ocean Drive. Continue onto Alder Street.
  • Right at Cabrillo Avenue.
  • Left at Tenth Street.
  • Left at Alameda Boulevard.
  • Right at First Street.
  • Right at Orange Avenue (continue on First Street to visit Ferry Landing Marketplace).
  • Left at Fourth Street to San Diego Coronado Bay Bridge.
  • On San Diego side, exit National Avenue (right lane). Right onto National Avenue.
  • Left at Cesar Chavez Parkway.
  • Right at Harbor Drive.
  • Right at Fifth Avenue. Interstate 5 ramps are north of Cedar Street.
  • From July 2007

New roads To explore as area develops west of Rancho Bernardo

Development opens area west of Peñasquitos

New developments are a double-edged sword for the driving enthusiast.

As much as we might dislike homes — even if they sell for more than $1 million — taking over what was once grazing land, the new developments also open up some beautiful vistas and create some nice roads.

One such area is west of Rancho Peñasquitos, where the Del Sur community is under way.

Wandering around in new home developments is what got me started in day cruising. When I was a kid, we’d pile in the ’56 Chevy (or later, the ’64 Pontiac Catalina) and go for a drive on Sundays. My dad would follow the flags to the new developments, then we’d drive slowly down the street, checking out the homes. It was exciting when the poor souls living there hadn’t yet put up curtains and we could peek through the windows and see all the packing boxes. Well, it was a fun Sunday for us, at least.

Perhaps because I was driving a then-new ’07 Dodge Avenger R/T for the week (the spiritual heir to another one of our cars—a ’75 Dodge Dart ), I headed out to the area between I-15 and I-5 that’s just opening up on a mission to find some interesting new roads that would be appropriate driving for a family sedan.

So, today’s route will follow an old and disappearing country road, a new span with beautiful vistas and end up in one of our favorite family drive areas, Rancho Santa Fe.

Start on that “new town” road, state Route 56, the Ted Williams Freeway, which runs from I-5 near Del Mar, through Peñasquitos and ends at I-15 and the Ted Williams Parkway in Carmel Mountain Ranch. Exit at Carmel Valley Road, which at one time was a small country road, dirt at times and the only public thoroughfare from east-to-west in this area. It’s all paved now, and its new connection to Bernardo Center Road may be open as you read this.

Home in Fairbanks Ranch has orange grove in front yard.

Choosing to enter the area on Carmel Valley Road gives drivers a small stretch of the old days: a narrow two-lane highway where there’s still a nursery or two and views of a farm — at least looking north. Look south, and you’ll see tract homes that seem to completely fill their lots.

Heading north on Camino Del Sur is one of those areas that most folks don’t know exist, what the city of San Diego’s Planning Department once called the Black Mountain Ranch. First up is the Santaluz neighborhood, which appears to be pretty much built out. Homes dot the rolling hills, and much of the area has been preserved as open space.

This is a fairly rugged area, which is one of the reasons it took so long to develop. The road is only two lanes in most areas, will widened at some point to four, and might even include a monorail system at some point, according to Fred Maas, president of the new development to the north, Del Sur.

As our San Diego day trip continues north from Santaluz, Camino Del Sur has gentle curves and a pretty impressive bridged crossing of Lusardi Creek, the southern edge of Del Sur. There’s a cul-de-sac view point here, that offers great vistas to the southease, where a cut and pair of bridges for the new Carmel Valley Road are visible in the distance.

I ran into Maas at Del Sur’s “Ranch House,” a new, old-looking building (constructed with recycled beams and other reclaimed materials) that is the gateway to the 4,677-acre development. Plans for Lusardi Creek area aren’t finalized yet, but some of the hills are to remain undeveloped, as 60 percent of the tract will remain open space.

And by the way, homes start in the “low $600,000,” a bit more expensive than the  new developments in Clairemont, Escondido or San Carlos we saw on those long-ago family drives.

Exclusive estates of Fairbanks Ranch is the destination for San Dieguito Road.

At Maas’ suggestion, I had lunch at Brett’s Barbecue, 10550 Craftsman Way, in the 4S Ranch retail center. It was worth the drive a few minutes north, as my pulled pork sandwich and cole slaw lunch were mighty fine. Just continue on Camino Del Sur, which runs into Camino Del Norte and you’ll see the center on your left. It includes a Ralphs market (fitting, as the Ralphs family once owned the land) and an assortment of other stores.

If barbecue isn’t on your menu, the first u-turn after crossing Lusardi Creek is at  Paseo Del Sur. Retrace your route south on Camino Del Sur.

Maas said this road only opened in mid-April and it appears drivers from Rancho Bernardo haven’t yet found this shortcut to SR-56 and I-5. It won’t take them long.

A turn north was made at San Dieguito Road, which heads into Fairbanks Ranch. Not long after the turn, there’s a small parking lot and hiking trail entry to the Black Mountain Open Space Park. This is the northwest corner of the park, which stretches all the way to where I-15 and SR-56 meet. There’s an extensive trail network (the map is online).

An exclusive community with a colorful past, Fairbanks Ranch was the getaway for silent screen stars Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Mary Pickford in the first half of the 20th century. Much later it was home to the equestrian events in the 1984 Olympics. Today, exclusive estates are tucked away behind a guarded gate; I didn’t venture inside.

There’s a small convenience center with a restaurant at the corner of El Apajo and San Dieguito Road, but the only thing open there on a Sunday was the Farm Fresh Market.

All of these roads were quite pleasant in the Avenger and would be nice in any car, including our old family sedans from the 50s and 60s.

Continuing up to Via de la Valle and after the right onto Paseo Delicias to follow county highway S-6, don’t miss the left turn onto El Camino Del Norte. On the Sunday I visited, there wasn’t much traffic on S-6, which can be very busy.

Of course, Rancho Santa Fe is one of the most exclusive communities in the nation, with its rolling hills and rambling, mostly Spanish-style homes. The prime property is within what’s called the covenant area, where the Rancho Santa Fe Association reviews many of the design features of a home and also keeps an eye on the grounds.

After passing through Olivenhain, then it’s over the hill on Leucadia Boulevard to I-5.
Progress chews up open space and creates places for San Diegans to live. Hitting a development in its early stages can make for a fun and eye-opening trip. Any excuse for a cruise through the county’s central coast is worth it.⚙

Update: Mick’s Visit

 

Mick Jagger, the Rolling Stones front man, tweeted about his hike in the Black Mountain Open Space Park, before the May 24, 2015 Rolling Stones concert at San Diego's Petco Park. Below is my photo of the same general area in 2007.
Mick Jagger, the Rolling Stones front man, tweeted about his hike in the Black Mountain Open Space Park, at left, before the May 24, 2015 Rolling Stones concert at San Diego’s Petco Park. Below is my photo of the same general area in 2007. I think he might have been standing under the bridge, below, in the first photo.
Impressive twin spans over Lusardi Creek.

Route and Info

Distance

  • About 15 miles.

Difficulty

  • Easy.

Directions

  • Exit State Route 56 at Carmel Valley Road. Go north on Carmel Valley Road.
  • Left at Camino del Sur
  • Past Lusardi Creek bridge, make u-turn at Paseo Del Sur. Continue south on Camino del Sur.
  • Right at San Dieguito Road.
  • Right at El Apajo. Continue onto Via de Santa Fe.
  • Right at Via de la Valle.
  • Right at Paseo Delicias.
  • Left at El Camino del Norte.
  • Right at Rancho Santa Fe Road.
  • Left at Olivenhain Road. Continue onto Leucadia Boulevard and I-5.

Web Sites

  • From June 2007
Read More

Mustang Around The Bay: Drive the Beach on Cloudy Days

Keep this secret to yourself: on foggy, overcast days, people don’t go to the beach.

That means it’s a perfect day for a San Diego day trip around the beach.

Just a few weeks back, Easter weekend was gray and it was perfect top-down driving weather. A light jacket, light traffic and the heater on in the Mustang convertible I had for the weekend.

Say what? A cloudy day perfect for a convertible?

Well, in San Diego, sunny usually means warm. A few hours in the car in the sun means it’s going to be a bit toasty. It’s also a lousy time to pick for a beach drive, since everybody else will have decided to head there: no parking, lots of folks lost in their own lanes, wandering around.

So, take advantage of a cool day to explore the beach — in this case, Mission Bay. My trip was a complete loop around San Diego’s “other” bay, starting and finishing at the Ingraham Street exit from Interstate 8. Along the way are stops at some of the less-traveled spots, including Quivira Basin, Mission Point Park, El Carmel Point and the wetlands up north. We’ll also cruise around Fiesta Island and find a couple of great photo spots where cars can drive on the sand.

This is one of those great “vacation at home” opportunities. If there isn’t one in your garage, a convertible is just a Web site and credit card away. Ford Mustangs, Chrysler Sebrings and PT Cruisers are available through the major rental firms. Others such as the Volkswagen New Beetle and Mini Cooper, as well as exotics such as the Nissan 350Z Roadster, Corvette or Lotus Elise, are sometimes available through the majors, or through specialty firms. It could cost a couple of hundred bucks for something really exotic, but it might make the perfect present for a birthday, Mother’s Day or Father’s Day.

My tangerine-colored Mustang GT, on loan from Ford, proved an enjoyable ride. I never figured it would be about 27 miles around the bay; the cloverleaf shaped harbor just doesn’t seem that big when you’re whizzing across the bridges on Ingraham Street or West Mission Bay Drive. But checking out all the nooks and crannies brought quite a few discoveries of hidden spots, restaurants to check out next time and some secret parking spaces. A good place to do some advance research is the city of San Diego’s Mission Bay Web site.

After exiting I-8 at Ingraham Street/West Mission Bay Drive, I survived the mess of on- and off-ramps and folks looking for the Sea World parking lot to enjoy the high-banked turn onto West Mission Bay Drive. A quick left and another left and I was on Quivira Way.

This is a boater’s haven, with slips, the Harbor Police headquarters at Hospitality Point, Driscoll’s boat repair yard and the spot I stopped for lunch, the Mission Bay Marina Deli, 1548 Quivira Way. The deli looks like it’s quite a lively place at night, with an outdoor cabaña, barbecue and wide selection of beers.

Next door is the Aqua Adventures Kayak Center, where explorers can rent kayaks on their own, take lessons, or take a guided tour by kayak.

Across the street from the marina, there’s a big, dirt parking lot that can make a good photo-opp for your classy ride. There’s water and boats as a backdrop, but there are better opportunities later.

Locals will remember the Marina Village shopping and restaurant complex; it’s still there, but is now only open to conferences. There’s also a couple of sportfishing centers (with cafes) and the Hyatt Islandia.

Leave Quivira Basin and head toward Mission Beach, but before getting there, loop around Mariner’s Point, which has a better car-on-sand photo spot, and around the back of the Bahia Hotel to Bahia Point.

Mission Beach is as crazy as ever and Belmont Park looks to be bustling again. There’s nothing like the Giant Dipper Roller Coaster, which has been a thrill since 1925. Even a ride isn’t on the intinerary, pull into the parking lot and listen for the rumble of the cars and the screams of the riders.

The south end of Mission Boulevard is a world of its own. With bars like the legendary Pennant at San Gabriel Place and tightly packed homes, the narrow strip of sand gives passengers glimpses of both the beach and bay. Drivers should keep their eyes on the road.

At the end are parks left and right. Mission Point Park, on the bayside, has grass and a great view of the marina and channel. On the ocean is South Mission Beach, with views of the jetty to the west, Ocean Beach and pier to the south, and north to La Jolla even on a foggy day.

Heading back north on Mission Boulevard, I took two turns to the bay side, at El Carmel and Santa Clara points. El Carmel Place is a pretty short trip, unless you’re a member of the Mission Bay Yacht Club or San Diego Rowing Club. Santa Clara Place has a recreation center, complete with ball field, and the Mission Bay Aquatic Center, jointly operated by Associated Students of San Diego State University and Campus Recreation of University of California San Diego.

Just to give you an idea of how slow it was on the foggy day I visited, I found a parking spot at the end of Pacific Beach Drive. That gave me time to visit the not-so-busy boardwalk. One place that was busy was the Lahaina Beach House, which is only quiet in hours when alcohol can’t be sold.

Heading east, I cruised around Crown Point on Riviera and Crown Point drives, stopping by the Northern Wildlife Preserve. Hard to believe, but the whole place used to look like this… marshland. It was called “False Bay” back then, a name given by Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo in 1542. Development began in the 1940s and continues today.

One of those spots under consideration for development is Fiesta Island, which today is mostly still just a big lump of sand dredged up from the bottom of the bay. A road goes along the shore of about three-quarters of the big island; don’t miss the turn just before the intersection with Pacific Highway.

Fiesta Island is my favorite car photo-opp spot. The beach is wide and cars are allowed off the narrow, paved, one way and one-lane road. A few days after I took delivery of the Miata back in July 1991, I came out here and posed with my new baby, using the bay as a backdrop. I took another photo as a souvenir of my short time with the Mustang.

From here, it was down Sea World Drive and back through the blender to Ingraham Street and I-8. A surprising 27 miles.

San Diego is all about the beaches, but visiting on sunny weekends is always a traffic hassle. So wait for the fog, then hit the road. You’ll have a great day.

foggy boats
Not too cool to sail.

Route and Info

Distance

  • About 27 miles

Difficulty

  • Easy, except for occasional lost drivers not paying attention.

Directions

  • Interstate 8 to Ingraham Street/West Mission Bay Drive exit. Go north (right) on Ingraham Street.
  • Take West Mission Bay Drive exit.
  • Left at Quivira Way. Continue left onto Quivira Way and Hospitality Point. Loop around Quivira Way and return to West Mission Bay Drive.
  • Left at West Mission Bay Drive.
  • Left at Mariners Point; continue left to Mariners Point area. Loop around and return to West Mission Bay Drive intersection.
  • Continue across West Mission Bay Drive to Bahia Point. Circle Bahia Point (behind Bahia Hotel) and return to West Mission Bay Drive.
  • Right at West Mission Bay Drive.
  • Left at Mission Boulevard.
  • At end of Mission Boulevard, go left to Mission Point Park. Loop around park, then continue across Mission Boulevard to South Mission Beach parking area. Return to Mission Boulevard.
  • Left at Mission Boulevard.
  • Right at El Carmel Place. Circle around and return to Mission Boulevard.
  • Right at Mission Boulevard.
  • Right at Santa Clara Place. Loop around and return to Mission Boulevard.
  • Right at Mission Boulevard.
  • Right at Pacific Beach Drive.
  • Right at Riviera Drive.
  • Continue onto Crown Point Drive at Ingraham Street.
  • Right at Pacific Beach Drive.
  • Left at Olney Street.
  • Right at Grand Avenue. Continue onto Mission Bay Drive.
  • Just before onramp to Interstate 5, turn right to continue on Mission Bay Drive.
  • Right at North Mission Bay Drive. Loop around at DeAnza Cove or Mission Bay Golf Course. Continue onto East Mission Bay Drive.
  • Right at Fiesta Island Road. Circle Fiesta Island and return to East Mission Bay Drive.
  • Right at Sea World Drive.
  • Take I-5/I-8 Ingraham Street Exit to return to freeway.
Vintage Ford pickup
Old Ford pickup makes a great beach cruiser.
Rose Creek estuary
Rose Creek estuary gives visitors an idea of the bay in its natural state.

Wandering Through South Bay: Chargers’ Stadium Search Leads to Fun Driving Day

Note: At the time this story was written, late 2006, the Quixotic search for a new stadium site had focused on the South Bay. The sites were all abandoned, but the historical context is worth keeping in mind.

The late ’60s and early ’70s were a great time to be a kid in San Diego if you — and your parents — liked taking Sunday drives to see all the new stuff being built.

Whether it was a new freeway, home development or stadium, we’d pile into the Pontiac to go take a look.

Well, the county still seems to be growing fast, with big, new projects going up all the time. And with news about a new stadium for the Chargers getting all the buzz, scouting out a couple of the proposed locations seemed to be a good excuse for taking a drive.

Two of the most talked-about locations are in the great South Bay burbs of National City and Chula Vista, with one on the bay and one at the base of the rugged hills bordering Jamul. With a few other twists and turns, it ended up being an interesting morning.

Just a note on today’s drive. In addition to beautiful bay and mountain vistas, a country road with horses and a couple of twisting sections, there are also a few spots that are less than picturesque. We go through a couple of industrial areas and San Diego’s junkyard district. But, sometimes a day of driving exploration includes spots like this.

To reach the first proposed stadium site, start out on Interstate 5, exiting at Civic Center Drive. Follow the sign to Civic Center Drive, then go west, toward San Diego Bay. This is roughly the south end of the 32nd Street Naval Station and the beginning of the busy 24th Street port terminal, known officially as the National City Marine Terminal.

And what do you see at the terminal? Cars. Lots of cars. It’s the home of Pasha Services, imports more than 300,000 cars and trucks every year by ship to National City. I saw lots of Audis and Volkswagens, along with Isuzu and Hino trucks. I’ve also seen Hondas at this location. They’re unloaded here, checked and stored, before being put on trucks and trains for delivery to dealers all over the country.

It’s interesting the care these vehicles get on their trip. Most of the cars have plastic covering parts of their fresh exteriors; Audis came nearly completely wrapped in what looked like an Audi-logoed bag. The car-parking area has expanded since I last visited in 2002.
Lumber also arrives in this area and during the week it seemed very busy.

At the end of Tidelands Drive is Pepper Park, which has a small picnic area, boat launching facilities and a fishing pier overlooking Dixieline Lumber’s dock where, during my visit, a ship was being unloaded. Looking south across the mouth of the Sweetwater River is another view, the Gunpowder Point nature preserve and visitor center.

Somewhere around here is where National City wants the Chargers to play. The port has a committee looking at whether the cars and lumber can be relocated. In the meantime, the place is still abuzz.

Leave the park on the east side, driving toward the freeway ramps where Interstate 5 meets state Route 54. Then, curve around to the National City Historic Railcar Plaza, where the restored National City and Otay Railroad passenger coach No. 1 sits enclosed in a cute building. Across the street is the San Diego Electric Railway Museum, which is in the old National City railroad depot.

We’ve got miles to drive, so don’t linger long. Jump back on I-5 south, going two exits down to E Street, and pick up the frontage road, here called Bay Boulevard. You’ll pass the entry to the Chula Vista Nature Center, Anthony’s and El Torito restaurants, before turning back toward the water.

Wind around the Goodrich plant (onetime Rohr Industries) and you’ll be at Chula Vista’s wonderful marina and waterfront parks. If you’ve got time, take a picnic lunch out to the Bayside Park, Marina View Park or J Street Park. Even on weekdays, the place is busy with joggers, dog-walkers and Goodrich employees getting some sunshine at lunch.

From here, I wound back along the freeway, passing the South Bay Salt Works. That’s not snow, it’s salt, dried in San Diego Bay. There’s been a salt operation here for more than a century.

This area is mostly industrial and not the most picturesque. But in urban San Diego, you have to take the beautiful with the spots we need to make a living, and many do along Frontage Road.

After a loop over the freeway, turn onto Hollister Street, which is a throwback to the old South Bay. A small rural enclave near the mouth of the Otay River, there are nurseries, a golf driving range and even a go-cart track. I’ll have to go back to check out the go-carts. Shops near the Palm Avenue trolley station look like they’re right out a small town in Baja.

After a bit more looping to cross the freeway, pick up Hollister Street again to a real rural area, the various parks and agricultural properties that make up the Tijuana River estuary. Watch for horses along here… they have the right-of-way.

This is the best open driving on today’s route. Follow Hollister to Monument Road, then reenter the urban South Bay at Camino de la Plaza. Avoid the urge to wear out the charge card at the Shops at Las Americas outlet mall.

Be sure to mind the directional signs in this area or you’ll end up in Tijuana; that’s the busy area on the other side of those big fences. San Ysidro traffic can also be a bit crazy.
After joining the very busy state Route 905, go few traffic lights east to Heritage Road. If you’re an old car nut and new to San Diego, you might wonder where all the junkyards are located. Well, here they are. Real car nuts love poking through junkyards and there are a bunch of them at this location.

Pick your part or keep driving to another leftover rural twist, where Heritage snakes down the other side of the mesa to Otay Valley Road. Homes are all around, as are the Coors Amphitheatre and Knott’s Soak City water park. A bit up the road is the Chula Vista Auto Park, so if you’re tired of your ride, stop by and trade it in.

Head north over Brandywine Avenue to Olympic Parkway and our next Chargers site. Olympic Parkway is only a couple of years old, running east from I-805 and extending Chula Vista’s Orange Avenue all the way to the Lower Otay Reservoir.

This the Otay Ranch development; if my dad was taking this trip, we’d stop in to a few model homes after driving very slowly through a couple of neighborhoods.

Along the way was another sports facility I was curious about. Bleachers for the Otay Ranch Off-Road Raceway can be seen from Olympic Parkway just before Otay Ranch High School. The track was only supposed to last a year, but has survived for two.

Olympic Parkway also passes under the south end of SR-125, the toll road being built privately as the South Bay Expressway. It’s due to open next year and, if you’re so inclined, can buy a commemorative t-shirt on the company’s web site.

Finally, I reached the Arco Olympic Training Center. Only a few years back, reaching the center “way out there” required driving on a couple of twisting roads once you left Eastlake. Now, it’s almost like going into a shopping mall — just watch for the sign. The view is still spectacular and to the southwest is some open land that might be the future home of the Bolts. If not, it will be rooftops, like the other two sides of the training center. To the east is the Lower Otay Reservoir.

In case you haven’t visited, the center is the first U.S. Olympic training facility that was planned from the ground-up for American Olympic athletes. Nine Olympic sports train on the 150 acres: archery, canoe/kayak, cycling, field hockey, rowing, soccer, softball, tennis, and track and field. There’s a visitor center, gift shop and self-guided tour.

From the Olympic Training Center, I headed back west on Otay Lakes Road, picking up Telegraph Canyon Road to reach I-805.

This has been a drive full of contrasts… beautiful bay views and hilltop vistas. We’ve had twisting rural roads and horses. There’s also been more traffic than is pleasant on a weekend drive and junkyards. But that’s the South Bay and the locals love it. ⚙

Chula Vista Marina
Chula Vista Marina.

Route and Info

  • From September 2006

Distance

  • About 40 miles

Difficulty

  • Easy.

Directions

  • Interstate 5 to Civic Center Drive in National City. Go west (toward bay).
  • Left at Tidelands Avenue. Continue into Pepper Park.
  • Exit Pepper Park on east side, to Marina Way. Right on Marina Way.
  • Right at Bay Marina Drive
  • Right onton I-5 south.
  • Exit I-5 at E Street, Chula Vista. Continue onto Bay Boulevard.
  • Right at F Street/Lagoon Drive. Continue onto Marina Parkway.
  • Right at G Street.
  • Left at Sandpiper.
  • Right at Marina Parkway.
  • Right at Bay Boulevard. Continue onto Anita Street.
  • Right at Frontage Road. Continue onto Main Street.
  • Right at Hollister Street. Continue onto Outer Road.
  • Right at Coronado Avenue.
  • Left at Hollister Street.
  • Left at Monument Road. Continue onto Dairy Mart Road.
  • Right at Camino de la Plaza. Continue onto East Beyer Boulevard. Continue onto Otay Mesa Road.
  • Right at state Route 905 to continue on Otay Mesa Road.
  • Left at Heritage Road.
  • Right at Otay Valley Road. Continue onto Main Street.
  • Right at Brandywine Avenue.
  • Right at Olympic Parkway.
  • Right at second Wueste Road (first right turn to Wueste Road goes to the Lower Otay Reservoir dam).
  • Left at Otay Lakes Road. Continue onto Telegraph Canyon Road and I-805.

Web sites

  • San Diego Unified Port District: http://www.portofsandiego.org/sandiego_maritime/ms_factsheetinfo.asp
  • The Shops at Las Americas: http://www.lasamericas.com/
  • Pasha Group, car importers: http://www.pashagroup.com/
  • ARCO Olympic Training Center: http://www.usoc.org/12181_19097.htm
  • South Bay Expressway: www.southbayexpressway.com
Salt plant
It’s a salt plant, not a snow pile.
Olympic Training Center
Olympic Training Center is worth a visit.

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.