Drive through the heart of San Diego on some of its most famous avenues, from Imperial to Euclid to Adams.
Drive through the heart of San Diego on some of its most famous avenues, from Imperial to Euclid to Adams.
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.
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.
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.
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. ⚙
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.
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.
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.
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. ⚙
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.
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.
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. ⚙
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.