Nothing like those mid-winter hot spells in San Diego

My grandma used to love what she called the “winter hot spell” — a January or February week or so when, usually after a big storm, the winds would turn around and blow from the east.

Here in these parts, we know that as a Santa Ana condition. Just when your feet get to be permanently cold, out comes the sun, the humidity drops and out come the shorts and t-shirts.

In my case, the Miata’s coming out of the garage today, the top will go down, the 25-year-old engine will fire up, and I’ll head for the hills.

My San Diego day trip will probably be up to Pine Valley for a burger at Frosty Burger. At the elevation of 3,736 feet, the temperature is expected to reach 67 degrees today, a bit less than the 77 today at the coast.

So what does the Joyride Guru recommend for a winter Santa Ana day trip? Well, anything works. Winter hot spells are especially great for drives for reasons that include:

  • Green: The rugged and rolling mountains and hills of our region are generally pretty brown in the summer, but green up very quickly after a rain. We’ve had a lot of rain, even some snow. A drive during the hot spell, which is supposed to run into next week, will give views that might look more like Ireland than Southern California.
  • Water: Our little creeks are mostly dry in the summer but turn into raging torrents during storms. In between, they’ll be babbling along. There’s also places where roads just go through; they’ll be a few inches of water to drive through today on places like Boulder Creek Road.
  • Open roads: Traffic probably won’t be an issue today on most of my Joyride Guru series roads. It almost never is.

So get off the couch today and get out of town. Or take a drive before the Super Bowl tomorrow; it starts at 3:30 and there’s plenty of time for a drive before the Big Game.

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Take a ‘Jaunt to Julian’ — San Diego’s Favorite Day Trip

It’s San Diego’s favorite day trip, a Jaunt to Julian, and it’s the latest in the Joyride Guru series of Kindle travel tours.

Generations have enjoyed this former gold-mining town’s old-time charm and character, as well as its apple pie. The area also has some of the most enjoyable roads in the region. Author Jack Brandais covers all this in his new Kindle short-read book, Jaunt to Julian, now available on the Amazon Kindle format.

To a San Diego local, “Julian” and “apple pie” inspire images of a trip to the mountains—a charming town, twisting roads, apple pie, occasional snow, and a lot of smiles.

The historic mining town, dating back to the 1850s, is as well known locally as the world-famous San Diego Zoo. It’s one of those places visited by natives and newcomers alike.

While the beach and bay might be the way the world sees San Diego, part of its self-image is this town of about 1,500 people at 4,200 feet in the Laguna Mountains, just over an hour’s drive from central San Diego. If you haven’t been there, you can’t call yourself a San Diegan; it’s the classic San Diego day trip.

Jaunt to Julian
Jaunt to Julian

The eighth title in the Joyride Guru series is now available on the Amazon Kindle format for just $2.99. Free Kindle apps run on all smart phones, tablets and desktop computers; Kindle pads start at just $99; check out the Kindle Store.

Brandais has been writing about great San Diego roads for more than 30 years, the last 15 years as the “Weekend Driver” columnist for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

The drive includes side-trips on some great, twisting country roads in the area, places to hike, picnic, camp, explore old gold mines and, of course, where to get apple pie. He also has tips on visiting Julian when there’s winter snow. A map, plus a link to a Google map, are also included. The Kindle format makes it easy to take with on a drive, with no clumsy pages to turn.

This is the eighth book in the series. In June, Off-the-Grid Journey, a trip through the Blair and Little Blair valleys in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, was No. 1 Best Seller in Amazon’s 15-minute Travel Short Reads category. Books in the series are:

  • Beautiful Badlands: Drive from the ocean to the desert, through the city, mountains, and the desert town of Borrego Springs, ending at Fonts Point for spectacular views of San Diego County’s unique ecosystem.
  • Crazy Couser: Scary curves make inland North County run one of San Diego’s best. It’s a twisting, curving 20-mile route that parallels Interstate 15 from just outside Escondido north to Pala Road. It requires careful and attentive driving along roads that are narrow with blind driveways and hairpin curves. There are frequent stretches where the road has little or no shoulder, as well as encroachment by everything from trees to boulders to guardrails.
  • Curves, Dirt and Cuyamaca: Enjoy a 45-mile loop in the central portion of the Laguna Mountains in eastern San Diego County through natural open space and Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. Includes challenging curves on SR-79 through Cuyamaca, 18 miles of public, unpaved road; all-wheel drive or 4-wheel drive recommended. It’s a must for anyone who lives or visits San Diego County.
  • Off the Grid Journey: Take a trip on an easy, off-pavement drive on the western edge of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, good for off-road novices with all-wheel-drive vehicles. Spectacular desert vistas along 8-mile driving route in sand.
  • Jaunt to Julian: The classic San Diego day trip is the drive to Julian, elevation 4,200 feet. Generations have enjoyed this former gold-mining town’s old-time charm and character, as well as its apple pie. The area also has some of the most enjoyable roads in the region.
  • Journey to the Stars: Wander up Palomar Mountain in northern San Diego County via two twisting paved roads or a historic dirt byway. Route passes a historic mission, an open-space park, agricultural areas, and casinos.
  • Quintessential California: Get off of Interstate 5 and enjoy a drive through the coastal communities of Oceanside, Carlsbad, Leucadia, Encinitas, Cardiff-by-the-Sea, Solana Beach, Del Mar, and Torrey Pines. It’s been thrilling drivers since before there were automobiles.
  • Towering Old Highway: The well-preserved former U.S. 80 in eastern San Diego County has all the charms of driving on an old country highway. Generally devoid of traffic, it has gentle curves with spectacular vistas in terrain ranging from high desert to mountain pines to California coastal hills. Desert View Tower is a must-see that isn’t like anything on Route 66.

“These drives include written directions that come in handy as some of the places you’ll visit are out of cell range,” said Brandais. “It’s nice to get away from everything, but it helps to be able to return.”

To find all the Joyride Guru books, visit Jack’s author page at

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McCain Valley, the newest UT San Diego column, published today

Check out today’s print edition of UT San Diego for the latest Weekend Driver column, “Off the Boulevard.” For the Sunday, April 19, 2015 trip, I take a sharp new 2015 Chevrolet Colorado on a drive around the McCain Valley, the wilderness area north of the little town of Boulevard in southeastern San Diego County.

The Sunday, April 19, 2015 story on McCain Valley.
The Sunday, April 19, 2015 story on McCain Valley.

The trail’s unpaved after you pass Rough Acres, where the San Diego Chargers famously trained before winning their only league championship, the AFL title at the end of the 1963 season. The road can be rough at times but offers spectacular views of the In-Ko-Pah Mountains and the desert beyond.

There are hiking trails, picnic and camping areas, as well as spots where the adventurous can take their off-highway vehicles such as dirt bikes.

The new, mid-sized Colorado, equipped with the off-road package, was more than up to the task along the sometimes rutted roads. It also proved to be comfortable and easier than most trucks to park in tight spaces, as I found out during my week of testing.

So, if you’re somewhere you can pick up UT San Diego, grab it today. It’s in the automotive section, part of the popular UT Offers section. It’s one of those perfect Sunday San Diego day trips on one of the best roads in the county.

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Now online: Wine and Water, the latest Weekend Driver

The latest Weekend Driver column in UT San Diego is online and it’s a lot of fun. “Wine and Water” takes a sharp Volvo S60 through the Temecula wine country up to the Diamond Valley lake, which is just south of Hemet.

Here’s a drive where you might need a designated driver, if your party decides to partake in the fine wines available in the tasting rooms along the De Portola Road wine trail.

It’s also a family day by just cruising by the tasting rooms and visiting the lake and Western Science Center.

Enjoy Wine and Water»

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Feather River Canyon: Remote with Road and Railroad Legends

Highway signs
Signs mark the Feather River Highway.

I’ve heard about the Feather River Canyon my entire life.

My folks took the legendary California Zephyr train from Denver to San Francisco in the 1950s. That train was one of the earliest with dome cars and was timed to go through scenic areas during the day; one was California’s Feather River Canyon.

Located north of Lake Tahoe and Interstate 80 in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, the canyon runs about 70 miles from near Quincy to where the Feather River is bottled up in Lake Oroville. And it is spectacular.

In 2010, I finally was able to drive this spectacular route, state Route 70, designated the Feather River Scenic Byway. The original California Zephyr has been gone since 1970, but more on that later.

Getting There: I decided to trust the GPS on my trip up from San Diego. The computer decided that heading up Interstate 5 through Sacramento, then east on I-80, winding through the national forest land and farms. It was a nice drive, but didn’t make up for having to go through Los Angeles and Sacramento. Funny thing; on the way back, the GPS sent me the route I thought I should have taken, east over the Beckwourth Pass to Reno, then a straight shot south to San Diego. The moral of the story… don’t get rid of your maps quite yet.

The Roads: I took this trip to do some fun driving and it didn’t disappoint. From the time I exited I-80 until I headed home five days later, it was a two-lane heaven. When the road wasn’t twisting through mountain passes, we were cruising nicely through beautiful forested valleys or farmland. Traffic was minimal and the vistas were dramatic.

Feather River
Along the Feather River.

Centerpiece of the trip was state Highway 70, the Feather River Highway, a designated national scenic byway. It didn’t disappoint and I can see why the California Zephyr in the old days was called “America’s most talked about train.” While I had to make sure I didn’t drive off the road, folks in their Vista Dome cars could be sipping on a cocktail and relaxing while the rapids, waterfalls and  other scenic delights passed by the train’s windows. Sadly, passenger trains quit running regularly through here in 1970, but freights still use it. There’s more on the road at Plumas County has a great map, the Seven Wonders of the Western Pacific World (PDF), that, even if you’re not a railfan, will give you a grand tour of the area.

The canyon carries the Feather River from its headwaters near Beckwourth Pass, at 5,221 feet, about 120 miles southwest to Lake Oroville. There, the stream bed, if my math is correct, is about 200 feet above sea level. For the most part, the highway is on one side of the river, the railroad the other. Several spectacular bridges span the gorge, both for drivers and the railroad. Most spectacular is the Keddie Wye, about 40 miles downstream from Portola. Another can’t miss are the Pulga bridges, where the highway crosses high and the railroad crosses low.

Among the most photographed spots along the route, the Keddie Y gets its name from the “y” shaped tracks that merge here and surveyor Arthur Keddie, who mapped out the railroad and worked for years to get it built. From the south, the tracks split with one route going up the canyon and on to Reno, the other into a tunnel and north to Oregon.

It’s spectacular to see with a train on it, and I  caught a northbound freight headed into the tunnel. Actually, I outran the train, because as I was nearing the end of the canyon, near Lake Oroville, headed north on the other side of the canyon was a long BNSF freight. It was four or five more miles headed south before I could make a u-turn, then high tailing it back up the canyon. I got there just in time to catch it heading across the bridges. Lots of rumbling from the big diesel engines in the locomotives; lots of squeaking as the freight cars too the turn on the steel bridge. Lots of fun.

Back on the road, I took a couple of turns off of SR-70 to get a closer look at the river and surrounding territory. There aren’t a lot of side roads and many appear to be private, but the river is a beautiful thing to see. The Belden Rest Stop, about 30 miles west of Quincy, has a plaque marking the road’s 1937 completion. It’s also the site of one of the many small power generating stations and adjacent lakes. A beautiful spot to take in the river.

North on Highway 89 is Lake Almanor, another beautiful resort area in the middle of the Plumas National Forest. The road has some great twists and curves and is a bit narrower than Highway 70. The small town of Chester sits at the north end of the lake. Watch for vistas of Mt. Lassen as you curve around the lake; it’s due north and towers above everything.

On the day before Independence Day, folks already had chairs out on the main street, ready for the next day’s parade. It’s another delightful town among the pine trees, amazingly uncrowded.

Sleepy Pines Motel
Iconic neon sign welcomes travelers.

Sleeping: For an area so close to the San Francisco-Sacramento megalopolis, it’s still off the beaten path. It’s accessed through twisty little roads and the accommodations are small-time motels or bed-breakfast homey spots. There are a few rest. In the planning stage, I opted for vintage, the Sleepy Pines Motel, by the side of Route 70 west of Portola.

Rustic with a capital “R,” it was complete with kitchenette sporting an ancient combination stove-refrigerator. I remember we had one of those in our cabin in Lake Arrowhead when we went there when I was a kid. That’s still another story. The place is fairly worn out but fit with the general character of the area. The Sleepy Pines would have failed the dust-bunny test (and a few others) that the guy on Hotel Impossible gives the places he hopes to fix up. Given the looks of the other places in the area, Sleepy Pines is probably typical. If you want a five-star hotel, head south to Lake Tahoe. Plumas County is a rustic, old-fashioned vacation area, where the neon sign out front of the Sleepy Pines fit in just fine.

The towns: Remember the fictional town of Sicily, Alaska, from the old Northern Exposure TV series? The show actually filmed in Rosslyn, Wash. (which I visited). Portola reminds me a lot of that town. Nestled between two mountain peaks, the town long ago saw its best days and today is a hamlet of about 2,000.

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Ramona Roundabout

Wandering through the mountain town’s trails

Ramona is one of the special places in San Diego county.

Not just because the low-mountain scenery provides great vistas around every corner, but its bucolic roots and surrounding terrain make for great road and wonderful day trip.

Our route this time takes us over the county’s newest and technologically advanced freeways and some of its oldest routes. It’s a challenging, but fully paved drive that is a treat for drivers ranging from minivans to motorcycles. The most challenged are classic cars featuring old-fashioned steering and solid rear axles; be prepared for steering-wheel winding and making sure your speed doesn’t kick out the rear end too much. Other than that, our Ramona roundabout should be great fun.

Fun it was in our car of the day, a 2011 Mazda 2. One of the best examples of the sporty, fun and functional mini-cars being built today, the 2, equipped with a five-speed manual transmission, ate up the curves and hills. More on that later.

Start your day at the interchange of Interstate 15 and state Route 52, at the south end of MCAS Miramar. Head east to Santee and watch as you pass SR-125 onto the new extension of 52 to SR-67. It’s a beautiful few minutes avoiding all those stop lights on Mission Gorge Road.

After a jaunt through Lakeside past the Rodeo Grounds, head up Wildcat Canyon Road. If you’re up for a stop, don’t lose too much money at the Barona Casino. A little further up the road is the Barona Culture Center and Museum, which gives the history of the local native culture.

Another monument on the way is the Barona Speedway and drag strip, the only track now operating in San Diego county.

Wildcat Canyon Road is twisting and narrow, with sometimes heavy traffic due to the casino. From Lakeside to the casino, it can be tedious if you’re stuck behind a bus or a city slicker not used to mountain driving and thinking of nothing but nickle slots. Beyond the casino, traffic usually lightens up and it’s a very pleasant drive in the country.

At the top of Wildcat Canyon Road, veer right to San Diego Country Estates, a wonderful community nestled east of Ramona. Mountains ring this small valley, also home to two equestrian centers and a golf course. One of the centers is named for hall-of-fame rider Casey Tibbs, a longtime resident of Ramona who died in 1990.

From here, our San Diego day trip runs to another one of my favorite roads, Old Julian Highway. Just as SR-52 is brand new and stretch of I-15 we’ll take later is state-of-the-art design, Wildcat Canyon Road and Old Julian Highway are relics of another time when roads started out as migration trails for native animals and native peoples. They twist, turn, go around obstacles like boulders and trees, following nature’s terrain.

Old Julian Highway is a great alternative to Julian Road (SR-78) if you’re headed to-or-from the mountains. It zigs and zags around the farms north and east of town. We’re joining it about a third of the way from town to where it meets SR-78 just east of the Oasis Camel Dairy (; check the website for open days).

Fresh eggs here

On these twisting roads, the Mazda 2 really showed its stuff. Although it shares its 98-inch wheelbase with the Ford Fiesta, it’s a bit roomier inside and has tighter steering, a bit more power and lots more fun. As a longtime (20 years!) Miata driver, I can say that Mazda’s put quite a bit of the convertible’s fun into this four-door hatchback city car.

And why are they always called city cars? These little cars with their high-revving four-cylinder engines, little wheels and light weight are a blast on country roads. Just don’t load them up with four big adults and lot of stuff, because 100 horsepower only goes so far. But for an afternoon out on the road with your spouse and a picnic basket, the commuter car is more than up to the task. Shift up, shift down, use the power, use the clutch, have some fun. And for those of you that don’t use or know how to use a manual transmission, you’re missing a lot of what driving’s all about.

After spying the camels, we’re headed back into town on Julian Road. At one time, poultry was big in Ramona; it was even known as the turkey capital of the world. Today, there’s just a few egg ranches left with one of them, Pine Hill Egg Ranch, still sporting its roadside stand (25818 Highway 78, Ramona, 760-789-0195). Stop in for some of the freshest eggs you’ll ever crack open.

From there, take the spectacular drive down SR-78 through the San Pasqual Valley back to I-15. Rugged and raw, much of the valley has been preserved as part of either the San Dieguito River Park, the city of San Diego’s agricultural preserve, or the San Diego Zoo’s Safari Park (formerly Wild Animal Park). There are couple of parking lots along the way to stop and take in the view, plus hiking trails on both sides of the highway in the upper canyon. In the lower valley, take the side roads for genuine Southern California orange groves.

All too soon we’re back at I-15, at the north end of the high-tech highway that’s just been completed. Note the “zipper lanes,” traffic sensors in the pavement, carpool lanes and other goodies designed to get too many cars from here to there. It’s a long way from the paved foot path through the chaparral that we’ve been driving. Savor the drive and enjoy those eggs and pie picked up along the way.

Wildcat Canyon Road

Route and Info


  • About 66 miles.


  • Challenging.


  • I-15 to SR-52 east.
  • North on SR-67.
  • Right at Woodside Ave.
  • Left at Ashwood St. Continue onto Wildcat Canyon Road.
  • Right at San Vicente Rd.
  • Left at Gunn Stage Rd.
  • Left at Arena Way.
  • Right at Del Amo Rd.
  • Left at Gymkhana Rd.
  • Right at Sargeant Rd.
  • Left at Vista Ramona Rd.
  • Right at Old Julian Highway.
  • Left at Julian Road (SR-78).
  • Right at 10th St. Follow SR-78 onto Pine Street, West Haverford Rd. and San Pasqual Valley Rd.
  • Left at Bear Valley Parkway to I-15.
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OC’s Santiago and Trabuco Canyons Are Twisty Fun

Legendary is a label that applies to many roads, none more than the drive we’re taking this week, the route through the Santiago and Trabuco canyons in Orange County.

Generations of bikers have left the beaten track in The OC for these twisty wonders; just minutes from the nearest master-planned community, yet so rural, so natural Southern California.

Our four-wheeled ride for this trip is Hyundai’s sporty Genesis Coupe, which clearly was built for this type of driving.

Jump on I-5 north to SR-55 east, then head east on Chapman Avenue through the city of Orange. After a few minutes, the city and most of the traffic disappears with Chapman and you’re on Santiago Canyon Road, county highway S-18. This runs through a canyon in the Santa Margarita Mountains, giving drivers panoramic views around every corner. It’s the kind of road that the Harley-Davidson set like so much: two lanes, easy cruising and just challenging enough.

These mountains are sharp and rugged, something that’s probably kept the bulldozers away. Parts are preserved in open space areas, with hiking and horse trails heading into the hills. Irvine Lake, a privately run facility (adults, $22) offers camping and picnic areas.

Something else here deserves the legendary label: Cook’s Corner, the biker roadhouse where Santiago Canyon Road meets El Toro and Live Oak Canyon roads. I visited on Father’s Day and the place was packed with folks in fine leathers; a gent even sported a beard worthy of ZZ Top band member. The line of bikes parked out front almost all said Harley-Davidson on the gas tank. A band played, the beer flowed and the burgers weren’t bad, either.

Live Oak Canyon Road, which continues into Trabuco Canyon Road, is a bit more twisty and requires more attention of drivers, but it’s a bit shorter than Santiago Canyon Road. It rises out of the gorge and after one, last turn, it’s back to another master-planned community.

The last treat was the meandering Antonio Parkway, a typical Orange County “collector” street that runs several miles to Ortega Highway. While it’s all developed, it still has views of the mountains and a few spots that are even a bit rural. It crosses the toll road from nowhere, SR-241, which the OC folks would like to join up with I-5 at Trestles beach in San Onofre. But that’s another story.

The Genesis Coupe was worthy of the great reviews it’s been getting the last couple of years. V-6 equipped, it had plenty of power when needed and a V-8 like exhaust note. Driving position and interior amenities make it a very pleasant trip.

The down side is the stiff suspension, which works great on curves but manages to let the passengers know about every crack, expansion joint and pothole in the road. It’s a rough ride similar to that in my much smaller and older ’91 Miata. With the sunroof, my 6-1 frame was a bit tall and if I forgot to duck, my head would hit the ceiling when we drove over a bump.

Paddle shifters allow for driver control of the six-speed automatic but I let the smooth-shifting transmission do the work for me, with the GPS telling me which turns to take and Jimmy Buffett coming through loud and clear through the Sirius-XM satellite radio.

The question is not whether you’ll drive Santiago and Trabuco canyons, but when. I’d avoid any hot, Santa Ana wind event; I’d hate to be around when there’s high fire danger. Rain might also produce flash floods and a slick roadway. That only leaves about 90 percent of the year for a delightful drive through a bit of Southern California that hasn’t been lost to the bulldozers.


Cruising Santiago Canyon.
Cruising Santiago Canyon.

Route and Info


  • 194-mile round trip from central San Diego; about 31 miles from Chapman Avenue and SR-55 to I-5.


  • Easy to moderate. Gentle curves on Santiago Canyon Road become more challenging on Live Oak Canyon and Trabuco Canyon roads.


  • I-5 north to SR-55 north in Orange County
  • Exit at East Chapman Avenue. Head east. Continue onto Santiago Canyon Road (S-18).
  • Left at Live Oak Canyon Road. Continue onto Trabuco Canyon Road.
  • Continue onto Plano Trabuco Road.
  • Right at Santa Margarita Parkway.
  • Left at Antonio Parkway.
  • Right at Ortega Highway (SR-74).
  • I-5 south to San Diego./li>
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Orange-Riverside County Off Roading In a Hybrid — Weekend Trip

Mariner on the road.
Mariner on the road.

Mercury might be gone, but for awhile it sold an upscale version of the hybrid Ford Escape, the Mariner. Back in 2006, I took one on the rugged mountains separating the coast from southern Riverside County.

Clean Climbing takes drivers on a ridge with spectacular views east and west, down some twisting, rocky and rutty roads, and talks about the unique experience of crawling down a hill with no engine.

This area is at the top of the Ortega Highway, the east-west twisty route from San Juan Capistrano to Lake Elsinore. Too much traffic for most, but get off the road and it’s one of those wonderful Southern California wilderness areas. Enjoy Clean Climbing.

There’s Always a Dirt Road Somewhere

Mountain Snow Leads to Sunny Proctor Valley

It’s hard to believe, but even in San Diego the weather can interfere with the best plans.

With a 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee parked out front and a weekend plan to head up Nate Harrison Grade on Mount Palomar (and a Plan B to do some driving on rocks near Jacumba), our local dirt roads were going to be a great test to the latest generation of this “trail rated” SUV.

Unfortunately, also visiting that weekend was a big storm that dumped snow in the mountains, scattered semis over I-8 through near Pine Valley and caused authorities to issue warnings to stay off mountain roads. Not that the go-anywhere Jeep would have been stressed by a little snow, but roads that are full of sideways semis or require chains aren’t the place for weekend drives.

Rough Road Sign
The road’s not that rough.

Plan C for my San Diego day trip? Out came the map (one of those paper things) to spot a route closer to the coast, where by Sunday it was sunny and beautiful. Top on the list was one of the most accessible and beautiful drives in South Bay: Proctor Valley Road. A quick check with the weather radar and out Highway 94 I was headed to the east end of this historic strip of natural pavement. A right turn at Melody Road (Simpson’s Nursery — sorry, no time today to stop and look at the old cars) and we’re headed back toward Chula Vista.

Mention this road to anyone who grew up in the South Bay over the last century and they’d probably have a PV story. Proctor Valley Road is where they took their hot rod and first opened it up… first drove the family DeSoto there (at age 12)… saw space aliens there.

This connection between what is now Eastlake, the eastern district of Chula Vista, and Jamul is one of the oldest roads around. Although development is creeping eastward, it’s still dirt for about seven miles. Gentle, graded, packed dirt, county-maintained and public.

Along Proctor Valley Road
Along Proctor Valley Road

In recent years, there’s been a concerted effort to clean up the trash and block off the wildlife preservation areas that border parts of the road. When I last visited back in 2002, there was a lot of trash dumped by the side. My drive this year encountered only a couple of illegal dumps, so good job by local activists and the county although they need to keep on the job.

Its namesake valley is just south of Mt. San Miguel (the one with all the TV transmitters on top). Between the dirt and the meandering of the road, this is a very easy dirt road that drivers can enjoy. Starting from the Jamul end, the acre-or-two homes with ranch fences disappear with the pavement as drivers twist into the wide-open valley.

The hills are green, flowers are blooming and the birds are flying along this San Diego day trip. A couple of hawks circled overhead, ready to lunch on what is probably an ample population of rabbits, snakes and rodents this year. There are several unofficial hiking trails around and places to park, so visitors can enjoy the outdoors. However, this isn’t a park, so there aren’t amenities.

Wildlife refuge
Wildlife refuge protects area.

Back in civilization, it’s the Eastlake neighborhood of Chula Vista. I wound around to find the Eastlake Tavern and Bowl, sister to the downtown hot spot. The lanes were full on a Sunday afternoon and the food was good. It’s worth the zigzag to get there.

I headed back north on the South Bay Expressway, the toll road that runs from the Otay Mesa border crossing to Lemon Grove. If you haven’t been up this highway, take the drive, especially this time of year. South of Eastlake, it bridges the Otay River valley, north it crosses the Sweetwater, both open space areas that give drivers great vistas. From Eastlake, the toll is $3, a cheap admission price for a great view on a beautiful Sunday.

Back home, I found out that the storm had continued to mess up both Palomar and I-8. It was best to find another road with sunny skies, not difficult in San Diego. And while I might not have taxed the Jeep to its fullest, I probably pushed it as much as most owners will. And neither of those adjustments were a bad thing. ⚙

Route and Info


  • Easy-Moderate. The dirt portion is easier than the traffic and curves on SR-94 between Casa De Oro and Jamul.


  • About 35 miles round trip from the SR-94 and SR-125 interchange in La Mesa.


  • SR-94 east to Jamul.
  • Right at Melody Road.
  • Continue onto Proctor Valley Road and follow the turns.
  • To visit the Eastlake Tavern and Bowl, left at Hunte Parkway, right at Otay Lakes Road, right at Fenton Parkway to Showroom Place. From there, continue west on Otay Lakes Road to SR-125 north.
  • To go directly to SR-125 north, continue on paved Proctor Valley Road to expressway. Note $3 toll. Booths take exact change or credit cards.
  • Continue north to SR-94.
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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


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


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.


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