Weekend Driver’s in UTSanDiego Today … and online

The latest Weekend Driver column is in print today and online. Weekend Driver: Train stop to history is in your favorite formats. It’s a trip to the Dos Cabeza train station out in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

Pick up a copy at a newsstand or enjoy online. The online version includes the directions and a link to a Google map with the location.

And be sure to check back in a couple of weeks; we’ll have an extended version here at weekenddriver.com.

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Mount Laguna’s Sunrise Highway Gives Seasonal Color in Southern California

Many of the great driving roads in San Diego county are in areas where October’s fires raged, but many others were untouched.

While the old mountain town of Julian was threatened in October’s fires, it once again made it through without damage. So, too, did one of the prettiest and most enjoyable routes to the enclave: Sunrise Highway, over Mount Laguna.

And even this late in the year, there’s a bit of fall color left up at 5,000 feet, contrasting with the evergreen pines. Just enough twists in the road will test a driver’s skill and give the suspension in your car, SUV or bike just enough exercise. It’s the cure for urban cabin fever.

Mount Laguna is always one of my favorite San Diego day trips — so much that even though we went there just a couple of months back, it’s worth a return trip. Mountain high yet closer than Palomar to my central-county home, there’s nothing like a day in the trees, as we found out in October, when we took a Jeep up to find a good picnic spot in the woods. This month, we’re driving a Saturn Vue Redline SUV, and while it does have all-wheel-drive, it seemed more suited to the street than trail.

Using Sunrise Highway to Julian isn’t the most direct route, but the detour won’t add more than a half-hour to your trip from Interstate 8. Head east from the city to the Sunrise Highway exit, just past Pine Valley, then north up the mountain.

Gentle twists and chaparral dominate, with spectacular views west to Pine Valley, until the road passes the timber line at around 5,000 feet. Then the oaks, pines and evergreens take over to give the area the look of a traditional mountain forest.

When snow comes to the high country this winter, Mount Laguna, as always, will be a good spot to head for the white stuff, with roadside parking available to play. Since this is part of the Cleveland National Forest, you will need a National Forest Adventurepass if you want to park anywhere except at restaurants, lodges or store at the small community of Mount Laguna. Passes are available at stores in Pine Valley or at the Mount Laguna store.

There wasn’t any snow during my visit, just a few golden leafs in the trees and occasionally drifting across the highway. Not exactly New Hampshire, but this is an easy drive from downtown San Diego.

Sunrise Highway is one of the best roads in the county for everyone from novice mountain drivers to hard-core enthusiasts wanting just a pleasant route. There are more than a few good twists, but they’re usually short and generally wide. They’re far less severe than our return route, over Cuyamaca Highway (state Route 79).

A couple of stops are usually on the agenda. The mountain visitor center is located adjacent to the Mount Laguna Lodge and Store; check in here for an Adventurepass, maps, supplies and just a stretch. Watch for the meadow overlook south of the store and the desert overlook to the north.
Mostly, Sunrise Highway is pleasant driving, surrounded by trees or open meadows, certainly unique and worthy of its designation as a National Forest Scenic Byway.

After passing through the beautiful Rattlesnake Valley and by the Fages Monument, make the right at Cuyamaca Highway (SR-79) and head toward Julian. Just before heading into town, look for Desert View Park, with a great vista east to the Banner Grade and Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.
On a beautiful, pre-Thanksgiving, post-fire weekend, I found Julian to be a busy place. Shops were open, there were lines for pie and lunch, traffic on Main Street. Some of the locals told me “everybody just showed up.” Yes, Julian is open for business and continues to be a great destination for a day in the country.

It costs a few bucks, but rather than driving around looking for a spot, I usually head to the big parking lot at 4th and B streets. Quicker parking means more time to wander. Everything looked open, including Miner’s Diner, the Menghini Winery out on Wynola Road, the handsome cabs.

Coming back, I chose to take SR-79 south, through Cuyamaca. It’s here you’ll see scars from fires, but they’re mostly from the 2003 Cedar fire. Vegetation is coming back but many of the trees are gone for good.

Cuyamaca Highway is much more challenging than Sunrise Highway. There’s usually more traffic and there are always more twists in the road. If you’re a bit uncomfortable with hairpin turns, retrace your route along Sunrise Highway.
The visitor center has relocated to near its old site at the Dyar House. Although the house was burned in the 2003 fire, the stone walls remain, braced to prevent further damage.

The visitor center is in a temporary structure near the entry to the school camp, where I got a taste of mountain life back when I was in sixth grade (just a few years ago).
From the end of Cuyamaca Highway, it’s over a short stretch of old Highway 80 through Descanso Junction to Interstate 8 and home.

Fires, floods, storms… and the mountains still issue a call for a great day trip. The car needs exercise and you need a break from the city. Take the drive.

Wide open cruise on the north end of Sunrise Highway.
View of desert from near Mt. Laguna.

Route and Info

  • From December 2007. This story was published shortly after the October 2007 brush fires; I’ve left the references intact.


  • 56 miles. Sunrise Highway is about 50 miles east of central San Diego.


  • Moderate to challenging.


  • Interstate 8 east to Sunrise Highway. Go north (left) onto Sunrise Highway.
  • Right at SR-79 (Cuyamaca Highway) to Julian.
  • SR-79 south.
  • Right at Old Highway 80 to Interstate 8.

Web Sites

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