SAN PASQUAL VALLEY — Travelers passing through this peaceful valley southeast of Escondido are surprised to discover that it was the site of one of the bloodiest California battles in the Mexican War of 1846-48.
The drama of an encounter between United States and Californio forces comes back to life in the visitor center/museum at a new state historic park that overlooks the San Pasqual battlefield.
On a circle tour from Interstate 15 you can learn about that little-known moment in California history, view some of San Diego County's pastoral countryside and sample wines at the valley's San Pasqual Vineyards.
In December, 1846, a troop of U.S. soldiers, with Kit Carson as their scout, came across a party of Californios led by Maj. Andres Pico. The American forces had marched west from Ft. Leavenworth, Kan., to help conquer California for the United States. It would be their first battle in this area.
The Locals Triumphed
On a cold and rainy morning the U.S. troops rode into the San Pasqual Valley to challenge the Californios , who were defending their land in the name of Mexico. The long lances of the local forces proved superior to the short swords and damp gunpowder of the Americans. The U.S. Army of the West sustained 22 deaths, the Californios one.
When the Californios withdrew, the battle-worn American cavalry headed toward San Diego, but were besieged again at a place that came to be called Mule Hill. Surrounded by the Californios for four days, the hungry U.S. soldiers ate their mules until reinforcements arrived and the Californios left for Los Angeles.
Start your sojourn at the Mule Hill state historic landmark south of Escondido. Get there from Los Angeles by driving east on the Pomona Freeway (California 60) past Riverside to join Interstate 215 south toward San Diego.
After it merges with Interstate 15, continue past Escondido to the Highland Valley Road/Pomerado Road exit. Turn east over the freeway, and look left for the Mule Hill historical marker just beyond the overpass.
From there you can see across the valley and an arm of Lake Hodges to the 765-foot Mule Hill battleground.
Continue east past the tree nursery and take the first left turn, Highland Valley Road. The curvy country road enters an agriculture preserve where all plant and animal life is protected by a prohibition against insecticides and building developments.
As the road winds through boulder-strewn hills, look for the left-hand turn to Bandy Canyon Road that leads to a hilltop overlooking the San Pasqual Valley. You'll pass flower fields and pastures with dairy cows as the road descends to California 78.
Turn left on the state highway and look for the Fritz family's Country Stand that features organically grown produce. The season is almost over, but the roadside stand may still be open on weekends with white sweet corn, tomatoes, watermelon and other vine-ripened vegetables and fruit.
Just up the road is the entry to San Pasqual Battlefield State Historic Park. Go into the visitor center to find out more about the conflict that occurred 141 years ago. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (closed Tuesday and Wednesday). Entry is $1; ages 6 through 17, 50 cents.
Start by viewing the 10-minute video film that gives the background of the Mexican War. Exhibits portray California in Spanish and Mexican times. You'll also learn about the Indians who lived in the San Pasqual Valley and the ranchos that occupied the area.
Also in the visitor center is a battlefield map showing troop movements in the valley. It's displayed in front of a window with a view of the battle terrain, and flanked by stained-glass depictions of Mexican and American soldiers.
You'll also see a uniform and sabers of the 1st U.S. Dragoons who fought there under the command of Brig. Gen. Stephen W. Kearny. His 100 men were just one-third of the original detachment; the other troops had been sent back to Santa Fe when he received erroneous word that California was in American hands.
Park rangers and volunteer docents are on hand to answer questions. The park phone is (619) 489-0076.
Continuing west on California 78 you'll pass the site of the original battlefield monument that has been superseded by the new visitor center and park that was dedicated 11 months ago.
Beyond the entrance to San Diego Wild Animal Park, turn left from California 78 on San Pasqual Road and continue about two miles to the valley's namesake vineyards. The grapes have been picked for this season and their leafy vines will be cut back after Thanksgiving.
Drive up through the green vineyards to taste various vintages of San Pasqual wines. The tasting room is in the warehouse-like winery where visitors are surrounded by vats, barrels and bottles containing 16 premium wines. Hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.
The vines were planted in 1973 and the first vintage, a Gamay, was released in 1976. Since then the winery has won numerous awards for its wines, which include champagne made the traditional way by hand-turning the individual bottles.
Two special events are planned at the winery this month: 10K and two-mile fun runs on Nov. 15 and a Gamay Nouveau Festival the following weekend, where visitors can taste a new Gamay wine that's just been crushed and bottled. Information: San Pasqual Vineyards at (619) 741-0855.
Return to Los Angeles by continuing west on San Pasqual Road to Bear Valley Parkway, then go left to pick up Via Rancho Parkway that leads to Interstate 15.
Round trip from Los Angeles for a countryside excursion in the historic San Pasqual Valley is 260 miles.