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Road Trip

Driving Full Circle on Scenic Back Roads

Inland San Diego County

Total time: Five to eight hours

Distance: 210 miles

Level of difficulty: Easy to mildly challenging; a scenic drive for anyone


Thanks in part to our southern neighbors' xenophobia, denizens of the Los Angeles Basin often miss out on some great driving when contemplating places to head for a Sunday spin.

We're not talking about Baja California, although passport and insurance rules do make it difficult to launch a spur-of-the-moment trip farther south than Ensenada on the thousand-mile peninsula.

We're talking about San Diego County, separated from the rest of Southern California by Camp Pendleton and by San Diegans' own oft-proclaimed loathing of everything north of the giant Marine Corps base.

It isn't that they single out and harass visitors down there, it's just that they don't like to let us know about the glories of the county's still-rugged inland territories.

Indeed, it is tempting to keep quiet about places like Pauma Valley, with its scenic farms and tree-lined roads; the cool mountain air, twisting approaches and great bed-and-breakfast inns of Julian; the pine-bordered esses of the Laguna Mountains; the rugged terrain and sweeping vistas of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, whose main thoroughfare, County Road S2, follows an old Overland Stage Line route; and the oak-studded hills (if not the ever-present Border Patrol agents) of winding California 94, which loosely parallels the border with Mexico.

But inland San Diego is being discovered: New housing developments are encroaching at a rapid clip, and in parts it is starting to look a lot like Orange County.

So our advice is to start your engines and head south for some wonderful driving while the roads there are still wide open and the vistas worth viewing.

True, you'll have to put up with some nasty traffic getting there, but the mess we've made of the Santa Ana and San Diego freeways are old hat for Southern California trekkers, the penance we must pay before we can enjoy the open road.

One way to sample the territory is to take a perimeter tour that starts just below Camp Pendleton, wanders up and down the inland valleys and mountains to Julian, darts down into Anza-Borrego and then picks up Interstate 8 and Highway 94 to carry you back into downtown San Diego.

There are two main routes into San Diego County from the north--the San Diego Freeway (I-5) along the coast or, for those traveling from places like Placentia and Pomona, the Escondido Freeway (I-15) down past Lake Elsinore and through Temecula.

From the I-5, pick up California 76 in Oceanside and head inland. The highway follows the San Luis Rey River for 17.5 miles, passing Mission San Luis Rey and heading through Bonsall before hitting I-15, where, if you use the Escondido Freeway to start this trip, you'd get off at California 76 and head inland roughly eastward.

The road continues following the river as you twist through hilly terrain past Mission San Antonia de Pala. The scenery for the next 37 miles is old California foothill--grassy fields, oaks, roadside campgrounds and ranch buildings. The road rises and falls with the hills and alternates between long, sweeping curves and esses of varying complexity.

At 22.2 miles from the I-15 junction you'll pass Lake Henshaw on the left, and 4.5 miles later Highway 76 ends in a T intersection with California 79.

Take a right there and head into Santa Ysabel, a little town with several antique shops and restaurants and a bakery, Dudley's, that San Diego friends say is famous all over the county for its fresh breads.

From Santa Ysabel you'll head up into the mountains on California 79 for about seven miles, past Wynola and into Julian, a picturesque old mining town now given over largely to restaurants, inns and galleries and surrounded by high-country apple orchards.

If you haven't had lunch, or have dallied long enough so that it's dinner time when you hit Julian, this is a great place to grab some--although on weekends the restaurants can fill up pretty quickly. (Hint: Calling ahead for reservations is a good idea. Regional travel guides, including AAA's California-Nevada Tourbook, list many of Julian's inns.)

Because you can spend a lot of time in and around Julian, it is a good spot to end a day trip. Just reverse directions to get home, or if you want to see some new sights, take California 79 north back up to I-15. You'll pass through Warner Springs, Dodge Valley and Aguanga on a road every bit as rustic and fun to drive as California 76.

But if you are a driver and are pressing on from Julian, head north out of town and down the mountain on California 78. There's a sharp right bend just past Camp Stevens a few miles outside Julian and you'll be heading east again, toward Whispering Pines and down the steep Banner Grade.

After about nine miles you'll hit County Road S2 where it enters the 600,000-acre Anza-Borrego Desert State Park--it's a right-hand turn at Scissors Crossing into the park (the town of Borrego Springs, with its visitor center, is about 18 miles beyond this point, east on California 78 to County Road S3, then north).

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