Unexpected Serenity in Southern California

There’s 2,000 feet to climb back up from the desert floor on the wonderfully twisty and smooth Banner Grade. (Photos by the author)
There’s 2,000 feet to climb back up from the desert floor on the wonderfully twisty and smooth Banner Grade. (Photos by the author)

Is there any scenic countryside left for motorcyclists in the urban sprawl of Southern California? Actually there is, and it’s surprisingly close to the densely populated areas of San Diego County and amazingly diverse in climate, altitude and scenery.

Starting off early on a weekday from my house in Escondido, 30 miles north of San Diego, it’s a quick jump onto County Road S6 (Valley Center Road) and past the rural town of Valley Center, and then the Rincon Indian Reservation. It’s immediately after Rincon that the ride starts in earnest. A right turn onto State Route 76 takes me directly into long sweepers sculpted perfectly into sloped citrus groves, as I begin climbing the foothills guarding the southern flank of Palomar Mountain. The road steepens suddenly as it leaves the groves, runs through a few tight switchbacks and then empties out on top of a ridge. An immediate left takes me back onto S6, also known as South Grade Road here, and then a steep climb up Palomar. Oak trees give way to pines as I twist left and right through as technical a ride as you will find in Southern California. The dense pine forest lining the pavement acts as an echo chamber and reflects back the dull roar of my Kawasaki ZRX1200 accelerating out of each turn. The road is nearly an elevator, taking me through 21 switchbacks up to the 5,200-foot summit—a 2,500-foot climb in less than seven miles. The view from the top is stunning. On a clear morning like this, you can easily see west to the Pacific Ocean and south to the Mexican border.

Carrying passengers and mail from St. Louis to San Francisco, the Butterfield Stage Line passed through this area of rural Southern California two times each week from 1857 to 1861.
Carrying passengers and mail from St. Louis to San Francisco, the Butterfield Stage Line passed through this area of rural Southern California two times each week from 1857 to 1861.

The temperature is pleasantly cool, and nearly 20 degrees lower than back in suburbia. I take off southeast at the summit junction down the East Grade Road (County Road S7), a much more gradual decent, with gentler curves but a rougher road surface that demands concentration. A deer crosses abruptly in front of me a few minutes down the road, a reminder that I’m nowhere near the city now. Soon enough, I catch a glimpse of Lake Henshaw off to the east, signaling the end of the grade and my reunion with the smooth and fast Route 76. Lake-effect fog briefly engulfs me and dampens my face shield as I roll through gentle curves and glide past the lake, emerging back into bright sunshine at the intersection with State Route 79.

A landmark since the 1930s, the Julian Drug Store sports an old-time soda fountain and candy mine.
A landmark since the 1930s, the Julian Drug Store sports an old-time soda fountain and candy mine.

A quick left and I roll out into decidedly more open country, with brown grass fields and scattered small groves of oaks, reminiscent of the rolling hill country of the California Central Coast. Another right turn onto San Felipe Road (County Road S2), and I begin a gentle climb through rolling hills of cow country dotted with an occasional flock of wild turkeys. A crest over Teofulio Summit at 3,700 feet, and the scenery (and temperature) begins changing rapidly and dramatically. Within seven more miles of the wide, sweeping curves of S2, I spot the first cactus, and I’m opening all the vents on my jacket as the temperature climbs back up to 90 degrees. To my right, the green coastal mountains rise abruptly up to more than 5,000 feet, and to my left are the brown and barren desert hills framing the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. A stark contrast indeed.

Only 45 minutes from the summit of Palomar Mountain, and the scene has changed from pines to cacti as you skirt the border of the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
Only 45 minutes from the summit of Palomar Mountain, and the scene has changed from pines to cacti as you skirt the border of the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

As I intersect the dry beginnings of San Felipe Wash, the highway tees into State Route 78 at Scissors Crossing, and a hot, dry wind suddenly picks up, indicative of the sudden temperature and pressure changes between the coast and desert. A left turn would drop me immediately into the desert proper, but a right turn instead takes me past an old Butterfield Stage Route stop and, within just a few more miles, the Kawasaki and I are gaining altitude again, assaulting the eastern slope of the San Diego coastal range. Similar to my earlier climb up Palomar, but with fresher asphalt and smoother corners most of the way, Banner Grade, as it’s known to locals, writhes its way tightly up the mountain. It climbs nearly 2,000 feet back into the pines and cool temperatures, and empties out at the summit into the quaint little mountain town of Julian. Famous for its apple pies and cider, Julian is a busy tourist attraction even on a mid-week morning, so after a brief stop to stretch my legs, I take a left at the only stop sign, continuing on down through a bending, gradual decent to the old mission settlement of Santa Ysabel. Known to the savvy traveler as the home of Dudley’s Bakery, the beautiful Santa Ysabel tempts me to halt my brisk pace and make time for a dash into Dudley’s for a cheese Danish and cup of their exceptional coffee, which I do.

Don’t look down!  It’s a nearly 2,500-foot drop from the summit of South Grade Road to the valley below.
Don’t look down! It’s a nearly 2,500-foot drop from the summit of South Grade Road to the valley below.

Then it’s off for the home stretch of the ride. The temperature warms again as I ride through undulating hills and moderate curves in grassy countryside. Old wooden barns, horses and even a buffalo or two on the Star B Ranch make the landscape strangely Wyoming-like at times. Twenty more minutes of beautiful scenery brings me to Ramona, a horse-and-cow rural town full of character, and the last stop before descending a long grade down to the orange groves and dairy farms of the San Pasqual Valley and then back into Escondido. The coastal humidity hits me in full force now, a massive contrast to the dry wind just an hour back at Scissors Crossing. A few more traffic lights and a sprint down the carpool lane on Interstate 15, and I’m at the office by 9:00 a.m.

Four distinct climates in less than three hours, and other than a mild case of helmet hair, no one’s the wiser.

You can’t say they didn’t warn you.  There is some serious climbing and twisting ahead to reach the Palomar  Mountain summit.
You can’t say they didn’t warn you. There is some serious climbing and twisting ahead to reach the Palomar Mountain summit.

 

A clear day on the mountain.  The marine fog layer from the Pacific encompasses the valley to the west and the hills of Mexico can be seen to the south.
A clear day on the mountain. The marine fog layer from the Pacific encompasses the valley to the west and the hills of Mexico can be seen to the south.

 

Map of the route taken, by Bill Tipton/compartmaps.com
Map of the route taken, by Bill Tipton/compartmaps.com

2 COMMENTS

  1. Please pass this along to Clement Salvadori as this is more of a qustion for him based on his long exprience with motorcycles rather thsn a comment, i recently had an automobile accident and while recovering well I am starting to have some concens about riding my goldwing due to the size and weight. I wanted to ask Clement for a recommendation on a smaller bike still suitable for two up riding and touring.
    Thanks

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