Backyard Back Roads: Northern San Diego County

Triumph.1SD County (89)We tour on our motorcycles for many reasons, chief among them the lure of faraway places that help break the monotony of everyday life. Places like the big ditch otherwise known as the Grand Canyon, New England in autumn, and Yellowstone National Park, where the word scenery is a redundancy, draw bikers in droves.

The call of the open road also has a lot to do with us pointing our bikes toward the horizon, too. Who among us hasn’t been gripped by a nagging desire to sample new and interesting roads? Indeed, how many motorcycle road stories have you read that describe riding the serpentine stretch of asphalt known as the Tail of the Dragon, taking a vicarious tour down California’s twisty Highway 1, or climbing the stairway to heaven leading to Beartooth Pass? Do you fantasize about riding their copious turns peppered with challenging cambers, hidden apexes, and varying radii?

SD County (113)Those are all fine rides that score a 10 on the Biker Hit Parade. But what if you live so far away from those (or similar) legendary destinations that it takes at least a couple of days to reach, making little sense — moneywise, time-wise, or otherwise — to visit them? Then you do what I do, and find a place nearby that boasts its own alluring features, or offers roads that are so twisty and challenging that you can visit them whenever you want. I’m talking about backyard back roads, and for me that means northern San Diego County, California. I can ride there and back in a day. Recently, I did exactly that on a 2012 Triumph Bonneville and had what Her Majesty’s blokes might describe as a jolly good time. Joining me was my best friend Brad Von Grote who, true to his Teutonic roots, was aboard a 2000 BMW K1200RS. Brad and I have been sharing the road for years, and that includes road racing, off-roading (sometimes unplanned excursions, if you get my drift), and sporttouring. Shortly after morning rush hour subsided, we left our homes in Orange County, heading south on Interstate-5 before peeling off at State Route 76 in Oceanside, taking it east until we reached S6 that forms the South Grade leading up Palomar Mountain.

S6 constitutes one of the best roads on the entire route. Its ascent offers constant-radius and decreasing-radius turns connected by short straights, so that speeds remain within the sane zone at all times. For the most part, the road surface is smooth and clean, and much of the route has live oak and other indigenous trees whose branches overhang the road, blocking out much of the blinding and blistering sunlight. Best of all, the road has a tempo that allows a skilled rider to find his rhythm. At the road’s end, about eight or so miles up, you reach a four-way intersection that feeds a campground, straight ahead. There’s also a café and small general store at the campground, but their hours are limited, so if you want refreshments, don’t get there too early. The road to the left terminates a few miles later at the famous Palomar Observatory, or you can choose S7 to the right, which leads down to what is also known as the East Grade and into the central region of northern San Diego County.

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But before you select any of the above options, you’ll probably want to make a 180-degree turn and head back down S6. The road is that good and that compelling. As with any downhill stretch of twisty road, you might find the return not quite as satisfying because your bike’s suspension becomes weighted on the front tire, making it feel more skittish than it did during the uphill romp. Never mind, though — you’ll certainly want to make the uphill climb again anyway!

Ranchita Store.1Back at the top, a visit to the observatory is always rewarding. It houses a 200″-diameter reflector telescope that was developed by astronomer George Hale, for whom it’s named. This was considered to be the most important telescope in the world from when Caltech built it in 1949 until 1992, the year the Keck I telescope (measuring 390″ across) was installed on Mauna Kea in Hawaii. The famous astronomer Edwin Hubble was first to use the Hale Telescope, and since then astronomers have used it to discover quasars, asteroids, and countless galaxies.

Desert Art.2(While at the top of Palomar Mountain, here’s a bit of cultural trivia that you can use to impress your riding buddies: the Spanish origin of palomar roughly translates to pigeon house, probably in reference to the large shoals of pigeons that can be seen during the spring and autumn months atop it.)

The East Grade, or S7, leaves a bit to be desired if its surface is in disrepair, which was the case the day Brad and I rode it. I’ve traveled S7 when the surface was good, though, and if S6
warrants a 10, then I rate S7, appropriately, a seven. In any case, the road forms a T-junction with State Route 76, where Brad and I turned left, soon passing Lake Henshaw on our left. Across the highway from the lake sits a nice cafe that serves good hamburgers. SR 76 becomes State Route 79 a couple miles beyond the lake, but before it does, Brad and I came upon Mesa Grande Road on the right. This is another must-do, so ride slowly on 76 so you won’t miss the turn just past Lake Henshaw.

SD County (63)In the fun factor, the Mesa Grande loop is about half a notch below S7. I’ve had the fortune to experience Mad Sunday at the Isle of Man, and this portion of Mesa Grande has an uncanny resemblance to the famous Tourist Trophy (TT) course’s 37-3/4-mile Mountain Section. South from 76 the road ascends through more overhanging live oak, and the turns are rather tight and stacked upon themselves. Some stretches don’t have any runoff save for the nosedive you’ll take if you go off the road, so be honest with yourself as you snake up the windy path. Eventually the trees fade to farmland, and the turns begin to stretch themselves out. The road loops around, then faces a T-junction into the highway, now 79, where Brad and I turned right, taking that a few miles to the T in the road, turning left where 79 joins with State Route 78 and heads into the town of Julian.

Julian constitutes the TT (Tourist Trap) portion of the ride, but even so, you’ll enjoy this quaint mountain community for its history and the shops and eateries. The town spawned from a mini gold rush that took place during the 1870s. The gold dust played out quickly, but some of the more resourceful Argonauts realized that the region’s temperate climate was ideal for apple orchards, and today Julian is best known regionally for its autumn crop of delicious apples. Want good apple pie? Then head to Julian in early autumn and you’ll be treated to the finest. Just be prepared for huge crowds (including plenty of bikers) because people from all over Southern California know about Julian’s reputation.

But this particular weekday, Julian remained the sleepy little mountain community that it usually is known to be, so Brad and I walked right in and were seated at the Julian Café. The café’s original site was home to a general store that was built in 1872, and the old structure served as a photo studio for Pat Kirkpatrick, who focused most of his energy on photographinganimals at the famous San Diego Zoo. Sadly, the studio burned down in 1957, and Kirkpatrick called it quits. The new and current structure became the café that it is today, first owned by Joe and Emma Edwards, and now by Christy Connell and Cara Teter. The place is home to good food, good service, and good ambiance.

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Palomar Observatory.3There are a few places in and around Julian to fill up your bike’s gas tank, and this might be a good time to top off Ol’ Blue. SR 78 heads out of town east or west, while 79 continues south toward San Diego. You won’t be disappointed in any direction. Today Brad and I went east on 78; after an undocumented number of fun turns, it empties into the western reaches of the scalding Borrego Desert. Our destination was S22, known by the locals as Montezuma Valley Road, and to get there we turned left (north) on S2, San Felipe Road, following it into higher elevations for about 15 or so miles before turning right onto S22. We stopped at the general store in the unincorporated town of Ranchita, where we satisfied our craving for ice cream bars. There’s a large statue of the abominable snowman in the store’s parking lot; I don’t get it either, but it’s good for photo ops.

Bikes on Julian Main St.1For the first few miles, the road remains rather level, rather straight, and rather boring. Not to worry, when you begin your descent back to the desert floor, you’ll be rewarded with one of the most fun stretches of twisty asphalt in Southern California. Moreover, there are no crossroads or annoying intersections to deal with, so the 10-mile ride settles into a one-onone session with you and the road. It can also get stiflingly hot at the desert floor, so depending on what time ofthe year you make this ride, you can either visit the community of Borrego Springs for refreshments and view the huge metal sculptures created by artist Ricardo Breceda that dot the desert landscape as I did during my previous visit to these roads, or you can make an abrupt about-face to head back up Montezuma Grade, as Brad and I did this early summer day. As on S6, the S22 uphill run also pegs the fun-factor needle, allowing you to devote more of your energy and concentration to manipulating the bike’s throttle and negotiating the turns with minimal concern about braking. Plus you’ll feel the drop in temperature, always a relief when leaving the desert. The Bonneville was a delight to ride either way, but in truth, the downhill run let the twin-cylinder engine stretch its legs more so than when gravity worked against it on the return ride.

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Back in the highlands, we turned right at S2, which would eventually lead to 79, where another right-hand turn set us on course to pick up Interstate 15 (north) and the homestretch.

Our ride took us through several small communities, including Warner Springs and Elk Grove, where there’s an old stagecoach stop. Signs of urban sprawl slowly gobbled up the scenery as we threaded our way through Temecula. We later peeled off at Lake Elsinore (site of the famous Elsinore GP that was featured in the movie On Any Sunday and, curiously, a race that Brad and I competed in back in 1972), picking up State Route 74 (aka Ortega Highway, another of our haunts until traffic finally overtook this 33-mile ride, in effect transforming it into just another commuter road), and finally into Orange County and home.

We made the 250-plus-mile ride in a single day, and in the course of the ride, we experienced some of the best sport-riding roads in Southern California. Elevation changes ranged from sea level to 6,000′ above sea level, and throughout the scenery was fantastic. But even if you don’t have twisty roads near you, look for a scenic ride, or choose a route that’s sprinkled with historic landmarks and sites to make a day tour interesting.  And then do what we biker types do best: get out and ride. M

Julian Café & Bakery

Palomar Observatory

Story and Photos by Dain Gingerelli


  1. Hi there. I really just glimpsed through and say “79” and s-2; but I am trying to find a back road route to san diego from woodland hills ca. The problem is, however, my motorcycle cannot go on the freeway. I have a 2014 Honda Grom 125e. Do you know of any routes that I can take with this bike that avoid the freeway? Or what would your advice be? thanks!