With miles of stunning coastline, San Diego is known for its coastal drives. The Pacific Coast Highway or San Diego's 59-Mile Scenic Drive are some of the most well-known routes. Most SoCal residents aren’t aware, though, that San Diego’s east county is also full of dramatic roads. These off-the-beaten-paths take you from the beach through the mountains and into the Anza Borrego Desert. Today, I will be highlighting a few of the lesser-known inland scenic drives.
Before you start the engine, there are a few things you need to know. These backcountry roads are windy. Give yourself plenty of time to complete the drives. Each route will take at least a few hours to finish. This does not include time for pit stops and exploring. Gas stations are fewer outside the city limits, so don’t forget to fill up with gas. No road trip is complete without good snacks and drinks, and there are many great spots to picnic.
City driving and backroad driving are not the same. I highly encourage drivers to read my backcountry road etiquette guide. Slow drivers, PLEASE pull over in safe turnouts to let faster traffic pass. Lastly, as you cruise these backcountry roads, roll down the windows to enjoy the fresh air.
Scenic Byway One (S1), Sunrise Highway
The drive begins at the intersection of I-8 and Scenic Byway One (S1), commonly known as Sunrise Highway. The route travels through Cleveland National Forest and the community of Mount Laguna. Mount Laguna is located 6,000 feet above sea level. This unspoiled location is one of San Diego's best-kept secrets. The pristine, old-growth forest makes you feel like you are hundreds of miles away from San Diego City. The Cleveland National Forest is a hub of outdoor recreation. Visitors enjoy stunning views to the east and west. When there’s snow, the road may be closed. At the intersection of S1 and Highway 79, a right turn takes you to the Julian Historic District. A left turn takes you through the Cuyamaca State Park and past Lake Cuyamaca on your way back to I-8.
Old Highway 80
Before I-8 was built, travelers used Old Highway 80. This drive takes you through the backcountry small towns of Jacumba, Pine Valley, and Descanso. These communities are full of charm, so give yourself time to make pit stops. Make sure to check out the Desert View Tower at the Imperial County line as well!
The Palomar Mountain Loop
Palomar Mountain sits at about 5,000 feet above sea level in northern San Diego County. The mountain is known for its historical landmarks, stargazing, camping, and beautiful forest. As visitors drive up the East Grade Road, there are a number of vista points that offer spectacular panoramic views featuring Lake Henshaw. At the top of the mountain sits the world-famous Palomar Observatory. Visitors can also explore the Palomar Mountain State Park and the Cleveland National Forest. Before heading back down South Grade Road, which intersects East Grade Road where Mother's Kitchen is. As you head down the steep, winding west side of the mountain, you will see another breathtaking view.
Scenic Byway Two (S2) (This route is also known as San Felipe Road, Great Southern Overland Stage Route, or the Internal Highway)
S2 is a 65-mile road that takes explorers back in time, beginning at California Highway 79 just south of Warmer Springs and taking you to Ocotillo (I-8). The road began as a dirt trail in the late 1700s. In 1826, it became a Mexican mail route. There is lots to see while traveling along this path. The first 18 miles take you along the backside of Volcan mountain.
The Pacific Crest Trail goes through the valley along with a good portion of the highway. ikers often greatly appreciate a ride if you are open to some company.
You can see the Warner-Carrillo Ranch House Museum from the road. Between 1858 to 1861, this adobe building was the Butterfield Stage Stop. Save Our Heritage Organization (SOHO) bought and restored it.
At Scissors Crossing, the road will zig-zag before it takes you through the community of Shelter Valley and along the west side of the Anza Borrego State Park. Next up is Blair Valley. This recreation area is known for its primitive camping and archaeological sites such as the South Homestead.
As you continue to wind down the grade, Agua Caliente County Park will be on the right. During the winter months, visitors enjoy camping, hiking, and swimming in geothermally heated spring pools. The park has a large campground with hook-ups and seven camping cabins. Agua Caliente Springs General Store is a good place to grab an ice cream or a cold drink before heading to Ocotillo.
Borrego Springs Loop
Starting from the mountain town of Julian, head East on Highway 78. You will wind down the mountain on Banner Grade. Today, Banner Grade might not look like much, but back in the day, it was the hub of San Diego’s only gold rush. Look up the grade to your right, and you may see an old car or rusted mining equipment as you drive. In a few miles, you will pass through the intersection known as Scissors Crossing.
The road meanders through part of the Anza Borrego State Park before turning left onto Yaqui Pass, also known as S3. Travelers can also stay on Highway 78 for a few miles and then turn left on Borrego Springs Road. For those who took Yaqui Pass, at the Y Intersection, turn left onto Borrego Springs Rd. The town of Borrego has lots to offer. As you drive down Borrego Springs Rd towards Christmas Tree Circle, you will see the large metal sculptures in Galleta Meadows.
The Anza Borrego State Park has lots of attractions for you to explore. At Christmas Tree Circle, turn onto Palm Canyon Road and head towards Montezuma Road. The climb up Montezuma Road results in breathtaking views of the valley Borrego Springs sits in. At the top of the grade, you will pass through the rural community of Ranch. Montezuma Road intersects with San Felipe (S2). A left turn will take you back to Scissors Crossing/Highway 78 (Julian, Cuyamaca, I-8). A turn right will take you to Highway 78 (Warner Springs, Santa Ysabel, Julian, Ramona).
Scenic Byway Six (S6)
From Highway 78 in Escondido take S6 (Valley Parkway) towards Valley Center. The road will become Valley Center Parkway. This route takes visitors through Valley Center, Recon Indian Restoration, and into the Pauma Valley. Take a right onto Highway 76 East. S6 will wind up Palomar Mountain, and you can take the East Grade down. Allow a few additional hours for this route. Refer to the Palomar Mountain Loop for details. Otherwise, you can stay on Highway 76. Either way, you will pass Lake Henshaw. At Moretti's Junction, turn right. The Santa Ysabel Reservation will be on your left. A little farther down you will also see the Santa Ysabel Indian Mission. Where Highways 79 and 78 meet sits the town of Santa Ysabel. Here you can stop at Julian Pie Co., the Santa Ysabel Nature Center, Dudley’s Bakery, The Santa Ysabel Store, and get gas. You also have the option of driving 7.5 miles east on 78 to visit the Julian Historic District. Highway 78 West will take you back to Escondido.
Starting from Strand Beach, head east on Highway 76. This road takes you through Bonsel, Pala, Pauma Valley, Rincon, along the edge of Palomar Mountain, past the La Jolla Indian Reservation, through the Cleveland National Forest, and along the shore of Lake Henshaw. When you reach Moretti's Junction, turn right. The Santa Ysabel Reservation will be on your left. A little farther down you will also see the Santa Ysabel Indian Mission. Where Highways 79 and 78 meet sits the town of Santa Ysabel. Here you can stop at Julian Pie Co., the Santa Ysabel Nature Center, Dudley’s Bakery, The Santa Ysabel Store, and get gas. You also have the option of driving 7.5 miles east on 78 to visit the Julian Historic District. Highway 78 West will take you back to South Oceanside. How cool is that?! You just drove from the coast to the crest and back to the coast in a day’s diving.
The El Cajon-Julian Loop
In El Cajon, hop on the I-8 East. Shortly after Alpine, use Highway 79 North. [Side note: You can also stay on I-8, Sunrise Highway, and then take Highway 79 North. See Scenic Byway One (S1) for Details.] Highway 79 North will take you by the tiny town of Descanso, through the Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, and right into the Julian Historic District. Just outside Julian, you will pass through Wynola and head down into the Santa Ysabel Valley. Instead of turning right on Highway 79, continue straight to take Highway 78 West. You will wind down the mountain before reaching Ramona. Once again continue straight to merge onto Highway 67 which will take you back to El Cajon. [Side note: you can catch Wildcat Canyon Road in Ramona for a more scenic route than Highway 67.]
WOW! Who knew San Diego had so many scenic inland drives?! I hope you enjoy exploring new parts of the county.