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Top scenic drives in Southern California

Angeles Crest Highway, Southern California The Angeles Crest Highway. Photo by Spiderplay / Getty Images

Let’s face it: Driving can be boring. Taking the same route every day can steer us into a rut. As creatures of habit, we tend to stick to what we know.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We’re lucky to live in a region with some of the nation’s best scenery and roads, many of them twisting, curving routes that can elicit a smile from even the most jaded driver. You just have to know where to go. 

After months of being cooped up, many of us are ready to head out again—but perhaps wary of embarking on a long road trip. The perfect in-between solution is what we’re calling “Sunday drives”—mini excursions that encompass three things: an interesting road, attractive scenery, and a place to picnic or buy lunch. Each outing can be enjoyed in one to three hours, depending on where you’re coming from.

To get you started, here’s a trio of exhilarating stretches of pavement to explore. 

Scenic Drive 1. San Diego County: Escondido to Julian

map of route from Escondido to Julian, California

Length: About 34 miles one way 

The route: Julian is on State Routes 78/79, about 60 miles northeast of central San Diego. From Interstate 15 north, exit at Via Rancho Parkway and follow the signs to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park on SR 78. From there, the road winds higher to Ramona, where SR 78 turns left to continue up to Julian. 

Best time to go: Late spring, summer, or fall for the best weather and to avoid snow.

Mom's Pie House

Mom's Pie House. Photo courtesy

The journey to Julian is a classic San Diego County road trip. For generations, motorists have driven the twisty route to this former mining town known for its quaint shops, apple pies, and other old-time charms. The scenic path to the mountain community is lined with groves of citrus, oaks, pines, and cedars.

Along the way: Just north of Ramona, pick up fresh eggs at Demler Farms, a small roadside store. In Santa Ysabel, local institution Dudley’s Bakery has been creating specialty breads and baked goods for decades. Don's Market, which specializes in house-made sausage, is a good source for picnic supplies. The reward at the end of the route is apple pie, for which Julian is famous. Your choices include the Julian Café and Bakery, the Julian Pie Company, and Mom’s Pie House

Picnic pointers: Break out your picnic lunch at Pioneer County Park, located one block from Julian’s Town Hall. Or, head south to William Heise County Park. Turn on Pine Hills Road and follow the signs as the road weaves about 4 miles through a picturesque forest before reaching the park’s camping and picnic grounds. Parking, $3. —Paul Zieke

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Scenic Drive 2. Orange and Riverside counties: Ortega Highway (State Route 74)

Route of Ortega Highway

Length: About 28 miles (one way)

The route: From Orange County, take Interstate 5 to San Juan Capistrano, exit at Ortega Highway and head east. If starting in Riverside County, exit Interstate 15 at Lake Street. Follow the road (which becomes Grand Avenue) to the western shore of Lake Elsinore, then go west on Ortega Highway.

Best time to go: Any time of the year is good. However, note that Ortega serves as a busy thoroughfare for Riverside-Orange county commuters. Leisure drivers, steer clear of Ortega during weekday rush hours.

The Lookout Roadhouse. Photo by Eli Ellison

The Lookout Roadhouse. Photo by Eli Ellison

If Ortega Highway had an official theme song, it’d have to be The Doors’ “Roadhouse Blues”—kicking off with the lyric “Keep your eyes on the road, your hands upon the wheel.”

Infamous for its steep grades and hairpin turns, the two-lane blacktop snaking through the chaparral-covered Santa Ana Mountains opened in 1933 as a shortcut linking arid Riverside County and the wave-splashed beaches of Orange County. Today, Ortega is its own attraction, luring drivers and motorcyclists out for a weekend joy ride.

Along the way: Several trails on the route can turn this drive into a Sunday drive ’n’ hike. Just beyond Orange County’s stucco-housing sprawl, shady oak and sycamore groves dot the unspoiled, chaparral-carpeted hills of Caspers Wilderness Park—an 8,000-acre parcel laced with more than 35 miles of hiking trails. The easiest is the roughly 1-mile Nature Trail Loop, which begins at the Old Corral Picnic Area. Day-use fee, $3 (weekdays); $5 (weekends). 

In the Cleveland National Forest, the popular 2.1-mile San Juan Loop Trail travels through a cool thicket of California live oaks to a cascading San Juan River waterfall. Trailhead parking lot is across from Ortega Oaks Candy Store and Goods, which sells the U.S. Forest Service daily pass ($5) required for trailhead parking. 

Pilot into the parking lot of the Lookout Roadhouse for a bird’s-eye view of Lake Elsinore shimmering some 1,000-feet below. Hungry? The roadside restaurant has a takeout window (weekends only)—grab the must-try filet mignon sandwich and chow down in your car. 

Picnic pointers: Old-timey Ortega Oaks Candy Store and Goods makes to-go sandwiches and the cookies-and-cream brownies of your dreams. About 3 miles north, Hafey Farms Mountain Market also has takeout deli sandwiches. 

Side trip: Break from busy Ortega Highway for a jaunt up lightly trafficked South Main Divide Road. Motoring the road’s first 3 miles along a high ridge in the Elsinore Mountains, you’ll pass a handful of turnouts with outstanding views of Lake Elsinore. From Ortega Highway, turn south on South Main Divide Road. The signed junction is just east of the El Cariso Fire Station and the El Cariso Visitors Center at 32353 Ortega Highway. —Eli Ellison

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Scenic Drive 3. Los Angeles County: Angeles Crest Highway (State Route 2)

Map of Angeles Crest Highway driving route

Length: About 68 miles (one way)

The route: Drive west on Interstate 210 from Pasadena toward La Cañada Flintridge. In about 5 miles, exit at Angeles Crest Highway (SR 2). Turn right and proceed to Wrightwood. A quicker return route: Turn right at the SR 2/SR 138 intersection, proceed to Interstate 15, and head south into greater Los Angeles.

Best time to go: Spring through fall; weekdays to avoid crowds. Snow closes sections of the road in winter, landslides sometimes happen, and red-flag fire warnings can occur in warm weather. As of press-time, the Bobcat Fire, one of the largest in L.A. County’s history, had scorched more than 100,000 acres north of Los Angeles, threatening the Mount Wilson Observatory and other sites mentioned in this story. Fire, rain, landslides, and snowstorms are among the natural forces that continuously threaten this remote environment. Check with Caltrans, the U.S. Forest Service, and the National Weather Service before traveling Angeles Crest Highway.

Mount Wilson Observatory

Mount Wilson Observatory. Photo by Angel Di Bilio / Alamy Stock Photo;

Built between 1929 and 1956, Angeles Crest Highway is a world away from nearby urban environs. It lies within the Angeles National Forest, and immediately upon starting the drive, you’re in the mountains. Even in non-pandemic times, services are sparse and rustic—a few ranger stations, no gas stations, bathrooms with pit toilets, and spotty cell service. 

The draw, though, is its natural wonders: sheer rock walls, pine forests, and spectacular views across mountain ranges to the Mojave Desert and the Los Angeles Basin. The wide, two-lane road is well paved, with big, sweeping turns; it tops out at Dawson Saddle (7,900 feet), 45 miles from the starting point. Picnic areas, trailheads, and pullouts abound, making it easy to stop and take it all in.

Along the way: Fourteen miles from the start, turn right on Mount Wilson Red Box Road.  The Haramokngna American Indian Cultural Center and the Red Box Picnic Area are on the corner. Five miles down the road is the world-famous Mount Wilson Observatory, home to numerous telescopes, solar towers, a museum, and the Cosmic Café. Other places to eat include the Grizzly Café in Wrightwood. —John Lehrer

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