California: Digging Up History in San Diego County

Text: Alfonse Palaima • Photography: Tom Riles, Brian Nelson, Alfonse Palaima

Eighty years ago, travelers to the gold rush town of Julian in remote eastern San Diego County had a different tale to tell about getting off the beaten path.

Today, paved roads and the civilized world occupy nearly every mile of the backcountry. Escape isn’t so remote anymore, but it’s much easier on the body and mind. These days, the roads themselves heal us. But there was a time when every road between San Diego and Julian was unpaved, and privately owned and custom-built motor coaches shuttled passengers and cargo over rough terrain to remote hotels. That early conquering of the craggy mountain landscape with those primitive passenger buses was part of the beginning of commercial trucking in America.

Gearheads interested in the building blocks of America’s transportation industry would be wise to put the southwestern corner of the United States on their riding wish list and make their way toward the Motor Transport Museum in Campo, CA. Being two-wheel freaks as well as fans of four-wheeled history, our group of riders sets out on a two-day summertime journey through time to dig up the past. Our trek will take us through the backroads and truck trails of San Diego County in search of an exciting collection of decaying vehicles.

San Diego County is host to California’s second-largest city and has the task of securing part of America’s border from neighboring Mexico and its migrating masses. Despite its portrayal as a line in the sand surrounded by flaming barbed-wire fences and manned by armed soldiers, this borderland is hardly scary. The area’s history goes well beyond the Mexican Cession, Manifest Destiny, and virtual border fences.

Exiting San Diego by Interstate 5 north and Route 52 east towards Santee and Lakeside represents the last we’ll see of the slabs until tomorrow. From there, Wildcat Canyon Road takes us up to Ramona, picking up Route 78 to Santa Ysabel and then Route 79 to the über-winding, sportbike-haven Mesa Grande Road, where we take our lunch overlooking Lake Henshaw. Located along Route 76, the Lake Henshaw Resort is a popular, biker-friendly restaurant that is tastefully capable of feeding our group’s 
hungry stomachs.

Departing the resort, we close the loop, intersecting with Route 79 again and riding back thru Santa Ysabel (with a stop for fuel) toward Julian. Between here and Julian, a left turn onto Wynola Road bypasses Julian and takes us to Route 78 north of the town. From there we continue south into Julian, where a left turn onto Pine Hills Road begins another mixed-pavement and gravel stint through the ashen ruins of a recovering national forest, victim of the 2007 fires.

Connecting again with Route 79 at Lake Cuyamaca, we’re just a few miles from our evening camp in the Green Valley Area Campground within the Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. By late afternoon we’ve ridden nearly 150 miles before setting down the sidestands for the night. From the urban oasis of San Diego to the dusty floor of the Cleveland National Forest, our first day ends with guys full of beer and juicy tri-tips circling around the campfire spinning yarns into the wee hours of the morning.

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For the complete touring article, including facts & information, map(s), and GPS files, please purchase the May/June 2012 back issue.