Classic Roads: Carving California’s Highway 74

Aug 01, 2016 View Comments by

California Highway 74

Most visitors to Palm Springs are there for the climate and the golf. But the roads around the desert hideaway are some of America’s most remarkable. If you’re in the area without one, rent or borrow a motorcycle to enjoy the sweet curves, high desert landscape, and mountain views of the Palms to Pines Highway. Then continue on the Ortega Highway through the Santa Ana Mountains to San Juan Capistrano, via Lake Elsinore. Highway 74 turns south, rising from Highway 111 in Palm Desert, 15 miles southeast of Palm Springs, and snakes wildly across the face of the San Jacinto Mountains in a series of blissful sweepers and smooth turns. Semitrailers are not recommended—which is a blessing!

Pull into the Palm Desert overlook to enjoy magnificent views across the Coachella Valley, which are even more spectacular at dusk. Spinning past the Santa Rosa Mountains, 74 winds around rocky, undulating terrain before exiting into broad, flat Paradise Valley.

From 4,500-foot Mountain Center, 74 begins a riotous descent on fresh tarmac and fast, open curves into the suburban sprawl of Hemet in the Diamond Valley. Take a good map as well as your GPS unit.

Outside Perris, changing its name to Ortega Highway, 74 drifts along open country to edge past Lake Elsinore before beginning the switchback climb into the Santa Ana Mountains. There are glorious views across the lake from the highway, which spirals into the cooling shadows of the Ronald W. Caspers Wilderness Park before emerging into farm and ranchland, drifting down through the coastal hills. The Ortega Highway and 74 terminate at the Interstate 5 intersection in San Juan Capistrano, 124 miles from Palm Desert.

Ride 74 in spring or fall; daytime temperatures in the valley can hit above 100 degrees in summer, and in winter higher elevations may well be snow-covered.

Points of Interest:

1. Paradise Valley Cafe: At the intersection of Highways 74 and 371 in Paradise Valley is this eponymous restaurant, a favorite breakfast-and-coffee stop for early-rising riders and drivers. The restaurant exudes old-fashioned rustic charm, but the menu is creative and the food appetizing.

2. Idyllwild: Turn right at Mountain Center and ride five miles of twisty tarmac to the charming 5,400-foot mountain resort of Idyllwild, designated one of 100 Best Small Art Towns in America, and voted the “Best Mountain Getaway” by LA Weekly. Outdoor activities include rock climbing, hiking, and mountain biking.

3. Orange Empire Railway Museum: Pause in Perris to visit the Orange Empire Railway Museum. The OERM is open 363 days a year and features more than 200 historic railroad cars and locomotives on its 90-acre site. Train rides run every weekend.

4. Lake Elsinore: For many years home to the Lake Elsinore Grand Prix, a long-distance dirt bike race featured in the movie On Any Sunday, and a favorite of off-road legends Malcolm Smith and Steve McQueen. Honda even named its first two-stroke dirt bike the Elsinore in its honor. The natural freshwater lake also offers plenty of opportunity for recreation.

5. Lookout Roadhouse: On the ridge above Lake Elsinore is the Lookout Roadhouse, offering a great view of the lake. There’s a large parking lot that lets you get really close to the edge (with carefully placed boulders to prevent rollaways), and the cafe has its own style.

6. Hells Kitchen: Just two miles farther west along the Ortega Highway from the Lookout Roadhouse is Hells Kitchen, a self-described motorsport restaurant with lots of attitude: “We’ll try to pretend we care!” they say. The menu features beer and burgers, and the decor is “hellish.”

7. Mission San Juan Capistrano: The grounds of the mission feature a chapel (Serra Chapel) said to be the oldest building in California still in regular use. It was built in 1782, just six years after the mission was established. Named for Italian theologian Giovanni da Capestrano, the mission claims to have baptized 4,639 people between 1776 and 1847.


Text: Robert Smith

Tours, tankbag maps, tips, and more: subscribe to RoadRUNNER today!

Tags: , , , , , Categories: Destinations