I often thought that being a meteorologist in San Diego would be among the easiest jobs on the planet, since I’ve never witnessed the temperature go below 20 degrees or above 30 and it seems to be sunny every day. But apparently that isn’t always so. After experiencing a long drought leading to the institution of conservation measures enforced by “Water Police”, the area has been receiving record-breaking rainfall to the point of flooding. Just my luck since I had booked a motorcycle trip to the area months before.
When most people think of San Diego, they often envision the great surfing, yoga, the Pacific Coast Highway, the USS Midway or the world famous San Diego zoo. That’s more than enough to fill a weekend, but there is much more to discover in and around the San Diego County area whether you stay in the city or use it as a hub.
Traveling from east to west meant I gained three hours and had much of the day to spend downtown. It was then that my ‘no rain’ theory was proven incorrect.
I headed to The Cosmopolitan Hotel in Old Town where I would be staying for the evening to get settled before picking up the bike. Constructed in 1827, the original home owned by pioneer Juan Bandini is the second oldest building in Old Town and among the oldest in San Diego County. Featuring antique décor, employees wearing period correct clothing and an operating saloon, I don’t know if I have ever stayed in a more unique or historic place. The Cosmopolitan is a restored 1870s-era hotel that resides in the heart of Old Town San Diego State Historic Park, which feels like being on the set of a classic western film. San Diego’s first “downtown”, the area consists of preserved buildings and a historic plaza along with reconstructed sites and early 20th century buildings, representing San Diego’s Hispanic heritage from 1821 to 1872.
The Fiesta de Reyes plaza offers daily entertainment, folklorico dancing, art, crafts, food and drink, including a shop called Jerky & Root Beer. Unsurprisingly they sell only two things. I’ll let you guess what they are. Across the street is an authentic Mexican culinary experience called Casa Guadalajara, complete with guitarists that serenade you while you eat great food and drink fresh lime margaritas. It was lined up out the door on a random Tuesday in January, so make reservations.
I’ve been to San Diego several times but it wasn’t until I left the typical chain hotels and restaurants that I truly appreciated the convergence of culture. Discovered by explorers in 1542, the area was ruled by Spain and Mexico before the onslaught of European settlers, becoming part of the US in 1848 and the State of California in 1850. Think of it as Americana meets mariachi. While the Europeans will take credit for discovering the area, archeological records show that the Kumeyaay people pre-date them by some 10,000 years. A semi-nomadic society, they moved with the seasons to follow the migration patterns of animals and availability of plants they consumed.
Not only is San Diego County an area represented by various unique cultures, but also the convergence of three distinct geographical regions – oceanfront, mountains and desert. Temperatures can change quickly and significantly based on elevation as I discovered by leaving the city limits on Highway 8 aboard a 2015 Harley-Davidson Road Glide. As the road curved tighter and its grading increased, the mercury conversely dropped into the single digits.
Approaching Cuyamaca Rancho State Park on Highway 79, the first sign of snow appeared. I specifically flew to southern California to avoid snow and here I was riding straight into it while there was a Spring-like thaw back home. I can’t recall witnessing children tobogganing while on a motorcycle trip before but they looked at me like I was certifiably nuts. The benefit to traveling prior to high season means reduced rates and tourist traffic, the potential downside however is that weather can be a gamble. Being a hearty Canadian, I simply put on more layers and continued on my merry way towards the town of Julian.
Once boasting the densest population in the State after a miner named Michael Julian struck gold in 1869, the town of Julian was home to over 200 working mines and was allegedly considered to be the State capital at one time. Located in remote and rocky terrain, equipment for hard rock mining was brought to the coast by steamship then into the mountains by horse-drawn carriage. If you are remotely interested in history, the hour-long tour of the historic Eagle and High Peak Gold Mines is well worth your time. Ducking through a series of intricate tunnels and shafts, guides share details of the mines’ rudimentary operation and ultimate demise due to the value of gold and more cost effective methods of mining it.
Located in the picturesque Cuyamaca Mountains, Julian’s main street consists of quaint Victorian and Old West architecture featuring general stores, restaurants, crafts, antique and coffee shops. After taking in the mine tour, I grabbed lunch at the Julian Café which is famous for their comfort food, particularly the homemade apple pie and after trying it I can understand why.
I then stopped in at the Nickel Beer Co. to grab a couple small growlers of their delicious local craft beer to take back to the Orchard Hill Country Inn with me. The AAA Four Diamond hilltop oasis features 12 cottage rooms in the main chalet and 10 private lodges. Owner Pat Straube admits that her and her husband could have settled anywhere in the world when they retired but they chose to put down roots here. “There are 16 native tribes in this area – people who have a special connection to the land,” she explained while showing me around the grounds, “I think that’s part of the reason it feels so relaxing and tranquil. You can’t be stressed here.” There are some great food options in the area, including Jeremy’s on the Hill which came highly recommended. Specializing in farm-to-table cuisine prepared by Cordon Bleu chef Jeremy Manley, seasonal menus are made from fresh, local ingredients.
The next morning, I awoke to bright blue skies relaxed and well rested to begin my journey to Borrego Springs which started by negotiating black ice and single digit temps but ended up at the Palm Canyon Resort surrounded by cacti and palm trees. If you happen to be traveling through the area in the off-season I recommend packing layers.
Approaching the edge of the mountain range, riders will enjoy miles and miles of smooth, uninhabited highway where each turn is different from the last. Before descending into the 650,000 acre Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, a pull off at an elevation of 2,300 feet provides a view as far as the Sultan Sea that must be experienced to comprehend its grandeur. As the temperature rose during the winding descent into the desert, the snow melted and the sweet scent of desert fauna and wildflowers wafted through my helmet as I approached the Palm Canyon Hotel and RV Park. While the term ‘RV Park’ may scare off some people, I would urge anyone traveling through the area to stay here. Visitors can stay in clean, comfortable and well appointed western-themed hotel rooms, hook up their own RV or sleep in a classic refurbished Airstream trailer under the clear desert sky. Surrounded by the vast and lightless Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, I learned that Borrego Springs is the only certified Dark Sky Community in the State and was designated by USA Today as one of the Top 10 stargazing locations in the country. When the sun goes down you’ll understand why.
Upon checking into the hotel, a gentleman in front of me wearing a Harley-Davidson t-shirt noticed my HD riding jacket and asked where I was coming from. I told him I had ridden from San Diego but hailed from Toronto. He responded by saying that he and his partner were from Calgary, Alberta at which time she turned to ask, “Are you Dustin Woods?” I was shocked to find that it was Diane Wild, former owner of Calgary Harley-Davidson who had rented Dan and I our bikes for the ride through the Rockies last summer. The term “It’s a small world” doesn’t begin to cover it. As it turns out, Wayne and Diane had trailered their Harleys down behind their RV for a week of rest, relaxation and riding. It also turns out that we had the same agenda for the following day, exploring the area and tracking down the various pieces of Galleta Meadows’ Sky Art, a series of giant metallic sculptures. The massive and incredibly detailed dinosaurs, raptors, mammoths, elephants, camels, wild stallions and a 350-foot Chinese dragon provide something of a scavenger hunt through the area.
Following that I took a tour of the Anza-Borrego State Park with California Overland Desert Excursions who have a number of Jeeps and eclectic Army vehicles capable of traversing the thankless terrain known as The Badlands – a generic term used to describe an area on early maps where there is no water, food source or shade. Despite this there are many plants and animals that call the area home. We explored mud caves and a scenic lookout called Vista del Malpais overlooking one of the most prolific archaeological sites in the world. Thanks to the ocean receding hundreds of millions of years ago, countless dinosaurs, mastodons and prehistoric animals have been uncovered here. Following this educational and engaging tour, I met up with Wayne and Diane and rode to the Red Ocotillo Restaurant where friendly staff served us up some delicious American comfort food.
After saying our goodbyes the next morning, I returned shortly after upon discovering that the shifter on the Road Glide had stopped working leaving me with only first gear. Thankfully Wayne had the tools and the knowhow to quickly diagnose and fix the problem to get me back on my way, otherwise I might still be there now. It made me even more thankful to run into a couple of friendly Canadians while traveling abroad solo through secluded, unforgiving landscapes.
Following the brief delay, I once again enjoyed the beautiful winding roads of the area, including what is known as the Palomar Mountain Loop en route to the lavish Rancho Bernardo Inn and Spa in San Diego. Parking the Harley among Cadillacs, Mercedes’ and BMWs, I felt slightly out of place in jeans and motorcycle boots while enjoying a beverage, a book and a beautiful sunset on the patio overlooking the golf course. Isolated from the hustle and bustle of the city, I raised a glass of wine while enjoying an exceptional meal at their Avant restaurant to wrap up a trip that was not without its trials and triumphs.
Travelling by motorcycle through remote areas opens you up to obstacles like unpredictable weather or mechanical issues, but how you handle them will determine whether they become a mere setback or a debilitating roadblock. Taking a chance by exploring off the beaten path can create some challenges, but it can also lead to some of the best experiences.
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