Road trip, day three: Julian, the Laguna Mountains and Ocean Beach

Wanting to see what lies inland and down the back roads, I headed south down the “Palms to Pines Highway” – Highway 74. This turned out to be a lucky choice. After leaving Palm Springs (and passing the BigHorn gated community, as seen on TV, en-route) the road becomes a crazy, winding pass up into the mountains. Having put the roof down and dressed for the valley heat, I nearly froze to death, even with the heaters blasting hot air on my hands. It was worth it, though – at the top there’s a vista point that overlooks the entire valley.

Highway 74

Over the mountain and down the other side, and the mountains give way to huge, unbroken plains. This is what I imagined US highways to look like, and driving them in what is essentially a turbocharged shoebox with no lid is almost ludicrously fun. After an hour or so later, past yet another Indian casino and dozens of farms selling Cider and apples, I found Julian, CA.

Miner's Diner, Julian, CA

Julian was, once upon a time, a gold mining town. Now it’s a tourist trap: after hours of driving on almost deserted roads I was shocked to find that parking was difficult, as dozens of families from San Diego and LA had swarmed into town for a day out. The main street is preserved in a kind of ersatz frontier style, and there are gift shops everywhere. I had breakfast in the Miner’s Diner, which was either preserved or dressed up (again, I’m not sure which) as a 1950s soda fountain, then made a sharp exit.

This is what roads should look like

Heading south again I decided that you can’t drive past a turning called “Sunrise Highway” without taking it, and headed up into the Laguna mountains. I figured I had plenty of time to get to San Diego, and with a GPS in the car I couldn’t really go too far wrong or get too lost – the magic box would take me to my target motel. And so, brilliantly, an hour or so into the mountains the GPS blinked and died. Nonetheless, the mountains and forest were beautiful. At the top is the Laguna Mountain Lodge, with a great general store and an information centre.

Laguna Mountain Lodge

Now GPS-less, I set off into San Diego. The highway map becomes useless in the city, which is a blob of roads, and the Lonely Planet maps aren’t really designed for driving, but somehow – with instructions scrawled on the back of my hand – I made it down the I-8 into the city and on to Ocean Beach without a single detour. And, just like Palm Springs, Ocean Beach was in full party mode – this time for Oktoberfest, with beer and sausage everywhere.

Ocean Beach Pier

Ocean Beach appears to be San Diego’s bohemian quarter – it’s full of bong shops, tattoo parlours and bars. By day it’s pleasant, with a long beach and a pier to stroll down, but on a Saturday night after an all-day beer festival it becomes crazy. By 7.30 everyone was drunk or getting there, the revellers had attracted an army of tramps scrounging cash and hurling random menaces (“you don’t want to see me angry, mister”) and the world’s least subtle drug dealers were working the street corners.

I stayed at the Ocean Villa Inn – San Diego’s premier (and, I suspect, only) dog hotel. All the downstairs rooms were packed full of parties with pooches, but upstairs the rooms have a view over San Diego’s Dog Beach (canine friendly, hence the hotel policy). If you have a dog, I’d recommend it. If you don’t, it’s fine. Oh, and I finally found one of those motel ice machines that go kachunka-chunka-chunk. Happy days.

Things advertised on local TV in Ocean Beach:

  • Suspect-sounding weight loss treatments
  • “Laser Televisions”. What the fuck? Some sort of DLP.
  • Burger King. This is actually my favourite US advert: man dressed as burger goes to Wendy’s Drive Thru, and asks for Whopper. When offered a baked potato he asks, incredulously, “A baked potato? What, are we in Russia?”

Sunset, San Diego

And that was it – with all three days up, it was time to head for the airport on Sunday morning. So, all in all, what did I learn? A whole bunch of stuff, in no particular order:

  • Californians are the friendliest people on earth
  • Being British/a Londoner/a twat I find this uncomfortable bordering on scary
  • The Californian coast, deserts, mountains and plains are all stunning
  • GPS is good, but maps are vital
  • Always accept the collision damage waiver
  • Mexican food. Mexican food. More mexican food. Mmm.
  • Buying $10 of petrol with a debit card will result in the seller putting a $75 hold on that card
  • Doing the aforementioned four times will get your card stopped (gee, thanks, Natwest)
  • You really need a car to get around in California – even in the cities
  • Seeing California this way is relatively cheap, and massively enjoyable. If you get a chance, do it.

PS – as predicted, I took a gazillion photos. All the better ones are on Flickr, here.