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Sometimes the best places in life are right in your own backyard. Situated on the southernmost tip of the Golden State, “America’s Finest City” is a quick motorcycle ride away for most Southern Californians. It’s a coastal playground that encompasses the best of SoCal: Miles of gleaming sand in playful beach enclaves, a bustling downtown quarter that’s both modern and classic and a multitude of tempting attractions so diverse that choosing among them is enough to make your head spin. All of this surrounded by miles of country backroads, national forests and historic towns makes San Diego a great touring destination.
The adventure begins at the controls of a Harley-Davidson
Road Glide Custom - a heavyweight cruiser that combines old-school cool with a modern twist. Proponents of current motorbike ingenuity will be pleased to know that it harnesses a fuel-injected V-Twin engine and ABS-equipped disc brakes. It also features convenient electronics including cruise control and a MP3-compatible stereo. Traditionalists will love its timeless styling cues highlighted by its stretched 1950s-era front fairing, chrome pipes and slammed rear end. Slathered in lustrous fire engine-red paint, it embodies the essence of a classic hot rod.
You can’t think of California without dreaming of the beach, and San Diego offers some of the best. Whether you’re looking to catch a wave, explore what’s underneath the water’s surface, or just work on your tan, the choices are endless. As are the many coastal hideaways including Cardiff-by-the-Sea and Del Mar, but it’s the upscale community of La Jolla that really gets our attention.
Soaking up the California sunshine in La Jolla aboard Harley-Davidson’s Road Glide Custom.
Nestled between the famous Torrey Pines Golf Course to the north and the laid-back party-all-the-time scene of Pacific Beach, La Jolla is a city within a city. It’s got more than its fair share of shops and restaurants that cater to affluent tastes. But the real gem is its coastline. Here you’ll see beach-goers of all ages thrashing about the sand while steady sets of frothy waves crash on shore. Take it all in atop one of the many perfectly manicured parks before heading down to the sand to try it first-hand.
One of the preferred spots is La Jolla Cove – a natural crescent-shaped lagoon tucked in a wall of rock underneath Scripps Park. While it isn’t necessarily the area’s biggest beach, it’s worth taking a look as the water here on a nice day is clear and rich with aquatic life, making it one of the better places to snorkel or dive. Motoring further down the coast reveals plenty of additional chances to play in the sun as you pass through a seemingly endless collection of stunning seaside vantage points. One could easily burn up an entire day or even two trying to explore all of them.
In spite of the cool breezes blowing off the Pacific water, the sun beats down powerfully, especially on a clear day. So when it’s time for a reprieve we recommend pulling alongside any one of the many bars and eateries that line Mission Blvd. in Pacific Beach. The scene here can best be surmised as stereotypical California, the kind of setting the Beach Boys crooned about back in the day. Chicks in tiny bikinis, surfer boys chasing after them, you know the drill…
During any season other than winter, a constant stream of barely clothed foot, pedal, and skateboard traffic engulfs the streets. There are more bars, restaurants and tattoo joints than imaginable. This background stretches all the way south to Mission Beach’s Belmont Park, a beachside amusement park complete with rollercoaster rides, shops and, you guessed it – more bars!
Taking a ride over to the historic old town district will yield some amazing classic architecture and a look back in to the history of San Diego.
Back on the road, more incredible views await as you loop south through Mission Bay. A tall bridge sends you over twin bays which during the warm summer months explode with activity, from sail boats in the west to Jet Skis and powerboats in the east. Crossing back onto land, SeaWorld is just ahead, one of the country’s largest aquatic theme parks and a must-see regardless of age or killer whale phobias.
Additional attractions lie ahead as you approach the historic Old Town district. This neighborhood is an absolute tourist Mecca and a great place to score some souvenirs or to sample some of the area’s finest Mexican fare. It’s also the oldest part of San Diego and the site of the first Spanish settlement in California, 241 years ago. Since then, it has been deemed the Old Town San Diego State Historic Park. Although the original fort built by the Spaniards lies in ruins, a private park was erected in order to better preserve the site. Currently a collection of buildings from the 1800s are open for tours for a glimpse of what life before the advent of some of the finer things in life: Like this Road Glide Custom I’m piloting.
Lindbergh Field, San Diego’s international airport, lies just on the other side of Old Town. It is named after famous aviator Charles Lindbergh who used his San Diegan-designed and built single engine Spirit of St. Louis aircraft to fly non-stop from New York to France in the spring of 1927. Lindbergh Field is unique in the fact that the runway actually lies below downtown. This makes for a peculiar sight when you see approaching airliners barely skimming over the rooftops as they come in on final approach. On a clear day, the view as you pass by the airport is spectacular. The soaring skyline of the city looms ahead and is flanked by Coronado Island and its gigantic ocean vessels, including the retired USS Midway.
The USS Midway is one of San Diego's attractions definitely worth putting on your list to visit. It's 1000-foot-long deck includes 25 different aircraft including an F-14 similar to the one Tom Cruise made famous in the movie Top Gun. Open every day.
Built during World War II, the USS Midway (CV-41) aircraft carrier was an active component of our nation’s naval fleet during the Vietnam and Desert Storm I conflicts. Since then it has been transformed into an authentic naval museum permanently parked in Navy Pier adjacent to the skyscrapers. This gigantic floating runway stretches nearly 1000 feet, is 136 feet at its widest part and displaces nearly 70,000 tons of water! The museum is open seven days a week and for a nominal fee folks can get a glimpse of what it was like to be stationed inside its fortress-like walls. Multiple exhibits enhance the experience, with 25 restored aircraft on display including an F-14 Tomcat fighter jet like the one piloted by Maverick and Goose in Top Gun. You can actually climb in some of the helicopters for an even more intimate experience.
Part of the allure of downtown is the mind-boggling number of things to experience within such a small radius. You can catch a baseball game outside at the recently erected Petco Park, check out some culture in one of the city’s many museums, wander the streets of Little Italy or stumble through the pubs in the Gaslamp Quarter. Balboa Park and the San Diego Zoo are also in close proximity.
The city remains just as busy at night with many popular clubs and restaurants to choose from.
After the sun sets the Gaslamp neighborhood comes alive. Its nearly 17-block-long stretch offers the highest concentration of restaurants, bars, and hotels anywhere in the city. The majority of the structures have been certified as historic, all being carefully restored to their original condition. In consideration of America’s cultural melting pot, the buildings differ in terms of architectural design with Victorian, Spanish and Italian Baroque influences all present.
The Road Ahead
Heeding the lure of San Diego County’s appealing, expansive network of twisty blacktop, it is time to pound pavement. I head east on the 94 freeway happy to be enjoying a reprieve from the incessant stoplights that are always slowing me down. It isn’t long before the gray hues of concrete give way to green earth. A solid winter of rain has altered the landscape to that of a forest typical of something you’d see on the East Coast. It’s crazy to think how just a few months of precipitation can bring such life out this normally stagnant dirt. Although I could easily continue on this stretch of tarmac, just past the peculiarly named town of Dulzura and its awesome collection of back roads, I veer to the north at the intersection of Lyons Valley Road, excited to explore a different route.
A variety of curves greet me as I enter the expansive Cleveland National Forest. Although the temperature was in the low-70s along the coast it has dropped a fair amount as I crest the 2500 foot elevation sign. Most of the bends here are well within the performance capabilities of the Harley. Even at my pace it’s rare to touch down any hard parts and the road is smooth which doesn’t tax its suspension either.
During the week, you'll pretty much have the roads to yourself, but the weekends are a different story as San Diego county is a popular touring destination.
Arrays of purple and yellow wildflowers are liberally sprinkled along either side of the road. I pass beneath Interstate 8, the main east-west artery that connects San Diego to Phoenix. Heading north toward Julian I pin the throttle and watch the flower-filled scene disappear in my mirrors.
It never ceases to amaze me how in less than an hour-long ride from downtown you can be in such a vastly different environment. The city’s Beemers and Bentleys have been replaced by well-used American pickup trucks - ones made from genuine steel opposed to the eco-friendly plastic toys made today. Most are driven by older folks, probably farmers, signaling the transition to the rural side of San Diego. It feels so different that it’s hard to believe you’re even in the same part of the country. But that’s the beauty of places like California. It offers anything and everything a person may desire, with the only real downside being the ridiculous amount of rush hour traffic if you live in the city and the increased cost of living.
As I climb toward Lake Cuyamaca, the road starts to crisscross like a two-year-old’s Crayon scribbles on a wall. One of the things I really appreciate about the Road Glide, as well as Harley’s entire touring line-up, is how agile it feels for an 800-lb. motorcycle. Its V-Twin engine delivers a surprisingly robust spread of torque that allows it to be ridden at an energetic pace without keeping the revs too high. Traffic on Highway 79 is few and far between, but when you’re cruising at speed you’ll quickly ride up on one of those aforementioned leisurely driving farmers.
After waiting patiently for a passing opportunity to present itself I am faced with a dilemma, maintain my pace or motor by the farmer. I opt for the later. Not being familiar with the road, I miscalculate my passing maneuver and make a sling-shot pass on him only to be surprised by the entrance to a 30-mph corner!
Normally this would be panic time. I’d be lying if I said I thought I had everything under control. I dip the bike over hard to the left, hard parts dragging and signaling the max angle of lean. With real estate quickly running out I get on the brakes gradually yet firmly. The ABS system pulsates through both brake levers, but it slows at max lean and I am able to finish the corner. Chalk one up to Harley’s well-sorted chassis.
Within minutes from the heart of San Diego you will find miles of backroads connecting you to places like Julian (famous for their apple pies), Lake Cuyama and Palomar Mountain.
The air reeks of fresh pine as I reach Julian. This quaint mountain town is like something out of the pages of a Norman Rockwell illustration. During the week the town is pretty quiet but on weekends it’s packed with folks looking to escape the city grind. A slender main street cuts through the middle separating the modest-looking tourist friendly shops. Perhaps the biggest thing Julian is renowned for is its fresh apple pies. Although there are a few restaurants to feed your sweet tooth, my favorite is Mom’s Pie Shop. Make sure to taste the Apple Crumb topped with a scoop of cinnamon ice cream, and wash it down with some hot apple cider. It certainly doesn’t disappoint.
Leaving Julian you can point your motorcycle in any direction and attack scores of great roads. But for Southern Cal it simply doesn’t get any better than Palomar Mountain. Continue north on Highway 79 until you reach the Mesa Grande Road intersection. It’s easy to miss so make sure to keep your eyes open. The road detours up and over green farmland and is smooth and infrequently travelled which allows you to bump up the speed. After a short time it links back to Highway 76 right before Lake Henshaw. Follow that for another few miles and you’ll have reached the entrance to Palomar.
Southern California offers some of best blacktop in the U.S. If you’re looking for the ultimate ride destination San Diego should definitely be atop your list.
Within just a few miles the elevation climbs nearly 2000 feet, attributing to the fact that Palomar’s backside is more difficult to navigate than the front. The asphalt sweeps violently to each side and makes sure that you’re always busy at the bars. Hook to the left as you reach the plateau of the mountain and Highway S7. Pause for a moment at one of the many observation points which offer memorable views of the valley. The road straightens allowing for a brief reprieve from having to hustle at the controls. Worry not, though, because soon enough you’ll be busy as you drop back down the front side linking back up with Highway 76, which is a straight shot to the freeway and back down to San Diego.
Visiting San Diego proves that you don’t need to circle 10,000 miles around the globe to be somewhere special. Where else can you wake up to catch Pacific Beach’s morning waves, fuel up on the freshest fish tacos in La Jolla, then hit some of the most challenging roads around on the backside of Palomar all before sundown? After dark, take advantage of the new life the city takes on in the historic Gaslamp Quarters then hit neo-modern scene at the hip spot of Stingaree. It’s the best of all worlds, and you don’t even need to circumnavigate earth to find it.