It's been a while, but believe it or not, the Mini is still alive and well.
When people think Southern California, they think beaches, traffic and Scientologists, but drive about an hour or two east into the mountains and you’ll find some pretty outstanding roads and some stunning scenery.
It’s been forever since I’ve done an update on the Mini, but I have a pretty good excuse: I’ve been working from home for the past year and a half or so, meaning it only gets driven to the grocery store or to hang out with friends. In other words, nothing worth sharing on these pages. I seriously only fill up about once a month, if that.
As great as it has been not paying through the nose for gas and not cursing my clutch pedal in rush-hour traffic, I had the urge to go for a drive. First stop: Palomar Mountain.
The climb up Palomar Mountain’s South Grade Road is hairpin heaven, and it’s a drive I’m familiar with. The top of the mountain is about 5000 ft. above sea level and it’s also where you’ll find Hale Observatory, which houses a gigantic 200-inch telescope.
Last time I left Palomar Mountain, I went back down the same way I went up (and fried my brakes in the process), but this time I took East Grade Road towards Julian, which turned out to be the best part of the trip. East Grade was just as much fun and far less busy. Above is a pull-off area, where I found a memorial to a fallen fire fighter.
At the bottom of the East face of the mountain, I found myself in one of the most pristine meadows I’ve ever scene near Lake Henshaw, with acres of green grass and craggy rock outcroppings. If Bambi where a live-action movie, this is where it would be shot, er... filmed (someone just needs to figure out the whole talking deer thing).
About the only thing near Lake Henshaw was a fine establishment called The Hideout Saloon, which despite the 'closed' sign was very much open. It seemed like a popular spot for bikers, but at least one of the claims on their sign seemed a little dubious. It's didn't seem like the sort of place I wanted to go into alone (you really don't feel cool pulling up to a biker bar in a Mini), so I pressed on towards Julian.
Julian is small historic town that's probably best known for its apples and apple pie. You’ll also find several bed and breakfasts, quaint shops and rental cabins. It’s only about an hour away from San Diego, but it’s high enough that it gets about 22 inches of snow each year.
After leaving Julian, I assumed the drive back towards I-8 would be a dull one on flat, two-lane roads, but I was glad to be wrong. The route took me on even more fantastic roads through stunning scenery through Cuyamaca Rancho State Park and Cleveland National Forest. Google Maps told me there was supposed to be lake where I shot the picture above, which is a little alarming considering current water situation in Southern California.
Finally, if you're ever in the area and want to drive this loop, I’ve recreated it below. The trip time is about three hours at a leisurely pace.