There are two kinds of riders: those who have ridden in California, and those who want to. When it comes to scenic motorcycle roads, the land of ‘Pac and GTA serves up endless options. Cali has everything – mountains, oceans, snow, and sand – and it’s not hard to see three of them in a single day. And if you follow these roads, starting and ending your journey in San Diego, you may even see all four.
Since these roads are only about 50 miles each, taken alone they would all be perfect for a rider on a tight schedule. But if you want a truly epic ride, string all five together for a comprehensive tour of the best motorcycle roads near San Diego. You’ll never be more than 70 miles from the city, but it’ll feel like another world.
Just so you know, we’d hate to describe a road like it’s the Second Coming only for you to get there and be underwhelmed. So instead of getting super fancy, we’ll stick to the facts. For starters all these roads are paved, so you can leave your ADV bike at home.
1 of 5
Location: East of San Diego
Length: About 50 miles
Route: Leave San Diego on Highway 94 outside of La Mesa. You’ll be a quarter-mile from the Mexico border near Canyon City, and about a mile from the Mexican town of Tecate at the junction with Route 188. If you’re in a pinch to get home at the end, Interstate 8 offers great views and a more relaxed ride. Or use I8 to reach the next road on our list, Lyons Valley Road.
Surface: Most of 94 is said to be in great shape today, something that’s not often found in rural California. The surface is cambered and banked in several places, helping you become one with the rolling desert hills.
Scenery: Much of Highway 94 passes through the region’s unmistakable dry creek beds, and you can spot the remnants of previous fire activity if you keep your eyes peeled. You’ll be flanked by high ridges for a long stretch near Barrett Junction which provide some thrills but fall short of inducing vertigo.
Preparations: Shade and water are hard to come by, so consider packing both especially if you’re on a sketchy machine. Heavy traffic goes toward San Diego in the morning and away in the afternoon. If your schedule allows, try to ride the opposite ways at the opposite times. Cell reception may be spotty. Gas is mostly at the beginning or the end.
2 of 5
Lyons Valley Road
Location: East of Chula Vista
Length: About 30 miles
Route: An alternate way to arrive near the start of Road 3, or a great loop when paired with Road 2.
Head east on Otay Lake Road at the Otay Reservoir east of Chula Vista. Enjoy serene views of Lower Otay Lake before passing the San Ysidro Mountains on your way to the junction at Highway 94. Go left on 94, then right on Honey Springs Road until you reach Lyons Valley Road. Pass multi-million-dollar homes and the Lyons Valley Trading Post before climbing nearly 4,000 feet to reach Interstate 8 near Alpine. Continue north on 79 or take I8 to either Highway 94 or San Diego proper or go right to reach Road 3.
For a curvier way to reach Lyons Valley Road from 94, stay on 94 until you reach Jamul, then turn right on Lyons Valley Road.
If you’re turning onto this route from the north at Interstate 8, Lyons Valley Road is labeled Japatul Valley Road.
Surface: Twisties and sweepers abound. Some of the route is residential, so use caution as houses and traffic can be accompanied by a lower surface quality.
Scenery: A placid reservoir, high-income housing, rural ranchland, and a mountain. Low desert and high desert surroundings with some high-altitude views of the countryside.
Preparations: Cell reception is good, but as with any desert route be sure to pack extra food and water in case you need to call a tow. If you continue north toward Julian, it’s not uncommon to encounter snow in the winter. Be on the lookout for wildlife as you reach higher altitudes. Gas is at the end.
3 of 5
Sunrise Scenic Byway
Location: Mt. Laguna, CA
Length: About 25 miles
Route: If you’ve done either Lyons Valley Road or Highway 94 and you have some extra time on your hands, this loop adds about an hour. If you’re headed straight here from San Diego, total round-trip ride time is about 2 hours. Access this road from its southern terminus at Interstate 8 or from its northern end at Highway 79. Road 4 lies to the north on 79.
Built in the 1920s, the Sunrise Scenic Byway cuts through a national forest in the beautiful Laguna Mountains. You’ll climb more than 2000 feet as you ride toward the summit near the Desert View Picnic Site, weaving through eons-old rocky peaks and dry creek beds. As you ride you’ll catch glimpses of the Anza-Borrego Desert nearly 5,000 feet below.
Surface: As a National Scenic Byway, the Sunrise Highway is maintained better than other roads in the area. Rock slides aren’t uncommon, so be on the lookout for fallen debris that’s made its way onto the road surface.
Scenery: Desert flora, fauna, and rock formations abound. In the winter, these peaks will have inches of snowfall while the surrounding areas remain parched, creating an otherworldly juxtaposition.
Preparations: Services can be found near either end of the road. The road itself has no gas, so be sure you’ve got enough juice left for 50 miles. Bicyclists frequent this stretch, so be sure to share the road.
Road 4 of 5
Hellhole Palms Loop
Location: Scissors Crossing, CA
Length: About 50 miles
Route: Following Highway 79 North from Road 3 leads to a town called Julian. A quick jaunt down a steep and curvy road called the Banner Grade puts you in Scissors Crossing, which lies at the southernmost point of this loop. The whole loop should take about an hour on a motorcycle.
From Scissors Crossing, take 78 East. Turn left onto Yaqui Pass Road and follow it to Borrego Springs. You’ll know you’ve arrived when you come to the large roundabout in the center of town. Take the Palm Canyon Drive exit and watch for Montezuma Valley Road on the left at the edge of town. You’ll know you went too far if you end up in the parking lot of a State Park Visitor Center.
Montezuma Valley Road eventually intersects with San Felipe Road – go left to complete the loop or go right to venture into the vast basin that once was Lake Henshaw on your way to Road 5.
Surface: The overall condition is fair. Though there are some local resorts and RV parks, some of this route is cetainly less traveled. Be on the lookout for potholes and desert creatures. Several miles of densely-packed twists and turns are just outside Borrego Springs.
Scenery: You’re surrounded by desert. Exposed rock mountains, ancient lake beds, and sandy washes abound. Watch for “scenic overlook” signs to catch the best views or check out the hiking trails which offer incredible views not unlike those of Death Valley.
Much of the ride sweeps through the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, the largest state park in California. The community of Hellhole Palms, a popular hiking destination and site of an elderly grove of California fan palm trees, lies at the rugged southern tip of the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument.
Preparations: The usual desert fare: food, water, and shade. Borrego Springs has services. Cell reception may be spotty.
Road 5 of 5
Palomar Mountain Loop
Location: Rincon, CA
Length: About 50 miles
Route: As is customary, we’ve saved the best for last. It’s not only the most technical stretch of road in California, it’s one of the curviest roads in the entire United States.
From Road 4, take a right onto San Felipe Road and follow it to Highway 79. Follow 79 to 76 and make a right, and you’ll end up at the red pin above near the shores of Lake Henshaw. From there, turn right onto East Grade Road and prepare for more corners than you’ve ever seen.
East Grade Road reaches an intersection in the small town of Palomar Mountain. Head north on South Grade Road to venture into that green area where the Palomar Observatory resides; follow South Grade Road to the south or State Park Road to the west to eventually end up back at Highway 76.
For the finale, take 76 North to Interstate 15. You’ll be back to civilization surprisingly quick and back in San Diego in about 50 miles.
Surface: Banked. Cambered. Smooth. 3,000 feet of sheer climbs. This place is a rider’s paradise!
Scenery: Peer down on Highway 79 from thousands of feet above, as you ascend from the sparse desert basin to thick evergreen forests. Are the views better going up or down? We’ll leave that up to you.
Preparations: Take it slow your first time. Watch for decreasing radius turns, hairpins, and RVs going Victorian speeds. This is a dangerous stretch of road, and medical help could take hours to arrive. Watch for snow in the winter. Cell reception may be sparse. The nearest gas is at Pala Vista Gas Station in Valley Center, about 10 miles away down Cole Grade Road.