70 perfect miles

In San Diego County, Highway 94 is a great backroad drive
Laura Randall

Let's make it clear. State Highway 94 is one of the best backroad drives in California: a picturesquely twisting route that runs 70 miles through rural San Diego County, winding past little settlements with names like Dogpatch and Cameron Corners and lined with the kind of attractions that delight travelers.

Spending a day driving through a classic Southern California landscape of chaparral-covered hills and groves of oak trees (especially beautiful beneath winter's cornflower blue skies) may just remind you why you own a car in the first place.

Lemon trees and Airstreams

Our tour of Highway 94 begins near Jamacha Junction, south of El Cajon. It crosses the Sweetwater River, runs past the town of Jamul, twists southeast around 4,000-foot mountains, and runs along the U.S.-Mexico border until it meets Old Highway 80.

Also known as Campo Road, Highway 94 started life as the main stagecoach route between San Diego and Yuma, Arizona. But in the 1920s, when what is now Old Highway 80 was built to meet the demands of commercial freight haulers and cross-country travelers, Highway 94 lost its status as one of the main pathways to the West. Still, remnants of the old days are everywhere, most notably in the road's twists and turns. A few years back, locals had bumper stickers made that read, "pray for me -- i drive highway 94," recalls Roger Challberg, a Campo resident and president of the Mountain Empire Historical Society.

"They didn't have the grading equipment to go through the mountains back then, so they went around them," he explains. "Some of the segments of the old road are still there. Sometimes they wander off into nothing, but you can imagine what it was like to travel those roads by wagons. They're very, very narrow and have a lot of twisty curves."

A good place to start your tour is with a visit to Simpson's Garden-Town Nursery in Jamul, a 25-acre wonderland of avocados, Meyer lemons, junipers, oleanders, and many other kinds of plants. For fun, owners Lee and Cathy Smith have decorated the grounds with bits of Americana such as restored Ford Model Ts, vintage gas pumps, "canned ham" and Airstream trailers, and Burma Shave signs.

"There are maybe a few more vehicles on the road, but it hasn't changed much in 25 years," says Lee, who lives at the nursery property with Cathy and their two sons. "It's the backcountry, but we have everything we want."

From Jamul, Highway 94 begins to turn rural, winding past grassy ranchlands and century-old establishments like the Dulzura Cafe, a tidy diner whose wall decorations are an ode to its roadhouse past: license plates, horse collars, ancient eggbeaters, corn shuckers. About 10 miles beyond is another down-home eatery, the Barrett Junction Cafe & Mercantile, a former dance hall that once served as a key social outlet for residents of Highway 94 towns. Today, the cafe still serves a terrific all-you-can-eat fish fry in a World War II Quonset hut that the owners bought in 1950 and attached to the original building. Although the price has risen from 75 cents to $13, the recipe for the tasty batter hasn't changed in more than 40 years.

Meandering to Campo

Several miles beyond Barrett Junction, you'll come to the turnoff for Tecate, Mexico, which is about 4 miles to the south (expect frequent sightings of U.S. immigration officials). From there, Highway 94 meanders east to Campo.

Hikers know Campo as the southern point of the Pacific Crest Trail, which runs 2,650 miles from here north to the Canadian border. But the little town has a lot more to offer. At the Gaskill Brothers' Stone Store Museum, you will learn the story of the great shoot-out that took place here a century ago, when a gang of Mexican bandits showed up at Silas and Lumen Gaskill's establishment, intending to rob it and flee back to Mexico. They underestimated the determination of the town's founding brothers and ended up on the losing end of one of the bloodiest civilian gun battles in the history of the American West. Now a museum, the store chronicles the rich history of the two-lane road that the bandits traveled. A second-floor display details the history of nearby Camp Lockett, a World War II Army cavalry post and base for the Buffalo Soldiers, a group of elite black cavalrymen whose unit was one of the most decorated in the history of the U.S. Army.

Cabooses and candy

Campo is also home to the Pacific Southwest Railway Museum, which displays old locomotives and cabooses and runs weekend excursions on restored diesel-powered trains. A mile east is another homage to transportation: the Motor Transport Museum, a work-in-progress collection of vintage trucks that are displayed on the grounds of an old feldspar mill.

Cap your tour of Highway 94 with a stop at tiny Wisteria Candy Cottage in Boulevard for peanut brittle and old-fashioned pulled taffy, then take an easy detour to the Desert View Tower, a 60-foot stone structure on the north side of Interstate 8 at the In-Ko-Pah Park Road exit. Completed in 1922 to commemorate the pioneers who made the rough prehighway journey west, the tower features a dusty gift shop, exhibits of Native American artifacts, and (across the parking lot) a not- to-be-missed hillside of granite boulders that have been carved into three-dimensional snakes, lizards, and buffalos, among other figures.

Climb to the top of the tower, survey the 360° views of rugged desert and mountain landscape, and tip your hat to the early travelers who braved the terrain you just traversed.

Looping through southeastern San Diego County, Highway 94 leads you to an unspoiled Southern California of ranches, nurseries, and broad vistas.

Driving Highway 94

Highway 94 begins as a free- way at I-5 in San Diego and becomes a two-lane road just west of Jamul. Our tour takes it 70 miles southeast to just past Jacumba. Plan on a 1 1/2- to 2-hour drive each way.

Simpson's Garden-Town Nursery. 8:30–4:50 daily. 13925 Hwy. 94, Jamul; 619/669-1977.

Lion's Head Guest House. Five suites and one cottage from $99. 16001 Skyline Truck Trail, Jamul; 619/669-9061.

Dulzura Cafe. $; breakfast, lunch daily. 17023 Hwy. 94, Dulzura; 619/468-9591.

Barrett Junction Cafe & Mercantile. $$; breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily. Hwy. 94 at Barrett Lake Rd., Barrett Junction; 619/468-3416.

Gaskill Brothers' Stone Store Museum. 11–5 Sat–Sun. Hwy. 94, Campo; 619/478-5707.

Pacific Southwest Railway Museum. 9–5 Sat–Sun. 31123 1/2 Hwy. 94, Campo; 619/465-7776.

Motor Transport Museum. 10–5 Sat. 31949 Hwy. 94, Campo; 619/478-2492.

Wisteria Candy Cottage. See "Five Great Country Candy Stores," page 44. Closed Tue. 39961 Old Hwy. 80, Boulevard; 619/766-4453.

Jacumba Hot Springs Spa & Cabana Club. Motel with restaurant ($), plus a pool and hot tub. 22 rooms from $70. 44500 Old Hwy. 80; 619/766-4333.

Desert View Tower. 8:30–sunset daily; $2.50. North side of I-8 at the In-Ko-Pah Park Rd. exit, 7 miles east of Jacumba.