Whether or not you’ll enjoy the gorgeous, million-mile views of the Ortega Highway (Route 74) mostly depends on whether you like roller coasters. It is “one of California’s deadliest roads,” according to the Los Angeles Times, but it’s also one of the most scenic. Its mountain-hugging hairpin turns test the power of centrifugal force, but they also offer jaw-dropping cliff vistas of the Cleveland National Forest and beyond. Not a bad way to bypass interstate gridlock en route from Vegas to the beaches south of Los Angeles.
I myself am absolutely terrified of roller coasters. And had I understood the, um, breathtaking nature of the highway that would lead me from the relative desert of Riverside County to San Juan Capistrano, I may have opted for a more benign route. Instead, in my ignorance, I made matters all the more intense by putting the top down on my convertible. It’s like driving has never seemed “real” before experiencing it with the top down.
The first bit of the 30-mile Ortega Highway (named after José Ortega, the Spaniard who explored the area in the 1700s) is low, flat and comfortable, deceptively so. It wraps around Lake Elsinore, giving me the first preview of the beauty ahead. Somehow, the air had transformed from dusty desert to sweetness. I was on my way to the beach—ultimate destination: Dana Point—and I could smell it.
But the lowlands of Lake Elsinore didn’t last long. Before I could even remember to tie my hair back against the wind, this two-lane highway took me up and up and around and around, like a pinball in a diabolical machine. And the westbound direction always put me on the cliff side of the sharp turns.
This road is the stuff of legend, or at least fodder for new car commercials, the ones where a car is zipping heroically around a mountain curve while the fine print flashes, “professional driver on a closed course.” I’m no professional driver, but at first I still felt heroic making the turns, my hair whipping in my face. When the turns kept coming at me, I began to feel a little less heroic. I eventually had to resort to deep-breathing exercises in order to stay calm.
My fingers went numb because they were so tightly clasped on the steering wheel, and a shaky glance in the rearview mirror revealed a line of cars accumulating behind me. Apparently, 35 mph is too slow for the locals. I merged into a turnout and rolled to a stop. I caught my breath as the cars whizzed by, pulled my hair back and stepped out to enjoy the view.
The Place: Ortega Highway to the beach.
The Way: Take Interstate 15 south for 255 miles. Take Exit 78 near Lake Elsinore, navigate a few city streets and then merge onto Route 74. Ortega Highway is about 30 miles, and you’re a quick jaunt on Interstate 5 to the Pacific Coast Highway and Dana Point. The Wheels: 2012 Volkswagen Eos hardtop convertible from Findlay Volkswagen; $38,000 2.0 TIS turbo engine with satellite navigation; 22 mpg city, 29 highway. I loved how the turbo-powered engine would’ve allowed me to pass other cars while climbing mountain roads … if I’d only had the courage to do so.
The Sound: A mix tape of the Bomboras, Dick Dale and the Ventures. The only appropriate music for a drive to the beach in a convertible is classic American surf rock.
The Eats: The Ortega Oaks Candy Store (34040 Ortega Highway) is across the highway from the San Juan Loop and Bear Canyon trailheads. Stop for a made-to-order hamburger picnic in its outside dining area.
The Lodging: Less than five miles from the end of the Ortega Highway, the Laguna Cliffs Resort & Spa (pictured) in Dana Point, Calif., is the perfect post-drive getaway. The luxurious rooms, many with ocean views, are peaceful and insulated from the city’s hustle and bustle. Have a romantic dinner with ocean views at Laguna Marriott Cliffs’ OverVue Lounge & Deck. (800-533-9748, LagunaCliffs.com).
While You’re at It: In the summer, children can enjoy a day at Laguna Cliff’s Kahuna Laguna Kid’s Club, while their parents walk across the street for a stroll on the idyllic Doheny State Beach.