San Diego’s North County: Bucolic Southern California

South Carlsbad Beach in San Diego, California

by Lee Foster

A visitor to Southern California who prefers to avoid the congestion and hassles of huge cities might well choose suburban Escondido in San Diego ‘s North County as a base for exploration.

From Escondido , 45 minutes north of the San Diego airport, you are within a half-hour of several rewarding travel experiences. Semi-rural Escondido is also a relatively good value. A room here will cost less than a comparable hotel in San Diego or Orange County-LA.

The climate around Escondido is dry and sunny, a definite advantage in summer, when fog socks in the coast. Many visitors to Southern California in summer are disappointed to learn of the coastal fog pattern. From Escondido , you can journey in the afternoon a half-hour west to the lovely state park beaches at Carlsbad and Leucadia to catch the transient window of coastal sun.

Avocado and citrus farms form the base for the Escondido economy, with acreage perched on steep hillsides, especially north and east of the town. Over half of California ‘s 25,640 acres of avocados are planted here. The backroads are inviting to drive because the terrain is varied. Though development and growth intrude somewhat on the former rusticity, you can still meet locals like the Ferraras, a family that has made wine here for three generations. The sense of place in Escondido is stronger than in other Southern California com mu nities. If you choose a corned beef sandwich lunch at the Fireside Restaurant, you’ll rub elbows with the local movers and shakers, who appear each day to claim their invisibly marked tables. The locals possess some knowledges shared among themselves. For example, they all know about an item on the Fireside dessert menu called “shrub.” An outsider learns that shrub is sherbet bathed in champagne.

Escondido appeals to some travelers with special interests. Golfers locate here because there are 36 golf courses within a half hour of town. Fans of Lawrence Welk like to visit the Lawrence Welk Museum and dinner theater, north of town, where the entertainer’s memorabilia is preserved. (Local humorists assert, “They won’t let you into Disneyland without a child or into the Lawrence Welk Resort without a senior citizen.”)


For the general traveler, here are six area attractions that make Escondido a satisfying place to visit:

*The San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park is 15 minutes south in the San Pasqual Valley. Be sure to visit this world leader in new-style zoos, where the people are caged and the animals run free. More than 3,500 animals inhabit this 1,800-acre preserve. You ride a 60-minute, five-mile monorail tram, wending your way through savannahs with African and Asian mammals. The freedom of wide open spaces allows animals to flourish here and invites meditation over their grandeur as fellow sharers of the planet. Captive breeding programs for endangered species have been particularly successful in this spacious environment. Arabian oryx breed here so prolifically that they have been re-introduced to their Middle East habitat.

*Significant Missions and Historic Sites are within a 45-minute drive or are right in town.

The most important of these is Mission San Luis Rey, west of Escondido and near the sea. San Luis Rey was the largest of the California missions, covering nearly six acres. A white coat of paint gives the San Luis Rey Mission a spruced-up appearance. Within the grounds, an excellent small mu seum shows a surprising range of artifacts from the actual mission, including leather-bound books in the padres’ library, a gold chalice used in worship, plus examples of local Indian basketry and pottery. Displays interpret the story of this early California outpost for Christianity and Spanish culture.

The Mission San Antonio de Pala, north of Escondido , is one of the few missions of early California still engaged in its original task: nurturing and Christianizing California Indians.

East of Escondido, the Santa Ysabel Mission is an isolated outpost that had the status of a “visita” or place the padres visited.

Among historic sites, the San Pasqual Battlefield State Historic Park, near the Wild Animal Park , boasts a handsome interpretive center telling the story of a confused, bloody conflict in 1846, as California edged toward American control. In this valley American troops fought a pitched battle with the Californios, as the people of Spanish-Mexican descent in California were called. The Californios, expert horsemen fighting with lances, savaged and slaughtered 22 of the American soldiers in one-on-one combat, losing only one of their own numbers. The Americans fought with swords because the morning damp rendered their gunpowder useless.

South Carlsbad Beach in San Diego, California
South Carlsbad Beach in San Diego, California

Within Escondido , stop at Heritage Walk in Grape Day Park to see a small regional mu seum in the restored Santa Fe Railroad Depot. The depot reminds a visitor that many small towns existed in the last century because they were rail stops. Adjacent, you’ll find a fully-furnished Victorian Country House (ask for a tour of the rooms).

At Vista , west of Escondido , an Antique Gas & Steam Engine Museum features historic gasoline-and-steam-powered agriculture equipment. The mu seum is open year round, with the prime equipment carefully labeled in a huge barn. Hundreds of other farming machines are scattered over the outdoor acreage. Crowds come during the last two weekends in June and October when aficionados fire up the machines and demonstrate harvesting or threshing on adjacent fields of wheat.


*The Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, an hour to the east, can be combined with a trip to the gold rush town of Julian and the “destination bakery” known as Dudley ‘s.

Anza-Borrego is the largest state park in California . From January through April, the setting is hospitable, with a good show of wildflowers. Stop in at the Visitor Center for orientation and maps. Then walk the two-mile trail into Palm Canyon to view the secretive Washingtonia filifera native California palms, which thrive where permanent water supplies exist. Ram’s Hill and La Casa del Zorro are two luxury resorts in the area, good as a lunch or dinner stop for the itinerant traveler. Make the Anza-Borrego trip in the cool months, October to May. Summer heat requires a resilience few travelers possess.

Julian receives many votes as the most charming mountain town in Southern California . A gold-mining town born in the quartz-gold era of the 1870s, Julian retains its false-front, wood-sidewalk ambiance. Peruse the revered Julian Hotel , from 1887. The town is now a bed-and-breakfast enclave with a strong harvest flair, especially during the Apple Harvest Festival in October. Be sure to sample the apple pie, a cottage industry, and wash it down with apple cider. Several gourmet food stores and boutiques invite the browser. A tour of the Eagle Mine can acquaint you with the gold-mining legacy.

Dudley ‘s is a rare phenomenon, a “destination bakery.” As a rationale for a country drive, people from as far away as San Diego make a weekend foray to Dudley’s, where they load up on delicacies such as jalapeno bread. Dudley’s, Julian, and the Santa Ysabel Mission are a cluster of cool mountain discoveries, close to each other, appealing in the heat of summer.

*Several North County Wineries close to Escondido welcome visitors. The wine-making tradition occupies an honored historic role here. At the turn of the 20th century, the annual Grape Day in Escondido rivaled the Rose Parade in Pasadena . Today, on the south edge of town, the Ferrara family is the oldest, active wine-making family in the area. A visit to the Ferrara winery will please the traveler who has been overwhelmed by the hustle and pandemonium of the Napa Valley . Here you are likely to meet a family member, who will pour the family’s mu scat or carignane wines. Both wines are finished in several styles, mu scat in a spectrum of sweetness and carignane ranging from blush to a robust red. You can step from the tasting room to a self-guided tour, where color photos and a text alert you to the wine-making operation, easily comprehended because of the small scale.

The Orfila Vineyards Winery in San Pasqual Valley, south of town, allows you to observe the bottling line as you sip the product. Again, the scale is comfortably small, though this is the largest winery in San Diego County . Picnic tables overlook a sweep of chardonnay vineyard, the main varietal effort. Hills and citrus orchards, as a distant backdrop, make this winery a particularly congenial picnic place.

Deer Park Wines and Vintage Cars combines a small wine-selling operation, an extensive deli, and a dozen mint-condition vintage cars, from a Cadillac Seville to a Chevy Corvette. Besides their own label, Deer Park stocks a thorough assortment of wines from other North County vintners. Picnic tables alongside the building invite you to linger and look out over the vineyards.

The Bernardo Winery lies south of Escondido near the posh Rancho Bernardo residential development. The Rizzo family has run the operation since 1928, emphasizing full-bodied red wines.


*Palomar Observatory, 45 minutes northeast of Escondido , lures the stargazer through lovely mountain terrain. Here you can see the 200-inch Hale Telescope, one of the world’s largest mirror telescopes, weighing 530 tons. This huge camera of the imagination gazes, it is said, a billion light years into space.

*Country Fruit Stands, notably Bates Nut Farm, reward the rambler who follows backroads around Escondido . Fruit and vegetable stands occur at some predictable places, such as near the intersection of Valley Center Road and Woods Valley Road east of town. Impromptu stands also pop up during a particular harvest, such as strawberries.

Bates Nut Farm, east of town, is the foremost of these food purveyors. The Bates operation brings in nuts from all over the world for packaging. Add to that a general gourmet trade in honey, pasta, dried fruit, jellies, and candy. Like the wineries, Bates provides tables and a lawn for the traveler who wants to enjoy a picnic lunch. Kids delight in farm animals at a petting corral. Bates creates a 12-acre pumpkin patch in October and offers a cut-your-own Christmas tree experience in December.

If you want to explore Southern California , but bypass the huge cities, Escondido has mu ch to offer.



The area information source is the Escondido Chamber of Commerce, 720 N. Broadway, Escondido, CA 92025; 760/745-2125; www.escondidochamber.org.

Rental cars are available locally in Escondido or at the San Diego airport. A car is essential for the back-country road experience here.

For a brochure on the desert park, write Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, 200 Palm Canyon Dr., Borrego Springs, CA 92004; 760/767-5311; www.anzaborrego.statepark.org.