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The List: Top Five Rides

OC's great roads for your favorite vehicles

The List: Top Five Rides

OC’s great roads for your favorite vehicles

by Susan Carpenter
Photography by Eugene Garcia, Ana Venagas, Jeff Gritchen

The hard truth is obvious to anyone who lives, drives or rides here: There is an awful lot
of pavement in Orange County, much of it gridlocked.
How much fun can be had is largely a matter of traffic and what vehicle a person is driving. Even a Bentley Mulsanne can be tiresome when stuck on Interstate 5 during rush hour.
There are, however, some glorious stretches of asphalt (and dirt) that make it all worthwhile. Whether it’s switchbacks that carve a path through forest, or coastal air best enjoyed top down, the county is home to some of California’s very best rides.
And those roads are great whether they’re being driven in a classic Ferrari, ridden on a modern Ducati, or pedaled with a traditional or electric bicycle. Let’s take some spins.


Starting Point: San Juan Capistrano

Best for: Sport bikes, sports cars

     Like so many canyon roads, Ortega Highway was designed for purely utilitarian purposes.
But in the 82 years since it opened as a connective corridor between the community now known as Lake Elsinore and San Juan Capistrano, it has become a mecca for motorsports enthusiasts who appreciate its ascending twists and turns and occasional sweeping vistas.
Beginning at Interstate 5 and heading east on a two-lane road past the moderately forested Ronald W. Caspers Wilderness Park, the undulating turns of Ortega Highway wind their way through Cleveland National Forest toward a peak elevation of 3,400 feet.

As a whole, the Ortega Highway stretches 111.5 miles to Palm Desert in Riverside County. But it’s best loved for the 33 miles of curves that link Orange County to Lake Elsinore and offer sweeping vistas along the way.


Best for: Bicycles; traditional and electric

     Various studies have shown that the reason more people don’t ride bicycles is fear. Many would-be bike riders simply feel it is unsafe to ride on the same roads as faster, heavy cars.
Irvine over-comes that issue with a network of trails off-street. It’s a little-known system, even to Irvine residents who, if they were so inspired, could travel to many parts of the city on bike paths without ever tangling with a car.
Irvine’s 66 square miles are crisscrossed with 54 miles of off-street bikeways that run the city’s length and width and many points in between. That’s in addition to 301 miles of on-street bike paths.    

     Among its car-free thoroughfares are routes that stretch from Newport’s Back Bay along San Diego Creek to the border of Tustin or the Irvine Spectrum, and cut through Irvine’s city center along Interstate 405. Or you can follow its most picturesque trail, which takes cyclists along the pristine wilderness of Shady Canyon Drive to an elevated city view.

     The routes that travel through subdivisions are a tribute to thoughtful city planning. The trails avoid traffic through a system of bridges and tunnels that take cyclists over and under roadways that otherwise would bring them into contact with motor vehicles. In January, Irvine added 3.5 miles of off-street bike paths. The Jeffrey Open Space Trail runs along Jeffrey Road between I-5 and Portola Parkway, dodging cars with two undercrossings and three bridges for uninterrupted cycling.


Starting Point: Trabuco Canyon

Best for: Sport bikes, sports cars

     Commonly referred to as Cook’s Corner, a nod to the popular roadhouse that marks the intersection of Santiago Canyon and Live Oak Canyon Roads, the unincorporated area of Trabuco Canyon is a good starting point for these two county highways nestsled in
the foothills.

     The Keebler forest of driving roads, Live Oak Canyon, aka County Highway S19, is best known for its tunnel of oak trees that, on a sunny day, create an almost strobe effect as the light attempts to shine through to the road, illuminating a path for sport bikes and cars as they sashay along its three miles toward O’Neill Regional Park.

     Head the opposite direction from Cook’s Corner and the path heads northeast along Santiago Canyon Road, aka County Highway S18. The main road out of Trabuco Canyon runs for 13 miles along the edge of Limestone Canyon Regional Park, taking you through a series of gentler, wider, hillier turns that are more picturesque than they are technical.


Starting Point: Capistrano Beach in Dana Point through Crystal Cove State Park to Corona del Mar and points north

Best for: Classic cars, sports cars, motorcycles

     True to its name, Pacific Coast Highway runs next to 655 miles of Pacific Ocean, from Dana Point’s Capistrano Beach all the way to the San Francisco Bay Area.

     And some of its most idyllic stretches are in Orange County.

     The most pristine stretches of State Route 1 are found driving past the cliffs of El Morro and along the unobstructed coastal views offered at Crystal Cove State Park and into the quaint seaside town of Corona del Mar that demands you to slow down.


Starting Point: Silverado Canyon

Best for: Street-legal 4x4s, SUVs, dual sport motorcycles

     Development has forced most of OC’s off-road action to Riverside and San Diego counties, but this is one area that remains open to those who enjoy splashing through mud puddles or the crunch of rocks under knobby tires.

     Named for the saddle shape formed by Santiago and Modjeska peaks, Saddleback is accessed through a network of dirt trails that run through Cleveland National Forest. Access points are from the north, south, east and, in Orange County, the west.

     Ranging from dry and dusty to lush alpine chaparral and creek beds, the dirt roads are accessible to street-legal vehicles, including two- and four-wheel drive trucks and SUVs and dual sport motorcycles. (But note this: Some vehicles will be better equipped than others when it comes to handling the more rigorous trails.)

     From OC, Saddleback had been accessed most easily through Silverado Canyon Road — a dirt trail accessed off Maple Springs Road that can be taken to Saddleback’s North Main Divide along its ridge. Maple Springs Road, however, remains closed from last year’s Silverado Fire and isn’t likely to reopen for at least another six months. For now, its closest access points from OC are Long Canyon Road off Ortega Highway or Indian Truck Trail off Interstate 15 in Corona.

     While North Main Divide has some narrow sections and surfaces that are either loose or uneven, and many of the trails leading to it have challenging rock sections that are best left to experienced drivers and riders whose vehicles are equipped with modified suspensions, the road climbs through steep canyons and groves of conifers toward OC’s highest point, the 5,687-foot Santiago Peak.

     On clear days, the reward for getting to the top can be views that extend from Catalina to Long Beach Harbor, to the San Jacinto and San Gabriel mountains.

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