Great Drives: Our Favorite O.C. Routes, Eats, and Sights

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Koenigsegg Agera RS, ‘Ruthie,’ at Crystal Cove. Photo credit: Ryan Longnecker

 

Are you in the mood for people-watching along the coast, followed by a picnic surrounded by nature? Do you want to speed along a curvy road in a sportscar before breakfast? Perhaps you’re in a contemplative state of mind, looking for a quiet vista. O.C. drives offer these rewards—some take an hour; on others, the interesting part lasts for 10 minutes. Although the past 50 years have seen a population explosion and the quieter parts of the county have filled in, it’s still possible to find a satisfying road on a Sunday morning. The good news is if you know what you want, there are roads here to take you there.


1966 Ford Shelby Cobra replica. Photo credit: Ryan Longnecker

 

Modjeska Canyon
Only a few miles deep, Modjeska Canyon features a seasonal creek that runs down the narrow floor, surrounded by a canopy of trees with tidy homes tucked against the hillsides. The queen of the canyon is the Modjeska House, but at the end of the road is another treat: the Tucker Wildlife Sanctuary. This educational center has informative nature trails. There is also the arduous Harding Truck Trail to the top of Modjeska Peak. A fun variation on entering the canyon is to use Modjeska Grade Road—about 2 miles south on Santiago Canyon Road. This narrow side road runs up then drops precipitously down a grade into the canyon. It’s one of the tightest-turning 2 miles in O.C.. The trailhead for Santiago Truck Trail, a great mountain bike route, branches off this road.

Explore!
Helena Modjeska Historic House and Gardens is a National Historic Landmark, home to the Shakespearean actress from 1888 to 1906. She lovingly created the gardens that surround the large cottage. The historic site won a restoration grant in 2018 from the National Park Service. Docent-led tours are available by reservation at OC Parks.


Photo credit: Ryan Longnecker

 

Carbon Canyon
Nestled in a tight canyon connecting Brea and Chino Hills, Carbon Canyon Road’s two lanes pass through the enclave communities of Olinda and Sleepy Hollow. It can feel like you’re in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada as the road weaves toward Highway 71 in Chino Hills. On the Brea side, stretch your legs at Carbon Canyon Regional Park. This 124-acre park has a 4-acre lake with piers for fishing. An easy hike takes you to a grove of coastal redwoods. To extend your canyon drive, take Imperial Highway south across the 91 Freeway, where it turns into Cannon Street, before hitting Santiago Canyon Road near Irvine Regional Park.

Eat!
TAPS Fish House & Brewery is a great option in handsome downtown Brea. The restaurant sits inside a bustling brick building, and the menu is loaded with delights such as Mama Manzella’s meatballs, Cold Harbor cioppino, and nearly 40 award-winning ales and lagers. Plus, there’s a Sunday brunch.


2019 Lamborghini Aventador. Photo credit: Ryan Longnecker

 

Avenida La Pata
Opened in 2016, this section of road connects Antonio Parkway from Ortega Highway to an existing portion of Avenida La Pata in the hills above San Clemente. It allows for a continuous route from San Juan Capistrano to San Clemente without the 5 Freeway. Or take Santiago Canyon Road and head over to Antonio Parkway for a scenic, inland alternative to get from the 91 Freeway all the way to the South County line. The most pleasant part of this drive is the newer section of four-lane Avenida La Pata that rolls across open hillsides. For a bonus, when you hit Avenida Pico and turn toward the water, you arrive at The Outlets at San Clemente, which hosts South OC Cars and Coffee on Saturdays. It’s a fitting place to end as you take in the sights and sounds of enthusiast-owned automobiles.

Eat!
Just a mile or so from the outlet mall, on El Camino Real, is Iva Lee’s, a Southern restaurant serving Creole cuisine with modern takes on classic recipes, including new twists on combinations of grits, glazes, ham hocks, and pork chops.


Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG Roadster. Photo credit: Mathew Knox

 

Coast Highway
Over the course of the 37 miles from Seal Beach to Dana Point, there are about 75 traffic lights and multiple names for Highway 1, Coast Highway, Pacific Coast Highway, or PCH (but never The PCH, please). Taking the coastal route is not about getting somewhere fast but about soaking in the beach vibe and views. There’s a lot to take in: three nature reserves (Seal Beach, Bolsa Chica, and Upper Newport Bay); five state beaches (Bolsa Chica, Huntington, Corona del Mar, Crystal Cove, and Doheny); and three expansive harbors (Huntington, Newport, and Dana Point). Traveling south just past Warner Avenue, you’ll find the lovely stretch along Bolsa Chica with unobstructed views of the ocean on one side and the ecological reserve on the other with trails among the tidal zone. As you pass dog beach and the cliffs at Goldenwest Street, you’ll see surfers changing next to their cars, shaking water from their ears. At Main Street, you enter the heart of nuevo Huntington Beach, with resort hotels and shopping at Pacific City. This stretch—and Main Beach in Laguna—provides the best people-watching on the coast, with masses crossing at each light. Enjoy the view of miles of golden sand from Huntington Beach to Newport Beach. When you cross the Santa Ana River, what you lose in ocean views you gain in the Newport Beach lifestyle. Ferrari dealerships, yacht clubs, and bayfront homes fill the landscape. Consider stopping at Castaways Park overlooking the bridge that crosses Newport Bay. From here, you’ll see Saddleback in the distance, the harbor spread out in front of you, and the ocean reaching to the horizon with Santa Catalina Island on its edge. As you head into Corona del Mar, imagine what it was like when it was founded in 1904—an isolated village reached by muddy carriage road. For refreshment, Café Jardin at Sherman Library and Gardens offers a French menu amid impressive botanical displays.

The most scenic stretch of Coast Highway opens up at Crystal Cove State Beach. The speed limit increases, and there’s a chance to enjoy brisk driving, feeling the wind off the glorious Pacific. Consider a stop at The Beachcomber restaurant near the Crystal Cove Cottages, where there is a feeling of a simpler time of sand and surf. Coast Highway moves freely past the beach at Moro campground, then you have to slow as you enter Laguna Beach. Passing Main Beach shows a broad spectrum of humanity: A parrot sits on a man’s shoulder; barefoot high schoolers carouse; lean volleyball players jump next to slumped-over vagabonds; basketball players bounce in time with the pounding surf. It’s slow going through South Laguna Beach, with barely a glimpse of the water until reaching the five-star resorts of the Montage Laguna Beach; Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel; and Monarch Beach Resort. For kids, the playground at Aliso Beach is a welcome stop. Continue to Dana Point, where Highway 1 turns sharply onto the 5 Freeway—but Pacific Coast Highway carries on for an additional 3 miles, where it turns into El Camino Real at Camino Capistrano in San Clemente.

Eat!
There are plenty of fine dining restaurants with great views along this drive. But consider a vintage diner for something different:

Harbor House Cafe, Sunset Beach and Dana Point
Open 24 hours since 1939, these diners are full of movie memorabilia and antique displays. The menu is massive, including 25 omelets, 13 salads, and 15 wraps and burgers.

Cappy’s Cafe, Newport Beach
This institution offers generous portions, fresh fish, and a full bar. For 62 years, it has been a local morning hangout and a late-night gathering place.

Galley Cafe, Newport Beach
Hidden off Bayside Drive and overlooking the Balboa Yacht Basin, the small diner is a favorite with local mariners. Open since 1957, it’s known for hearty breakfasts, burgers, and milkshakes with vintage flair.


Photo credit: Ryan Longnecker

 

Santiago Canyon
Skirting the Cleveland National Forest, Santiago Canyon Road rolls above Silverado Creek, with Modjeska and Santiago peaks towering above it. Heading south, your first diversion is to pull into Silverado Canyon. A California Historical Landmark, Silverado was home to silver mines, and it has marine fossils in its sandstone cliffs. There are plenty of interesting side roads, such as Black Star Canyon’s popular hiking trailhead. The road weaves for 15 miles into the narrowing canyon, before it turns to gravel after the Maple Springs Visitor Center. If you have an off-road vehicle, this route can eventually take you to the top of Saddleback (check ahead, as it’s often closed). Back on Santiago Canyon Road, the Cowboy Canyon Winery’s tasting room exudes a Western flair and is open weekends from 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Continuing south, you’ll pass Cook’s Corner, a historic roadhouse bar and diner.

2018 Fat Bob Harley-Davidson. Photo credit: Hugo Franco

Eat!
Cook’s Corner has roots going back about a hundred years—so old it was a big deal here when Prohibition ended. In 1946, an old mess hall from the Santa Ana Army Air Base was moved to the location and created today’s tavern. By the 1970s, it catered to motorcyclists, and there are usually dozens of bikes in front on the weekend. Although the vibe is heavy on leather, tattoos, and weekend warriors, it’s a friendly place to enjoy a burger and a draft beer on its large shady patio.


2016 Lamborghini Huracán Spyder. Photo credit: Ryan Longnecker

 

Live Oak & Trabuco Canyon Roads
At Cook’s Corner, take the turn onto Live Oak Canyon Road and head toward O’Neill Regional Park. The road rises, drops, and narrows as century-old oak trees stretch to a canopy above, creating a tunnel of filtered light and soft shadows. For precious minutes, Live Oak feels like a magical place where roads are the destination, not the means to arrive at one. In the early 1990s, when the county considered widening the road, community members each took a tree under their protection, vowing to do whatever it took to prevent its destruction. It worked, as the road has remained relatively unchanged for 50 years. When you arrive at the entrance to O’Neill Regional Park—a fine stop for a hike and picnic—the road turns into Trabuco Canyon Road. Pass over Trabuco Creek, then up the steep hillside, and you’re back in suburbia.

Eat!
Rose Canyon Cantina & Grill, just off Trabuco Canyon Road, has a shaded patio surrounded by ancient oaks and sycamores overlooking Trabuco Creek. Opened in 1956, it has had ups and downs, but for the past 30 years has served generous margaritas and classic Mexican cuisine.


Photo credit: Ryan Longnecker

 

Ortega Highway
At the right time—non-commute hours—Ortega Highway is the most rewarding road in the county. It runs for 32 miles from San Juan Capistrano to Lake Elsinore, the first 17 miles in Orange County.

Dedicated in 1933, the road was an impressive construction feat as it reaches to nearly 2,700 feet crossing the Santa Ana Mountains. The highway was named after Spanish explorer Jose Francisco Ortega, one of the first Europeans to see this area. Once you pass the new development by Rancho Mission Viejo, you climb quickly, passing Ronald W. Caspers Wilderness Park, an 8,000-acre preserve with camping and several hikes. Continue the climb up San Juan Canyon, an area explored by Ortega about 250 years ago. The road climbs in a series of sweeping curves, passing smaller canyons, and when you see a sign for the Ortega Oaks campground, you are at the Candy Store. This Ortega institution offers pies, cakes, fudges, hard candies, and espresso. Next, it’s a sharp climb for a mile to get to the parking lot for the trail to Ortega Falls. During wetter months, it’s a worthwhile 10-minute walk over boulders to the 35-foot falls. Ortega Highway then begins its descent toward Lake Elsinore, gradually at first, and then in increasingly sharp downward curves.

Eat!
Opened in 1945, the Lookout Roadhouse provides a marvelous view, and it’s a fun place to have barbecue ribs and a cold beer at the outdoor tables. Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., the restaurant offers big breakfasts, sandwiches, and a surprising variety of desserts.


1971 Porsche 911 Targa. Photo credit: Ryan Longnecker

 

Laguna Canyon Road
Driving toward the ocean from the 405 Freeway to the 73, Laguna Canyon Road is a four-lane divided highway. A series of historic seasonal spring-fed ponds—the largest is Barbara’s Lake—helps explain why Spanish explorers called the area Cañada de las Lagunas, or Canyon of Lakes. Just south of Barbara’s Lake is the gravel road to the Nix Nature Center, a good starting point for hikes in the Laguna Coast Wilderness Park. The nature center has bathrooms, exhibits, and friendly rangers. The 7,000-acre park encompasses coastal canyons, oak woodlands, and more than 40 miles of trails open to hikers and bikers. As you drive the approximately 8 miles from the 405 to the beach, Laguna Canyon Road narrows to two lanes. The Laguna Coast Wilderness Park continues on your right side, with two more parking lots for trails (Willow Staging Area and Big Bend). Stopping at one of these and taking a walk up the steep hillside rewards you with expansive views of the Pacific Ocean. On your left side on top of the steep canyon walls is the Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park. You can access it via a trail off Canyon Acres Drive, which is a left turn at the first traffic light as you near Laguna Beach.

Eat!
After a sweaty hike in the hills, grab a casual meal with a great view at The Deck in Laguna Beach, offering fresh seafood and cocktails from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.


2018 McLaren 570S in red and 2019 Porsche 911 GT3 RS. Photo credit: Cody Lewis

Best Views

The Toll Roads (73, 133, 241, 261)
Some of the most scenic roads in the county. A stunning moment is on the north 73, just after the toll plaza, where the long descent offers views that stretch to Santa Catalina Island, downtown Long Beach, and beyond Anaheim.

Top of the World, Laguna Beach
Well named, since you feel like the view goes toward the endless horizon. The drive up the Laguna hills is twisty, but your GPS will take you there if you enter Alta Laguna Park.

Lookout Point, Corona del Mar
Where Ocean Boulevard turns, overlooking the entrance to Newport Harbor, you’ll see from Balboa Peninsula all the way to the Palos Verdes Peninsula.

Seaview Park, Laguna Niguel
On Talavera Drive, off Pacific Island Drive, there is parking along the road that offers unobstructed views of the hilltops and ocean.

Lantern Bay Park, Dana Point
Park Lantern, overlooking the harbor, offers a relaxing setting for watching the sunset from your vehicle.


Credits

2019 All Carbon Fiber Ford GT: courtesy of Stephen Alderson

1966 Ford Shelby Cobra Replica: courtesy of David and Lisa Bourguignon

2019 Lamborghini Aventador: courtesy of Dave Riemann

Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG Roadster: courtesy of David Kuzmiak, @newportslsamg;
photograph by Mathew Knox @cali_carspotter

2018 Fat Bob Harley-Davidson: courtesy of and photograph by Hugo Franco,
@fword714

2016 Lamborghini Huracán Spyder: courtesy of Mohammed Zobaer and Zain Hussain, @supercars_unleashedd

2018 McLaren 570S: courtesy of Greg Earl,
@thetintpros and 2019 Porsche 911 GT3 RS: courtesy of Peter Godden, @hb_gt3rs; photograph by Cody Lewis, @ lacarspotter_

1971 Porsche 911 Targa: courtesy of Scott M. Brown

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