Three Road Trips
Orange County has several historic highways that make for interesting drives, especially on weekends when traffic is light. Along the way are all sorts of reminders of the past, including historic buildings, businesses, and in places even the pavement.
The Ortega Highway
[Originally published in the Orange County Historical Society's County Courier, February 2015]
The Ortega Highway (State Route 74) across the Santa Ana Mountains is most scenic. First proposed as early as 1903, local boosters in San Juan Capistrano and Lake Elsinore spent decades pushing to get the road built. Orange County improved the old stage road as far as San Juan Hot Springs in 1913, but there progress ended until the 1920s. Orange County officials supported the idea, but it proved difficult to get their counterparts in Riverside County to see the value of the project. Wasn’t it just a road out of Riverside County, they asked? Roads go both ways, the Elsinore Chamber of Commerce reminded them. But it was not until Orange County offered to hand over any state funding they received to Riverside County that their Board of Supervisors finally agreed to the project.
In 1929, the two counties formed a joint highway improvement district, and in May San Juan Capistrano hosted a big barbecue to mark the start of construction. Father St. John O’Sullivan of Mission San Juan Capistrano proposed that the new road be named the Ortega Highway, in honor of José Francisco Ortega, who had served as the lead scout for the Portolá Expedition 160 years before (the fact that Orange County Supervisor George Jeffrey’s wife was a descendant of Ortega probably didn’t hurt).
Seventeen miles of new road were needed (six in Orange County and eleven in Riverside). There would be some sharp turns and steep grades in places, but the road would save a good 65 miles between Elsinore and Capistrano. A key link was the high-arched bridge at the narrows in San Juan Canyon, just above San Juan Hot Springs.
By mid-1932 the road was open to limited traffic. “To drive over the scenic highway at that time was quite an adventure,” Elsinore newspaper editor Tom Hudson later recalled, “with many short detours where graders were still at work, and with an abundance of dust, as no provision had been made for paving the road.” The official dedication ceremonies were held in August 1933 overlooking Lake Elsinore, but it was not until February 1934 that the road was oiled the entire way across the mountain.
Today’s wider, paved road is much safer, but drivers still need to be cautious on its twists and turns.
Set your odometer at Antonio Parkway/La Pata Ave., east of San Juan Capistrano, and start up San Juan Canyon, passing through some of the upper reaches of the Rancho Mission Viejo. At 4.8 miles, you pass the entrance to Caspers Wilderness Park. The visitor’s center there has displays on the natural history of the area. The old San Juan Hot Springs is at mile 9.4, marked by the retaining wall for the swimming pool and a stand of eucalyptus trees. The area is only accessible through guided tours. Contact the park for details.
Just beyond the hot springs is the junction of Hot Springs Canyon Road, which leads to the old Morris homestead, site of the Talega Post Office that served the hot springs area in the 1890s. Today it is a United Methodist church camp known as Lazy W. The Cleveland National Forest’s San Juan Fire Station is on the corner, just a few hundred yards west of the forest boundary. The national forest was established in 1893, and named in honor of former President Grover Cleveland after his death in 1908.
At mile 10.3 you cross the historic San Juan Creek bridge. At 13.6 you cross the county line into Riverside County. Upper San Juan Campground (mile 15.3) is nestled in the big loop at the top of the canyon. The area was once an Indian campsite.
Once in Riverside County, you’ll pass through the little community of Ortega Oaks (mile 16.3). The Forest Service maintains a parking area for the various trailheads that converge here (Adventure Pass required for parking), and the candy store across the highway has been a welcome stop for hikers for decades.
Three miles further on you reach El Cariso Village. Long Canyon Road turns left here toward Falcon and Blue Jay campgrounds and the Orange County youth conservation camp at Los Pinos. At mile 19.8 you reach El Cariso Fire Station, home of the famed “hot shots” fire crew. There is a picnic area and a nature trail here. Main Divide Road crosses the highway here. When the gates are open, drivers with high clearance (and preferably four-wheel-drive) vehicles can turn left and drive all the way to the top of Old Saddleback.
Both El Cariso and Los Pinos are named after portions of a tiny Mexican land grant given to Juan Forster in 1845. These three small potreros (pasture lands) were known as El Cariso (properly, Carrizo), Los Pinos, and La Cienega. The three little meadows eventually became part of the O’Neill Ranch. Only Los Pinos is in what is now Orange County.
Coming over the crest at 2,665 feet, you pass the overlook at Jameson Point (mile 20.8), named for T.C. Jameson, the Riverside County Supervisor who represented his county on the joint highway district board The highway then drops steeply down the mountain around many hairpin turns before reaching Grand Avenue on the western shore of Lake Elsinore. From here you can head back around the mountain via Temescal Canyon to Corona (try old Temescal Canyon Road instead of Interstate 15), or better yet, take a break, maybe get a snack, then turn around drive back on the Ortega to enjoy the sights from a different angle.
[Originally published in the County Courier, March 2015]
After considering several possible routes, in 1931 the Association settled on a route that followed the old Butterfield stage route across the desert and along today’s Highway 79 from Warner Hot Springs to Temecula, where it headed on to Corona via Lake Elsinore and Temescal Canyon. There the highway turned west down the Santa Ana Canyon on its way to Yorba Linda and La Habra, then across Los Angeles County to meet the sea at El Segundo. It was billed as the “cannon ball route” – a straight shot from the desert to the sea – but it still managed to wind its way through all the cities where support for the plan was strongest.
For the next 30 years, the Imperial Highway Association lobbied the cities and counties along the route to build a continuous road, with uniform construction standards – 100 feet wide, with gentle curves to allow for truck traffic. The Association’s slogan was “wide for safety, straight for speed.”
The stretch from Yorba Linda to Brea (following the tracks of the Pacific Electric) opened in July 1937. Governor Frank Merriam cut the ribbon, and the Goodyear blimp dropped orange juice on the new roadway to christen it. But though the route was approved in 1952, it was not until 1962 that the “Yorba Linda Freeway” (today’s State Route 90) opened from Orangethorpe Avenue to Yorba Linda Boulevard.
Bit by bit, the route of the Imperial Highway was slowly transformed into a modern road. The last stretch was finally paved in 1961 near the San Diego/Imperial County line. With their original goal met, the Imperial Highway Association turned its attention to other highway improvements and even freeway projects. It survived on into the early 1980s before finally disbanding.
Set your odometer at La Palma Avenue in Anaheim, and head north on Imperial Highway (the portion of today’s Imperial Highway running south into Anaheim Hills was not a part of the historic route).
This first stretch up from the Santa Ana Canyon is State Route 90, also known as the Richard M. Nixon Freeway. On the way up the hill you cross Kellogg Drive, named for Yorba Linda rancher George Kellogg, who served as secretary of the Imperial Highway Association for more than 30 years. Crossing Yorba Linda Blvd., you reach the original Yorba Linda townsite at Main Street (mile 2.5), where a few historic buildings still stand. The Imperial Highway paralleled the old Pacific Electric tracks on the north along here from Yorba Linda Blvd. to Valencia Avenue.
As you reach Bastanchury Road you are driving through the southern end of the failed 1880s boom town of Carlton, which died with the collapse of a brief real estate boom. Just before Rose Drive (mile 4.4) the railroad spur to the oil fields of Olinda in Carbon Canyon – built in 1899 – crossed the highway.
Soon you’re in Brea. North of the highway along Kraemer Blvd. (mile 5.7) was one of the earliest airports in Orange County, Loftus Field, which opened in 1925 with Orange County’s first air show competition. South on Madrona Ave. are a number of historic homes moved down from Olinda after the old oil town began to fade. North on Puente Street was the Pacific Electric station at Stewart, once home to a massive oil tank farm which burned in a devastating lightning strike fire in 1926.
The highway is now traveling along the southern side of the La Habra Valley, just north of the Coyote Hills. Passing Beach Blvd. the highway climbs up out of the valley, reaching the county line at mile 12.2.
From here, the Imperial Highway runs through La Mirada, Norwalk, Downey, Lynwood, and past LAX before finally reaching the sea, some 200 miles from the Imperial Valley.
The Old State Highway
[Originally published in the County Courier, April 2015]
California’s first state highway was built through the center of Orange County in 1914-15. Since it was the only state highway, it had no number – it was just “the state highway.” Portions of it later became Highway 101, or were replaced by Interstate 5.
The highway grew out of the Good Roads Movement of the early 20th century, as “horseless carriages” began to become common. But unlike horses, automobiles needed paved roads.
The movement actually began looking backwards. For a number of years there had been a growing interest in recognizing the old El Camino Real, the Royal Road that ran from mission to mission in Spanish times. The California Federation of Women’s Clubs took up the issue in 1902, calling for the preservation of the route by making it a state highway.
In 1904, the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce called a convention to promote a highway along El Camino Real from San Diego to Santa Barbara, which led to the creation of the El Camino Real Association. Local “sections” were established throughout Southern California, including a chapter in Santa Ana. The Association worked with local officials, historians, and surveyors to select a route that both mirrored the historic Camino Real, but was also practical as a modern highway. In 1910, California voters approved $18,000,000 in highway construction bonds.
The 45-mile route through Orange County zigzagged from town to town, passing through many of the major communities of the time. After some delays in acquiring the right-of-way, construction began in 1914 and the 15- to 18-foot wide cement highway was dedicated in November 1915. By 1916, the highway was open all the way to San Diego.
A line of distinctive El Camino Real bells marked much of the original state highway. Designed by Mrs. A.S.C. Forbes in 1906, the first bells went up even before the highway was built. The first in Orange County was placed by Peter Schumacher outside his real estate office on Harbor Blvd. in Fullerton that same year. The county bought ten bells in 1916 to mark the local stretch of the state highway. A number of bells can still be found along the original route; some are original, others are replacements. The earliest bells are dated 1769 and 1906, for the beginning of El Camino Real, and the introduction of the bells.
The original state highway entered Orange County on Whittier Blvd. Set your odometer at Valley Home Avenue in La Habra, and start east.
One of the reminders that this was once “the” state highway are the many small motels all along the way from La Habra to Tustin. The Hyland Motel (just past Euclid on the north side of the street) is one of many examples.
At mile 2.4 turn south on Harbor Blvd. (originally known as Spadra Road). Harbor takes you over the Coyote Hills. Much of this area was once part of Domingo Bastanchury’s vast sheep ranch, which became one of the most valuable oilfields in the area in the early 1900s. The Bastanchurys switched from sheep to citrus, but lost the property during the Depression, when it became the Sunny Hills Ranch.
Coming into downtown Fullerton, there is an El Camino Real bell in the center median between Wilshire and Amerige. Peter Schumacher’s original bell was at the northwest corner of Amerige and Harbor. A few other bells can be seen scattered all along your drive. Several of them seem to be originals, dating back to the earliest days of the highway. Others are later replacements.
As you cross the Riverside (91) freeway, you enter Anaheim. The highway originally jogged left here (mile 8.4) on what is now La Palma Park Way, which angles along the north side of La Palma Park. This little stretch was original built to connect Harbor to Los Angeles Street (now Anaheim Blvd.) through downtown Anaheim, but it’s no longer possible to turn left there off Harbor. Continue past the park to La Palma Ave., turn left, then make a right on Anaheim Blvd. and you’re back on the old highway.
This is the oldest part of Anaheim (though few of the early downtown buildings remain). West on Cypress Street was Anaheim’s “Chinatown” – the largest in Orange County – which survived on into the 1930s.
Passing under the Santa Ana (5) Freeway (mile 11.8), turn left Manchester Blvd. which will take you down to Chapman Avenue in Orange (if you ignore the many opportunities to get on the freeway here. The old highway paralleled the freeway all the way down to Chapman; today Manchester cuts off just west of there.
This stretch of the old highway was home to some of Orange County’s most notorious night clubs in the 1930s and ‘40s. Yet you’ll also pass Melrose Abbey, one of the county’s first mausoleums.
At mile 13.4 turn left on Chapman Ave. and head for Orange, passing UCI Medical Center (once the county hospital and poor farm) before ducking under the I-5 again. In 1930, Santa Ana built a cut-off here, which ran southeast to Main Street, bypassing Orange. The freeway follows its route today. But sticking to the old highway, you reach Main Street at mile 14.9, and turn right and head south.
Here, midway between Orange and Santa Ana, a little roadside business district known as Orana grew up in the 1910s and ‘20s. The old Christiansen & Grow service station, with its sweeping, storybook cottage roofline (mile 15.2) is the best-known reminder of Orana, but several other early buildings surviving, including the 1930 Stewart Building, at Stewart Drive.
Stewart Drive is also the entrance to St. Joseph’s Hospital, founded by the Sisters of St. Joseph in 1929. The original building still stands, but it now hidden behind more recent construction.
Crossing over the Garden Grove (22) freeway, you enter Santa Ana, where the old highway takes you right through the center of downtown at Fourth and Main, with its many landmark buildings.
Turn left on First Street (mile 17.7) and continue down into Tustin. Turn right on El Camino Real (mile 20.2) which takes you through old downtown Tustin. El Camino Real continues almost to Culver Drive, generally following the route of the old highway, before coming to an end in a cul-de-sac at mile 23.6.
If you want to continue south, double back to Jamboree Road where you can get on the Santa Ana Freeway, which was built on top of the old highway. Get off at Avery Parkway in Laguna Niguel and re-set your odometer at the bottom of the ramp. Turn right on Avery, then immediately left on Camino Capistrano and you’re back on the old state highway – in fact, portions of the old concrete paving still survive along this stretch.
You’re in San Juan Capistrano now, where historic buildings are everywhere. But not everything is as old as it seems. The San Juan Capistrano Basilica church at Acjachema Street, for example, was built in 1986, but designed to resemble the Great Stone Church at Mission San Juan Capistrano just beyond it, which was destroyed by an earthquake in 1812.
Stay on Camino Capistrano all the way through town and into Dana Point. At mile 5.6 Camino Capistrano veers to the left, but stay on the main road, which becomes Doheny Park Road. It will take you through old downtown Capistrano Beach (also known as Doheny Park during the 1930s and ‘40s), then curves to the left to become Pacific Coast Highway.
As you enter San Clemente, Pacific Coast Highway becomes El Camino Real, which winds through the oldest parts of town. Eventually you’ll reach the southernmost tip of Orange County, and just beyond it, in San Diego County, Cristianitos Road. Turn right and you can get back on the freeway for your return home.