Natural attraction in San Diego’s North County

Story & photos by Barbara Beckley

Barbara nails her first surf lesson at Del Mar Beach.


Hiking at 6,000 feet. Learning to surf — as an adult! Timing a cheetah’s lightning speed. Wine tasting in SoCal’s oldest operating vineyard. All this, and more, is just a short drive south in San Diego’s North County.  

Mountain highs    

I was in awe at the monstrous trees towering all around and at how the scenery reminded me of the Sierra Nevada Mountains rather than Southern California. But no. I was hiking with a friend along the Lower Doane and the French Valley Trails at the upper reaches of 6,140-foot Palomar Mountain in Palomar State Park in northern San Diego County.

We were lucky twice. Not only are both trails considered among Southern California’s best hikes by those-in-the-know, they are also easy! Both are rated “beginner,” with an average two-hour round-trip hiking time from the trail heads, located near a parking lot.

Massive oaks with multiple trunks and limbs 6 feet in diameter seemed like those in fairytales. The Ponderosa Pines were as tall as those in the Colorado Rockies. Susan, my friend, knows her flora and pointed out white alders, Pacific dogwood, Sierra gooseberry, California black oak, dogwood, white fir, and majestic incense cedars, which are often mistaken for redwoods.

Entering a long sunny Yosemite-like meadow, Susan spotted deer tracks around a spring bubbling from the untouched deer grass. We sat on a boulder under a giant oak and waited. No deer. But we saw lots of red, white, and black woodpeckers and crested Steller’s jays.

Famed Palomar Observatory is nearby, and while we didn’t, many visitors include one of the observatory’s daily tours to its 200-inch Hale Telescope in their outdoor plans.

Sea level thrills

Descending to the coast, I couldn’t believe it — I was surfing! (As a native Alhambran, I should have learned long ago. But I didn’t.) Now the board was steady beneath me as I rode atop the roiling surf. Nearing the sand, as the board slowed, I hopped off. “Ta-dah!” I shouted.

“You were awesome,” laughed my coach GC (Gian Carlos Urcia), the 30-something instructor/operations manager of the Del Mar-based Fulcrum Surf School. He was being supremely supportive. The truth was, I was riding the 7-foot board on my knees, GC was riding along with me, and the surf was maybe 4 feet. But I was as thrilled as if it were the Bonsai Pipeline.

This is what makes Del Mar Beach so good for first-time surf lessons, GC explained. In addition to challenging surf, it has consistent low surf and is less crowded than many other area beaches.  

Toast to the coast    

Since many North County attractions are near to each other, it was easy to transition from surf to turf — and wine tasting — in celebration of my surfer girl status, with a 30-minute drive along CA 56 to the Bernardo Winery in Rancho Bernardo.

Opened in 1889, it’s still owned by the founding family and operated in the original buildings. A Stanford University study verified it as Southern California’s oldest operating winery. Over the years changes have occurred — what used to be surrounding vineyards are now Rancho Bernardo subdivisions — but the Old World charm remains. Inside the 11-acre garden-like estate, a café, a coffee and chocolate shop, the Rancho Bernardo Historical Society Museum, boutiques, artists’ studios, and the Vine Theater, all in the original buildings, offer much to enjoy.

In the tasting room, third-generation owner and winemaker Ross Rizzo Jr. explained, “We source only North County grapes and craft our wines in the original buildings, in the traditional way, with contemporary adaptations.” A delicious example was their 2016 Burgundy, a fruity blend of Barbera and Mourvedre, which they’ve continuously produced since before Prohibition.  

From the winery, it was just 1.5 miles to my room at the beautiful Rancho Bernardo Inn. Pricey, yes. But a nice treat that’s perfectly situated for North County exploration.

Animal magnetism

The next morning, a nine-mile drive along a residential parkway brought us to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, with more than 3,500 animals on 1,800 acres. I hadn’t been there for years and was delighted at all the new experiences and animal-friendly habitats.

My favorite was Cheetah Run — one of the few places where you can see cheetahs at full speed. We watched in awe as Johari, the cheetah, demonstrated why she’s the fastest land mammal on earth — running 300 feet in 5.5 seconds, as she chased a mechanical lure down a grassy lawn.

At Tiger Trail, it was wonderful to see the two Sumatran tigers lounging in the shade in their 2.5-acre range, thick with forest, and a pond and waterfall that suits their reclusive nature. At the interactive Lemur Walk we actually entered the cage with these ring-tailed cuties.

Riding the Caravan Safari open-air truck through the Africa Plains habitat was as memorable as ever, watching the rhinos, giraffe, zebra, water buffalo, ostrich, and other savannah animals roam free across the gentle hills. Not sure I’m ready to zip-line two-thirds of a mile over the Africa Plains on the Flightline Safari, yet. But those who did said it was wonderful.

Learn more at www.sandiego.org/northcounty.  


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Jan 2021


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