At an elevation of over 3000 feet, the rolling upland known as Mesa Grande is more reminiscent of Central California's coast ranges than San Diego County's typical rock-ribbed foothills. Through the heart of Mesa Grande runs a meandering country road serving only the light traffic of local residents and a few tourists off the beaten path. By any standard, it's one of Southern California's finest paved roads for bicycle touring.
The tiny but growing crossroads community of Santa Ysabel -- long known for its popular Dudley's Bakery -- is a good starting point for the 22-mile loop route (up Highway 79 and back through Mesa Grande) described here. The traffic of backcountry residents and tourists has increased somewhat in recent years, so an early-morning start will help you elude as much as possible some fast-moving cars on Highway 79.
Start by heading north on Highway 79 for 7 miles, up to a gentle summit halfway, and down the other side. On the long, downhill run, Lake Henshaw and the Palomar Observatory's 200-inch telescope dome come into view ahead. A blanket of morning fog often covers the lake until an hour or so after sunrise.
At the bottom of the grade, turn left on Highway 76. After another 2 miles, go left at Mesa Grande Road. You now leave virtually all traffic behind and begin to tackle a wickedly steep uphill grade. Only the strongest riders will remain on the pedals during the next 1.5 curvy miles. There's no shame in walking your bike up the steepest parts. Glance back at the immense sunken plain behind you, with the currently contracted Lake Henshaw at its west end. The plain, known as Valle de San Jose, owes its depressed elevation to earth movements along the Elsinore Fault.
After topping out, Mesa Grande Road rolls generally southward over oak woods and grassy vales. You pass hillsides where gem-quality tourmaline, beryl, garnet, and topaz have been mined for more than a century. You cross Indian reservation lands, with nary a car in sight, and finally pitch downward to an intersection with Highway 79. The Santa Ysabel Mission, a restored version of the original asistencia, or sub-mission, established here in 1818 by the San Diego mission, lies across the road.
Use Highway 79 to return to Santa Ysabel. Upon arrival, indulge your appetite for breakfast, fresh-baked bread, or apple pie at one of the eating establishments there.