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Rides & Destinations: Lake Elsinore, California

The best part of Lake Elsinore, California, is getting there by Route 74, also known as Ortega Highway.

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By Richard Backus
April 2017

Motorcyclists outside Hell's Kitchen

A morning cup of Joe at Hell’s Kitchen is a great way to start your Sunday ride.
Photo by Richard Backus.

It’s hard to utter the word “Elsinore” without conjuring up images of dirt bike racing and Steve McQueen. This is, after all, the home of the legendary Elsinore GPs of 1969-1972, in which McQueen raced under the pseudonym of Harvey Mushman to avoid notice. (It didn’t work.) It’s also where Bruce Brown filmed parts of his epic 1971 film, On Any Sunday, considered by many the best motorcycling movie ever made. Back in the day, Elsinore’s draw was so strong that in 1973 Honda drew on the locale’s fame to brand its legendary CR125M and CR250M Elsinore dirt bikes.

Hell's Kitchen signWith creds like these it’s easy to understand why this town of 40,000 is Mecca to motorcyclists around the country. And the best part is getting there, particularly if you take Route 74, the famed Ortega Highway.

Sometimes called The Devil’s Highway (a reference, perhaps, to its nasty reputation for leading more than a few bikers to their downfall), Ortega Highway rewards riders with 33 miles of fabulous, curving road as it winds its way east from Interstate 5 and San Juan Capistrano.

Groups of riders traditionally meet up at the Chevron gas station just off Interstate 5 to gas up before launching up and over the Santa Ana Mountains. The first few miles are pretty mild, but the road quickly tightens up, as do the corners as you climb some 3,200 feet. Passing opportunities are few, and if you hit the road on a weekend expect the usual slew of tourists in metal boxes, nervously plodding along and generally getting in the way.

About 21 miles up on your right you’ll pass The Candy Store, an Ortega Highway landmark of 40 years and a popular starting point for hikers. Just a few miles farther the road crests at Hell’s Kitchen restaurant and bar on your left. With a decidedly Harley atmosphere (condiments are dispensed from a flame-painted coffin), it’s especially popular with the Bar and Shield crowd.

Rider using Sena bluetooth communicator

Nothing like cruising Ortega while blasting your favorite tunes with the low-profile 10R.
Photo courtesy Sena Technologies.

From Hell’s Kitchen it’s only a few more miles to the Lookout Roadhouse on your left, another restaurant and biker hangout, perched on the east edge of the mountain and offering spectacular views of Lake Elsinore. Continue east and the road carves down the side of the mountain into Lake Elsinore, rewarding with 10 miles of twisties before terminating at Grand Avenue.

This is where most folks usually turn around and head back, but if it’s the second weekend of November, you’ll want to head into town for the the Elsinore GP, which was revived in 1996. Racers line up on Main Street, just like McQueen did more than 30 years ago, before barreling off into the hills just blocks from downtown. Make the ride, watch the race, and if you haven’t already, get a copy of On Any Sunday. — Richard Backus

Bonneville and rider on the Ortega Highway

Ortega Highway, sometimes called The Devil’s Highway, offers 33 miles of spectacular riding. Photo courtesy Sena Technologies.

The Skinny
Where: Thirty-three miles from San Juan Capistrano, California, on Route 74, the legendary Ortega Highway.
Why: Spectacular scenery as you carve up through the Cleveland National Forest in the Santa Ana Mountains to the highway’s summit overlooking Lake Elsinore.
Best kept secret: Kileen Road, on the right just before the descent to Elsinore. Great twisties and little traffic, and at the end of the black top is a favorite spot for hang gliders and parasailers.
Scenic routes: Lambrose Canyon Road. Although it’s only a few miles long, this lovely bit of road takes you through a grove of spectacular, century-old Oak trees before dumping out at Cook’s Corner, a well-known biker bar on the west slope. Head east from Interstate 5 up the Ortega 2.5 miles, then turn left on Antonio Parkway. After 10 miles turn right on Santa Margarita Parkway, then left on Plano Trabuco Road; watch for the killer corkscrew on the road’s first descent. Plano Trabuco Road turns into Live Oak Canyon Road; Cook’s Corner is just a few more miles on your right, you can’t miss it.
Avoid: Slow-moving tourists and the ever-present California Highway Patrol. Watch for rocks on the road, especially if it’s been raining. And keep an eye out for riders moving beyond their ability; accidents are frequent.
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