A Trip Back in Time
...an accessible & affordable adventure to the borderlands of California.
Where is it?
Campo, California and Tecate, Baja California, Mexico
Campo is a tiny speck of a town along the U.S. - Mexico border located halfway between Tijuana and Mexicali (or San Diego and El Centro on the U.S. side) across the border from Tecate, Mexico. The challenge here was to make a nice weekend in Campo instead of it being a side trip from San Diego.
Campo is located 9 miles northeast of Tecate, Mexico on the U.S. side of the border. From L.A. we took the 10 (San Bernadino) Freeway east to Interstate 15, then south to Interstate 8 in San Diego, then east on the 8 to Buckman Springs Road (about 35 miles). Then south on Buckman Springs Road to Highway 94 in Campo. Right (west) on 94 to Forest Gate Road. The entire drive took just over 3 hours. From San Diego, count on about an hour.
Preparing for this trip was difficult. There are no accomodations in Campo - period! There is some camping nearby, but roughing it was not what we had in mind with our son Tim & his 200 pound power wheelchair. We were also taking along some guests and needed to have room for them too.
Calling ahead to Campo produced no good information on where to stay nearby. We had considered staying in Tecate but could not get reliable information on accomodations there outside of a very pricey spa. A bed & breakfast in nearby Dulzura offered some intriguing possibilities but, alas, they were booked for the weekend.
Two others within a 20 mile radius looked interesting, Jacumba Hot Springs and Stallion Oaks Ranch. Both had hot tubs to soak off the desert dust, and both were reasonably priced. A call to Jacumba Hot Springs revealed that although they were only about 20 miles away, the drive to Campo would take about an hour on the narrow, winding roads in the area. Stallion Oaks also offered a 2 bedroom cabin we could stay in for a little less than 2 motel rooms at the hot springs. Stallion Oaks got the nod.
Stallion Oaks Ranch is in Descanso. From Campo, backtrack to Interstate 8, head west back toward San Diego and exit on Highway 79. Go north one mile to Riverside Dr. and turn left. Turn left again at Viejas Grade and make an immediate right on Oak Grove. Turn right again on Boulder Creek Road. Stallion Oaks is at 10950 Boulder Creek Road. (619) 445-0271.
(UPDATE 2010: Much of Stallion Oaks burned in a 2003 fire, it is now the Unity Center Retreat Center and a subsequent stay at Jacumba Hot Springs was horrible...can't recommend)
To Tecate, the easiest way we found is to go back to Campo and head west on Highway 94. Turn left (south) on Highway 188. The International Border will be 2 miles straight ahead.
Bright and early on a beautiful May Saturday, we set out on our adventure. We had picked this particular weekend to go because the San Diego Railroad Museum was scheduled to be using their restored steam engine on their excursions out of their historic Campo depot. Most weekends they use a diesel engine (you can check the schedule out at their web page at www.sdrm.org or by calling toll-free at 888-228-9246).
First stop was for some breakfast. Today, we were going to the great Homestyle Cafe in Guasti (exit Archibald Ave. off of the 10 freeway in Ontario. Turn right (south) and turn left into Guasti...follow the signs).
If you're hungry for breakfast...really hungry...this is the place for you. Mammoth portions of great homestyle cooking are in store for you here. One meal is plenty for two people. We had eggs & ham, eggs & sausage, and Tim had a pancake. All except Tim's meal came with biscuits & gravy and potatoes. Tim's pancake was 12" across and an inch thick.
We saw plenty of people here ordering short stacks only to be amazed at the 3 square feet of pancake they had ordered. Plenty of take out boxes were in use here.
This drive is particulary scenic...once you get on Interstate 15. First, you drive past all the dairy farms of Chino & Norco (scenic but also aromatic), then through the rolling hills of Temescal Canyon, into Lake Elsinore. From there, you come upon Southern California's premiere wine country, Temecula.
We stopped at Temecula to pick up some sandwiches at the local Togo's Eatery to take with us for later. Togo's makes great sandwiches and are very reasonably priced. Togo's in Temecula is located at 28150 Front St. at the Rancho California exit off of Interstate 15.
The plan was to eat a picnic at the depot in Campo, but we were all still so full from that huge breakfast that we skipped lunch and saved our sandwiches for dinner.
For being on the edge of one of the hottest deserts in the nation, Campo is amazingly green. This is due to the extremely high water table in the area. The Campo depot itself sits on the south side of the lush, green meadow that is visible throughout the town.
We arrived at the Campo depot of the San Diego Railroad Museum at 1:00pm, 90 minutes before the next train was scheduled to depart. One of the museum's docents was just about to start a walking tour, so we grabbed some cold sodas out of the ice chest & tagged along.
On the walking tour we saw some great old railroad equipment & rolling stock all in various stages of restoration. Pullman cars, old San Francisco streetcars, cabooses, diesel & steam locomotives and more.
We learned that this particular railroad was built around 1915. In fact, you can see that date stamped into the rails and many of the bridges nearby.
Next door was Fort Leggett, the last mounted cavalry post in the U.S. At the start of World War II, this base housed 5,000 men and 10,000 horses. As the cavalry was motorized, the base became a hospital unit and a POW camp for Italian and German prisoners. Many of the POW's contributed to the construction of nearby buildings and roads.
After the tour, we headed back to the depot area to await the train. The train consisted of the antique steam locomotive, 3 restored passenger cars, and one restored baggage car that served as an on-board snack bar as well as housing the restroom facilities. The doors on the baggage car are left open to provide a scenic spot to stand and get some fresh air as you travel.
Kids of all ages just seem to love trains. Especially old ones (trains and kids). The ride lasts about 90 minutes and goes through some absolutely gorgeous scenery. Throughout the ride you see exactly one road and only sporadically at that.
You end up in a area that has seen absolutely no development in the last 100 years and looks exactly as it did when bandits, cowboys, & Indians freely roamed the area. In fact, not much has changed...this area is still heavily used by smugglers to bring undocumented aliens and contraband into the states. The U.S. Border Patrol is a much seen presence in the area trying to combat this. Today we see no criminal elements at play but do not have to try very hard to imagine why such a land has attracted outlaws throughout history.
Museum docents provide an excellent commentary on the area, it's history, and the train's history as the journey commences. Noticing the frequent whistling of the train, they remind you that you too would be pulling that whistle every chance you got if you were doing it for fun.
That's because the engineers, the conductors, the brakemen...in fact everybody working here...are unpaid volunteers doing this just for fun. You can even sign up to ride in the cab and take a few minutes at the controls yourself.
With the trip over we headed back the way we came to find our cabin at Stallion Oaks in nearby Descanso. Fortunately, the folks at Stallion Oaks had faxed us the directions before we left or we would have really been lost.
Stallion Oaks is located in the foothills that lead up to Julian. It's way off the main highway set on 200 private acres of oak forest and meadows. We rented a 2 bedroom cabin that also had a living room, dining room, kitchen and fireplace. Very clean and nicely decorated. The price for all this? $99 per night, split between us and our guests that came to $49.50 for each party.
There are also motel rooms here that start at around $50 per night and luxury "romance" cabins that have their own spa for around $130 per night. There is also a campground with everything from tent spaces to full-hookup RV spaces.
Facilities here include a pool, a spa, a fishing lake, covered bridge, carriage rides, general store, and more. We settled in for a nice long soak in the spa that really cut the day's road dust off of us. Afterwards, when Tim found that the TV would not get any stations here, we went for a moonlight walk in the nearby meadow. We only got a couple of mosquito bites, but they are out there.
In the morning we hiked to the lake which is about a mile from our cabin. It was then that we noticed all the poison oak lining the road. Luckily, we must have missed touching any the night before because no one got a rash. We got to the lake, which was a little low at the time. It was still a nice walk, including a covered bridge, although it was a bit buggy with flies & gnats.
After the hike, we packed up and headed down to Tecate where we planned to eat breakfast.
Even though we had a map, we made a wrong turn and ended up going about 40 miles out of our way. The backroads down here are very easy to get lost on! It's a very scenic area though so it was still a nice drive.
We crossed the border at 11:30am and, after a quick inspection by the Mexican border officials, we were on our way. It's a grand total of 2 blocks from the border to downtown Tecate where we parked at the town plaza and set out to find some food. You might even want to park on the U.S. side of the border and walk in (U.S. auto insurance is void in Mexico) but beware it’s all uphill coming back.
We quickly found Cafe Los Pinos on the east edge of the plaza and ate there. The meal for the 3 of us consisted of quesadillas, 2 bowls of menudo, and four tacos accompanied by refried beans and soda. Great food and only $11.00 for everything.
After that, it was off for an afternoon of shopping where my wife picked up some pottery at great prices (watch out though, because there are some reasonable pottery stores and some very unreasonable ones...shop around and bargain).
Tecate is unlike any other Mexican border town I've seen in that it is more like a small Mexican town and unlike the anything goes atmosphere you find in other border towns like Tijuana. It's quiet, pretty, and peaceful. Be aware here that the border closes at 8:00pm...if you're in Tecate after that, you either spend the night or drive to Tijuana or Mexicali to get home.
Tecate is also the home of Cervecería Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma, makers of town's namesake beer. Brewery tours are available, along with free samples in their beer garden, if you call in advance....
After our afternoon in Tecate, we headed back to the U.S. There was a total of 4 cars in line at the border crossing making for a very quick crossing. As you might know, this compares with a few hours that a Tijuana border crossing can take on a Sunday afternoon.
After getting lost in the morning, we decided our best course of action was to head back toward Campo and travel back out through there. From here it was a nice, uneventful ride back to L.A. and the reality of our jobs. All-in-all, this was a very pleasant overnighter that didn't even come close to breaking the budget.
Copyright 1998 - Darryl Musick