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Channeling biker-babe vibes for a Harley Davidson road trip along the California coast was the perfect way to celebrate a milestone birthday. With body and mind locked on a youthful reflection in the mirror, I was feeling more affinity to the departing decade, than the one I was joining. Plus, there’s something about a leather jacket and a Harley with a blinding amount of chrome, that can turn a working professional into a badass biker gal – and make her feel at least 10 years younger.

“So you’ve ridden a Harley before right?” came the question from Brandon, our rental guy at Eagle Rider, San Diego. The answer was no, which seemed to surprise him, as he quickly added, “Most people who rent here know Harley’s.”

“This bike is 1900 CC’s of power and weighs over 800lbs. How big is your bike at home? Ducking the intimidation, I replied, “I’m used to a cruiser,” which seemed to satisfy him, since we were renting Heritage Softail Classics. I wasn’t about to elaborate that my cruiser was a Yamaha V-Star 250. That would be almost like admitting to riding scooter to a Harley man.

That I was signaling entry to the coveted Harley club, decked out in branded 120th anniversary flannel, and wearing a well-worn HD leather jacket, was lost on him. Perhaps he sensed that the jacket was a Facebook Marketplace acquisition, and the hard work of breaking it in, had been earned on someone else’s shoulders.

“Take it for a test ride in the parking lot,” which seemed to be code for, “I’ll watch you ride, and we’ll make sure you can handle it.”

So with Brandon’s cautioning words about Harley’s sharing the right signal with the throttle handle, unlike all other bikes, I did a few spins around the lot – minding the rocket launcher in my right hand, should a cancelled signal take the bike from 0-100 accidentally.

Departing Eagle Rider, San Diego CA

The ride demo seemed to satisfy him. As my husband said later, “He walked back inside after watching the first minute.” I passed, but quietly wondered if guys are put through the same competency challenge?”

We had rented out of San Diego Eagle Rider, situated inside the Harley Davidson shop at the north end of the city, so getting south of San Diego on the I-5, where we planned to then head inland, was challenging. After several wrong turns, enduring the Mario Andretti San Diego freeway drivers, and becoming separated once, we finally were off towards Boulevard, our destination for the evening.

Our Harley Davidson road trip was a four day circle route. It took us inland from San Diego, via Otay Lakes Road, to Hwy 94, through Campo along the US/Mexico border to Boulevard the first night, then north via Hwy 79 and the Sunrise Hwy to Mt Laguna and then Julian the second evening, and then west out to the coast via Hwy 79 and the Ortega Highway Route 74 to Oceanside the third night. On the forth day we returned to San Diego via the old South Coast Hwy 101. The trip offered a variety of fun and challenging roads, diverse scenery, various micro climates, and the signature California Coastal Highway, which would be ground zero for the commemorative badass birthday bike photo.

Harley Davidson Road Trip Day 1 destination: Boulevard, CA

After picking the bikes up midday, we took I-5 south through San Diego to L Street, and then picked up Telegraph Canyon Road out towards Lower Otay Lake. The secondary roads with less traffic were a calming force after the I-5, but we were soon to hit our first obstacle, a wash-out. While the permanent “Turn around and don’t drown” signage implied wash-outs are common in the area, the unseasonably wet Spring 2023 in California, which rendered many rivers and creeks beyond capacity, and closed some roads for safety.

When flooded turn around don't down

But before we could contemplate an alternative route, my husband had followed another car, ducking around the sign, and was cautiously riding a wave of water to the other side. With no option but to join him, I put my legs in the air as he had, and gently hit the throttle. We would repeat this exercise two more times along Otay Lakes Road due to flooding.

Closed road due to flooding

While the I-5 had been baptism by fire, this was baptism by water. It crept up our pant legs and down our boots, about as welcome as a soggy sandwich. An additional light shower as we arrived into Boulevard was like misting an already well watered plant.

Wasn’t California eternally sunny? That was the narrative in my head when I envisioned the coast highway birthday ride as part of the Harley Davidson road trip. But with the coastal portion of the trip on day three and four, that promise was still to come.

Hwy 94 through the  Camp Creek region gently climbed to a mountainous area where we could see the US/Mexico border wall clearly up in the hills.

US/Mexico border high in the hills of southern California

On the road to Boulevard

It was on towards Campo, and then Boulevard for the night. The Back Country Inn Motel was pretty much the only place in town, and it was there that we learned that The Acorn, the only restaurant in town, had burned down two months previous. So, with spotting border patrol vehicles about the only action in town, we walked to the local Mini-Mart to grab some Ramen noodles and cheap Mexican wine.

End of day 1 with bikes in Boulevard, CA

It was a gentle reminder that day one would not be part of the culinary tour. But all was well. We were dry, warm and safe, had survived the challenges tossed our way, and the bikes were beginning to feel comfortable.

Harley Davidson Road Trip Day 2 destination: Julian, CA

Julian is a lovely little town renowned for its historic charm, and legendary Julian Apple Pie Company. Our route on day two took us there via the Cleveland National Forest and the Sunrise Hwy (S1) towards Mt Laguna.

Sunrise Hwy to Mt Laguna

Mt Laguna

The Sunrise Hwy climbs to 5,000 ft elevation at Mt Laguna, and features many turns and lookouts.  In yet another unanticipated weather event for southern California in March, Mt Laguna had received snow the previous night. The roads were clear, but patchy wet and sanded, which presented some safety challenges on motorbikes. For a couple Canadians used to snow, we simply rolled with it, musing how we hadn’t been given an option for snow tires.

Snow on Mt Laguna, March 2023

The day was sunny and brisk, and the ride magnificently beautiful over the snow covered mountain range. Evidently the white stuff was an anomaly for locals, as they flocked to the area to experience it. Fortunately the east side of the mountain was clear of snow, and the road down into the Lake Cayamaca area was dry, offering lots of blue sky, and brisk temperatures.

Mt Laguna lookout

Along Mt Laguna Sunrise hwy

Lake Cayamaca

Lake Cuyamaca

Julian, our destination for night two, is nestled in the picturesque Cayamaca Mountains, and is famous for its mouth-watering apple pies and ciders from local orchards, along with a rich California gold rush history dating back to the 1880’s.

Downtown Julian

Of course no stop in Julian is complete without visiting the Julian Apple Pie Company. A heated slice with a scoop of ice cream was the perfect reward for the end of the days ride, along with a walk through town, checking out the shops steeped in frontier town history, to top it off.

Julian Pie Company

Julian pies

Julian pie options

Eating Julian pie!

We had planned to stay at the historical Carriage House Inn right in town, but when our original bike rental dates were delayed, due to heavy rain, we had given up the coveted booking. However we were able to secure a room at the Apple Tree Inn, 6 miles west of Julian, with its own little town center featuring the Calico Cidery, and Heroes wood fired pizza restaurant. The Calico Cidery, situated in an old barn, short walk through town, was a welcome happy hour treat. And we topped it off with a wood fired pizza dinner at Heroes, more local beer on tap, and the band “Beard and the Bard” for entertainment.

Heroes, Calico Cidery and the Bear Claw Bakery – three good reasons to stay this side of town

Heroes Restaurant, Julian

Inside Heroes restaurant, Julian

Calico Cidery, Julian

Inside Calico Cidery, Julian

There are two locations for Wynola Junction Antiques & Collectibles in town as well, both owned by Tracy Turner, who seemed to mind the till at each place on demand, trusting customers to not walk off with goods unpaid. It made for authentic treasure hunting, and a nice contrast to the more carefully curated shopping experience at the shops in downtown Julian.  We picked up the “Julian Apple Cookbook”, a fundraising project for the town, and Tracy took the time to mark off her own recipes, carefully noting additional baking tips in the margins! We were delighted to be staying at this little stop just out of Julian, an emerging town site in its own right. The next morning’s visit at the Bear Claw Bakery sealed the deal on our decision, with their amazing freshly baked pastries and coffee, before heading out to the coast on the bikes.

Harley Davidson road trip Day 3 destination: Oceanside and the Old Pacific Hwy

Day three of our Harley Davidson road trip featured Hwy 79 as a quiet road out of Julian, Hwy 76 through the rolling hills of Pala and then on through the Temecula Valley and out to Old Town . Getting through Old Town involves ten stop signs offering ample opportunity for an audience of onlookers at street cafes to witness a stall out in first gear. So revving our Harley engines became a necessity, but admittedly we also felt pretty cool.

After checking out Old Town we were off to the infamous Ortega Highway, past Lake Elsinore and over the coastal range out towards Dana point on the coast and down to Oceanside.

Ortega Highway

The Ortega Highway is a two lane road section of Route 74, which crosses through Cleveland National Forest. Built in 1933, it is highly frequented by tourists, and bikers in particular, due to its sweeping turns and beautiful views.

Ortega Highway curves

Ortega Highway

Lake Elsinore

The road is also known for its dangerous nature, with many cars and motorbikes not respecting speed limits, earning it a reputation as one of the most perilous roads in California.

We chose the Ortega Highway with cautious curiosity, but in hind sight it was a poor time to cross this section without local knowledge of isolated westbound lane construction during March 2023.

Construction alert!

The construction made us more focused on the ridged scaled pavement, which gave way to a resurfaced two foot strip up the middle in many sections, than the scenery. The road conditions made for some challenging riding, since the usual lines for entering and exiting a corner at speed on a motorbike would have necessitated crossing between the paved center hump and the compromised ridged grooved pavement continuously.

If you want to limit the risk of driving this road, it would be best to avoid weekends, drive it in the morning to avoid traffic, and check for road construction notices! However, it would normally be a highlight to a California Harley Davidson road trip, if you can swing it.

Oceanside

Once we hit the coast, we took the I-5 down to Oceanside. Riding part of the Old Pacific Coast Hwy into town, and then spending a lovely evening by the beach and Oceanside Harbor was a great treat at the end of the day for beers, tacos, and walking boardwalk and the beach at sunset. The Harbor Inn & Suites, right at Hwy 78 exit and Old Pacific Hwy, made for an easy walk out to the port restaurants and beach area.

Oceanside

Oceanside CA sunset

We took the Old South Coastal Hwy 101 from Oceanside down to San Diego on our last day. It was on this stretch that I staged the birthday photo by the ocean road, with beach and motorbike. This was the ride that I had envisioned when we booked the bikes, and it was a glorious end to our 4-day road trip. Our circle route inland from San Diego, north and then returning via the coast had been the perfect tour to include great roads and a variety of sites, in addition to the classic California coast ride, albeit with a few challenging conditions tossed in along the way.

Harley Davidson Road Trip Day 4 destination: San Diego via the South Coast Hwy

California coast

Historic route California Hwy 101

Harley Davidson road trip, Hwy 101 Old Coast Highway, CA

Getting back to the Eagle Rider rental location was a breeze, since it was located at the north end of San Diego. Brandon greeted us with enthusiasm, keen to learn the story of where we had been. Perhaps he was just excited to see both $30,000 bikes return unscathed, but his compliments about where we had been and how we had cared for the bikes was genuine.

With Brandon from Eagle Rider, San Diego

Riding a much bigger and more powerful bike and navigating new roads with some challenging conditions, was an empowering experience. Having earned my badass biker babe Harley wings, I was ready to enter the next decade

Birthday socks for the Harley Davidson road trip

If you go

Book your Harley Davidson road trip motorbike rental through , 4647 Morena Blvd, San Diego. They feature primarily Harley bike options, but you can also rent Yamaha, BMW and Triumph bikes.

Rental charges and a membership option

The Harley Davidson Heritage Softail Classic rents for $179/day + insurance. But another solid option to consider is joining the Eagle Rider Club. Different memberships are available, but the least expensive is $29/month which earns you one credit per month, bankable for up to 18 months. The Softail rents to members for 2 credits/day, so an annual membership payment of $348 would enable a 6 day rental at 80 Eagle Rider locations worldwide. Club members also save 20% on rentals when not using their credits. They’re obviously banking on the membership as a loss leader to introduce consumers to Harley Davidson bikes. But the option to use the membership for an annual trip throughout the US, Canada, Italy, Croatia, Morocco, South Africa, Mexico, India and more locations globally is pretty appealing.

Licensing

You need to show proof of a Class 6 motorcycle license (or equivalent), plus bring your own riding gear. Although rental of helmet and jacket can be arranged at some locations for an additional cost.

When to go

There’s really no bad time to ride a motorbike in California, but you’re best to check local conditions for your planned route, and stay away from coastal fog, often present in the morning during warmer months. Extreme heat is more common during the peak of summer, and can make for uncomfortable riding. Plus the danger of wildfires increases during the hot, dry summer months. Excessive rain during a wet spring, while uncommon, is also something to consider when planning.

Gearing up for your Harley Davidson road trip

You’ll likely want to grab some Harley Davidson gear in preparation for the ride, or to at least commemorate the trip. Check out jackets, t-shirts, hoodies, jeans and riding pants, gloves, boots and hats, plus backpacks and duffel bags on the Harley Davidson site. Or grab some 120th Anniversary gear. We bought Anniversary insulated beer mug holders and absolutely love them. Every time we hoist a beer (and it’s a hefty hoist with a quality metal holder), we think about this great trip! As a side note, I absolutely love my Harley Davidson plaid flannel pictured below. It was great for riding under my leather jacket, and super cozy just to hang out in.

Harley Davidson road trip begins at Eagle Rider San Diego

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Map of the area

Accommodations

Here is where we stayed during this four day trip. Check them out through the individual links, or search via the map or directly though Expedia for additional alternatives.

Backcountry Inn Motel, 39739 Avenida de Robles Verdes, Boulevard, CA (Day 1)

Apple Tree Inn, 4360 Highway 78, Julian, CA (Day 2)

Harbor Inn and Suites, 1401 N Coast Hwy, Oceanside CA (Day 3)

We hope this has inspired your next California motorbike trip. If you’re looking for more road trip inspiration on two wheels, be sure to check out these posts:

Route 66, the Grand Canyon, and Zion National Park by Motorbike

Motorbiking the Sea to Sky Highway from Vancouver to Whistler

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