The Ultimate Drives in the OC: Where and When to Take the Top Down & Cruise

When overuse of the 5 and 405 freeways give you cause to scratch your head and wonder why on earth you moved to Orange County and bought a 6-speed manual transmission convertible, it may be time to inspire yourself with the possibility of some new, scenic drives.

After all, L.A. has the sit-in-traffic base covered.

For your driving pleasure, we’ve compiled the ultimate¬†list of local drives that will inspire you to take the top down and blast your favorite tunes while negotiating the prodigal highway that all experienced drivers live for. We’ve got the picturesque California views and windy backroads that make living in the Sunshine State worth every penny (as long as you can switch off Netflix for a bit and get out of the house).

1) Ortega Highway

Known to locals as State Route 74 and to cartographers as part of the Pines to Palms Scenic Byway, Ortega Highway begins in San Juan Capistrano and carries past Ronald W. Caspers Wilderness Park and into the Santa Ana mountains before descending into Riverside county.

This drive is characterized by its windy passes and oak backdrops as well as its constant feed of impressive views. Motorists and car enthusiasts harbor a subtle obsession with this 44-mile stretch of asphalt, which is known to many drivers as one of the best places to cruise in Southern California. It even has its own website where you can check road conditions before high-tailing it out of your driveway.

Ortega also has (unfortunately well-named) sections such as Dead Man’s Curve and Blood Alley, as many drivers have been known to cause fatalities to themselves and to the bearded leather-clad men on road bikes who frequent this road.

So if you choose to plan a trip here, be sure to avoid cutting corners and keep an ear and eye out for those Harleys. While always present, the risk of death seems to be a small price to pay for traversing this one-of-a-kind highway and experiencing its scenic views, which is why it remains one of the most popular drives around.

2) Pacific Coast Highway

pacific coast highway laguna beach

No driving guide of Orange County would be complete without an honorable mention of PCH, also known as Highway 1. And while you would kick yourself for choosing to undertake this drive at 4 o’clock on a Wednesday, if your schedule permits you to make a morning or night drive out of it, you will be rewarded. There’s nothing like driving while taking in the sweet sea air and watching waves crash out of your peripheral vision.

If you decide to take the stretch of PCH that passes through Laguna Beach, we recommend taking a detour up Cress Street and winding through the neighborhoods to achieve an incredible view of Newport Beach and the surrounding coastline known as Top of the World. We also recommend avoiding Laguna Beach during rush hour and the summer tourism season, as these commuters and sightseers tend to clog the motorways, especially near Laguna Canyon.

You would be well served if you hopped on PCH north of Newport Beach and discovered the spectacular views of the Crystal Cove State Park beaches offered there. But that’s just our recommendation.

PCH offers incredible views of the Pacific Ocean through every beach town in Orange County, and the drive from Seal Beach to San Clemente on a quiet morning, complete with stopping in at some of the great donut and coffee shops along the way could make this a perfect weekend morning drive.

And there are over 600 miles of PCH–so go knock yourself out.

3) Santiago and Trabuco Canyons

There are several ways to get to this spectacularly scenic drive, but whether you’re taking Marguerite or the 133 and the 241, your navigation efforts will be rewarded by a curvy drive that’s draped in shadows from the oak trees that tunnel around the two-lane road.

If you take Santiago Canyon Road to where it intersects with El Toro and Live Oak Canyon, you will encounter a local spot known as Cook’s Corner. Harley-Davidsons are often parked outside this eatery, where anyone can enjoy live music, beer, and some good sandwiches.

From here you can twist down Live Oak Canyon Road to Trabuco Canyon Road, which passes ranches and equestrian country before ascending up a ridge that offers a sunny view of the surrounding peaks and valleys.

4) San Joaquin Hills Transportation Toll Road (AKA the 73)

Okay, granted you’ll have to shell out a few bucks for this ride. But if you’ve never gunned down the 73 before, it’s worth it. The drive passes over undeveloped chapparosa-covered foothills of the Santa Ana Mountains. Here, drivers and passengers can catch a glimpse into what California looked like before 38 million people discovered how awesome it was and decided to live here.

The rolling hills, though not as windy as Santiago Canyon, make for thrilling descents and feature views Shady Canyon and Bommer Canyon. And while you have a better chance of getting eaten by a shark than you do of getting caught in traffic here, California Highway Patrol does make an appearance on the shoulder of the road from time to time. So be sure to keep a wary eye out or use Waze when getting frisky with the speed limit.

5) Camino Capistrano

Camino Capistrano in 1959, Orange County Archives
Camino Capistrano in 1959, Orange County Archives

When passing through San Juan to Laguna Niguel or vice versa, this two-lane highway provides a relaxing and scenic alternative to the I-5 freeway, which it parallels. Ranches and orange groves nestled in the valley create an atmosphere that is open, peaceful, and remarkably western compared to the more developed surrounding regions.

On the southern end of this route you will drive through old San Juan Capistrano and past the historic ruins of Mission San Juan Capistrano, a relic from colonial Las Californias. For the seasoned sightseers out there, the mission is not to be confused with the Mission Basilica, an impressive Spanish-style structure that opened in 1987.

Schedule this drive around March 19th to witness massive flocks of swallows as they complete their 6,000-mile journey from their winter vacation homes in Argentina to inhabit the areas surrounding this historic drive.

The best roads for cruising in Orange County, from the beaches to the foothills. It's a Southern California daydream!