Saturday, January 21, 2023

[M3] Road trip!! SF > Palm Springs in DTM machines

A year ago, I kicked off my 2022 automotive calendar with an amazing road trip down to Palm Springs in the Focus. You can read about that here on the blog (part 1, part 2, part 3). The purpose of that journey was to attend the one-day M School at the BMW Performance Center West in Thermal, CA, just east of Palm Springs. I made a point of avoiding the soul-crushing boredom of I-5 on that trip, and in the process discovered some gems of roads through central California.

I enjoyed myself so much at M School that I signed up again for January of 2023. This time, I decided that I wanted to make the trip in my M3, and I enlisted a friend to join me as well. Kevin is a great friend with one of the nicest E30 M3s on earth, and he was brave enough to join me on this journey of 1200+ miles in our 30 year-old cars, driving off the beaten path. I drew heavily from last year's route, trying to balance trip time with road quality and scenery. Here's the route we took:

[note: CA-33 is closed as I write this, so I can't provide an accurate updated map; this is the map from the Focus trip again, it's the same through Ventura]

Google maps link: [will update]

  1. 101 south to Atascadero, stop for lunch and fuel
  2. Exit 101 in Santa Margarita, catch CA-58 east
  3. Follow CA-58 until it hits CA-33
  4. Take CA-33 south, stop in Maricopa for fuel
  5. Follow CA-33 / CA-166 south, turn south to remain on CA-33 / Maricopa Highway
  6. Follow CA-33 all the way down through Ojai into Ventura, stop for fuel
  7. 101 east to 134 east to 210 east, stop in Pasadena for dinner
  8. 210 east to 10 east all the way to Palm Springs
There was a bit more prep work required for this trip compared to the previous journey in the Focus. I thoroughly inspected the car and found no issues except for a pool of coolant in the driver's footwell, courtesy of a leaking heater valve. No heat for the trip, then. I decided to apply the "umbrella" strategy (bring an umbrella and it won't rain) and packed the trunk full of tools as well as some M3-specific components that might save us from an extended stop on the side of the road. Of course, my best vintage car tool is a Premier-level AAA membership, which includes a once-yearly 200-mile tow. We packed simple 2-way walkie-talkies to help with car-to-car communication, something hugely helpful for quick communications and alerts about upcoming vehicles with lights on the roof.

Poor Kevin lives 100 miles north of me, so his Saturday (1/7) started early. We met at my place, ate chicken biscuits, and did a final once-over before filling up our tanks and hitting the road. We merged on to the 101 at 9.45a Saturday.

The opening leg - about 3 hours due south on the highway - was uneventful. We tiptoed past the CHP command post in King City and arrived in Atascadero for an In-N-Out lunch (mandatory for any CA road trip) and fuel.

We hopped on the 101 again briefly to reach Santa Margarita, where we connected with CA-58 and left the highway behind. On last year's trip it was "love at first drive" with this road, and 2023 did not disappoint. The road quality is excellent and there was not a single car to slow us down across the uncharacteristically green scenery, courtesy of a very wet winter season.

Last year I didn't stop for photos - this year we did. 

Midway through CA-58 there is a reprieve from the squiggles and the road becomes dead straight, breaking up solar panel farms. Well - it's straight on the map, but there is a sequence of blind rolling hills that serves to jostle your lunch around and make you nervously lift off the accelerator pedal, unable to see what's on the back side of each crest. I managed to catch an interloper in one of my photos snapped blindly through the windshield, a lone coyote.

We stopped again to enjoy the vast expanse and total quiet of the empty plain.

"You know," I said to Kevin, "I've always wanted one of those 'middle of the road' photos, but I've never been brave enough to do it on any roads in the Bay Area."

"Well," he said, "there is no one out here, and we can see miles in both directions." And so we did middle-of-the-road photos. Of course we didn't just park our cars - in these photos we're both hunched over behind the wheel, car running, ready to clear out as soon as we hear a car coming.

None did.

[photo credit: Kevin Lee]

CA-58 is a greatest hits album of a road, offering a complete and varied package of scenery, cambered curves, and long straights. But the top single from the album is the eastern end of the road, a descent past the Temblor Range into the central valley. This is a dream piece of road, perfect in every way except that it's so absolutely in the middle of nowhere.

At the bottom of the hill we intercepted CA-33, following it south through the oil fields and small towns of Taft and Maricopa. We stopped for fuel in Maricopa - not strictly necessary, but I prefer to top off with good quality gas when venturing off the beaten path.

CA-33 and CA-166 coincide south of Maricopa, and we traced them down for a few miles before turning south to stay on CA-33 / Maricopa Highway toward Los Padres National Forest. 

I recycled one of the photo spots I found on last year's trip - not too shabby.

The sun started to sag pretty low, and we still had to get up and over the hill, through Ojai and to our next stop in Ventura. Pre-trip we'd discussed the option of Malibu canyon carving, but we'd spent a fair amount of time stopping and snapping photos (no regrets) and the 5p winter sunset meant we had to pick up the pace. I didn't want to be on these unfamiliar canyon roads in the dark.

CA-33 is another road worth a few hours' detour in a sports car. My favorite part is the series of S-curves along Sespe Creek, perfect in third and fourth gear in an E30 M3. The downhill portion into Wheeler Gorge is superlative and when we came through, the hills were purple with dusk and the sunset was unfolding on the western horizon. It was one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen.

As the sun set on the California day, it also set on the fun parts of our drive to Palm Springs. We caught traffic in Ojai, and by the time we made our fuel stop in Ventura it was fully dark. We met some great people at the Chevron - a group of teenagers who'd been surfing all day and come over from the hotel next door for some munchies. "Did you see the waves? Biggest in 50 years!" We did not see the waves, on account of the dark, and generally not seeing the Pacific Ocean all day. We also met a really nice guy who had previously worked in a BMW performance shop and gave us the bona fide BMW guy seal of approval for our cars and our S14s. I think he said he used to own an E34? He had followed us in to the gas station when he saw us come by, just to check out the cars. His poor wife was waiting in the car while we chatted. (full disclosure: I have done the same to Sara)

Because it's LA, there was traffic and our planned straight shot of 101-210-10 due west was complicated. In any case, we stopped for dinner in Pasadena. I've never been - nice downtown, lively with a lot of cool restaurants. 

Leaving Pasadena, it was a straight shot down 210 to I-10 out to Palm Springs. At one stage of this leg, we came up behind an F80 M3 on the highway. I radioed to Kevin and we flanked the M3 on either side, dropped into 4th, and did a stereo carbon airbox ricer flyby on the M3 for a laugh. There was no reaction at all, lame.

As is tradition, an hour outside of Palm Springs I cued up Queens of the Stone Age's 2002 album Songs for the Deaf. Aside from being one of my favorite records of all time, it's a concept album modeled after the drive from LA to Joshua Tree, jumping through fictional radio stations representing different cities along the route. It was a sadder play-through this year after the death of Mark Lanegan in February of 2022. RIP to a one-of-a-kind voice.

After a short 'victory lap' cruise down Palm Canyon Drive, at 10:30pm we finally rolled in to our hotel, the goofily-named Sonder - The Cole. That's where we'll park this trip for now. Next up: Joshua Tree and BMW M-School.

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