After leaving the freeway, we’d driven east along Leucadia Boulevard, and once we’d crossed Camino Real—a multi-laned, souped-up version of Hadley’s Route 9—the road began to climb. The neighborhoods of sand-colored houses became newer and newer, the din of Camino’s traffic and the sign of any places to buy gas or a paper or a gallon of milk, left behind. As we came up over the crest of a hill, the road curved and leveled out. Suddenly, to our amazement, we were driving through a small town.
A row of stores and a corner building that looked like it should be housing a frontier bank lined one side of the road. Across the way in the center was an expansive expensively landscaped park complete with a babbling fountain and trellised area outfitted with chairs and tables. Beyond stood a clock tower and rows of two and three story houses and condos, their colors and accents vaguely Mediterranean laced with a shot of Victoriana.
Intrigued by this orderly place, we decided to stop for a cup of coffee at the eatery across from the town center and walk around. The scope and pace of the town’s development were stunning to observe. San Elijo Hills seemed to be the epitome of what planners are talking about when they talk about a walkable community. Residential units housed on top of “Main Street” stores, and a network of subdivisions leading to the center; a supermarket chain around the corner; two brand-new public schools a short walk away. Wide sidewalks, bike racks and pedestrian-controlled crossing lights. And just a block from “downtown,” a huge town recreational area, which includes a “Bark Park.” The place resonated of the hill towns we have visited in Italy and Spain, that same sense of harmony, and the same near-empty streets. Wouldn’t it be interesting, we thought, to come back in five or ten years to see how San Elijo Hills had evolved.
A San Diego County Sheriff’s Deputy we stopped to chat with explained that the town’s first residents began moving in around 200l. While you’re here, he said, you might want to go up to Double Peak, go straight up the hill and turn left after four lights; the views are very nice. We drove up. Our friend down below had steered us in the right direction: the views from the park at the top of Double Peak of the coastal towns and snow-capped mountains were outstanding on that relatively clear day. From here, the Pacific appeared to be almost next-door, yet is about 20 minutes away.
We noted the signs of rapid development racing up the San Elijo hillsides, the sprawling clusters of new townhouses in the town of San Marcos below. Double Peak, we later learned, rises 1,627 feet above sea level (about 400 feet higher than Mt. Tom back home), and that modest elevation provides the development’s promotional materials with the perfect sales line—“San Elijo Hills The Highest Point in Coastal North County.”
We ditched our plans to go hiking, ate our picnic lunch on the hilltop, and drove back to Camino Real, where Target, REI and Trader’s Joe were waiting for us.