Hitting The Palms To Pines Highway In A 2014 Audi RS7
Hey, Mr. Road Engineer Man: Thank you. I don't know your name, but I'd like to sing your praises. You outdid yourself on the mountain stretch of Route 74 just outside of Hemet, California. Those two magic miles made my whole trip, the justification for taking the long way from Los Angeles to Palm Springs. My car thanks you, too. The Audi RS7 wasn't born to whimper along lazy byways or boring highways. It needed that workout.
You shoehorned the road into the side of the cliff in the most perfect way possible. It's beautifully banked, and the turnouts are brilliant: It's easy to swing around and run the glass-smooth asphalt in both directions. I threw the Audi RS7 and its 516 lb-ft of thundering torque at that stretch a half-dozen times. The mountain-and-desert vista was gorgeous, but my eyes were only for the road, lest the torque-drunk Audi break through the guardrails and sprout wings.
L.A. may call itself a car town, but few roads there are gifted with the type of love that you bestow, and I'm not one to waste a fast car. So I blew south to the affluent surf-side town of Dana Point, got bored there, and decided a run to Palm Springs was in order. I'd never been there and heard (correctly) that it is an auto oasis. Hollywood gadabouts have long taken the hot-rod-of-the-day to the desert to squire around starlets and exercise their big engines. A friend told me that I'd find Studebaker Avantis running around the streets, as if it were still the town's midcentury architectural and design heyday.
My chosen path was Route 74, often called the Palms to Pines Highway, which runs from San Juan Capistrano to Palm Desert, crossing mountain ranges and desert bowls. I got up before dawn and ascended the still inky-dark twisties of the Ortega Highway -- a place that convulses with daredevil motorcyclists on weekends and has portions named Dead Man's Curve and Blood Alley. It was ghostly empty at the early hour, and I parked at the summit of El Cariso and watched as dawn broke over Lake Elsinore to the east. Crazy pinks and dark moody violets, no filter needed.
The Audi RS7 was a fabulous choice. It is Audi's most bombastic GT car, with a hatch that gulps luggage and a 4.0-liter twin-turbocharged V-8 that churns through oxygen like a Learjet. All that power seems like overkill -- for about ten minutes. Then you start to lean on the car's ability to surge from 40 mph to thrice that in a finger snap. It's not cheap, though, with a $105,795 base price and a $122,545 sticker all-in.
Lake Elsinore to Hemet is dull, and Hemet itself is rough around the edges. I gassed up and three guys with neck tattoos eyed the RS7. "Nice car, bro," said one, more predatory than admiring. I hastened away before my four-door fastback "coupe" really did get the chop-shop treatment.
Nor did I get something to eat, and after making my way up to your magnificent section of road -- apparently called the Idyllwild National Forest Highway -- I was ravenous and pretty much out of luck. There is precious little sign of humanity the rest of the way, just flat solitary desert. It was worth the hunger pains, however, as I fell into the rhythm of the road and the lovely solitude. This isn't SoCal anymore, but the West.
Past Pinyon Pines, the road gains altitude. It's worth stopping at the summit's lookout just to see the ribbon of road unfurling below, a satisfying finish before the fun ends among Palm Desert's traffic lights, golf courses, and plastic-surgery clinics.
I wasn't done, though. I was doing Palms to Pines to "Private Pavement," as the Thermal Club racetrack brands itself. After a great dinner and a nice bed in Palm Springs, I arrived at the brand-new track by 7 a.m., before the heat came on. The track will eventually include three different courses, villas, and private garages. It's like a private golf club for those who think that watering grass in a desert is asinine -- and so is chasing around a little white ball. Give me speed and adrenaline and the chance to stretch the RS7's legs any day.
Currently, Thermal has a 1.8-mile road course; its smooth pavement would make an engineer proud. The RS7 isn't a track car, but it was brilliant here, laying on great speed down the straights and smoothly transitioning through the turns. My only complaint is that redline comes on too soon, bumping hard against the rev limiter.
Stopping in pit lane to let the brakes cool, I looked around. I was under a grand canopy of desert sky, framed by craggy mountains and surrounded by great roads. No wonder L.A. drivers have made pilgrimages here for decades. This is real car country.
The Thermal Club
86030 62nd Avenue, Thermal760-674-0088
This private club in the Coachella Valley is the kind we can get behind: a 1.8-mile racetrack with two more on the way. The initial member fee is $85,000 -- cheaper than the RS7 -- but you'll also have to buy a garage lot. Still, it's an excuse to escape L.A.
La Quinta Resort & Club
49499 Eisenhower Drive, La Quinta760-564-4111
One of those old-school 1920s haunts where every room has a story and former guests were the likes of Clark Gable. You'll literally get lost on the grounds. Fifteen miles from the racetrack.
Laguna Cliffs Resort & Spa
25135 Park Lantern Street, Dana Point949-661-5000
Route 74 doesn't quite start from the sea, but you should. Laguna Cliffs has fabulous views of the Pacific and top-notch food and service.