Green SUV Up To Task On Easy Anza-Borrego Roads

  • From December 2006

Coyote Canyon, in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, has enough history to fill a book. It’s the stuff of controversy, human civilization, geology, plant and animal life, and convenience.

It’s also a good place for city-dwelling desert newbies to get a little off-road time, get advice from Anza-Borrego experts, make it out to the sand and back to San Diego in a day. That there are fun, twisting mountain roads along the way makes it just that much better.

Coyote Canyon is a wide valley heading north from the town of Borrego Springs. It’s home to bighorn sheep and other wildlife, attracted to one of the few streams in the area that runs year-round. Today’s human visitors like it because it’s close to Borrego Springs, making it one of the busier areas in the desert.

Getting there involves going over some of the narrowest and most twisting highways in the county.

They’re the type of roads favored by driving enthusiasts; since the destination is the desert, there can be a lot of traffic from fat-tired pickups with toy haulers filled with desert bikes. Throw in a few motor homes and a weekend drive can be less than enjoyable.

But hang in there, as the desert’s always a prize.From wherever you are, get to Julian, whether it’s on state Route 78 or 79, via Pala Road, Ramona or, the route I chose, up Cuyamaca Highway from Interstate 8. Allow at least two hours, more if you stop in Julian for apple pie. Then it’s down Banner Grade and another turn or two to Borrego Springs.

My first stop was at the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park Visitor Center, 200 Palm Canyon Drive, (760) 767-5311. Knowledgeable rangers, staff members and volunteers can help plan a map for the day. A status board also lets drivers know the state of the roads. Winter rains can rough up the dirt trails, so it’s always a good idea to check the board before heading out.

I also stopped for lunch and supplies in Borrego Springs before traveling the five miles north to Coyote Canyon. Even though I’d left home early in the day, it was now nearing 2 p.m. and the sun sets fast in desert canyons. So, maybe I didn’t go as far up the canyon as I planned, but I still had a good day and was back home in early evening.

A little background on the canyon, courtesy of Anza-Borrego A to Z, Diana Lindsay’s dictionary-style book on everything about the park. Named for the Wiamiistam (which means people of the coyote), the Native Americans who once lived here, the canyon leads north from Borrego Springs. The San Jacinto Fault — yes, an active earthquake fault — created this valley. It has been preserved over the years despite plans ranging from running highway through it connecting to Los Angeles, to building a dam and filling it with water.

Trails and roads connect north to SR-371, then onto SR-79 and I-15. Controversy and court cases have raged over the years. Currently, the road is closed completely from June 1 to October 1, according to the official State Park map.On the warm, sunny day I visited, the trail was very much open. It was busy with off-roaders, hikers and folks just sitting around enjoying the sun.

It’s just a few minutes up the road from Christmas Circle in Borrego Springs. Once the pavement ends on DiGregorio Road, the trail was sandy but, except for a few spots, in decent shape.

This was my second off-road trip in the 2007 Mercury Mariner hybrid; the automatic four-wheel-drive handled the sand just fine. Its ground clearance was adequate to avoid most of the rocks in the road and the suspension soaked up many of the bumps.

Along the way was Desert Gardens, with picnic benches and hiking trails. If I’d been smart, I’d have packed a lunch at home and eaten it here. A couple on horseback were enjoying the day, as were several carloads of visitors. There’s a parking area here, so drivers can pull off the narrow, sandy road. Past Alcohol Pass, the road gets a bit rocky, worn from the traffic, occasional rains and wind. It can get a bit bumpy and this is where a car’s suspension might have trouble — or end up with trouble after a drive over the bumps.

The road up the canyon crosses Coyote Creek in several spots. With water running here almost all year, I was warned that it at the first crossing it can be as high as two feet deep. When I visited in November, there hadn’t been much rain yet, but water still flowed. If your visit comes after winter storms, be careful.

Between the first and the second creek crossings, the road was packed with rocks… very bumpy and requiring some maneuvering to avoid the biggest rocks. The road also runs through its own rut, higher than the bottom of the Mariner’s side windows. Since it’s narrow, be alert to passing vehicles… and I found more than a few that weren’t interested in yielding. In one spot, a group in a Saturn sedan sped by with barely enough room for both vehicles between the dirt side walls. They looked like they were having fun.

I only went as far as the second crossing, where a family was enjoying the day, kids splashing around, mom and dad enjoying music and cold beverages. The Mariner didn’t have any trouble in the mud. Beyond, Visitor Center volunteers advised the road narrows considerably.

On the trail, I wasn’t driving more than 25 mph most of the time, so the electric motor was powering the wheels. The only sound was the crunch of the tires, one of the benefits of driving in a hybrid. Power from the gasoline engine kicked in instantly when needed, so with its high ground clearance and automatic 4×4, the Mariner was just fine navigating this easy trail. And I got around 30 miles per gallon on my round-trip.

On the way back, I was surprised to see a Toyota Prius parked off to the side. I hope that meant that its owners were off hiking, not that the Prius got stuck. I wouldn’t take one out there, as it rides close to the ground.

Because it’s so near to Borrego Springs and a through route to the north, Coyote Canyon is popular and can be a busy place on the weekends. There’s camping at Sheep Canyon and a horse camp. For those looking to drive on a little sand and get an introduction to the desert, it’s a great place to start. ⚙


Mercury Mariner Hybrid

Note that I tested a 2007 Mariner hybrid. The SUV was redesigned for 2008 but was discontinued along with the rest of the Mercury brand. Ford still has an Escape hybrid.

Directions & Info

Difficulty

Easy to difficult. Cuyamaca Highway and Banner Grade can be challenging with twists and turns. Narrow Coyote Canyon road can be rocky, sandy, muddy and crowded.

Distance

About 22 miles from Christmas Circle in Borrego Springs. Borrego Springs is about 90 miles from central San Diego.

Directions

  • Interstate 8 to state Route 79 North, Japatul Valley Road. After exiting, left onto Japatul Valley Road.
  • Left at Cuyamaca Highway to stay on SR-79.
  • In Julian, right at Main Street onto SR-78. Continue onto Banner Grade.
  • In desert, left at Yaqui Pass Road.
  • Left at Borrego Springs Road to Christmas Circle.
  • To Park Visitor Center, take Palm Canyon Drive west (exit toward business district) in Christmas Circle. Visitor Center is at the end of Palm Canyon Drive.
  • To Coyote Canyon, exit Christmas Circle east on Palm Canyon Drive.
  • Left at DiGregorio Road. Continue on to Coyote Canyon. Retrace your route to return.

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