It’s been a wet winter, which means our local desert is ready for a show. And for all of you with all-wheel-drive SUVs, its time to exercise those transfer cases.

Spring in the desert, especially in rainy years such as this one, means the usual grays and reds of the sand and hills are accented with green, yellow, fuscia-red, violet and many other colors as plants grow and bloom.

Ocotillo begin to bloom in the desert in late February.

It’s an event that draws folks from all over the world and while only time will tell if it’s as spectacular as 2002, the bloom is now under way.

With advice from Diana Lindsay, who with her husband, Lowell, are acknowledged experts on the 600,000 acres that are America’s second-largest state park, I set out for Hawk Canyon. (The Lindsays own Sunbelt Publications, which published Weekend Driver San Diego.) The trail selected depends on the vehicle and my ride this week is a 2010 Cadillac SRX4 2.8T, the company’s new crossover that came loaded with the 2.8 liter turbocharged V-6 and the electronic limited-slip differential.

Diana said the Caddie and any other SUV should be able to handle this trail, which is sand-only, and isn’t crowded with brush that could create the dreaded “Arizona pinstripes,” horizontal scratches along the side of the car. Of course, she was right.

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The trail is fairly easy to find. Go to Julian (I took the route from I-8 up through Cuyamaca, which still had a few patches of snow), then enjoy the twists down Banner Grade on state Route 78 to the desert. Pass Yaqui Pass, then the other road to town, Borrego Springs Road. Just over a mile later, after a few private roads, look on the left (north) side of the highway for the turn to Buttes Pass Road.

It’s only a couple of miles up the trail to Hawk Canyon, but there are forks in the road; small markers point the way, so pay attention.

In Hawk Canyon
In Hawk Canyon

The canyon, named for the raptors who nest there (I didn’t see any), looks like something out of a John Ford move. Pink, weathered cliffs rise from the desert floor. A parking area at the end invites a continued exploration by foot.

When I visited at the end of February, the flowers were just about ready to bloom. A few had opened here and there, but the for every flower open, there were dozens a few days away from opening. This trip, I didn’t stop for lunch, just picking up a sandwich (at the grocery store, no less) and enjoyed my repast among the cliffs.

The bloom should last through April, but it’s best to check with the Anza-Borrego Foundation (760) 767-0446). A trip into Borrego Springs and the office, just off Christmas Circle, or the Park Visitor Center at the west end of Palm Canyon Drive can give you up-to-date information on just where the colors are best when you visit.

From there, Diana suggested I come back through Blowsand Canyon, which has dunes and is a scary-spectacular trip. Retrace your drive back to Buttes Canyon Road and make a left to continue north. At the aptly named Big Wash, turn southeast (hopefully, you’ll have GPS like the Cadillac to help guide you).

This is one of those places where it might be good to have a buddy vehicle along. Although it’s only a couple of miles from SR-78, this is a pretty remote region. Traveling with at least a companion 4×4 is good insurance. A copy of Lindsay’s The Anza Borrego Desert Region is also good, as it has arguably the most detailed map of the park available. GPS helps but doesn’t include every trail.

After about a mile, turn due south into Blowsand Canyon. A sign there recommends 4×4 vehicles only, but the Cadillac did just fine. If you have AWD, you might try it, but judge for yourself. The sand is very loose in spots.

Flowers bloom in February 2008.
Flowers bloom in February 2008.

This was the only spot along the trail where I could feel more than the front wheels moving us along. It squirreled a little on some of the sand, but recovered just fine. The road goes through Borrego Mountain, in between the East Butte, elevation 1,196, and West, elevation 1,207.

Follow the dunes and canyons and you’ll find yourself on a ridge, headed south, with SR-78 in the distance. This was the scary-spectacular part, as this ridge rises and falls as it descends to the highway. The drop-off can be severe on both sides of the road, with dips occasionally steep. Even though the Caddie’s hood is sloped and short, a couple of times I found myself craning my neck to see if there was still a road in front. Fortunately, there was always a road there.

I popped out onto SR-78 at the Desert Ironwood Resort, pointed the Cadillac west, and headed home, this extended San Diego day trip coming to an end. It was only about a 7-mile loop, but took a couple of hours with stops and was well worth the two-plus hour drive each way from San Diego.

Anza-Borrego is one of the great treasures of San Diego County. Here’s an easy drive and a chance to get that SUV some exercise and some dust. Folks say we don’t have seasons here, but the desert flower show is unique in the world. Don’t miss it.

Directions and Info


  • About 8 miles. Turnoff is about 31 miles from central San Diego.


  • Moderate to Challenging. All-wheel-drive or four-wheel-drive needed for Borrego Mountain section. Up and back to Hawk Canyon is a stable dirt road with a few ruts. Challenging leg is through Borrego Mountain, along Blowsand Canyon. Route to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is through twisting mountain and desert roads.


  • Take SR-78 from Julian, which can be reached from central San Diego via Interstate 8 and SR-79 through Cuyamaca; from I-15 via Scripps-Poway Parkway, SR-67 north to Ramona and east on SR-78; or SR-78 east from I-15 through Escondido.
  • County Highway S-1 can also be taken from I-8, north from the Ocotillo exit in Imperial County. Make a right at SR-78 at Scissors Crossing.
  • Left on Buttes Pass Road (dirt), approximately 1.5 miles east of Borrego Springs Road. Keep right at forks. Signs are small, on poles.
  • Left at Hawk Canyon.
  • From Hawk Canyon: Return to SR-78.

Blowsand Canyon Alternative (All-wheel-drive or four-wheel-drive vehicles only)

  • Left at Buttes Pass Road.
  • Right at trail through Big Wash.
  • Approximately one mile southeast, right into Blowsand Canyon. Follow trail south to SR-78.
  • West (right) on SR-78 to return to Julian.
  • From March 2010


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