Rocky Road Pushes Grocery-Getter SUV To The Limit

The Rocky Mountains are in Colorado, but for rocky mountains, nothing beats the piles of pink boulders in the southeastern corner of San Diego County.

Looming in drivers’ windshields as they head towards the Imperial Valley, Interstate 8 winds through them. First comes Walker Canyon, then the twisting Mountain Springs Grade where the freeway splits to tackle a descent of more than 1,000 feet in a few miles.

And don’t forget, the freeway takes the easiest route where engineers found the passes. The mountain peaks in this area go 500 feet or more above the highway. Some have described the terrain as being lunar-like.

Lowell Lindsay, who with his wife, Diana, have been exploring and writing about this area and the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park for more than 30 years, calls it one of the best-kept secrets in San Diego county. Spectacular vistas, unique terrain. (The Lindsays own Sunbelt Publications, which published Jack Brandais’ book, Weekend Driver San Diego.)

It’s called the Jacumba Wilderness for good reason.

East and north of the little spa town of Jacumba and just north of the Mexican border, these peaks rise like a formidable wall. They’re crisscrossed with roads in a variety of conditions, ranging from the paved Old Highway 80, to rutted routes requiring vehicles with high ground clearance. Dirt bikes and off-road equipped four-wheel-drive SUVs or trucks are the best, but even wide SUVs and trucks aren’t recommended unless scratch-and-dent free fenders aren’t important.

But many grocery-getter SUVs have a decent amount of ground clearance and all-wheel-drive systems, so how do they perform on trails in this very challenging area?

With a well-equipped, 2009 Nissan Murano LE on loan for the week, the challenge was to see how the AWD Murano would handle the trails and how cautious a driver needs to be in this area.

My goal was to see how far I could go in two areas: the Smugglers Cave road to Nopal Mountain, southeast of the freeway; and an old mine road north of I-8 between Table Mountain and the Desert View Tower.

I headed east on I-8 to In-Ko-Pah Park Road, doubling back on Old Highway 80 less than a mile to a trail entry marked by an information board. To the left of the kiosk, a road snakes up the hill to Smugglers Cave and Nopal Mountain. After passing a private residence, the trail quickly ascends into the mountains. As there are a few other folk living up here and parts of the road have evidence of homemade concrete pavement to keep the route passable.

Mostly, it’s just wide enough for the Murano, which made an infrequent wide spot very timely when a battered Dodge van appeared, heading down the hill. We passed without incident.

The real challenges were making sure I didn’t leave the Murano’s exhaust system or other key parts on the ground, as well as not getting the Murano in over its head.

I had the LE with all wheel drive and the optional 20-inch wheels, giving a bit more than the standard 7.4 inch ground clearance. When rocks protruded, I’d generally try to keep the tires on them as much as possible, lifting the vehicle rather than rising a scrape.

Ground clearance is
one of the keys when heading onto a rough road. Compare the Murano’s 7.4 inches to the 10.2 inches in the Jeep Wrangler. Of course, the purposes of the two vehicles are different: the Jeep is made for this, the Murano isn’t. And, frankly, if your SUV doesn’t have all wheel drive and at least 7 inches, avoid this trip. Portly SUVs, such as a current Ford Explorer or Chevrolet Trailblazer, or full-sized pickups, should also avoid this trail unless you don’t mind a restyling of the body panels. Parts are that narrow.

Headed up to Nopal Mountain, I had to double back a couple of times, taking my customary wrong fork in the road. If you try your SUV on this trail, keep to the right on the way up. Every time I took the fork to the left, I ended up on a trail far too primitive for the Murano, especially at the area known as the Saddle (elevation 3,850). I never found a marker for Smugglers Cave, although it is shown on maps.

It was a fun drive up with a spectacular view. A couple of wide spots allowed for photo vistas of Interstate 8, Table Mountain, the Mountain Springs Grade, Mexico and the Colorado Desert. It was a clear day with not much of a breeze; well worth the effort.

And by the way, with stops and turnarounds, the four-mile round trip to the antenna site near Nopal Mountain (elevation 4,274) took most of an hour.

Back on the old highway, I headed west toward Jacumba, turning right at the first dirt road I found, Carrizo Creek Road. I headed north until I hit the dirt frontage road along I-8, crossing under the freeway on an unmarked dirt road and continuing north.

For the most part, the trip up this valley road was very pleasant, with not much to challenge even the Murano. Like many of these back country roads, names are optional and none is shown by the BLM, Thomas Brothers or Google. So, make up your own name.

I ended up taking the middle route at each of the two forks (for me, a rare correct selection at the fork-in-the-road), where, after passing the boundary sign marking the Anza Borrego Desert State Park, I had to turn around. I’d recommend turning around at that sign, as I had to do a lot of backing up and maneuvering to reverse course farther down the trail.

This valley is beautiful, with a little vegetation sprouting in the rocky, volcanic soil. I did get far enough to hear I-8, which a trio of dirt bikers told me was just over the hill. They got a good laugh seeing this Murano on the trail, with its dual sunroofs, gleaming clear-coat paint and sharp leather interior. I was probably a bit more comfortable.

What a great day out in a wilderness that’s unique to San Diego and Imperial counties. And I was impressed with just how far I could push this new generation of Nissan’s popular SUV. Would I recommend it for your SUV? Not a chance. But if you do decide to take the trip, go at your own risk and have fun.

Route and Info


  • Challenging. Proceed at your own risk.


  • About 12 miles. In-Ko-Pah Park Road is about 65 miles from central San Diego.


  • Interstate 8 to In-Ko-Pah Park Road.
  • Right onto Old Highway 80.

Nopal Mountain Trail

  • Turn into dirt lot at hiking trail kiosk, about a half-mile south of freeway exit.
  • Take dirt road to left of kiosk. Keep to the right through the forks in the trail. I turned around at the radio tower.

Table Mountain/Desert View Tower Valley Trail

  • Old Highway 80 west.
  • Right at Carrizo Creek Road (dirt road).
  • Keep right when Carrizo Creek Road veers left.
  • Left at I-8 frontage road.
  • Right at road that heads north under the bridge. I took the middle route at the two forks heading north. Recommend turning around at the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park sign.

From October 2008.


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