Flowers and green plants aren’t an every-spring occurrence in San Diego’s back country, but when we get some winter rain, it’s reason enough to grab a picnic lunch and head out to the hills and deserts.

Journey to an isolated dirt trail through McCain Valley, a great spot to explore our high-desert ecosystem and the In-Ko-Pah Mountains. From the junction of Interstate 8 and state Route 94 (about an hour east of central San Diego), travel couple of miles east of Boulevard on Old Highway 80 to McCain Valley Road.

Get more San Diego drives in Joyrides Around San Diego

A few more minutes north and as the pavement disappears, you’ll be in the McCain Valley Cooperative Land and Wildlife Management Area. It’s a remote area that features dirt roads, an off-highway vehicle area, a couple of campgrounds, and two spectacular overlooks.

Entry sign to McCain Valley Recreation Area.
Entry sign to McCain Valley Recreation Area.

Although it’s mostly public land, it’s not a park and it’s not pristine open space. For decades, there has been mining in the area, so watch where you walk as the mines, ranging from small pits to a few underground tunnels, may be active. Stay out of them.

Towering high-voltage power lines run along most of McCain Valley Road, part of SDG&E’s Sunrise Powerlink. To the west are tall turbines from the Tule Wind Power Project.

Civilization aside, the dirt road runs about 12 miles from where the pavement ends at Rough Acres Ranch (where the Chargers held training camp in 1963) to a turnaround past the Cottonwood campground.

Much of the road was wide and fairly smooth when I visited in mid-February (2015), but dirt-road conditions can change quickly. The worst spots were the road climbs over hills, particularly around the Lark Canyon recreation area and Cottonwood campground, as well as the road to the spectacular Sacatone Overlook.

Despite the lousy road, Sacatone, the first of two overlooks, is worth the challenge; remote and away from the power lines. Visitors look east across the rugged Carrizo Gorge and tracks of the old San Diego and Arizona Railroad. With binoculars, you might be able to see boxcars that fell off the side of the hill during a derailment decades ago.

Up to the task was the Chevrolet Colorado that was my ride for the day. GM’s new for 2015 (it was newly introduced when I wrote this in 2015) mid-size truck (along with the GMC Canyon) proved itself on this route. About the dimensions of full-size pickups 20 years ago, it’s a great size for these trails — it fits.

While full-size trucks would come back with scratches from brush lining the trail, the Colorado has plenty of room. The tester was equipped with the Z71 off-road package with four-wheel-drive low, a locking rear differential, transfer case shield and V-6.

The Colorado was a pleasure on the freeway and in suburban parking lots, where it actually fits in parking spaces.

Lark Canyon recreation area.
Lark Canyon recreation area.

Your trail will twist about 2.5 miles north from the Sacatone Overlook to Lark Canyon, with camping, an off-highway vehicle area, restrooms and water. It’s one of the few spots around with trees and a creek bed.

Farther north is the Carrizo Overlook, a vista of the desert all the way to the Arizona border on clear days. The Cottonwood campground is near the end of the road, about four miles north of Carrizo Overlook.

Despite the intrusions of technology, McCain Valley is worth the journey. It’s a unique wilderness area that’s easily accessible from San Diego.

Take the drive slowly not only for the protection of your car or truck, but to make sure you take all that nature has to offer.

Sacatone Overlook
Sacatone Overlook

Route and Info

From February 2015

Distance: 25 or more miles round-trip from paved road. Pavement ends about six miles from Interstate 8, about 65 miles from central San Diego.

Difficulty: Moderate to challenging, depending on your vehicle and dirt-road driving experience.


Google map:

  • Interstate 8 east to Boulevard, CA-94 W/Ribbonwood Road exit.
  • Right at Ribbonwood Road.
  • Left at Old Highway 80
  • Left at McCain Valley Road.
  • On trail, follow signs Sacatone and Carizzo overlooks.



Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: