Wilderness Area Is A Real San Diego County Gem

In La Mesa, Interstate 8 and State Route 94 nearly meet, coming within a couple of miles of each other, connected by SR-125. Before meeting up in Boulevard, they form the shape of an eye heading east, with the widest spot coming near where I-8 passes Pine Valley and SR-94 hits Campo.

The center of that wide spot is our destination for today’s San Diego day trip, one of the most remote, rugged and beautiful spots anywhere in the county — the Corral Canyon Off Highway Vehicle Area.

It’s also home a fire observation tower… and the friendly fire watcher is happy to welcome visitors, so let’s make her day and stop on in.

With more than 50 miles of trails ranging in elevation from 3,400 to 4,169 feet, Corral Canyon allows drivers to sample challenging rock trails, dirt and paved roads. Campgrounds are also in the area, which has lush coastal chaparral and native trees at this writing, not having had a major fire since the early 1970s.

Maps show the off-highway vehicle area being smack in the middle of a largely unpopulated area, surrounded by the Pine Creek Wilderness, just southwest of Pine Valley, and the Hauser Wilderness, east of Lake Morena. It’s one of the biggest open spots anywhere in the county.

The fire observation tower rises on Los Pinos Mountain.
The fire observation tower rises on Los Pinos Mountain.

So, on my way back from a late-season visit to the desert (by the way, this is about six hours from Phoenix) and driving a four-wheel-drive equipped Explorer courtesy of Ford, I pulled off at the Buckman Springs Rest Area to check it out.

The trip alone from the Rest Area to Corral Canyon Road is worth the drive in any vehicle. Buckman Springs Road is a beautiful, twisting highway with many parts shaded by old oaks. Keep the speed down as you pass Mountain Empire High School.

Off Buckman Springs Road is even better… if you have the driving skill and at least an SUV, truck or other vehicle with high ground clearance. The Miata was best left at home today.

The turn to Corral Canyon Road is well marked with signs pointing to the Off Highway Vehicle area, campground at Lake Morena and Camp Morena, a post that since 1940 has had several different uses by the U.S. Army, California Army National Guard and other military units.

Oaks surround and cover the early parts of Corral Canyon Road as it passes Camp Morena and a few private ranches on the way. When I visited in mid-May, things were still green and blooming following the late-winter rains. The spring aroma was wonderful.

Entry to Corral Canyon Road is marked by large sign for the Camp Morena, a military outpost.
Entry to Corral Canyon Road is marked by large sign for the Camp Morena, a military outpost.

Even when things are green, remember that this is fire country, something I was reminded of when I met Angela Cook and her firefighting crew about seven miles in at the Four Corners area, the official entry to the Off Highway Vehicle area.

According to Cook, it’s a serious off-roading place, with some of the trails a challenge even to experienced rock-crawlers. It’s also best to leave the kids at home, she said, pack water and supplies, and plan ahead.

“There’s no cell service out here,” she added, recommending that serious off-roaders always come in pairs of vehicles… in case one rock-crawler gets stuck, the other can go get help.

Native oaks help shade Corral Canyon Road.
Native oaks help shade Corral Canyon Road.

At the Four Corners lot, there are large maps showing the Off Highway Vehicle area and outlining the rules. Permits are required for off-highway vehicles.

While the Explorer had seemed capable off road on an earlier trip in the desert, Cook didn’t recommend I try any of the off-road trails in the area for a couple of reasons. First, because I was alone, she advised that I come another time and bring other folks along in another off-road equipped vehicle, just in case there’s trouble.

Second, she thought the Explorer’s large size would be a problem even on some of the easier trails, since, she said, even vehicles as small as a Jeep Wrangler sometimes are a tight squeeze.

She did recommend I take a trip up to the top of Los Pinos Mountain, where a fire observation tower is located at elevation 4,805 feet. The rangers, she said, are always happy to see visitors and the view is great.

So, I headed up the road — recently paved — to what I found out is the only operational fire observation tower in the county. There, fire observer JoEllen Scully and her partner, Norm Mitchell, keep a vigil almost every day of the year.

With a view that on a clear day can stretch to the Coronado Islands, the drive up the narrow, twisting road was well worth the visit. There was fog and the “May gray” haze to the east, but I swear I could smell the ocean from the peak. Scully said yes, they do get ocean breezes here, and it was cooler than down in the valley.

At Four Corners, lot allows off-roaders to unload. Maps and signs also outline the rules of the road.
At Four Corners, lot allows off-roaders to unload. Maps and signs also outline the rules of the road.

A throwback to the days before satellites and other high-tech fire monitoring techniques, Scully spends her days in the tower keeping an eye out for puffs of smoke that might end up as blazes as large as 2003’s Cedar Fire, which burned a few miles to the west.

“It’s the best office in San Diego County,” she said, adding that visitors are always welcome.

The 2006 Explorer did a great job getting up and down the mountain, even if it did seem to be filling the entire width of the narrow, but paved trail. Four-wheel-drive wasn’t needed, even on the two miles of dirt from Buckman Springs Road to Camp Morena. The 4.6 liter V-8 mated to a six-speed automatic overdrive transmission had no problems getting up and down the hills.

According to the computer readout on the dash, gas mileage was around 16.5 miles per gallon on the off-road segment, down from the 18-19 it was getting on the freeway. That isn’t bad for such a large vehicle.

Vigilance is needed, however. Nobody was going the other way as I went up Los Pinos Road, but on the way out, a guy in a Jeep Wrangler was coming the other direction on Corral Canyon Road. He was nice enough to pull over while I passed. The nice leather seats, cut-pile carpeting and cold air-conditioning were in contrast to his rig, which looked like a basic Wrangler with only a tarp between the windshield header and roll bar as protection. Some folks go for utility, others for comfort.

These days, a lot more folks have vehicles like this Explorer, rather than the rough-and-ready Wrangler. If you’re one of them, check out Corral Canyon. Both Scully and Cook said I should be able to make the drive around the off-highway vehicle area with no problem.

It’s a 12-mile loop around the southern section, past the Bobcat Meadow and Corral Canyon campgrounds. From Four Corners intersection heading in from Corral Canyon Road, either go straight on Corral Canyon Road or turn right onto Skye Valley Road. Taking Corral Canyon Road, the maps show they meet about 4 miles southwest; taking Skye Valley Road, you’ll find Corral Canyon Road after almost 8 miles.

Unless you’re a serious off-roader, Cook advised staying off of Skye Valley Road west of Corral Canyon Road, as the trail had some serious rocky areas as a result of the winter rains.

Just a reminder to stay on the trails.
Just a reminder to stay on the trails.

However, I didn’t have time to take a drive around the park. The day was ending after spending time yacking with Scully and enjoying the view at the fire lookout tower. So, I headed home.

This is one of the best open space areas in the county — and one of the best I’ve seen in Southern California. If you go, be careful, pack out anything you bring (including trash) and be safe. You’ll have a great time.

Route and Info


  • At least a 20 mile round-trip from Buckman Springs Rest Area. Buckman Springs is about 45 miles east from central San Diego.


  • Moderate to Difficult, including dirt access road. Trails inside Corral Canyon Off Highway Vehicle area can be hazardous; don’t attempt unless you’re a serious off-roader.


  • Interstate 8 to Buckman Springs Road. Head west from freeway to Buckman Springs Road. Continue south on Buckman Springs Road.
  • Right at Corral Canyon Road, posted with Off Highway Vehicle Area signs and a large sign pointing to Camp Morena.
  • To Los Pinos Lookout, turn right at “Four Corners” parking lot onto Los Pinos Road.

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