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"Easy Birder" Driving Routes

Anza Borrego Desert State Park

Bow Willow and Vicinity

      Off the main highway, the safest areas to bird for those with a standard passenger vehicle are Bow Willow Campground, Mountain Palm Springs, and the first mile or so of the Overland Stage Route; otherwise side trips down the West Dolomite Mine Trail, Indian Gorge, and Palm Spring can be productive, but the roads can be soft or downright impassable after wet weather.

Approximate Mileage:  About 25 miles with all the backtracking

Approximate Birding Time: 5 hours, including the three optional hikes

Traffic: Very light along S2; practically non-existent on the dirt roads

Facilities: There are pit toilets at Bow Willow campground and Mountain Palm Springs

Directions: Take I-8 east all the way down to the desert (about 70 miles or so) into Imperial County.  Take the exit for S2 (Ocotillo and "Desert Cities") and turn left under the freeway, heading north.  Once back across the county line a large sign will welcome you to Anza Borrego Desert State Park.  (At one time there was a Border Patrol checkpoint here, but it appears to be deserted...)

Dawn at the county line

Admittedly, you'll probably agree with this sign for the first few miles!  This area probably holds more interest for the geologist and historian, as it is some of the most barren habitat in all of Anza Borrego (and most of the birds are just as easy if not easier to get elsewhere), but specialties such as LeConte's Thrasher are possible in here, and the scenery can be beautiful, especially first thing in the morning as the rising sun makes sharp patterns of light and shadow on the mountains.  Although it can be frustratingly quiet any time of year (unlike the Sonoran Desert of southeast Arizona), birding anywhere along the road could get you the expected desert species such as Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Say's Phoebe, Black-throated Sparrow, Loggerhead Shrike, Verdin, Cactus Wren, and Black-tailed Gnatcatcher year-round; in winter you might find Brewer's and White-crowned Sparrows.  In summer you may run across Ash-throated Flycatcher or a Scott's Oriole on a blooming yucca. 

There are many primitive roads to explore, but you need a 4WD vehicle for most of them; a park map is helpful (essential if you decide to go exploring), and a topo map of the area would be even better.    The first of these that I include on this route, the West Dolomite Mine Trail, is about 2.5 miles past the county line on the right, and I only go in about a mile and a half to a large "parking" area.  From here you can hike a bit of the rest of the road if you wish, but since I've run into illegals back here, I personally prefer to stay by the car...


Typical habitat along the road to Dolomite Mine

Wash at the "parking area"

Looking towards the actual mine


Optional hike: Bow Willow Canyon (fee)  + (the incline is ever so slight, and the ground can be soft)

The entrance to Bow Willow campground is about seven miles north of the county line on your left (16 miles from the freeway); it's on top of a knoll and the sign is very small, so it's easy to miss.  The dirt road going in can have any number of desert species; keep an eye out for Verdins and sparrows especially (Black-throated year round, and White-crowned and Brewer's in winter).  When the ocotillo is in bloom keep an eye out for Costa's and Anna's Hummingbirds.  Veer right at the restroom and park in the day use area.  A hike down Bow Willow Canyon can be either very dead or very productive (I managed to kick up a LeConte's Thrasher in the dead of summer); Black-tailed Gnatcatchers tend to be pretty reliable in here.  Hugging the hill to your left will keep you from getting lost; look for Rock and Canyon Wrens along here.  My general routine is to hike in about ten minutes and then cut across to the flat desert sage area, where I would often find Desert Sage Sparrows in winter.  Then I'd come back up the canyon and cut back across to the parking area (there's a yellow-topped trail marker that's a good landmark).

Trailhead into Bow Willow Canyon

Trail up the canyon

My "turnaround point"

Sage on the opposite side of the canyon

Optional hike: Mountain Palm Springs    (a gradual incline with some stone-stepping; during the warmer months it can be a chore)

Although I've only taken it once (and that a long time ago), there's an unmaintained trail that connects Bow Willow and Mountain Palm Springs to the north.  I prefer to drive up to the parking area, which is only about a mile north of Bow Willow.  Here as well both Rock and Canyon Wren are possible, and in summer Hooded Orioles are particularly attracted to the palms, as well as both Mourning and White-winged DovesSage Thrasher has occurred here in migration; always be on the lookout for migrants of any kind in here.  Watch the skies for raptors and White-throated Swifts; this seems to be a favorite hangout for Turkey Vultures!

Trail heading up to Mountain Palm Springs

My "turnaround point"

Looking back down the canyon from said turnaround point

Another mile north of Mountain Palm Springs is the Overland Stage Route on your right; this is a good dirt road for the first mile or so which goes through rather barren habitat, but at about the 1.5 mile mark you'll come to some tall tamarisks which mark some primitive campgrounds along some trails that go back into the mesquite oases.  If you don't have a 4WD vehicle, this might be a good place to stop and hike.

Mesquite forest along the Overland Stage Route

Optional hike: "Homestead Trail"  Old roads that used to lead to primitive campgrounds are now closed to vehicles, but one road makes an excellent 30 minute loop!  I start on the second road that has a "Closed Area" sign and goes straight back to the tamarisks;  there's an old homestead on the left that apparently has burned down, but the dry-lake-like area nearby might have more open-country birds such as Horned Lark and Western Meadowlark.  This can be one of the birdier areas of the route, especially during spring migration; late-comers such as the northern races of Willow Flycatcher and Yellow Warbler can be found into early June.  In winter Phainopeplas can be common (Western Bluebird less so), and any time of year look for Verdin, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, and Greater Roadrunner.  The trail winds around to the left, and when you come to a "T", turn left again, and this will take you back to the main road, where you again turn left and return to your car.

Start of the "Homestead Trail"


Mesquite along the trail


Subaru commercial...

Further along the road (which is pretty solid when dry but can get rather dicey) is Carrizo Marsh, which can have more riparian-associated birds in summer such as Blue Grosbeak and Bell's Vireo (although I myself only got close once, and that was in winter...)  If you make it as far as the turnoff to Carrizo Creek on your right, it may look like you've lost the road in the huge wash in front of you, but it actually continues on and isn't all that bad when dry.  Keep following this road for another mile or so until you come to an obvious fork with a state park sign that warns "4WD ONLY"!  Veer left up onto a little rise where there's a parking area, and you can hike down the other road, which was indeed a running creek when I visited the place!   Paul Jorgensen, a ranger with the state park, warns that driving that road can be EXTREMELY risky, so hiking in is definitely the safest route to go.  The main marsh is about a half mile or so down this road.

Mini-canyon along the road

Tamarisk grove near the turnoff to Carrizo Creek

Where the road continues along the wash

You want to veer left at this point...

...because this is the condition of the road if you veer right!


Carrizo Marsh proper is actually a half mile further down the road.

Just north of the turnoff for the Overland Stage Route is the road to Indian Gorge on the left, and should only be attempted with a high-clearance 4WD; but this can be a great migrant trap as well.  A couple of miles further north, across from Canebrake Canyon, is the road to Palm Spring on the right (look for the green sign for Palm Spring and a brown sign for Vallecito Creek).  Under ideal conditions the road really isn't too bad, but it has been known to get rather muddy and/or sandy, so 4WD is probably prudent.  (You'll notice that it's really a "double road" so that if one is too impassable, the other usually okay...)  After about a mile be sure to be looking for the big brown sign to Palm Spring on the left (easy to miss if you happen to be on the far side of the road) and follow that road to the parking area for the spring and historical marker.  This area is definitely worth a visit; LeConte's Thrashers can sometimes be found in here, and the spring itself can be a hotbed of activity, especially for Costa's Hummers, Loggerhead Shrikes, Cactus, Rock, and Bewick's Wrens, Say's Phoebes, Phainopepla, Western Bluebird (more likely in winter), Verdin, and Black-throated Sparrows.  In summer look for Ash-throated Flycatcher in addition to the regulars.  The road continues on and over a dicey little pass; at the bottom of the hill, turn left at the "intersection", and the next "intersection" after that is the wide wash you came in on--turn right here and it will take you back to the highway.

The road into Palm Spring

The spring itself

Surrounding mesquite "forest"

Heading north on S2 will take you to more desert sites; otherwise you can return to I-8 the way you came.

Personal Checklist  ●=small numbers  █ = large numbers (10+) 

Please keep in mind that these lists are NOT comprehensive, and that some months may have had poor overall coverage.  Species in red denote vagrant, irruptive, or out-of-place species and should not be expected.

  J F M A M J J A S O N D
Turkey Vulture                
Red-tailed Hawk              
California Quail                      
Mourning Dove        
White-winged Dove            
Greater Roadrunner                      
White-throated Swift              
Anna's Hummingbird                  
Costa's Hummingbird          
Northern Flicker                    
Ladder-backed Woodpecker                    
Ash-throated Flycatcher                  
Say's Phoebe                
Pacific-slope Flycatcher                      
Willow Flycatcher                      
Western Kingbird                      
Loggerhead Shrike    
Warbling Vireo                      
Common Raven        
Horned Lark                    
Purple Martin                      
Northern Rough-winged Swallow                      
Cliff Swallow                      
Bewick's Wren        
Cactus Wren      
Rock Wren          
Canyon Wren                  
Ruby-crowned Kinglet                      
Black-tailed Gnatcatcher
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher                    
Western Bluebird                
Northern Mockingbird              
LeConte's Thrasher                
Orange-crowned Warbler                  
Nashville Warbler                      
Yellow Warbler                      
Yellow-rumped Warbler                    
MacGillivray's Warbler                      
Wilson's Warbler                      
Lazuli Bunting                      
"Desert" Sage Sparrow                    
Black-throated Sparrow
Brewer's Sparrow                    
White-crowned Sparrow                  
Lincoln's Sparrow                      
Western Meadowlark                      
Bullock's Oriole                      
Hooded Oriole                      
Scott's Oriole                      
Lesser Goldfinch                    
House Finch    

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