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"Easy Birder" Driving Routes

Cuyamaca State Park

   Paved all the way

Approximate Length: 21 miles

Approximate Birding Time: About 4.5 hours, including the two optional hikes

Traffic: Moderate, but can be heavy during the morning commute

Facilities:  Restrooms are available throughout the state park.

Directions: Take I-8 east past Alpine to the Descanso/Highway 79 exit.  Go north about a mile, turn left on Riverside Drive, and begin birding here.

The bulk of this route suffered a devastating fire in October of 2003, and since then the San Diego Natural History Museum in cooperation with Cuyamaca State Park has been conducting post-fire surveys to observe how the birdlife is responding to the drastic change in habitat (and its recovery as the years go by).  All of the data in the checklist for this page was gathered since the fire, reflecting a more accurate picture of what the visitor is apt to see now as opposed to several years ago.  Miraculously, some pockets of the state park were spared (such as the two campgrounds, Stonewall Mine, and the school camp), so there is some remaining oak and pine woodland along the route.  The grasslands, of course, recovered quickly, so that now one would hardly know a fire ravaged the area several years ago.  The visitor to this area will still see plenty of skeletons where there used to be pine forests, but the extent of the devastation and loss is best appreciated by those who have lived here for many years; even now it's still difficult for some who have enjoyed the park all their lives to drive through what once was considered San Diego County's most scenic area.

But there's still much to enjoy and appreciate.  Along Riverside Drive you can start out with the common oak-related birds such as Acorn and Nuttall's Woodpecker, Western Scrub Jay, Western Bluebird, House Wren, Bushtit, Phainopepla, Oak Titmouse, Lesser Goldfinch, and in winter, Ruby-crowned Kinglet.  Check the open fields and river beds for Wild Turkey, Loggerhead Shrike, Say's and Black Phoebes, and blackbirds (check especially for Tricolored).  When the road makes a sharp right near the school, there's a staging area on the left for the southernmost trail of the park, called the Merrigan Fire Road (there's also a convenient porta potty...).  Checking the deciduous trees around the parking lot, especially during winter, can be productive; very often you can find a Red-breasted Sapsucker in one of them!

Rural Riverside Drive in Descanso

At the intersection with highway 79, turn left towards the state park proper.  Pullouts along this stretch are few and far between, but if you can manage it, it might be worth stopping and listening for Red-shouldered Hawks in the oaks and various sparrows in the brush, especially along creeks.  There's a small pond on the left which can be hard to spot going north; it's on private property and fenced, so please don't trespass, but you still may be able to spot Ring-necked Ducks in winter or hear a Green Heron complaining!  There are usually Red-winged Blackbirds and Common Yellowthroats at least!

Just past the entrance to 1000 Trails is the border of the state park; a stop at the entrance might be productive for more oak-related birds, plus White-breasted Nuthatch, Hutton's Vireos, and Spotted Towhees.  Continuing on, you pass through what once was thick chaparral, although growth is beginning to return, as are the typical chaparral-type birds such as Wrentit, California Thrasher and Towhee, Bewick's Wren, Black-chinned Sparrow (in summer), and in winter, Fox Sparrow (of several races) and Hermit Thrush

Recovering chaparral in the south end of the park

Optional Hike: Arroyo Seco Trail  There are numerous beautiful trails and you could easily spend a week exploring them all, but for the purposes of this Easy Birder Route I highlight only two: Arroyo Seco and Stonewall Mine.  Up at Green Valley Campground (fee for day use) a short hike up the Arroyo Seco Trail can be productive (park in the Arroyo Seco Picnic Area).  For the short loop, follow the main trail until it breaks out into the meadow, where you'll see a narrow trail veering off to the left just past a stone marker.  This takes you through deeper woodland and eventually back to the campground, where you turn left to wind back to the parking lot.  For the very energetic, a full three-hour loop around the more strenuous Pine Ridge Trail will give you a close-up look at the devastation and the amazing regrowth that is occurring (spring can be especially glorious with all the fire-following flowers).  Green Valley is one of the few places that was spared, so there is much remaining oak woodland here; Band-tailed Pigeons can be quite numerous, as can Black-headed Grosbeaks, Lawrence's Goldfinches, and Lazuli Buntings in spring and summer.  High-mountain specialties such as Purple Finches, Steller's Jays and Hairy Woodpeckers (who seem to like the burned out pines, along with Northern Flickers) start showing up here, and Mountain Chickadees have come down to invade the oaks.  Juncos can be abundant in winter; check the flocks for the similar-sounding Lincoln's Sparrow.  Increasingly Pine Siskins are being found in the park (there was even some attempted breeding)!  Both California and Mountain Quail can be found here (although I tend to hear the latter "quarking" from the mountainsides more often, especially in spring).  Rufous-crowned Sparrow, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and both Anna's and Costa's Hummingbirds like the recovering chaparral, and in spring and summer flycatchers abound, particularly Ash-throated, Western Wood Pewee, and even an Olive-sided Flycatcher or two.  During spring migration anything can show up!  If you're very fortunate you may run into a White-headed Woodpecker here, but since the fires they've become very scarce (not that they were common here to begin with...)

Arroyo Seco Trail

New growth in the live oaks

Burned area along Arroyo Seco and recovering meadow

The Pine Ridge Trail in June of 2006

Green Valley Campground from the Pine Ridge Trail

Fire-following flowers take over in the spring!

Continuing north, parking is strictly regulated, so stopping at every trailhead and pullout that you can would be the best bet.  The next large pullout is the staging area for several popular horse trails along the Sweetwater River; checking the riparian areas along the river can be good for sparrows, particularly Lincoln's in winter, and check for Blue Grosbeak in spring and summer and Common Yellowthroat year-round.  While the dominant swallow here is Violet-green, watch for Cliff Swallows which nest under the bridge.  Further on, stop along the open meadows and check for raptors and more sparrows (particularly Lark and Savannah in winter) and Western Bluebirds.  A swing into the parking area at the old headquarters (that regal old building unfortunately didn't survive) could yield Wild Turkeys in the meadows or sapsuckers in the trees.  The Cold Stream Trail is one of those many trails that you could poke down if you have the time: the riparian brush hides thrushes (look for Swainson's in spring), towhees, and sparrows, and Purple Finches are often along this trail.  In spring check the deciduous trees for migrants.  Another pullout up the road comes right up to the stream which can be especially good for warblers and Selasphorus hummingbirds in migration.

Sweetwater River

Meadow and surviving pine

Same meadow after a snow

Cold Stream Trail in winter

View along the entrance road

From here you start winding around the mountains and will start seeing what the fires left of the once-proud forests.  A stop at the call box might be productive for Rock Wrens, although now that the vegetation is growing back they seem harder to find.  Up at Paso Picacho (the other campground that was spared; fee for day use) more high-mountain specialties can be found.  The Azalea Glen Trail (a three-hour loop for the more hardy) has been famous in the past for White-headed Woodpeckers, and even since the fires, they've been found here (usually around the cedars in the campground) and up on burned-out Cuyamaca Peak.  The Paso Picacho Nature Trail is a short half-mile hike; while heavily damaged, birds such as Brown Creeper and Pygmy Nuthatch still call this home.  This area tends to accumulate more snow after winter winter storms than other areas along the route (with the exception of the meadows at the north end), so it's a favorite place for "snow bunnies" to come play!

Devastation going up the mountain

Paso Picacho Nature Trail; at one time this was inpenetratable forest!

Snow at the entrance station, with Stonewall Peak in the background

Optional Hike: Stonewall Mine        Shortly past Paso Picacho there will be a road to the right going to the horse camps and Stonewall Mine.  I was delighted to discover that this most scenic of places within the state park was spared (for the most part): here there are stands of pines that still house Pygmy Nuthatches and Mountain Chickadees, as well as other high-mountain birds.  On the way in, keep an eye out for bluebirds, Loggerhead Shrikes, Lark and Savannah Sparrows (winter), and raptorsSapsuckers can sometimes be found in the woods here, as well as migrant warblers such as Black-throated Gray, Townsend's, and Hermit (Yellow-rumps are common during the fall and winter, but a few linger into late spring; there have even been reports of possible breeding since the fires).  Up at the parking area, take the trail past the little "museum" (on the same side as the mine; that building up the hill on the other side of the lot is the potty...) and down the hill, bearing right with each intersection, which will eventually take you back to the parking area.  You'll get a glorious view of the lake bed (and during very wet years the lake actually creeps up this far) where raptors and corvids abound; this is the only place where I consistently see large flocks of Ravens (which are normally rather solitary birds)!  Certain puddle ducks, such as Cinnamon and Green-winged Teal, seem to prefer this shallower portion of the lake.  Look for Horned Larks and Western Meadowlarks in the meadow, and in summer watch for Western Kingbirds along the fenceline.  Although I haven't seen any since the fires, in years past I've had Lewis' Woodpeckers both here (in the trees in the meadow) and at the Trout Pond Trailhead (which is the next stop on the route), so it's worth keeping an eye open.


Along the road to Stonewall Mine


Views of the lakebed from the trail

Dry year

Wet year

Continuing on, you'll see a large pulloff at a "corner" which is the Trout Pond Trailhead, where the aforementioned Lewis' have historically shown up.  Be sure to at least check for sapsuckers here, plus blackbirds and meadowlarks.  Once in a blue moon even a Bald Eagle can be found in winter atop one of the solitary dead trees.  Further up the road you'll see Lake Cuyamaca, which is always worth a look for waterfowl, Osprey, and eagles in winter; Wood Ducks can sometimes be found here, as the powers that be have been trying to encourage them to nest here.  During the winter, this can be one of the more reliable places in the county for Canvasback and Common Merganser, as well as other ducks.  A permanent flock of Canada Geese has also taken up residence, and there's always a heron or two or a Pied-billed Grebe.  On rare occasions during spring migration you might turn up breeding-plumaged Eared Grebes or Common Loons.  Keep an ear and eye out for Belted Kingfisher as well, and Great-tailed Grackles, Red-winged, and Brewer's Blackbirds.  Listen for Marsh Wrens and Common Yellowthroats in the lakeside vegetation, and in summer look for swallows, particularly Violet-green and Purple Martins.  Be aware that there's an additional fee to park in the big lot there at the store (not the little store/restaurant lot), but that fee will also allow you to walk over to Fletcher Island from Chambers Park (an RV park just around the corner), which if you have the time and energy, makes for a lovely loop hike.  The store and restaurant there were also miraculously spared while the quite large Lakeland Resort across the street (now only a drive and a couple of RV's--presumably the residence of the property owner) was literally melted down to nothing. 

Cuyamaca Lake (across from the old Lakeland Resort)

A snowy Lake Cuyamaca and Fletcher Island

View towards Fletcher Island before the fires...

...and shortly afterwards

Continuing north, pulling over occasionally to scan the meadows can be worthwhile; while I have yet to log them since the fires, this area is historically good in winter for Ferruginous Hawk, Prairie Falcon, and Mountain Bluebirds (one year a Rough-legged Hawk caused a lot of excitement).  Bald Eagles (when they're around) tend to like this area as well.  Turkey Vultures, Red-tailed Hawks, Harriers, Kestrels, Horned Larks, Western Meadowlarks, and sparrows are the more usual suspects, however...  When the winter storms have been cold enough to drop snow, the place can be a zoo of revelers who never get to play in the stuff otherwise (we from Michigan say you can have it, thank you very much), so going during the week might be less hectic!  (Also bear in mind that chains are required if the roads aren't clear...)  In spring the flower show can easily upstage any birds you may find!

Stonewall Peak and the lake during a wet year

Oak Savannah in the fog

The route ends at the intersection with S1 (Sunrise Highway).

Sunrise Highway just after the fires...

...and in March of 2004...

...and in spring of 2005!

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 indicate out-of-place, vagrant, or irruptive species and should not be expected.

  J F M A M J J A S O N D
Red-throated Loon                    
Common Loon                      
Eared Grebe                      
Pied-billed Grebe            
Double-crested Cormorant                  
Great Blue Heron            
Great Egret                  
Snowy Egret                      
Green Heron                      
Canada Goose              
Northern Pintail                
Cinnamon Teal                    
Green-winged Teal                      
American Wigeon                    
Northern Shoveler                      
Wood Duck    ●                
Ring-necked Duck   ●                 
Lesser Scaup                    
Common Merganser                      
Ruddy Duck                  
Turkey Vulture              
Northern Harrier                    
White-tailed Kite                      
Cooper's Hawk                      
Red-shouldered Hawk                  
Red-tailed Hawk            
Bald Eagle                    
Golden Eagle                      
American Kestrel                  
California Quail                    
Mountain Quail                
Wild Turkey                  
American Coot        
California Gull                      
Caspian Tern                    
Mourning Dove              
Rock Pigeon                      
Band-tailed Pigeon          
Barn Owl                      
White-throated Swift                      
Anna's Hummingbird                  
Costa's Hummingbird                    
Selasphorus Hummingbird                      
Belted Kingfisher                      
Northern Flicker          
Acorn Woodpecker        
Red-breasted Sapsucker                
Nuttall's Woodpecker          
White-headed Woodpecker      ●                
Hairy Woodpecker            
Ash-throated Flycatcher                    
Black Phoebe                
Say's Phoebe                      
Pacific-slope Flycatcher                      
Olive-sided Flycatcher                      
Western Wood Pewee                  
Western Kingbird          ●            
Loggerhead Shrike                    
Warbling Vireo                      
Hutton's Vireo                  
American Crow        
Common Raven      
Steller's Jay        
Western Scrub Jay        
Horned Lark                  
Purple Martin                    
Northern Rough-winged Swallow                      
Violet-green Swallow                    
Cliff Swallow                  
Mountain Chickadee                
Oak Titmouse        
White-breasted Nuthatch              
Pygmy Nuthatch                
Brown Creeper                      
House Wren                
Marsh Wren                      
Bewick's Wren          
Rock Wren              
Canyon Wren        ●              
Ruby-crowned Kinglet                
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher                        
Western Bluebird          
Swainson's Thrush                      
Hermit Thrush                    
American Robin            
Northern Mockingbird                      
California Thrasher                
European Starling          
Orange-crowned Warbler                  
Nashville Warbler                      
Yellow Warbler                    
Yellow-rumped Warbler                
Black-throated Gray Warbler                      
Townsend's Warbler                      
Hermit Warbler                      
MacGillivray's Warbler                      
Common Yellowthroat                      
Wilson's Warbler                    
Western Tanager                    
Black-headed Grosbeak                
Blue Grosbeak                      
Lazuli Bunting                  
Spotted Towhee        
California Towhee                
Rufous-crowned Sparrow        ●              
"Bell's" Sage Sparrow                      
Black-chinned Sparrow                  
Chipping Sparrow                    
Savannah Sparrow                  
Lark Sparrow                 
Golden-crowned Sparrow                      
White-crowned Sparrow                
"Slate-colored" Fox Sparrow                        
"Thick-billed" Fox Sparrow                      
"Sooty" Fox Sparrow                      
Song Sparrow            
Lincoln's Sparrow                
Dark-eyed Junco (Oregon)      
Dark-eyed Junco (Pink-sided)                      
Dark-eyed Junco (Slate-colored)                      
Western Meadowlark            
Brown-headed Cowbird              
Tricolored Blackbird                      
Red-winged Blackbird        
Brewer's Blackbird                
Great-tailed Grackle          ●            
Bullock's Oriole                    
Hooded Oriole            ●            
Pine Siskin                  
Lawrence's Goldfinch                  
Lesser Goldfinch            
Purple Finch              
House Finch          
House Sparrow                    

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