San Diego Birding Pages

Site Index    Home

"Easy Birder" Driving Routes

McCain Valley

    The first couple of miles of McCain Valley Road is paved, then turns into a generally good dirt road, but can be sandy and "rug-boardy" in spots.  The side road to Sacatone Overlook is definitely for higher clearance only.

Approximate Length: 31 miles round-trip

Approximate Birding Time: 3 - 4  hours

Traffic: Extremely light, if that

Facilities: There are pit toilets in the campgrounds and ORV day use areas.

Directions: Take I-8 east to the Boulevard/Campo exit (over 60 miles east of San Diego proper) and turn right.  At the stop sign turn left, and continue a couple of miles to McCain Valley Road on the left (easy to zip by, as the sign to McCain Valley is on the left, low down, and pretty concealed until you're right on it). 

You probably won't rack up a big list here, but you'll have the enjoyment of exploring this unusual transitional area between chaparral and desert habitats.  The boulders go on for miles over gently rolling hills, presenting a truly unique moonscape.  The beginning of the road is better for open-country birds such as Western Meadowlark and Horned Lark, as well as birds that generally associate themselves with human habitation.  Common chaparral birds can be found here, sometimes in numbers, such as California Thrasher, Bushtit, Western Scrub Jay, both towhees, Wrentit, Sage Sparrow, Greater Roadrunner, Bewick's Wren, and both California and Mountain Quail (although the former is by far more common).  In winter look for Hermit Thrush, Fox, Golden-crowned, and White-crowned Sparrows, and Say's Phoebe.  Summer residents include Black-chinned Sparrow and Ash-throated Flycatcher.  Birds normally found in the desert, such as Scott's Oriole, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Black-throated Sparrow, and Cactus Wren can also be found here.  You have a lot of open sky to scan; look for Golden Eagles as well as the more common raptors. 

Open area around the correctional center

Shortly after the road turns to dirt, the side road to the Sacatone Overlook comes up on your right.  This road should only be attempted if you have a high-clearance vehicle, as there are many ruts and rocks that may make this two-mile road rather dicey for a low-clearance passenger car.  But at this overlook you can actually see some of the trestles and tunnels built for the train (unfortunately, the famous Carrizo Trestle is not visible from here), and it also seems to be a better place for Rock Wrens than elsewhere.

Sacatone Overlook

Continuing on the main road, at about the seven-mile point is the turnoff to the Carrizo Overlook.  This spot is easily accessible and is a good place to watch for Black-throated Sparrows as you enjoy the scenery.  On a good day you can see the Salton Sea, and below you is the Carrizo Corridor, which includes the Bow Willow Area.


Scenes along the road



Carrizo Overlook

There are two campgrounds here, and both are worth stopping at to check for Oak Titmouse, Nuttall's and Acorn Woodpecker, Anna's Hummingbird, Western Bluebird, Phainopepla, House Wren, both Lesser and Lawrence's Goldfinches, Orange-crowned Warbler, and Northern Flicker.  In winter look for Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Yellow-rumped Warbler, and Dark-eyed Junco.  Black-headed Grosbeaks are resident in summer, and in migration anything can show up.  Lark Canyon Campground (just past the ORV area) is rather small, but Cottonwood Campground (near the end of the valley) is large enough that you can walk the roads through the woods and bird on foot; there's also a trailhead on the east side (Pepperwood Trail) that takes you through more open sage habitat.

Lark Canyon Campground

Cottonwood Campground


View from Pepperwood Trail

The road ends after another couple of miles, where there's another primitive hunter's trail that goes up into the mountains; a short poke up here might kick up some quail or sparrows!

End of the road

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 are vagrant, irruptive, or out-of-place sightings and are not to be expected.

  J F M A M J J A S O N D
Turkey Vulture                      
Sharp-shinned Hawk                      
Cooper's Hawk                  
Red-tailed Hawk      
Golden Eagle                    
American Kestrel                
California Quail        
Mountain Quail                
Mourning Dove              
Greater Roadrunner                    
Lesser Nighthawk                      
White-throated Swift                      
Anna's Hummingbird                    
Northern Flicker          
Acorn Woodpecker                    
Nuttall's Woodpecker                
Ladder-backed Woodpecker                
Ash-throated Flycatcher                  
Say's Phoebe                    
Western Kingbird                      
Warbling Vireo                      
American Crow              
Common Raven    
Western Scrub Jay
Horned Lark                        
Cliff Swallow                      
Barn Swallow                      
Oak Titmouse
House Wren                    
Bewick's Wren  
Cactus Wren                
Rock Wren                
Ruby-crowned Kinglet              
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher                      
Western Bluebird                
Hermit Thrush                      
Northern Mockingbird                      
California Thrasher          
European Starling                
American Pipit                      
Orange-crowned Warbler                    
Yellow Warbler                      
Yellow-rumped Warbler                  
Western Tanager                      
Black-headed Grosbeak                    
Blue Grosbeak                      
Spotted Towhee  
Green-tailed Towhee                      
California Towhee
"Bell's" Sage Sparrow                      
Black-throated Sparrow            
Black-chinned Sparrow                      
Golden-crowned Sparrow                      
White-crowned Sparrow        
"Slate-colored" Fox Sparrow                
Dark-eyed Junco              
Western Meadowlark                    
Brewer's Blackbird                  
Scott's Oriole                    
Lawrence's Goldfinch            
Lesser Goldfinch                
House Finch  
House Sparrow                    

Go to top