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"Easy Birder" Driving Routes

Montezuma Grade

    Paved all the way

Optional hike difficulty ratings:    Hellhole Canyon    starting off, towards the end if you want a view

                                                        Culp Valley:               

                                                        Jasper Trail:            (basically; coming back the incline is very slight)

                                                        PCT @ Barrel Springs:   

Approximate Length: 18 miles

Approximate Birding Time: 2.5 hours, 4.5 hours with all optional hiking trails

Traffic: Moderate

Facilities:  Potties are located at the Hellhole Canyon trailhead; otherwise it's the bushes on one of the trails

Directions:  The top of this route is actually closer to San Diego, but it's better to start at the bottom and work your way up as the desert warms up quickly (unless you want to get to the top end well before dawn and owl your way down the grade).  If you don't want to overnight in Borrego Springs and want to take a different route to get to the start of this trail, take I-8 east to the highway 79 exit (Descanso/Japatul Road).  Take 79 north through Cuyamaca State Park to where it Ts with highway 78 near Julian.  Turn right, and take 78 down the grade into the desert.  Go past S2 (Scissors Crossing) and turn left (north) on S3 towards Borrego Springs (note that S3 forks left just past Rams Hill).  Continue on S3 to the traffic circle and pick up S22 west towards Anza Borrego Desert State Park Headquarters.  Past Palm Canyon Resort S22 takes a hard left; start your birding here, as you can pick up suburban-type birds such as Hooded Oriole (summer) and White-winged Dove easier here than further up the road.  Your next stop, Hellhole Canyon, is about a mile up the road.

Hellhole Canyon

Anza Borrego (part of the Colorado Desert) is a very dry desert, so unlike the Sonoran Desert of southeast Arizona, it can be very quiet, even first thing in the morning.  But listen for Black-throated Sparrow, Verdin, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, and Cactus Wren in particular here; a short hike up the trail may yield Rock Wren and Greater Roadrunner as well (in spring, listen for the hound-dog coos of the latter anywhere along this route!).  Beware that both California and Gambel's Quail occur here, along with their hybrids! 

The first few miles heading up the grade are quite barren, except after a rare wet winter, when the flowers can be spectacular in spring; when the desert is in bloom listen for Costa's Hummingbirds along here.  Otherwise, Rock Wrens are about the only birds braving this area, but listen for Ladder-backed Woodpeckers on the yuccas, White-throated Swifts in the canyons, and check the vegetated draws for the occasional Rufous-crowned Sparrow.  As you gain altitude you gain vegetation; Black-throated Sparrows can be found anywhere along this route up to about Jasper Trail.  Around the Culp Valley area, look also for Ash-throated Flycatcher (summer), Loggerhead Shrike, and more chaparral-loving birds, such as Bewick's Wren, Wrentit, and California Thrasher and Towhee.  A short stroll around the campground and the overlook may yield closer looks at these birds, as well as Phainopepla and Northern Mockingbird; in winter look for Say's Phoebe and White-crowned Sparrow.

The Grade in bloom

Rock formations and scrubby desert grassland around Culp Valley

At about the 7m post is the turnoff to Jasper Trail on the left, which is very easy to miss (if you get to the cattle guard at the very top of the grade you've gone too far); look for the back of a diamond-shaped sign on the left, then not too far past that look for a yellow-topped brown trail pole.  There's just enough room for one car to park, and an optional hike down to the primitive campground can be either very quiet or very productive, especially in spring.  Look for any of the common migrant warblers as well as expected chaparral and desert species, including Western Scrub Jay and Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (Ladder-backed Woodpecker and Scott's Oriole can occur this high).  In winter, this is a good area for White-crowned and Fox Sparrows and sometimes Hermit Thrushes.  Rarities such as Gray Flycatcher and Green-tailed Towhee have also shown up.  Some birds normally associated with oak woodland such as Oak Titmouse can be quite common along this trail.

Jasper Trail

Cactus patches along Jasper

Jasper in bloom

At the top of the hill you reach Ranchita, and the habitat changes drastically to patches of oak savannah, pinyons, and rural range/farmland.  On one occasion Brewer's Sparrows were singing along this stretch.  Check the fields and any plowed garden patches for Western Kingbird (summer), Horned Larks, Western Meadowlarks, and other icterids.  In winter look for flocks of Mountain Bluebirds as well as Westerns, although the former can be quite unpredictable.  Raptors like this area as well; watch for American Kestrels on the wires and White-tailed Kites hovering over the scrub.  Don't assume all the doves you see are Mournings, as the Eurasian Collared Dove has now appeared in the area!  Although easier to get along the Pacific Crest Trail, on rare occasions Sage Sparrow can be heard singing in the sagebrush area here in summer.  Much of this area was devastated by the Pines Fire but is starting to recover, particularly in the oak woodlands closer to the Pacific Crest Trail crossing. 

Pinyon grassland near Ranchita

Recovering burned area

Yes, it can snow up here!

Stops along the oak woodlands should add Nuttall's and Acorn Woodpeckers, Flickers, Lesser and Lawrence's Goldfinches, Bushtit, White-breasted Nuthatch, Ruby-crowned Kinglet (winter), House Wren, Hutton's Vireo, Western Bluebird, Yellow-rumped (winter) and Orange-crowned Warblers, Bullock's Oriole (summer), Band-tailed Pigeon; Lark, White-crowned, Golden-crowned (both winter) and Chipping Sparrow; Dark-eyed Junco (more common in winter; check the flocks carefully for the odd Gray-headed), Red-shouldered Hawk, Spotted Towhee, and Anna's Hummingbird to the list.  On rare occasions higher elevation species such as Steller's Jay and Mountain Chickadee can be found.  A better option is a short hike into Barrel Springs, along the southbound PCT (the trailhead is on the left just before the 1m post).  This woodland has bounced back quite nicely since the fire, and your chances of finding some of the aforementioned birds (particularly Lawrence's Goldfinch) are better in here.  This is also one of the best places in the county to see Mountain Quail, as they often come close to the trail and even cross it!  (Beware that California Quail can also be quite common in here...)  In spring, sometimes Blue Grosbeaks will be singing from San Felipe Creek, as well as the more expected Black-headed Grosbeak.  Hike along the trail out into the chaparral, and you might add Lazuli Bunting and Black-chinned Sparrow in spring and summer; you may have to hike a little further out to add Rufous-crowned and "Bell's" Sage Sparrow, however.  One winter the fruiting toyon attracted a large flock of Cedar Waxwings, but I suspect that was highly unusual.  Keep an eye out for Purple Martins which may begin utilizing the burned out trees as nesting sites.

Pacific Crest Trail southbound from Barrel Springs, shortly after the Pines Fire

Taken in 2005

June of 2007

View from the "turnaround point"

Snow doesn't "stick" long here, so enjoy it while you can...

Recent shot from near the trailhead

The road ends about a mile further at S2 and gives you a view of what was open rangeland; although the both the Mataguay and Pines Fires have done a number on this area, it's worth checking for Lark Sparrows year round, Western Kingbirds in summer,  and raptors.

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 or irruptive species and are not to be expected.

  J F M A M J J A S O N D
Turkey Vulture                      
White-tailed Kite          ●            
Cooper's Hawk                      
Red-shouldered Hawk                    
Red-tailed Hawk                  
Ferruginous Hawk                      
American Kestrel                    
California Quail      
Mountain Quail            
Wild Turkey      ●                
Mourning Dove        
White-winged Dove                      
Eurasian Collared Dove                      
Band-tailed Pigeon                    
Greater Roadrunner      ●  ●  ●  ●        
Barn Owl                      
Great Horned Owl              ●        
Vaux's Swift                      
White-throated Swift      ●  ●              
Anna's Hummingbird          
Costa's Hummingbird                  
Rufous Hummingbird                      
Northern Flicker          
Acorn Woodpecker      
Nuttall's Woodpecker          
Ladder-backed Woodpecker          
Hairy Woodpecker                    
Ash-throated Flycatcher                
Say's Phoebe                      
Willow Flycatcher                      
Gray Flycatcher                      
Western Wood Pewee                      
Olive-sided Flycatcher                      
Western Kingbird                    
Loggerhead Shrike                  
Warbling Vireo                      
Hutton's Vireo                
Cassin's Vireo                      
American Crow          
Common Raven  
Steller's Jay                    
Western Scrub Jay
Horned Lark                      
Purple Martin                      
Violet-green Swallow                      
Northern Rough-winged Swallow                      
Cliff Swallow                      
Barn Swallow                      
Mountain Chickadee                  
Oak Titmouse    
Verdin              
Bushtit            
Red-breasted Nuthatch                      
White-breasted Nuthatch      
House Wren                  
Bewick's Wren    
Cactus Wren              
Rock Wren        
Canyon Wren                      
Wrentit  
Ruby-crowned Kinglet                  
Black-tailed Gnatcatcher                      
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher                    
Mountain Bluebird                      
Western Bluebird            
Hermit Thrush                      
Northern Mockingbird                    
California Thrasher    
European Starling              
American Pipit                      
Phainopepla        
Cedar Waxwing  █                    
Orange-crowned Warbler              
Nashville Warbler                      
Yellow Warbler                    
Yellow-rumped Warbler              
Black-throated Gray Warbler                      
Townsend's Warbler                    
Hermit Warbler                    
MacGillivray's Warbler                      
Wilson's Warbler                    
Western Tanager                      
Black-headed Grosbeak                
Blue Grosbeak                      
Lazuli Bunting                  
Spotted Towhee    
Green-tailed Towhee                      
California Towhee  
Rufous-crowned Sparrow        ●              
"Bell's" Sage Sparrow        ●            
Black-throated Sparrow      
Black-chinned Sparrow                    
Brewer's Sparrow        ●              
Chipping Sparrow                
Lark Sparrow              
Golden-crowned Sparrow                      
White-crowned Sparrow          
"Slate-colored" Fox Sparrow            
Song Sparrow                    
Lincoln's Sparrow                      
Dark-eyed Junco              
"Gray-headed" Junco                      ●
Western Meadowlark                    
Brown-headed Cowbird                  
Red-winged Blackbird                      
Brewer's Blackbird                    
Bullock's Oriole                      
Hooded Oriole          ●            
Scott's Oriole                  
Pine Siskin                    
Lawrence's Goldfinch          
Lesser Goldfinch      
House Finch  
Red Crossbill                      
House Sparrow                    

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