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Portions of the dirt road are very rough with small rocks, ruts, and bumps (and even worse after heavy winter rains). Once past Indian Flats Campground the road into Lost Valley becomes paved, as is, of course, Highway 79.
Approximate Length: 21 miles
Approximate Birding Time: 4-5 hours
Facilities: There are pit toilets in the campground and one porta potty along Lost Valley Road.
Traffic: Non-existent in Cow Canyon and very light along Lost Valley Road, but may pick up on the weekends. Moderate to heavy along highway 79.
Directions: Take I-8 east towards El Cajon, and take highway 67 north to Ramona. Keep going towards Santa Ysabel (67 turns into 78 in Ramona), and at the intersection with highway 79 in Santa Ysabel turn left towards Warner Springs. Follow this road all the way through Warner Springs. If you do not have a high-clearance vehicle: About 2 miles past the turnoff to Los Coyotes Indian Reservation you'll see the road to Indian Flats Campground on your right; you may want to turn here and do this portion of the loop only (see addendum below). If you DO have a high-clearance vehicle, continue on for about 6.5 miles to the SECOND trailer park entrance on your right (just before the Sunshine Summit sign). This is private property, so getting out to bird the ponds is discouraged, although passing through to get to the fire road is permissible (I've found that if asked what I'm doing by the residents, pleasantly engaging them in conversation about your birding adventure has always been positive). Follow the main road, and turn right at the stop sign. Veer up the hill, and you'll see a big parking area on your right and a primitive paved road that goes up the hill to the left; take this road, which turns to dirt quickly.
Before you start on the dirt road, spend a couple of minutes overlooking the pond and listening; this will likely be your only shot at Great-tailed Grackles, Coots, Mallards and other ducks, swallows, Red-winged Blackbirds, Green Heron, and other wetland/suburban birds on this route. Shortly after the start of the road you'll see the Navy's survival training camp down the hill to your right; sometimes Wild Turkeys can be heard gobbling from this area!
View of mobile home pond from entrance to Cow Canyon
The bulk of the next 6 miles is chaparral, so look and listen for Wrentit, California Thrasher, "Bell's" Sage Sparrow, Bewick's Wren, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Western Scrub Jay, Greater Roadrunner, both towhees, and Ladder-backed Woodpecker (rare) year round; Black-chinned Sparrows, Ash-throated Flycatchers, occasionally Scott's Orioles, and where there are more boulders, Gray Vireo in summer. In winter look for Hermit Thrush and Fox Sparrow in addition to the regulars. Surprisingly Oak Titmice like the salt cedar-like vegetation along the road! Both California and Mountain Quail can be seen and heard along this portion, often in large numbers.
Gray Vireo habitat looking towards Chihuahua Valley
Follow the dirt road for approximately 4 miles, where the road forks. Take the right fork and continue on to the oak woodland area where you start picking up Nuttall's Woodpeckers (surprisingly Acorn is rare in here), Northern Flicker, White-breasted Nuthatch, Anna's and Costa's Hummingbirds, Phainopepla, Bushtits, Lesser and Lawrence's Goldfinches, Band-tailed Pigeons, and Hutton's Vireos year round; Western Wood Pewee and Black-headed Grosbeak in summer; and Junco, Lincoln's, Golden-crowned, and White-crowned Sparrows, American Robin, and Ruby-crowned Kinglet in winter.
Heading into BLM land (look hard for paved Lost Valley Road WAY in the distance!)
Note the condition of the road...
Entering into the Cleveland National Forest
A new "bridge" allows cars to pass through into Lost Valley where there used to be a small "lake" blocking the road during the rainy season! Leaving the oak woodland behind the boulders become prominent; look for Rock Wrens in here. Occasionally Canyon Wrens can be heard singing from the large cliff face on your left, and often White-throated Swifts and American Kestrels can be spotted by scanning the top of the cliffs. If open, a walk around the oak woodland at Indian Flats Campground is worthwhile (it's often closed when the endangered Arroyo Toads are breeding), where you can look for House Wren, Cooper's Hawk, Western Bluebird, Lawrence's Goldfinches, Orange-crowned Warblers, and other oak-related species.
View of the oaks at Indian Flats Campground from the road
Road into the campground
From inside the campground
Lost Valley Road is paved from here on, and is a continuation of the boulder-strewn chaparral habitat, where Gray Vireos have traditionally hung out near the PCT access point about a mile or so down from the campground (there's a big sign on the left), but they can be heard anywhere along here. Further down the road you lose the the boulders, and much of the habitat has suffered from a burn that occurred many years ago. But you can still look for Rufous-crowned, "Bell's" Sage, and Black-chinned Sparrows in here, especially in the flatter areas down the road with more open sage. This open area is also better for Say's Phoebe, Lark Sparrow, and Western Meadowlark. Down at the bottom of the road, there is more extensive oak woodland along highway 79 where Red-shouldered Hawk, Acorn Woodpecker, and Steller's Jay is more likely.
Rock face near the campground
Gray Vireo habitat along Lost Valley Road
Burned area overlooking the Henshaw Basin
After a rare snow
Flatter area good for Sage Sparrows
Same area snowed in
The "bottom of the hill"
Addendum: With or without high-clearance, from here you can turn right on highway 78 and stop periodically; the open fields can be good for raptors and other grassland birds, particularly in winter. The stream crossings can yield more riparian habitat, good for Black Phoebe, and the oak woodlands along this stretch are often more productive than within Cow Canyon. Those who only birded Lost Valley Road can zip into the mobile home park in Sunshine Summit to check out their ponds (see above), then backtrack and continue north on SR 79 to Chihuahua Valley Road. Though not as intimate, this road covers much the same habitat as Cow Canyon (but beware of private property and loose dogs...).
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.
|Western Wood Pewee||●||●|
|Western Scrub Jay||●||█||●||█||●||█||█||█||█||█||●||█|
|Northern Rough-winged Swallow||●|
|"Bell's" Sage Sparrow||●||●||●||●||●|
|"Slate-colored" Fox Sparrow||●||●|
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