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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.
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
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
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.
|Western Scrub Jay||●||█||●||█||█||█||█||█||█||█||█||█|
|"Bell's" Sage Sparrow||●|
|"Slate-colored" Fox Sparrow||●||●||●||●|
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