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Optional hike difficulty ratings: Hellhole Canyon starting off, towards the end if you want a view
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
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.
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.
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.
|Eurasian Collared Dove||●|
|Great Horned Owl||●||●|
|Western Wood Pewee||●|
|Western Scrub Jay||█||█||█||█||█||█||█||█||█||█||●||█|
|Northern Rough-winged Swallow||●|
|Black-throated Gray Warbler||●||●|
|"Bell's" Sage Sparrow||●||●||●||●||●|
|"Slate-colored" Fox Sparrow||█||●||●||●||●||●||●|
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