Off-Road Trails: San Diego’s Corral Canyon

Sep. 27, 2010 By Justin Fort

Out the back door in San Diego, a stone’s throw from the 8 freeway, only a hop, skip and jump past the SoCal metrocomplex, lies Corral Canyon, an excellent off-road playground, and one of the semi-hidden gems in San Diego’s full quiver of fun things to do in the dirt. Off-Road.com has been serving up simple recipes for getting yourself there, and the backyard adventurism is one of our specialties. San Diego? Welcome to your backyard.

A combination of semi-arid peaks and extensive scrub brush split by a number of densely grown canyons, the Corral Canyon area was heavily wooded as recently as the 1900s, when ranching and timber collection took the local flora down to the nub. Modern logging is far more kind to the land, and despite what certain folks would have you believe, the square-mileage of forests in the US grows every year – it’s coming back, folks, even here. Corral Canyon also has a bit of history to it, from local Indian tribes to portions of the old Santa Fe railroad.

Off-Road Action in San Diego County
Some of the irony of ‘roading at Corral Canyon is that it’s almost too convenient – “get a run done before lunch” convenient – and many of San Diego’s copious trail and crawl crowd head east in the early a.m. to do just that. This playground is nearby enough to try out new parts, bend old parts or just meet up with trail buddies, and it’s close enough to get fast recovery should you break the crap out of something. That said, Corral Canyon is not urban at all, and when you’re out here, you’re out there, separated from the urban wilderness by a lot of scrub, mountains and a 40-minute drive (minimum). If you read our piece about Saddleback in Orange County, this is San Diego’s version (and you’re still in the CleveNat). Same rules apply – a forest adventure pass means free camping, and multi-use roads mean you’ll see quads, motos and bikes too.

Corral Canyon Road has its entertaining moments, usually where it’s wet.

The front door get-to for this bit of backyard off-roading is the Buckman Springs exit on the 8, just southeast of the Border Patrol substation. It’s the only access, currently. A reasonably sneaky right-hand turn to Corral Canyon Road (17S04) comes up a few miles south, and you’ll know you missed it if you hit Morena Village. Corral Canyon Road winds roughly west into the meat of Corral Canyon, delivering you to the universal meet-up spot of Four Corners.

Once upon a time, there was access to Bear Valley and Corral Canyon from two exits west of Buckman Springs, at Pine Valley (just west of Sunrise Highway), but we’ve been told that as of late this is a quad/motorcycle/hoof & boot-only entrance. We ought to check for ourselves. Despite such news, rumors persist of the Bear Valley gate to Corral Canyon occasionally opening to high-clearance four-by vehicles, but we’ve never seen it. This is one of the questions that must be asked and re-asked of the Forest Service folks – politely – so make friends, and then make your point. The ranger district is Descanso (based in Alpine), reachable at 619/445-6235.

Obstacles on Gun Slinger are excessive, but hey, great stuff is great stuff.

Options for Corral Canyon Action
From Four Corners, access goes about 10 ways. There are good maps to be had – hop online if you can’t find one of the printed items distributed by the forestry folks. The forestry types have a good selection of info online (including which trails you should request improved access to) at http://www.fs.fed.us/r5/cleveland/conditions/index.shtml, while you also can get more rounded details from enthusiast sites like Dirtopia: http://www.dirtopia.com/wiki/Corral_Canyon. Los Pinos Road takes the amateurish amongst us to the fire lookout – a good view whether or not you’re planning other off-road adventures (and a great place to spy on other trail dogs bonking around in the dust). Corral Canyon Road (still 17S04) heads further into the park, and can shortcut almost all mildly equipped vehicles to Skye Valley Road (17S06), another loop road that connects to Los Pinos Valley Road (16S17), itself running south from Four Corners.

The Bronco turnoff is well marked, and so are vehicles running Bronco.

The entirety of off-roadable area in the Corral Canyon area includes Bear Valley, Lost Pinos/Espinosa and Corral Canyon, and trails like the outer loop can be handled by the likes of Off-Road.com’s miraculous magical Trucklet. Skye Valley and Corral Canyon Roads roughly outline Corral Canyon, but if you jog west at the end of Corral Canyon Road, you’ll head north up Corte Madera Road (16S05). The loop swings east on Espinosa Trail (4E03) and south on Los Pinos Road (16S17) back to Four Corners. You can also get around the east and southern sides of the big loop via Skye Valley road, but you need to take Los Pinos Road (16S17) south from Four Corners, which then turns into Skye Valley at Bobcat Meadow. It’s a fun two-hour loop if you just want to bonk around. If you prefer to try and break things, follow the route we took.

Bronco Flats’ first drop is easier than it looks, or Bill makes it look easy.

Adventures in 4Runner Denting
We wrangled up a few of the Ultimate Yota guys in San Diego (http://www.ultimateyota.com/) for a morning tour of the clunkier sections of Corral Canyon, both for the sake of good photos and to have some Corral Canyon regulars along to point and laugh when we had to use the E-brake locker. We’ve run into NAXJA, YotaTech, JustRuns and a slew of others up here too. We wound up with a bundle of 4Runners, but between Patrick’s gen-one and Bill’s gen-three, we had about 40 previous runs through the area under our caps. Knowledge is king. It’s also wonderful to have buddies along on the trail because no one stacks rocks like your friends, and you can figure out what a good friend is when rocks need stacking.

We hit some of the simpler items in Corral Canyon first, so we’d have photos from trails that neighbor-dude in the bone-stock pickup can explore without needing a sky-crane or the two-strap six-pack rescue act. You can take Corral Canyon Road southwest from Four Corners into the depths of the park, so we rode it three miles to the turnoff for Gun Slinger. On route to the trail with the silly, typecast name, we crossed a few creeks and soft spots that four-wheel drive would have made easier, but overall Corral Canyon Road could be run in your mother’s Camry.

Famous last words.

] Drop-ins everywhere are easier with good spotting. Look, more stuff!

Gun Slinger (or Gun Clinger – could someone in the Pickle administration explain the difference?) peels off CCR back west, and it’s a good road to get some salt in the wounds of a first-time trail adventurer. Views are quality, angles are just dramatic enough to need occasional hard looks, and some of the rocks can get you if you’re not paying attention. A truck with decent clearance and reasonably adventurous tires could probably do it in two-wheel drive. Gun Slinger terminates at Bronco Flats, which is neither flat nor from Denver, and if you don’t want to bend your truck, it’s probably time to turn around and play ‘Slinger backwards.

Los Pinos observatory looms over all. One of San Diego’s best views.

We went south on Bronco Flats, primarily due to time constraints. Skye Valley runs about a mile south of the Gun/Bronco intersect via ‘Flats, and provides a fast loop back to the exit at Four Corners (we had a radio show to do that afternoon). See? Morning run. If time was on our side, we could have turned north on the remainder of Bronco Flats to the classic Corral Canyon trail, Bronco Peak, which runs east all the way to the Skye Valley loop road across Bronco Peak itself (all 4169ft of it). There’s also Bronco Connector (wicked tough), Sidewinder (tippy) and a selection of other action, so you can spend a lot of time learning what Corral Canyon’s got.

Bronco Flats proved neither flat nor quick, and once past several rocky stairways (no problem in an unlocked 4Runner headed downhill, but likely tricky going up), we hit the boulder chicanes that have now washed out and put previously tire-high rocks the size of Smart cars at your door. Patrick’s locked and armored gen-one 4Runner made the drops cleanly on the far-side line, but the Bill’s gen-three slid a scosche off the same high line and lost a spec of paint (you can fix that with White-Out, Bill). Had Patrick been a heavier dude (turned sideways, you can’t see the guy), he could have balanced Bill’s Duratrac’d and armored ’01 SR5 cleanly past the biting boulder. Last up was the illustrious author’s ’97, and Bill chose that time to experiment with the low line. It doesn’t work. The starboard-front door will attest to the ensuing trauma, and the only way this scratch will buff out is with a crowbar. Corral Canyon has thusly managed to take a bite out of the passenger-front door of every truck yours’ truly has run there.

Killer line called by yours truly got Patrick’s 4R through Boulder Chicane.

That sort of wreckage happens on-trail, so no kvetching, and yes, I need sliders. Duhh. Have your friends stack rocks, and if they’re as good a folk as Bill & Stretch, you’ll get to church on time, or as in our case, the church of sound: Hank Watson’s Garage Hour on 1170AM/KCBQ.

State of Off-Roading – Protect your Trails!
Sadly, the good stuff in Corral Canyon used to connect with good stuff elsewhere – Corral Canyon originally hooked up with Lyons Valley Road and Skyline Truck Trail in a few spots. You could actually get somewhere via these off-road byways like you can in less regulated states. Folks who’d close trails and take fun in the dirt away from off-roaders have done a lot of damage. Sadly, off-roaders are used to having access, not protecting it. Tread lightly, and don’t give the envirowhackos anything to use against us, then do something about it. It’s not going to get better until we stand up and fight for our rights, either, because outfits like REI – yup, who’d think a company that calls itself a collective would lean to the left – give big bits of change to groups that close trails. There’s lots of work to do.

Last lumps on Bronco Flats tip a truck like small ships on a high sea.

You can look up ways to put a stop to and/or reverse this trail robbery by learning about shared-access groups like Blue Ribbon Coalition (http://blueribbon.org/) and what you can do to support them. How fair is it that the only folks who would able to enjoy America’s backcountry (should trail closure continue) are the ones that can get there on foot? Are you capable of a strenuous 10-mile hike? 20? Can you carry all the gear for you and your family on your back? Want to outfit everyone in your household for hiking? Heh, REI wants you to. If a soldier who’s lost a leg in defense of our country wants to visit the backwoods, how’s that honorable person supposed to do so? They gave almost all they had to protect this nation, but they’re not able to travel it?

Post-run dent count and pressure check at Skye Valley.

How bad is it? When a neighbor of ours, who’s in a wheelchair by no fault of his own, inquired of the folks at REI about assistance with off-road vehicle use, they recommended that someone who’s unable to walk should buy an off-road wheelchair. No, we can’t make this up. When we doubled down and asked how an 80-year-old grandparent with diabetes and bad knees would get to see the same countryside, another REI representative suggested they’re too old. Not in my country, they’re not. Fight for the right, before we lose it.

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