Over the years, I’ve made hundreds of San Diego day trips to scenic Pine Valley. From the Pine Valley Boulevard off Interstate 8, we make the turn left into town. But the question always was, “What are all those trucks parked over there,” in the cul-de-sac to the right.
The answer, discovered with the assistance of a Nissan Frontier 4×4 midsize pickup, is a network of rugged trails: the Bear Valley Off Highway Vehicle Area.
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Stretching six miles south and east from the location, Bear Valley is easily found on the map. If you haven’t been to Pine Valley, look east on I-8, which generally follows a pretty straight line east from Alpine. Where I-8 makes a curve south, that’s Bear Valley.
Venturing south from the Pine Valley Road exit, what you’ll find is an unspoiled relic of Southern California before sprawl. A wide-open nature area that can test the most rugged of suspension systems on your vehicle, whether it be motorcycle, ATV or 4×4.
And if you’re in an SUV or truck, it had better be something that’s got off-road ground clearance and four-wheel-drive low settings. Why? Because you’re about to embark on a journey filled with ruts, rocks and, rare for our area, mud, during my visit at the beginning of the month.
The trail runs up hills and down valleys, with spectacular views around every corner. After a wet winter, the chaparral is chest high in many areas, with grass- and flower-carpeted meadows. Creeks at the bottoms of the steep gorges are hidden by spring growth this year and the long-suffering natural oaks have received some long-needed moisture.
This area hasn’t burned in many years, possibly since the disastrous Kitchen Creek blaze in the early 1970s, so it’s not only a good place to see our Southern California chaparral in full health, but also how it can recover from a big fire.
The road looks like it’s graded once and awhile, but clearly the bulldozers haven’t been through for some time so the drive is challenging and fun, as well as requiring drivers to stay alert. Just when you think you’ve come through the roughest patch possible, another 50 feet roll by and it’s more rocks. Or, around the curve is a 10 percent grade with ruts that swallowed up the Nissan’s off-road tires.
On a beautiful Saturday morning, there was hardly anyone on this route, possibly because there are so many choices in the area. Within a few miles of Bear Valley are two other off-highway-vehicle areas: Coral Canyon and McCain Valley, both with more varied trails. Here, you can do as I did, taking the Bear Valley trail straight to its gated end above the Buckman Springs Road exist from I-8; the gate closes the through access.
I opted for just a back-and-forth along Bear Valley Road, about a 13-mile round trip. The Frontier could have probably also made it through the Long Valley Loop, a 4.5 mile circle that begins near where Bear Valley Road is gated, but after more than an hour on the trail, my planned burger at Major’s Diner in Pine Valley was starting to occupy a larger portion of my imagination.
Dirt-bike riders can head south through Long Valley to the larger Corral Canyon OHV area through the Kernan Cycle Trail. A couple of veteran riders on the road during my visit said Kernan was no place for a pickup, so I didn’t give it a try.
The region’s distant volcanic past is evident not only in the rough rocks tumbling out of the road cuts, but in cones that dot the landscape. Granitic outcroppings also reveal a violent past that’s not so distant that it’s covered with much topsoil. The arid history of the region also shows in that rivers haven’t had much ability to carve paths into the hard rock.
Bear Valley is close to town (less than an hour east) and offers challenging roads for those who invested in 4×4, high ground clearance vehicles but have never had them off the pavement. If it’s your first time, take it slow and remember it’s one way in, one way out. If you’re just looking for a quick getaway, it’s a great choice. Either way, put it on your roads-to-drive list.
Route and Info
- From April 2010
- Nissan Frontier Review
- About 13 miles round-trip (longer if you take the Long Valley Loop). Pine Valley Road is about 40 miles from central San Diego.
- Challenging, with rocks and ruts. Four-wheel drive low and high-ground-clearance vehicle needed. Wide vehicles may have clearance issues. Dirt bikes and ATVs with appropriate suspension needed.
- Interstate 8 to Pine Valley Road exit.
- Turn right (south) to cul-de-sac. Note: If you park in this area a National Forest permit is required (available at ranger station in Alpine).
- Road is one-way in generally, with gate to Buckman Springs Road usually locked.