Grape — er — Great Canyon in Anza-Borrego

Rocky trail cuts through west corner of state park

Generally, I do a bit of research before heading out on one of these drives. I break out the maps, check the web and have a general idea of the roads I’m looking to experience.

But for this trip, I decided to do what most folks do, just get in the car and drive.

Well, it wasn’t quite that spur-of-the-moment. I did have a general idea of what I wanted to see — something bumpy in the desert.After all, the folks at Nissan had been nice enough to send down a 2009 Nissan Xterra with the off-road package, so I needed someplace to exercise the four-wheel-drive transfer case and those big tires.

And winter rains would make my trip more interesting; since the publishing date of the story was going to be March, it would hit just about the time the desert flowers would be in bloom. I traveled in January, so the flowers weren’t out yet, but if you take your trip in the next few weeks, you should see some of the rare desert greenery (and just about every other color).

Rocky Road
Xterra on the rocks.

So, I headed to one of my favorite starting points in the desert, the Anza Borrego Desert State Park Visitor Center, located at the west end of Borrego Springs. There, a friendly volunteer suggested I take Grapevine Canyon, which parallels San Felipe Road and the Pacific Crest Trail.

The knowledgeable volunteers at the Visitor Center are a fantastic resource. They’ll ask about your driving skills, vehicle and what you want to see, picking out just the right road. And there are so many in Anza-Borrego.

The best way I’ve found to get to the center is over Montezuma Grade, which had better views, is more driveable and has less traffic than taking SR-78 through Julian and down Banner Grade. It drops right into the desert at the west end of Borrego Springs; just make the left at the bottom of the hill, rather than the right to go to “downtown” Borrego Springs.

Road sign
Follow the signs.

The volunteer, who was a bit shy and didn’t want her name used, said the road was challenging, needed four-wheel drive, had spectacular scenery and might have a few flowers out, even in January. It wasn’t, however, a rock-crawling vertical, so it would be an enjoyable drive for me; while I’ve been on a few rocky roads before, I’m not one of those folks who believe the only good road is one that goes straight up.

Off I set on the trip, passing the animal sculptures on the south end of Borrego Springs, then over to Yaqui Pass and SR-78. It’s about a half-hour drive over the hill. Look for a kiosk on the south side of SR-78 and county Call Box 78-740. Keep your eyes peeled for a small sign on the right, facing the road that says “Grapevine Canyon” and off you go.

My first surprise on the narrow trail, still fairly flat through a wash, was a family hiking through the area. They were headed back up the hill to Julian and stopped for a short walk from the road on a very pleasant desert day.

Then a group of three Jeep Wranglers came rolling by, and a little bit farther up, a seemingly new, jet-black Lexus LX, the luxo-version of the Toyota Land Cruiser. They were headed down the hill, a bit easier on the engine than heading up, but they missed the climb.

Only about four miles in, the brush has closed in and the rocks begin. I slipped the Xterra in to 4wd low even though it probably wasn’t needed yet. It just made the drive a bit more sure and smooth. What was needed was the high ground clearance, as the wheel ruts were deep and the track through mounds and brush was just a bit wider than the Xterra. No, this wasn’t a road for the Miata.

I did realize quickly that this trail is popular with folks heading downhill. I started at the bottom, at an elevation of about 1,696 feet, according to a later check of Google Earth. The top is 4,115 feet; a nice climb of 2,479 feet in 11.5 miles. I can see where most folks would go downhill, including the bicyclist who passed me about halfway in.

It was early-late afternoon when I hit the trail, so the sun was creating shadows from the rugged peaks; the red, gold and brown rocks glowing against the bright, blue sky. There was a little water, here and there, still draining down the hill from a storm about a week earlier. Just a beautiful day.

Three natural springs are on the map, all within a mile or less of the trail. That makes for a bit more vegetation in this area. I didn’t stop, except to snap a few photos. You might want to pack a lunch and do some hiking; it would be a moderately difficult walk.

It was a fun climb and about as close as I get to rock crawling. Keep alert; some of the rocks are jagged enough to poke an oil pan or gas tank, so take it easy and steer around them or put the tires to the point, as rubber is much more forgiving than steel.

As desert roads go, Grapevine Canyon is an easy trail to follow, if you’re alert and look for the little signs with the arrows on them. About 10 miles in, three other roads converge in a rut-filled clearing. I took the marked Jasper Trail, which headed to the northeast. It put me on Montezuma Valley Road, just west of the “8% Grade” sign.

From there, I headed back west through Ranchita, Santa Ysabel, Ramona and home. Believe it or not, about a 115 mile round trip from downtown Ramona, then another 30 miles or so back to central San Diego.

Just goes to show you that a day in fantastic scenery, fresh air and a real adventure isn’t that difficult. There are many Grapevine Canyons around… hope you find yours. ⚙

Xterra on the trail.
Xterra on the trail.

Directions and Info

Distance

  • About 115-mile round trip from Ramona

Difficulty

  • Challenging. Four-wheel-drive vehicle needed. Large vehicles not recommended.

Directions

  • SR-78 or 67 to Ramona. North on Main Street, SR-78.
  • In Santa Ysabel, left on SR-79.
  • Right at San Felipe Road
  • Left on Montezuma Valley Road.
  • In Borrego Springs, left on Palm Canyon Drive to visitor center.
  • From Visitor Center, continue east on Palm Canyon Drive.
  • Right at Borrego Springs Road (in Christmas Circle)
  • Right at Yaqui Pass Road
  • Right at SR-78
  • Look for kiosk and Call Box 78-740 on right. Grapevine Canyon sign and road are on left. You’re heading left into the hills.
  • In clearing with four converging trails, take Jasper Trail (very small sign).
  • At top of Jasper Trail is Montezuma Valley Road. Retrace route back to Ramona.

Tips

  • Take your own water and snacks. Humidity is very low in the desert so you’ll get thirsty even if it’s a cool day.
  • I didn’t stop to eat in Borrego Springs, but Carlee’s Place is still good, according to reports from friends who’ve visited this season. 660 Palm Canyon Dr., Borrego Springs, CA 92004, (760) 767-3262. There are also several other restaurants worth trying in and around Christmas Circle.

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