Flying Through Tierra Del Sol: Old ‘Hipass’ and McCain Valley Get The SUV Dirty

Sometimes these great twisty roads that driving enthusiasts like to frequent end up on the front page of the newspaper.

For example, Border Field State Park, in the Tijuana River Regional Park, is the site of a proposed expanded U.S. — Mexico border fence that’s received a lot of debate recently.

Well, Tierra Del Sol Road had been on my list of extended San Diego day trips for a long time, and when the area appeared the short list of new airport locations (erroneously called the “Campo” site), I decided to head east for a fresh look. (Note: This column was written in March 2005. The airport plan has been abandoned, like 5,000 other airport plans in San Diego.)

I’d been out here a few times with friends that like to stargaze… serious folks who own telescopes, not the celebrity hounds that hang out near Brad Pitt’s alleged new home in Del Mar.

The area off Tierra Del Sol Road, just west of Boulevard, is known for its dark and still skies… perfect for the amateur astronomer.

It’s a wide, flat plain, much of which is south of the border. At some points, it’s only a few hundred yards to Mexico. Lights of Interstate 8, cities and towns are blocked by hills and mountains. It’s hard to imagine how dark it can get out there at night.

During the day, it’s a beautiful area; a plateau that’s accessible at either end, making a perfect drive for a sunny day.

I headed east on Interstate 8 to the Kitchen Creek exit, swinging over to Old Highway 80. Just a couple of miles east is La Posta Road, where I headed south. It’s another six miles down La Posta Road to Campo Road and state Route 94. Make a right, and about another mile and a half is Shockey Truck Trail. Take it south.

Shockey Truck Trail is at the east end of the beautiful valley that includes Campo (about 10 minutes west) and Cameron Corners. A couple of miles after leaving Highway 94, Shockey Truck Trail turns to dirt. I’d left the Miata home in favor of a Jeep Liberty on loan from DaimlerChrysler, so that wasn’t a problem.

It’s amazing how the back country has turned green this year. Not quite like Ireland, but certainly a big contrast to the usual grey-green and brown of the chaparral.

It’s a wonderful drive up to the plateau, with great views to the west and, later, the south. Not a steep climb, but rutted and rocky just the same, what with all the rain we’ve had this year. I took my time, stopping at several spots to enjoy the vistas.

Not to dwell on what more than 24 inches of rain can do to our open space, but the green chaparral, contrasting with the light-tan granitic rock popping through in our rugged mountains, create a beautiful contrast.

The strong breeze never stopped during my visit, which I’m told by locals is very common. Weather is extreme, with winter temperatures dropping below freezing (especially with the wind-chill) and summers topping 100. Dress accordingly and bring water, as it can be dry even when it’s cold.

About the only thing marring the horizon are some high-voltage power lines, which announce drivers’ entry to the Tierra Del Sol plateau. The lines are here because of the terrain, as are the old the San Diego and Arizona Eastern Railroad tracks.

In his book, “San Diego County Place Names,” the late Lou Stein wrote that the area was dubbed Hipass by the railroad builders, at an elevation of 3,660 feet, it was the highest point on the “Impossible Road” that connected San Diego to markets in the east, which is once again carrying freight.

It also avoids the rugged mountains to the north, making it an easier crossing for the railroad tracks, not to mention high voltage power lines.

With a turn, you’re on Tierra Del Sol Road. Watch for the ruts and mud. Ranches dot the plateau, becoming more frequent the closer you get to Boulevard. It’s a nice drive. Put an airport here? Well…

After touring Tierra Del Sol, I headed east to Boulevard, then north to the McCain Valley Conservation Area. Located north of Interstate 8 from Boulevard, the area offers dirt roads, off-highway vehicle trails, camping, picnic areas and even hunting. It’s a great place to give that 4×4 SUV or truck a bit of exercise, even if you’re an off-road novice like me.

The McCain Valley Conservation Area is 38,692 acres in the In-Ko-Pah mountains, and with that much space, there’s almost something for everybody. It’s cooperatively managed by several government agencies and local stockmen, so there are ranches and cattle around.

Several trails lead north. There’s the Cottonwood Campground, about 10 miles from the area’s entry; Lark Canyon off-highway-vehicle area and campground; Carrizo Overlook, which offers views of the north end of the Carrizo Gorge; and Sacatone Overlook, which has views of the south end of the gorge.

I decided to take the Sacatone Overlook, which is about 2.5 miles from the area entry. It’s a nice, easy, twisting yet narrow road leading to a great view of the Carrizo Gorge and Colorado Desert, which includes the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, Algodones Dunes and, on a clear day, Yuma, Arizona.

San Diego and Arizona Eastern tracks also ride the edge of the canyon. Several tunnels are visible, but the spectacular Goat Canyon Trestle is on the other side of the ridge line.

Overall, it’s a fun ride through a very isolated area, easily accessible from Interstate 8 if you decide to skip the drive through the possible future site of the San Diego International Airport.

One of the reasons I like taking drives like this is to see for myself what all the fuss is about, as politicians, developers and others debate what open land should be carved up next. Sure, it’s my civic duty to be an informed citizen, but I might as well have some fun at the same time.

Jeep on the trail.

Jeep on the trail.

View from Shockley Truck Trail.

View from Shockley Truck Trail.

 

On the trail.

On the trail.

Route and Info

  • From March 2005

Difficulty

  • Moderate. Four-wheel-drive recommended.

Distance

  • About 38 miles. Kitchen Creek Road is about 50 miles east of central San Diego.

Directions

  • Interstate 8 east to Kitchen Creek Road exit.
  • Right to Old Highway 80.
  • Left on Old Highway 80.
  • Right at La Posta Road.
  • Right at Campo Road, SR-94.
  • Left at Shockey Truck Trail.
  • Left at Tierra Del Sol Road. Road takes several turns before meeting up with Campo Road, SR-94.
  • Right at SR-94.
  • Continue onto Old Highway 80 in Boulevard.
  • Left at McCain Valley Road.
  • Follow signs to Sacatone Overlook.
  • Retrace route back to Old Highway 80.
  • West (right) on Old Highway 80.
  • Right at Ribbonwood Road.
  • West on Interstate 8 to San Diego.

 

Route of "The Impossible Road."

Route of “The Impossible Road.”

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