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A Journey Through Corral Canyon

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About 50 miles inland from San Diego lays Corral Canyon OHV.  I’d come across videos of 4-wheelers there that made it seem challenging and scenic, attributes I look for while planning trips for OffroadPassport.com.  The more research I did the more the area presented a fun weekend get-away and great practice for the Rubicon trip this year.
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I posted a thread on MyJeepRocks.com asking about the required Adventure Pass and camping in the area, and reply was unique; it was a neighborly offer to lead the trails if we decided to visit.

‘BorregoWrangler’ John and I stayed in contact, and I posted the trip for the third weekend in January, 2011.  On that Friday five of us met in Gila Bend and shot down I-8 for California.  Five hours later we turned off at Buckman Springs Road just and drove down a winding two-lane through a pastoral landscape of beautiful oak trees and grassy hills.  Soon we passed the entrance to Corral Canyon OHV and a whoop of excitement came across on the CB.

We had reservations at nearby Lake Morena Campground, and our plans were to make camp, drop-off tow-vehicles, and then drive to Pine Valley for Adventure Passes.  But going through Morena Village, a quaint burg next to the lake, we passed the general store and saw gas pumps and a sign advertising “Adventure Passes Sold Here”.  Everything we need is right here!  That gave us plenty of time to build a roaring fire to cook hotdogs on before the wind kicked up and the Park Ranger made us douse it.

Saturday morning we were scheduled to meet ‘BorregoWrangler’ at 4 Corners, the gateway to the OHV trails and the meeting / air-down spot.  From the intersection of Buckman Springs Road and Corral Canyon, we drove about 6 miles on a winding unevenly paved road.  There was John in his mostly stock ‘89 YJ with 4 built FJ Cruisers, a Lexus LX450 and a TJ Rubicon.   I was immediately impressed by the OHV facilities: a large flat parking lot with a kiosk, clean Port-a-Potties, trashcans, and no trash anywhere.  In fact, the entire OHV system was well maintained and well marked.

With the addition of us five, there were 12 rigs total; too many for the black diamond trails at Corral Canyon.  So John’s friend Ollie led the Cruisers and the TJ Rubicon to run trails at Pancake Rock.  That left John and his friend Steve in the Lexus to lead about 3 miles of the roughest terrain we ‘Zonies’ had seen for a long time; maybe ever!  First we ran Sidewinder, a one-mile double-black-diamond rated roller-coaster.   Up and over the scrubby northeast quarter of Bronco Peak, the trail offers rock obstacles throughout: granite slabs you cross, several of them steep, or tippy.

Near the top one of our guys broke a driveshaft.  He’d taken a bad line on a slanted curve; the Jeep hopped, came down hard and broke the rear drive-shaft yoke.  Luckily George had a spare, and with many hands helping, we were quickly moving again.  Next we came to the ‘Slide’, the obstacle that makes Sidewinder famous.  It’s a nearly vertical rock-face drop-off with a sharp right turn at the bottom best negotiated straight on and slowly.  Shortly after that John somehow bent his passenger front leaf-spring, and attempts to bend it back were unsuccessful, so he had to finish the trail that way.

Then we encountered a tricky obstacle of diff-catching boulders.  There’s an optional, more difficult line to the right, but even the easy line was challenging.  One-by-one we got through that and then came to a V-notch offering awesome photo opportunities because good articulation is required to get over it.  We finished Sidewinder at noon and had lunch at Bobcat Meadows under shady oak trees.

Then it was on to Bronco Peak, a 1.8 mile long single black-diamond rated trail which immediately gains elevation climbing the eastern side of the mountain.  On soft soil interspersed with rocky obstacles, Lake Morena comes into view as you ascend the steep trail.  Soon we encountered the first of many photo-opportunities of our vehicles negotiating boulders.  From the peak we opted to continue down the other side on Bronco Flats trail to the perimeter road.

Bronco Flats is only .9 miles long and only rated a single black-diamond; but it was the most challenging section yet.  At the top there was a boulder standing out on a sharp curve that the rigs leaned into.  Steve in the Lexus was first to go past it, and his tactic was to go high and fast.  Others took a line close to the rock, slowly edging past it and just barely missing it.  I rode with Kristoffer in his ’03 WJ wide-body which didn’t fare as well as the others; the drivers-side rear fender scraped.

There were plenty more obstacles ahead: another ‘reach out and touch you’ rock, a gnarly, steep, loose rock garden, and another ‘I can’t believe we’re not done yet’ V-notch.  Finally the trail gently swept down through tall oaks and finished at the intersection with Skye Valley Road, which we took back past Bobcat Meadows to 4 Corners just as the sun was setting.  We got to camp after dark, took hot showers and grilled burgers for a quick dinner.

Sunday morning we met John and the gang at the intersection of Buckman Springs Road and Corral Canyon, and then we took Old Highway 80 east about 50 miles and aired-down on the outskirts of Jacumba, CA.  We followed the US- Mexico Border fence east into the Jacumba Mountains where the fence ended, and then picked back up again; it starts and stops multiple times in the rugged mountainous terrain.  This trail is a narrow shelf and tippy in places as it climbs into the hills.  We stopped at a lookout point with panoramic views where we could see snow-covered Mount San Jacinto to the north.  From there the group split; we who’d never been to Elliot Mine followed John to check it out while the others went to the lunch spot where we all eventually met.

After lunch John offered to lead one last trail for us.  We trekked across I-8 and on to Mountain Springs Stagecoach Trail down to Devil’s Canyon.  This is one of the first official routes, and the most difficult mountain pass for westbound travelers headed to San Diego.  It was easy and fast-going at first until we got to the eastbound loop where the stagecoach trail split.  From there it was rocky and became a narrow shelf road often impeded by large rocks.  Soon we were overlooking I-8 where the east and westbound lanes realign from separating around mountains.  It was an amazing site being high above the highway, and as we descended a motorist honked appreciatively seeing us four-wheelers on the trail.  From Mountain Springs the westbound loop is just as rocky and rough as the way in, but the incredible view made it worth the trip.

We aired-up on a dirt road underneath I-8 near where we’d aired-down, and we parted ways with Borrego John; he went home and we headed for camp.  It seemed like we’d been in California a lot longer than 48 hours because we’d seen and done so much!  And it occurred to me that we’d never have run all those trails if it not for the neighborliness of one fellow enthusiast and the passion we four-wheelers share for adventure.

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