Location: Boulevard (67 Miles / 1 Hour East of Downtown San Diego)
Open Daily: Open Year-Round
Cost: Free for Day-Use; $6 for Camp Site
Features: Less Crowded and Cooler Desert Area for Off-Road Vehicle Enthusiasts, Hikers, Horseback Riders, Birdwatchers, and Campers
McCain Valley Highlights: McCain Valley is a 39,000 acre Conservation Area. McCain Valley Road is a dirt road heading north of highway I-8 through the Valley. Most of the area on the left side of the road is for off-road vehicles less than 40 inches wide (mainly motor bikes) while most of the right side of the road is a preserved area available only to horseback riders and hikers.
The Conservation Area is where the mountains meet the desert so you get a combination of mountain and desert vegetation. Despite its name, the McCain Valley sits at elevations ranging from 3,000 – 4,500 feet. For OHV users, this provides cooler temperatures than for most other desert type OHV areas in the county. It provides all users the opportunity to enjoy desert views from the Sacatone and Carrizo Overlooks.
McCain Valley, which is operated by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), has a limited number of camp sites. As a result, this is one of the less crowded areas available for OHV riders. OHV users will find 15 developed camp sites at the Lark Canyon Campground. Farther down McCain Valley Road, hikers and equestrians will find the Cottonwood Campground with 25 developed camp sites.
Camp sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis. The nightly cost is $6. Visit the campground links for more information, including an OHV trail map and rules at the Lark Canyon location and a hiking trail overview at the Cottonwood location.
Hiking – There are two additional BLM properties adjoining the McCain Valley, where visitors may get to see bighorn sheep, falcons, and golden eagles. (BLM has a guide to birds in the San Diego desert.) Along the eastern end of McCain Valley is the Carrizo Gorge Wilderness with 14,000 acres to explore. Along the northern end of McCain Valley is the Sawtooth Mountain Wilderness with an additional 34,000 acres.
Hikers will want to get a detailed map guide. One recommendation is Afoot & Afield in San Diego County by Jerry Schad. It offers several hiking suggestions for this area, including hikes from McCain Valley down to the desert floor.
Information on Visiting the McCain Valley Conservation Area
Fees: Day-Use is Free; Camp Sites are $6 per night.
Directions from Google Maps to McCain Valley Road. (This becomes a dirt road.) Follow signs to make a right turn and see the Sacatone Desert Overlook. Otherwise, continue straight to reach the Lark Canyon OHV Area followed by the Carrizo Overlook and then the Cottonwood Campground. (Cottonwood is 13 miles north of highway I-8.)
Traffic – If you travel during the evening rush hour, you will have heavy traffic heading eastbound on highway I-8 between downtown San Diego and El Cajon. Also, listen for Strong Santa Ana Winds in the weather forecast. On occasion (usually limited to the fall and winter months), the winds may be strong enough that the I-8 is shut down to any high profile vehicles, such as RVs and Campers, from the Sunrise Highway (S-1) eastward to the Desert.
Transit - There are no transit options that provide regular service into the desert.
Weather – The weather can vary quite a bit in this area, sometimes with unexpected changes within a matter of hours. Expect the weather to be something between what is forecast for the Mountains and the Desert. Check the current Mountain and Desert Weather Forecasts.