Pinyon Mountain Trail Location: Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
Trailhead GPS Coordinates: 33.056802, -116.421305 (intersection of Pinyon Mountain Road and S2, the Great Southern Overland Stage Route)
Having lived and wheeled in California for many years, I have to say this state is truly an off-roader’s paradise. From the mountains to the desert, the Golden State has a lot to offer when it comes to off-grid adventures.
I’ve gotten pretty familiar with a lot of trails here in California over the years, and I often get asked about which trails are my favorite, especially the difficult ones. So, I thought I would share some information about a few of the trails that top my list of difficult off-road trails here in Southern California in a series of blog posts, with this being the second in the series.
In no particular order, here’s a list of the trails I’m sharing in this blog series:
As I post these blogs, the list above will become links so you can read all the blogs and learn more about each trail.
I’d like to say that this is not a definitive list of all the difficult trails in California, nor is it a complete list of all my favorite trails here. These are just some of the best, in my opinion.
I also want to emphasize that these trails are considered difficult, and they are recommended for experienced off-roaders with a capable Jeep or other off-road vehicle. By “capable,” I mean high clearance with four-wheel drive with low range, and lockers wouldn’t hurt either.
Because these trails are difficult, it's essential to be well-prepared for the obstacles and challenging terrain you’ll encounter and to know your vehicle's capabilities and limitations. Always travel with at least one other off-road vehicle, carry recovery gear, and have a plan in case of an emergency.
Four of the five trails that I’m going to talk about are Jeep Badge of Honor trails. These are trails that have been selected by Jeep (there are currently about 50 of them) and you can earn badges to display on your rig—or wherever you want—after you complete them.
To participate in the Badge of Honor program, you have to download the app, https://www.jeep.com/badge-of-honor.html, and register your vehicle, which is pretty easy. Within the app, you can get trail maps, directions, reviews and photos, the weather, and a lot more. You don’t have to be a Jeep owner to use the app but you do have to have a Jeep to earn the badges.
I’ll provide GPS coordinates to the trailhead for each trail but please note these coordinates are approximate and you should check an updated map or navigation app before starting your adventure. It’s also a good idea to check with the local ranger station for updated trail information, including trail closures, restrictions, or permit requirements before heading out.
Finally, because I know not everyone is local to Southern California and may need to camp when tackling these trails, I’ve included some basic information about camping in the vicinity of each trail. Before planning your camping trip, I recommend checking for any local regulations, restrictions, and permit requirements.
Also, many of the camping options are dispersed campsites and in remote, off-grid locations, so be prepared by bringing adequate supplies, a reliable vehicle, and communication equipment. And please, always practice Leave No Trace and Tread Lightly principles to respect our fragile ecosystems and leave things better than you found them.
And just for fun (and because my wife made me do it), I’m including information about the history, and plant and wildlife of the areas around the trails. Regena and I have found that this information just adds to the overall experience and makes it more meaningful.
Okay, on to the trail!
Pinyon Mountain Trail Overview
Located in Southern California’s Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, the Pinyon Mountain Trail is a challenging off-road trail with stunning desert views that loops through approximately 20 miles of the state park. This trail offers a mix of rocky terrain, steep declines, tight technical sections and sandy washes that will test the capabilities of off-road vehicles and their drivers.
This is a very difficult trail and there’s definitely the potential for body damage to your rig, particularly through “The Squeeze.” Having said that, this is a fun trail and I would only recommend it for experienced off-roaders because topnotch driving skills are essential to get safely through this trail.
Pinyon Mountain is considered moderate to difficult, with rocky and steep sections, and the sand can decrease traction. There are several tight turns that require precise driving skills, making this trail not for the faint of heart or anyone new to off-roading. The trail is also subject to sudden weather changes, so be prepared for heat and high winds.
- Rock crawling: There are sections of the trail with large rocks and boulders that require careful tire placement and slow, controlled driving to avoid getting stuck or damaging your vehicle.
- Steep inclines and descents: There are several descents that can be demanding on both you and your vehicle. Combined with loose rocks, getting through these sections will require skillful driving and a vehicle with good articulation.
- Soft Sand: The trail includes washes and areas with soft sand, which can cause you to lose traction and become stuck if you aren’t careful.
- Off-Camber Sections: The trail features off-camber sections, where the terrain slopes to one side, requiring careful vehicle positioning and balance to avoid rollovers or sliding. Make sure to take your time through these sections.
- Ruts and Erosion: Some parts of the trail may have deep ruts or erosion, making the trail uneven and challenging to navigate.
- The Squeeze: This obstacle is a very tight rock passage on a short descent that forces drivers to navigate through a very slim opening between boulders. Larger vehicles should avoid this trail because body damage is practically guaranteed. You will literally have just inches on either side of your vehicle as you navigate this obstacle.
- Heart Attack Hill: This is a steep, loose, and rocky descent that requires careful maneuvering, good tire placement, and a well-equipped vehicle. This hill can be intimidating even for experienced drivers. Using a low gear and avoiding smashing too hard on the brakes to prevent sliding can be helpful.
As you navigate the Pinyon Mountain trail, you'll be treated to stunning views of the surrounding desert landscape, which is characterized by its rugged terrain, unique geological formations, and vast open spaces. The area features a variety of rock formations, including granite boulders, eroded sandstone, and volcanic rocks, creating a dramatic backdrop for your off-road adventure.
Despite the arid conditions, the Pinyon Mountain trail is home to an incredible variety of plant life that’s adapted to the desert environment. Some common plants you may encounter along the trail include yuccas, cholla cactus, barrel cactus, and creosote bush. During the spring months, you may also have the chance to see various desert wildflowers in bloom, transforming the stark landscape into a vibrant sea of color.
And don’t let the seemingly barren desertscape fool you because this area is home to a diverse range of wildlife. Anza-Borrego is home to desert bighorn sheep (although I have yet to see one), coyotes, black-tailed jackrabbits, kit foxes., kangaroo rats, and desert cottontails.
Reptiles are also abundant, and you might see desert iguanas, chuckwallas, or rattlesnakes along the trail, so make sure to watch your step and be aware of your surroundings when stop to explore.
If you’re a fan of birds, you might see species like roadrunners and quail, which are fun to see running across the trail with their heads bobbing. You might also catch a glimpse of red-tailed hawks or golden eagles soaring above you, searching for prey.
If you’re interested in camping near the Pinyon Mountain Trail, you’ll find several options in the area that include:
- Borrego Palm Canyon Campground: This popular campground is located in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and features around 120 campsites. Amenities include restrooms, potable water, fire pits, and picnic tables. You can reserve a spot ReserveCalifornia.com.
- Tamarisk Grove Campground: This is a smaller campground within the state park that offers 27 campsites with amenities like restrooms, potable water, fire pits, and picnic tables. This campground is known for its beautiful tamarisk trees, which provide shade to the campsites. Reservations can be made through ReserveCalifornia.com.
- Blair Valley: This secluded camping area is near the Pinyon Mountain Trail on the western side of Anza-Borrego and offers a more primitive and remote experience. There are numbered campsites and a pit toilet, and that’s about it so be prepared to be self-sufficient and pack out everything you packed in. No reservations are required for camping in Blair Valley, which is first-come, first-served.
- Culp Valley Primitive Campground: Located at a higher elevation in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, this campground is secluded and usually has cooler temperatures. There are no designated campsites and amenities are limited to vault toilets, so pack in everything you need and make sure to pack it out when you’re done. You don’t need reservations as this campground operates on a first-come, first-served basis.
- Fish Creek Campground: This primitive campground is situated within the park and offers a remote camping experience. Facilities are limited to vault toilets, and no reservations are required. Fish Creek Campground is also close to the popular off-road trail called the Fish Creek Wash.
The Pinyon Mountain area has a rich history, with evidence of Native American habitation dating back thousands of years and was home to the Kumeyaay (also known as Diegueño) people.
The Kumeyaay were hunter-gatherers, adapting to the harsh desert environment by relying on the diverse resources available in the landscape. They hunted game such as bighorn sheep, and rabbits, and gathered plants, including pinyon nuts, agave, and mesquite beans.
The arrival of the Spanish explorers and missionaries in the late 18th century forever changed the lives of the Kumeyaay, as their arrival disrupted the traditional way of life for Native Americans.
The Anza-Borrego Desert State Park area played a significant role in the history of the United States, particularly during the westward expansion and the California Gold Rush. The Southern Emigrant Trail, which passes through the park, was used by pioneers, settlers, and gold seekers traveling between the eastern United States and California.
Additionally, the region experienced a mining boom in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with prospectors searching for gold, silver, and other minerals. Anza-Borrego is dotted with the remnants of old mines, and several from the Pinyon Mountain Mining District can be found along the trail.