Among the many off-road trails scattered about Southern California, there are a few that are worth coming back to again and again. Two of the trails encircling the Chariot Mountains in Southern California, the Oriflamme Canyon and Rodriguez Spur Truck Trails, are among them.
Nestled between Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, the geography in this area is diverse and it’s reflected in the scenery and the physical characteristics of the trails. Here, we found towering oak trees, wildflowers, and cactuses, and the trail terrain ranges from easy to difficult. This little slice of California offers something for just about every off-roader, from the newbie to the aficionado.
This trail is special to our family because this was where I got my first taste of off-road driving, when our silver Jeep Wrangler was new and stock. During that adventure back in 2016, I was, according to my husband, Brad, “white-knuckling it a bit.” What a difference a few years can make! These days the white knuckles are gone and I’m now a confident off-roader. In fact, I do a lot of the trail driving, freeing my husband up to film videos of our excursions.
And, while we still have our original silver Jeep, our garage has grown along with our enthusiasm for getting off the pavement and exploring the back country, and we recently took our new Jeep 392 out for the day.
Left: Our red 392 Jeep. | Center: The Oriflamme Canyon Trailhead near Banner, California. | Right: Banner, California.
Shifting into 4-Wheel Drive
Together, the Oriflamme Canyon and Rodriguez Spur Truck Trails form a loop, that begins and ends in Banner, California, located just to the southeast of the more populous and well-known town of Julian, famed for its apples. Directly across the street from the trailhead is a parking lot in front of a little country store and restaurant, which is a great place to air down tires before hitting the trail.
We shifted into 4-wheel drive as we headed onto the first section of the trail, a relatively easy dirt road with a few ruts, that is on public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). A few hundred yards after the start of the trail, we encountered the first of three gates that are along the trail and, following trail etiquette, we left the gate how we found it—closed.
As we climbed gently into the mountains, one of the first things we noticed was how lush (by Southern California standards) the landscape was. The hillsides were covered in green shrubs and dotted with yellow, orange, and purple wildflowers. It was strikingly different from when I was last here six years ago, when the roads and mountains were brown and parched.
Left: California bush poppies. | Right: Chaparral yuccas (one dead, one in bloom).
We also came across a chaparral yucca in bloom. This beautiful and fascinating plant is native to Southern California and it takes about 5-10 years to mature, reaching between 10 and 15 feet in height and displaying a large cluster of purple and white flowers at its tip. Once the plant, which resembles a tall spear, has bloomed and released its seeds, it dies. The stalk can remain standing for a few more years and we saw several of them dotting the hills, tall and sun-bleached with empty curved branches.
A Beautiful Feast for the Senses
This trail is a feast for the eyes. As we journeyed along the trail under a brilliant blue sky streaked with clouds, we admired the beauty of the spring bloom and had fun pointing out the old mines nestled into the canyons and tucked away into the hillsides. We were happy to see an old pickup truck—battered and rusty—that had greeted us in the past was still sitting on the side of the trail at the edge of one mine’s fence, almost like it was keeping watch.
Left: Mine nestled in Oriflamme Canyon. | Right: Rusty pickup truck along Oriflamme Canyon Trail
Many trails are forests roads, created by the park service for access to the backcountry. But not this trail, which has a fascinating history. The existing trail overlays an old route once used by the native Kumeyaay people to escape the brutal summer heat of the desert and travel to dwellings in the cooler Laguna Mountains. The route was later used by Spanish, Mexican, and American travelers, including couriers delivering mail and packages via the San Antonio-San Diego Mail Line.
A little over three miles into the trail, we discovered the perfect spot to stop for lunch. Sitting just off and slightly below the trail was a level area with plenty of space. It was situated near a stand of oaks and a dry creek bed, and it offered a good amount of both shelter and seclusion. (And, in case you were wondering, the privacy afforded by the trees and topography make an ideal spot for taking care of business—just remember to pack out what you packed in!)
Left: Oriflamme Canyon Trail with campsite to the right. | Right: Getting ready for lunch with new cookware.
On our last off-road adventure, my husband forgot the propane and lunch was a bust. But we made sure that didn’t happen again and I was able to break-in my new cookware as I prepared a savory pasta with a light tomato sauce and sautéed zucchini topped with parmesan cheese. It was a quick and easy meal, taking less than 10 minutes from start to finish, thanks to my secret weapon for camp cooking—ready-made pasta.
As we relaxed over our lunch, we soaked in the serenity of the area watching the butterflies flitter by and listening to the sounds of birds, insects, and the wind rustling through the grass and trees. Moments like these remind me why we like to go off-roading and get off the grid—to clear our heads, to enjoy our planet without filters, and to just be with friends and family without distractions.
After cleaning up, we headed back onto the trail, winding through meadows and oak trees, which were glorious in all their greenery thanks to recent rains.
Less than a mile from our lunch spot, we crossed over into Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, and came across a section of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) that traversed a wide-open meadow. This would make another good spot for camping or picnicking, and we stopped to look around. As we did, a hiker passed by and we wondered if he was making the trek all the way to U.S.-Canada border. My husband said this is a spot where you can sometimes find “trail angels,” people who do kind things for the hikers like offering water or food.
We continued uphill on the trail, which became increasingly rockier and more rutted, before we finally reached the peak, which is about 4.6 miles from the trailhead. The views from here were absolutely breathtaking and my camera got a workout before we began our descent.
Top right: Scenery along the trail. | Top left: Pacific Crest Trail intersection. | Bottom left: Ruts. | Bottom right: Views from the peak of the trail.
A Change of Scenery and Terrain
At this point, the trail became much more challenging. Everything we encountered on the way up seemed to have increased exponentially on the way down. There were more loose rocks and they were bigger. The ruts occurred more frequently and were deeper. This section of the road was definitely more technical with some tight turns and several spots required attention to tire placement to get over obstacles.
Oh. And the trail was now a shelf road with a sheer dropoff to the valley below. Neither Brad nor I enjoy heights, which means we really don’t like shelf roads. But the views! I know I’ve already mentioned this, but it bears repeating—you can see for miles and miles.
The further we descended, the more the terrain began to change, and you could tell we were getting closer to the Anza-Borrego desert. The hills and valleys were still covered in green but there were fewer oaks and we began seeing more cactuses, particularly tree chollas and coastal pricklypear, and the yellow bush poppies gave way to more brittlebush.
Left: Views for miles descending the Oriflamme Canyon Trail. | Right: Chollas tree cactus.
When we reached the canyon below, we found another campsite that was about half a mile before the turn off for Rodriguez Spur Truck Trail that would loop us back to Banner. The site was level and large enough for several vehicles—perfect for camping with friends. The area nestled up to a hillside and, like the first site we found, had a stand of tall oaks and a dry creek bed, offering plenty of shelter and privacy.
Left: Brad checking out the second campsite. | Center: Second campsite. | Right: Old trees at the second campsite.
As we headed back to the trail, we also noticed more wildlife, including a very large jackrabbit that darted across the trail in front of us and into the chaparral. We also saw dozens of California quail, the state bird. They seemed to fill the shrubs on both sides of the trail, and they darted back and forth as we drove by.
We frequently had to slow down because several of them would run down the trail directly in front of us as if they owned the road. And, if you think it about it, it’s definitely more their home than ours. We were happy to watch them dash down the trail with their little crests bobbing away.
Choose Your Adventure
Turning into Rodriguez Canyon, the terrain was very similar to how Oriflamme Canyon started out—an easy dirt road with the occasional rut. But for those looking for more of a challenge, there is an offshoot on this trail that winds its way through a rock garden. This section of the trail is difficult and if you’re in the mood to conquer it, make sure to bring a buddy and recovery gear. We had recovery gear but we were on our own so we took a look and kept on going.
There were a few stretches of the Rodriguez Spur Truck Trail that were straight and level, giving us an opportunity to open up the 392 a bit and rumble down the trail. You can’t help but smile when you hear the engine growl.
Top right and left: Rodriguez Canyon Spur Truck Trail. | Bottom left: The 392 on the trail. | Bottom right: PCT intersection.
After about 3.5 miles, we crossed another section of the PCT before going through another gate and making a slight descent for another two miles back towards Oriflamme Canyon Trail. This section of the trail runs alongside a farm and as we were driving by, we slowed down to watch the cows lazily munching grass in the golden glow of the late afternoon sun. There was something so completely idyllic and peaceful about this scene and it was a beautiful way to finish up the trail.
If you are looking for a great trail in Southern California for a day trip or an overnighter, and you want to explore the local mountains, this trail will not disappoint, and I highly recommend it.
The last gate and views for miles along the Oriflamme Canyon and Rodriguez Spur Truck Trail Loop.
- Trail: Oriflamme Canyon and Rodriguez Spur Truck Trail Loop
- GPS: 33.067371, -116.547540
- Length: 17.1 miles
- Difficulty: Easy-Moderate
- Vehicle Requirements: 4-Wheel Drive, high clearance
- TrailRecon Score: 10 (out of 15)
- Scenery Score: 4 (out of 5)
- Engagement Score: 3 (out of 5)
- “Do It Again” Score: 3 (out of 5)
About the TrailRecon Score
Brad has been asked several times about rating the trails we do. After a lot of thought, he’s come up with criteria that we’ll use to rate trails, starting with this one. The criteria, all on a 1-5 scale that is mostly subjective and completely unscientific, are: Scenery Engagement “Do It Again” Factor
For scenery, we rate the trails on the natural beauty and “wow” factor of the views. We also take into account any historic and unique culture or geological points of interest.
For engagement, we rate the trail based on how challenging and fun it is to drive, based on obstacles and terrain.
The most subjective of all our ratings is the “Do It Again” factor. Basically, we ask ourselves, “is this trail worth doing again?” Our answer is based on whether we’d come back and how strongly we’re inclined to do so.
Oriflamme Canyon & Rodriguez Spur Truck Trail Loop Score
For the Oriflamme Canyon and Rodriguez Spur Truck Trail Loop, we gave the scenery a score of 4. While it doesn’t have the wow factor that I’d give trails in Ouray, Colorado, or Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, the views on this trail are spectacular and the flora and fauna are pretty diverse, changing significantly depending on the time of year you hit the trail.
As for engagement, we gave this trail a 3 because it did start off as an easy dirt road, but as we wound through mountains, it never felt boring and there were some sections that were technical and we did encounter a few moderate obstacles. And, for those who want to take it up a notch, there is a rock garden that is no joke.
We gave the trail a 3 for the “Do It Again” factor because we have done this trail more than once already, and will definitely come back in the future. While it isn’t something we would do every month, it is a great trail to return to as the seasons change and running the trail in the opposite direction would keep it interesting.
Oriflamme Canyon Video
Below is the video from TrailRecon's YouTube channel of our adventure revisiting this beautiful trail.