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Two hundred thirty-eight years ago, a small party led by the Spanish Colonel Pedro Fages chased after army deserters from the Presidio of San Diego, trekking through a narrow declivity known as Oriflamme Canyon on their way east from the Cuyamaca Mountains. This was the first recorded passage by Europeans into the low-lying, arid region now called the Anza-Borrego Desert.

Today, Fages and his men would find the trek down Oriflamme Canyon somewhat easier. No pavement has ever been laid down here, but a graded dirt road, open only in part to motorized vehicles, makes walking or mountain-biking easy — especially when done in the downhill direction as described here. The entire trip measures 8.5 miles, with a descent in elevation of more than 2000 feet. Since this a one-way trip, you’ll have to arrange for a pick-up at the end of your walk or ride. There are 28 miles of two-lane highways to drive between the start and end points. Perhaps your volunteer shuttle driver can while away three or more hours in Julian during the time you’re hiking (or spend less than an hour there if you’re biking). Don’t wait until summer to take this trip; by late May the lower part will get uncomfortably warm. Also, don’t forget to pack along plenty of water.

Start at the Pedro Fages historical monument along Sunrise Highway, 1.7 miles east of Highway 79. Find and follow the California Riding and Hiking Trail, which strikes northward through a broad meadow. Pass through a cattle gate and turn right at the next road. Now choose between two alternate routes. The left branch, traveling into upper Chariot Canyon, is rougher and harder. The right branch, Mason Valley Truck Trail, offers a more gradual descent.

On ahead, the truck trail cuts more sharply down the precipitous north wall of Oriflamme Canyon, losing about 1000 feet of elevation in a mile and a half. From far above the canyon bottom, you’ll probably hear the sound of rushing water, at least before summer’s heat silences it.

After a junction with Rodriguez Canyon’s four-wheel-drive trail on the left, Mason Valley Truck Trail skirts the base of massive Granite Mountain. Cholla cacti glisten on its slopes. Then the road eventually curves right, away from the mountain, but a remnant of the California Riding and Hiking Trail continues east along the mountain’s base and strikes Highway S-2 at mile 26.5 — a good place for you to be picked up. This point on the highway can be found 0.8 mile west of Anza-Borrego’s Box Canyon Historic Site.

Mason Valley Truck Trail
Descend from Cuyamaca to Anza-Borrego, the easy way.
Distance from downtown San Diego: 70 miles
Hiking length: 8.5 miles
Difficulty: Moderately strenuous (hiking); moderate (mountain biking)

  • This article contains information about a publicly owned recreation or wilderness area. Trails and pathways are not necessarily marked. Conditions can change rapidly. Hikers should be properly equipped and have safety and navigational skills. The Reader and Jerry Schad assume no responsibility for any adverse experience.
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