Hike Coyote Canyon
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
by Bill Sullivan
It's kind of like rediscovering something obvious about an old lover, like a finger or a nose. It was always there, but for some reason you overlooked it. I am talking about walking rather than driving.
Previously when you went to Coyote Canyon, Lower Willows and the Collins Valley, you drove. You drove east from Christmas Circle in Borrego Springs on the S-22 Road a couple of blocks to DiGiorgio Road (always good for spotting roadrunners), and turned north up the Borrego Valley. Five miles from Christmas Circle, the blacktop would end and the jeep trail would begin and you would keep right on driving like nothing had ever happened, except maybe to gear down a little if the sand got soft.
But there are some years, and this is one of them, where storm damage becomes a problem. Instead of continuing to drive up the jeep trail, it's a good idea to take another look at how you get from Borrego Valley to Coyote Canyon. The sand in the jeep trail has turned soft, perilously so, and the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park rangers have posted a warning sign.
On busy days, there is even a park ranger standing beside the sweet-smelling citrus groves. His job is to advise motorists of the perils of driving further. Having a four-wheel drive vehicle will help, of course, but as Casey will tell you, even people with four-wheel drive can get stuck. What I make of this is that if your sand-driving skills aren't good and you don't have the equipment for getting out of the sand, it's a good idea to park, even as far south as the end of the blacktop, and walk from there.
Yes, walk. Radical as it sounds, walk. Get out of your car, lace on those boots (you'll want them when you start kicking cactus), protect your skin with some sunscreen and loose, cotton clothing, put on your big hat, strap on your pack with plenty of water and some lunch, and walk. Observe the rules of desert safety, and do not attempt to walk too far in the middle of a hot summer day.
Upper Borrego Valley -- In the Coyote Canyon Landmarks photograph above, note the point where the hillside at left spills down into the valley floor. What the guidebooks (but not the topographic maps) call First Crossing is just south of here. Where the hillside spills down on the right, and is covered with ocotillo and cactus, is the lovely area called Desert Gardens, another landmark and a favorite of day hikers. All of this is an easy walk from the end of DiGiorgio Road.
First Crossing -- After the jeep trail winds through Desert Gardens, it makes a sharp turn to the left downhill to First Crossing. If it's been raining in the mountains, the creek waters may flow this far, but most of the time it's just a dry creek bed. After you cross it, you see signs for a dirt road leading south to the Vern Whitaker Horse Camp. If you are out for just a part-of-the-day hike, you will probably want to turn back to your car here. If you venture up the valley beyond First Crossing, be sure to carry some lunch and plenty of water. You might want a backpack so you can spend the night.
Ocotillo Flat -- For the more ambitious, you can continue walking to Ocotillo Flat, an area of ocotillo, cholla, cactus wrens, chuckwallas, and other desert plants and animals. It stretches between Coyote Creek and the low mountains to the north and east and from First Crossing almost to Third Crossing.
Collins Valley -- If you are a backpacker, you can walk on to Collins Valley, for which I recommend (in the interest of keeping your feet dry) following the jeep trail to Second Crossing, and then continuing to Third Crossing without crossing Coyote Creek. Or, you can walk to Lower Willows (for some of the park's best birding) or to Box Canyon, in which case I suggest you make your way through Ocotillo Flat, keeping east and north of Coyote Creek.
Note: In case you hadn't heard, the jeep trail through the Upper Borrego Valley to Coyote Canyon is exceptionally sandy. Driving the road in a conventional vehicle is not advisable, especially if you are unskilled at desert driving. Not only that but the bypass road linking Lower Willows and the Collins Valley is all but impassable unless you walk. This road is closed to vehicles from June to September every year to allow sheep unrestricted access to creek water.
The first time I walked over Alcoholic Pass, I did it with a son who hadn't seen me in quite a while. I also was out of shape, and quickly became out of breath. A few feet up the trail, I suspect my son imagined I was about to have a heart attack.
The walk from Coyote Canyon to Clark Valley via Alcoholic Pass involves a steep climb up the side of a mountain ridge. If you're out of shape, it's going to leave you out of breath.
The good news is that it's a short climb, and almost immediately the views are spectacular, especially when the sky is blue, perhaps with a few puffy white cumulus clouds in the sky, and the plants in the valley below show signs of being green. You can look to the south and see the citrus groves of the Borrego Valley. You can look to the north toward Lower Willows and see Anza's goal, the route to the coast and Northern California.
As my son and I made our way up the side of the ridge, I quickly appreciated the fact that this is an ancient Cahuilla Indian trail. When the Cahuilla built their trails, they stayed on the high ground, avoiding the washes and the gullies. This enables you to stop as you climb to turn around and survey the countryside while you catch your breath.
If the name Alcoholic Pass sounds to you like a name that was applied by hard-drinking cowboys or field hands, it's a good guess. No one knows for sure how Alcoholic Pass got its name, but one assumption is that back in the days when the Clark brothers had their ranch in Clark Valley, the hands would walk to town and use the route as a shortcut.
It was a shortcut for the Cahuilla, too, an easy route between Cahuilla settlements in Coyote Canyon and Clark Lake. A look at the landscape explains it. If you had to get from Coyote Canyon to Clark Valley, or vice versa, it's much shorter to go over the ridge via Alcoholic Pass than to go south and circle around it.
In summer, the Cahuilla moved from the desert to the mountains to escape the heat. It is quite possible that they used the Alcoholic Pass route. Once they got to Clark Valley, they might head for a point marked Corp on today's Clark Lake N.E. topographic maps. There are a few pictographs at Corp. Just beyond, a person could start climbing into the mountains.
The climb from Desert Gardens to the top and back makes a pleasant little walk in itself. There is a cairn up there with a notebook you can sign, and a place to leave a business card if you remember to bring one.
When I have time, I also enjoy the walk down the wash into Clark Valley. This walk can be a little tricky, because the wash bends. Normally the way to walk in the desert, assuming you are going to return the same way, is to stop and turn around every so often and study the terrain behind you so you will know where to go on the way back, but because of the bend in the Clark Valley wash, the first terrain signs disappear behind you. It's a broad wash, with a lot of avenues, and finding the right one to take back can become confusing. I have found it useful to follow my footprints on the return trip.
Every time I walk in this part of the Clark Valley, I seem to find things to enjoy, such as birds, insects, animals, and the view of the long ridge that forms the east edge of the valley with Villager and Rabbit peaks at the top. Of course, on a recent trip, I also accidentally jammed my leg on some cactus thorns and got blood on my pants, but misadventures don't count in the desert.
|Short Walks||Medium Walks||Long Walks|
|Alcoholic Pass||Ocotillo Flat||Box Canyon|
|Desert Gardens||Lower Willows||Collins Valley|
|Coyote Canyon Start|
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