Fossil Canyon and Painted Gorge
Near Ocotillo, California
There are two points of interest near Ocotillo, California, Fossil Canyon and Painted Gorge.
Ocotillo is a quaint little desert community located on Interstate 8 where S2 heads northward into the southern region of the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. From Ocotillo we took S2 north to Shell Canyon Road, which is a graded road, for approximately 3 miles. We continued on Shell Canyon Road until the graded road turns into a dirt road that leads into Fossil Canyon (also known as Shell Canyon or Alverson Canyon).
After a short time we reached the area of the canyon that is blocked to vehicles. We didn't have time to venture further into the canyon on foot, so we parked and explored just the entrance to the canyon. At first glance we did not see any shell or coral fossils, unlike the abundance of oyster shell fossils we found earlier that day in the Yuha Basin. But when we took a closer look at the canyon walls, we could see shell fossils embedded in the sandstone. Layers of sandstone and mudstone are exposed, revealing veins composed of white shell fossils and coral pieces, each representing part of the 50-million year geologic history contained within the canyon walls.
In 1916, a study called "The Reef-Coral Fauna of Carrizo Creek Imperial County, California, and Its Significance" was published by Thomas Wayland Vaughn. The study was based on fossils found in Fossil Canyon by Dr. Stephen Bowers which he had sent to Washington for identification. The study revealed that "The Carrizo Creek reef-coral fauna is Atlantic, not Pacific, in its affinities." During Eocene and Oligocene times the Atlantic and Pacific were connected by a passageway somewhere in the region of Central America. After the passage closed the Atlantic coral left in the Pacific became extinct. The fossil remains found in Carrizo Mountain are the only evidence that this coral once existed in the Pacific.
After our short excursion to Fossil Canyon we headed back toward Ocotillo and took S80 east. A few miles down S80 we reached a graded dirt road heading north, marked by a sign labeled Painted Gorge (Y181 on BLM Access Guide #22). After driving on the graded road for approximately 5 miles, we encountered a riot of color on the surrounding landscape.
The Painted Gorge, located on the eastern side of the Coyote Mountains, consists of sedimentary, metamorphic and igneous rocks. Heat and movement over time has created fantastic shapes and colors. Oranges, reds, purples, and mauves mixed with browns and blacks create a palette of color as the sun illuminates and plays shadows upon this geologic wonder called the Painted Gorge.
If you are visiting the Ocotillo area or just passing by, both Fossil Canyon and the Painted Gorge are worth visiting. Hiking or walking in these areas provides good views of the geological structures and allows you to fully enjoy the scenery.
Notes: The BLM manages the Painted Gorge and has designated it a limited use area. However, some sections of the gorge are privately owned. Both the Painted Gorge and Fossil Canyon areas are included in the BLM Access Guide #22. See Map.
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Also see the Gem Trail Guide for a good book on rock hunting.
Also see Fossil Hunting in the Yuha Basin.
Related Books & Gifts - Trading Post
BLM California Desert OHV Areas
Yuha Desert OHV Area
Minerals & Geology Index
Places to Go in California
Outdoor Recreation: Auto Touring & Off-Roading
Outdoor Recreation: Rock Hounding & Treasure Hunting
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