Hiking Anza Borrego Desert State Park
Company of Strangers
Text & Photos by David Taylor
The denizens of Desert USA’s Message Board rallied at Mountain Palm Springs in Anza Borrego Desert State Park along the S-2 thoroughfare early on a Friday morning in December. All we knew about each other was, we all frequented the message board, and had a passion for the desert. Other than that, we were strangers.
I’d gotten out there around 7:30 and by 8:00, there were three of us; Night Owl, an intern with the Weather Service, and college student when he’s not fighting ferociously for the environment; PCT Packer, so-named because he’s got a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail under his belt; and myself, Space Cowboy.
This would to be that day’s group. Hiking today, camping tonight, backpacking in to Rock House Canyon after meeting with Frank Colver and his son on Saturday, and exploring that corner of BLM land on Sunday.
Quickly we decided to explore nearby Canyon Sin Nombre, which translates to Canyon Without a Name. I’ve only driven this route -- twice down, once up. My wife tells me it’s gorgeous. I’ve been too busy creeping up or sliding off a boulder to really notice, so I suggested we hike it. We claimed a campsite, put up our sign that Packer had thought to make, so that any other ‘boarders who might wander in would know to wait for us there, then took off.
East on S-2 by truck to the bottom of Sweeney Pass, we turned onto a dirt road on the left that skirts the Coyote Mountains, paralleling Carrizo Creek. The road goes around a piece of private property that recently was acquired by the Park. An ancient fence still marks the property lines. Then the road winds through a large tamarisk grove. When there’s any kind of rain, the road here floods and turns into a muddy gooey nightmare.
This time, the truck kicked up a fine silty dust. Still, I smelled water as we pulled up near the Bow Willow wash entrance. Any further and you really need four-wheel-drive, and Night Owl didn’t have it.
There’s supposed to be a well right there. Though there’s the telltale signs of a barbed-wire fence, we couldn’t find any other evidence of human habitation. With water and lunch we headed east on foot, up the wide mouth of Canyon Sin Nombre, through Smoke Trees thick with red-berried desert mistletoe and creosote. The wash was sandy and an easy walk, the climb mild and merciful.
The walls of the canyon began to rise and close in on the road, still a sandy smooth thoroughfare. Packer knew of a slot canyon that would get us to the top of the canyon walls. After about a mile and a half, we finally found a promising entrance that we followed up. The sandstone walls slowly closed in, rising above our heads until finally the sky was a mere slit over us.
Walking sideways was the only way to slip through some parts of the route. Every once in a while we’d see a small depression underneath the wall, eye level, maybe a little lower, that had droppings of some kind below it. No place for a bird to nest or roost, we decided these must be bat dwellings. Black widow spider webs gently swayed in the breeze that came up the slot. Finally, we burst out at the top.
To the east, across the canyon, the Coyote Mountains continued to rise, stark, sharp-edged and strong. To the north and west, the Carrizo Badlands; Vallecito Creek, South, East, and Middle Mesa, Arroyo Tapiado, Arroyo Seco Del Diablo. Where the stage coach station used to be, it was green and wet. Always a shock to the system, running into that marshy spot after cruising along dry washes. Beyond that, the Impact Area is a story in itself. Further west, Carrizo Creek and the tamarisk grove we’d driven through.
Further out, what at first I thought were clouds hugging the ground, was instead sand being picked up by wind, blurring the west. Standing on top of the canyon, with no cover of any kind, we still didn’t feel any wind. To the south, trails led upward along the top of the canyon wall, the sides at this point a hundred feet tall, mostly straight down.
Walking along the roof of the southern side of the canyon, we followed a trail marked occasionally with cairns, and after maybe half a mile, descended down another slot. We continued, sliding down an occasional boulder, noticing more bat guano and small tufts of Carrizo cane, until we found ourselves once again in the main canyon. Here the walls were witness to millions of years of tumbling turmoil. Time and again we saw fissures of quartz cut and hacked, sometimes running horizontally, then suddenly split vertically. Colors and minerals came in dozens of layers and textures.
We stopped just before the top entrance of Canyon Sin Nombre for lunch, hiked a bit further to glimpse the Badlands Overlook, then started back down the wash. I kept pulling out my antiquated GPS, which occasionally gives useful information. "You trust that thing?" Packer asked.
"Hell no," I answered quickly.
"Well, why not?"
"Because it says the cars are over there," I said, and pointed to the wrong side of the wash. In the entire length of the canyon, the road was a perfect smooth sandy surface. Only the entrance and lower exit would keep a sedan out. All the hair-raising boulders I remembered creeping over in my four-by lay underneath the sand. Canyon Sin Nombre, the natural outlet for all the rains from the Coyote Mountains, had apparently not caught enough water to flush the sand out this year. We reached the vehicles and headed back to camp. We’d covered a little bit less than 7 miles, taken it easy and made it a full day’s hike. It had been a good day, and I was no longer in the company of strangers.
Night Owl had suggested that we all needed to meet. That’s what brought us to Southern California’s Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Night Owl, PCT Packer and I had camped at Mountain Palm Springs along the S-2 thoroughfare in the southeastern end of the park, after having spent a day hiking Canyon Sin Nombre.
We discussed our plans for the next morning's backpack through the high pass and descent to Bow Willow Campground where we planned to meet Frank and Marty for a trip into Rockhouse Canyon. Some of us would spend the night in the canyon.
Then, electronic disaster struck. Night Owl, an intern with the National Weather Service and on call, got paged. He would have to leave our party early and report to work.
Day 2: The next morning, the three of us hiked up to Southwest Grove, where a recent fire had burned the skirts off the palms. All around the grove, water seeped. New shoots of palm trees broke the earth. The path was slippery with wet mud. Packer pointed out pupfish in the small pond nestled underneath this grove of California fan palms.
Packer and I left one unhappy Night Owl behind, beneath those palms, and we continued on up the trail, rising quickly.
We scrambled over rocks and scree. Balls of jumping cholla littered the path. Crossing a wide wash, we waded through teddy bear cholla, creosote, an occasional smoke tree and on toward Bow Willow.
When we reached the campground, Frank Colver, tall and barrel chested, loomed over us. He measured us as he shook our hands. His son Marty was just as tall, but lean. Frank owns five acres at Canebrake, a settlement just a couple miles north on S-2. The route we followed took us up Bow Willow Wash about a half mile, then turned east into Single Palm Canyon, where the trail turned into rock climbing.
I sucked air. My heart thumped. Frank and Marty, unencumbered by packs, practically levitated up the boulders that hampered my way. Packer, who has twenty years on me, didn't even breathe hard.
We climbed six hundred feet within about a quarter of a mile, passing a single, handsome Washington palm that gives this wash its name. At the top, a flat plateau stretched east before us. Boulders were piled precariously high, aging, graying and crumbling.
At a long break, Frank broke out his American Indian flute. In amongst the boulders, the eerie alien sounds bore great haunting weight, reminding me why I love to wander in the desert. It’s like a Mozart concerto. It’s simply 'true.' No words I possess can possibly expand the understanding of it.
Marty noticed a curious pile of boulders. With some effort, we crawled through a door-shaped entrance into a room shielded from the wind. A fire once burned against a wall, blackening earth and stone.. How long ago? How long undisturbed?
Following the cairns when we could, dodging beavertail cactus, cholla and occasional barrel cactus, we finally descended into Rockhouse Canyon Wash. The catclaw and thistle brush tore at my pack. If I hadn’t wrapped my thermo-rest with an old wool blanket, the thorns would've pincushioned the self-inflating mattress.
I took a reading with my GPS. "How far does that device say it is to the cabin?" Frank asked.
"Half a mile," I puffed.
"Why, that thing's downright…" Frank studied his words, "discouraging," he finally said. .
"There it is," Packer said finally, pointing. The little cabin is tucked into the folds of the mountain. The road that once led to it appeared at our feet.
Except for these last few yards, there'd been no signs of that road. The cabin's roof is battered, and one wall is crumbling away, but the wood door still swings open. The chimney stands over the tiny hearth inside. We all admired the view through the paneless window. Rockhouse Canyon stretches away to the east, wide and wild. Behind the cabin is a dry concrete tank. A galvanized pipe stretches down the mountain over boulders and into the reservoir.
There are other cabins like this in the In-Ko-Pah and Jacumba mountains. Built by cattlemen as refuges while they tended their herds, the cabins were built right against the rock. Except for this one with a canyon named after it, none are shown on a topographic map. Uncelebrated, they decay in obscurity.
We ate lunch, lounged a bit. Frank and Marty had to leave. If they waited much longer, they'd be getting to Bow Willow Wash in the dark.
"I'll think of you in our nice warm cabin tonight," Frank winked, "drinking an ice cold beer."
"Have one for us," I shot back.
"I will!" Frank said, and shook our hands. They waved as they took flight, freed from the guys with the backpacks.
Packer and I continued up the wash for a short while, red-blossomed chuparosa catching my eye, until we came to a spit of sand between two walls of desert willow. We threw out our bedspreads. Packer fired his little pack stove to heat water, and he offered me a hot cocoa. It started getting really cold. Even though it was not yet dark, it was time to get into my sleeping bag. "I've never gone to bed this early," Packer protested, but he got in his bedroll, too. Soon it was dusk, then dark, and we watched the stars as they appeared in the sky. We argued over what those two bright planets to the southwest were. I was sure they were Jupiter and Saturn.
Packer checked his thermometer. "It's thirty four degrees," he said Shortly after that, no later than six-thirty, I fell asleep, toasty warm. I wished my mattress was a tad thicker.
Day Three: The next morning, we climbed up the canyon behind us. It is a steep two hundred foot climb through dry, thorn-choked boulder falls. Packer directed us to the bighorn sheep trails that run higher up the sides of the canyon. There, we only had to dodge cholla and beavertail cactus growing out of sun-glazed scrabble.
First up one wash, then over through a saddle into the canyon that drains down next to the rock house. The change from the one gorge to the other was dramatic. The first was soft, sloping sand and brush, a small palm caressing a sumac plant. The other had walls of tumbled rock and little vegetation. The floor of the wash rock, black rimmed from water stains, lay dry.
The cattlemen had built rock walls along one side of the canyon, the other side already made impassable by boulders. A crude barb wire fence wrapped around boulders, sticks of ironwood, and pieces of metal pole, until it stretched the length of the canyon. We opened a rude gate and stepped through. At the rock house, we considered our options, and we decided to get back to our gear and head on out to Bow Willow.
The day was getting on. Up through Rockhouse Pass, we descended down into Bow Willow Wash and walked east. Bow Willow is a wide wash, in places choked with smoke tree, tamarisk and bow willow trees. Bow willow limbs, legend has it, were used by the Indians to make bows. The sides of the wash are wide expanses of lightly disturbed sand into which you sink as you walk. The center trench is turmoil, water having cut deep through smooth stone layers. Tree roots protrude from the walls. Easier going here, though. Although rockier, the ground is hard.
We came out of the mouth of the canyon and crossed a large flat wash. We hiked over a hill covered with teddy bear cholla. The rocks reminded me of the pass over Single Palm Canyon. We had to go through the rocks, ascending slightly until we reached Southwest Grove. From there we could see our vehicles.
A quick side trip up to Mary Grove, a place Packer wants his ashes spread when he dies, then off we went, back home, our Message Board adventure finished until next time.
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, the largest desert state park in the contiguous U.S., is located in eastern side San Diego County, western Imperial County and southern Riverside County. It is about a two-hour drive from San Diego, Riverside or Palm Springs.
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