Desert Hiking - Anza Borrego desert

Mud Hills Wash to Elephant Knees


Difficulty: Moderate
Distance: 4 miles (round trip)
Approximate Time: 2 hours (round trip) from trailhead

This hike will take you through the magical mudhills on the edge of the Fish Creek badlands and up to the top of the Elephant Knees mesa where you can see for yourself the vastness and density of the area's oyster shell reefs.

Elephant Knees

The view will be one where you can take in much of the Fish Creek drainage and trace its geological history. The oyster shells are only part of the story! This walk is best in early or later parts of the day when the light provides the best colorings of the sediments and the air is cooler. It is wise to bring plenty of water so that you can stay and explore as long as you like.

Mud Hills Wash begins just around the bend from the Windcaves trail (also a worthy hike (2 miles round trip). It comes into the main fork of Fish Creek 0.3 miles west of the Windcaves trail marker. There is an information panel on oyster shells reefs on a knoll next to it (west side).

Walk past the "Closed to Vehicles" sign and follow the meandering path of Mud Hills Wash into the maze-like badlands. You may see such things as glass-like gypsum crystals, loose shells, indications of recent flooding (i.e. mud flows or mud curls) and lots of fragile plant life along the trail. As you wind along, you should be able to keep the flat-topped Elephant Knees mesa in view. Keep following the main wash around to the right (west) as the object is to get to the backside slope of this formation, which you should arrive at in 1.5 miles.

There you can begin your assent to the top. The climb can become very steep at times and there can be lots of loose shell, so pick your way carefully. You will be walking on a 12-15 foot thick Oyster Shell reef, left behind 2 million years ago when it was still included as a part of the Gulf of California.

At the lip of the Elephant Knees formation you will be able to look down at the knees -- the point at which you started your walk -- and a large portion of Fish Creek Wash with its surrounding hills and mountains. It is best to return the way you came to avoid trespassing into the Carrizo Impact Area, which is strictly out of bounds to visitors.

To find Mud Hills Wash, drive east on Highway 78 to Ocotillo Wells and turn right on Split Mountain Road. Drive south 8 miles until you cross a dry creek bed with a sign indicating Fish Creek Wash. Turn right (west) onto the dirt road leading into the wash and follow it 4.5 miles, bearing to the left at the Windcaves trail marker to remain in the main wash.

At 0.3 miles you should see the Oyster Shell Wash information panel, where your walk begins. Most times of the year the road into Fish Creek tends to be accessible to 2-wheel drive vehicles, although 4-wheel drive is always recommended. Check at the Visitor Center for road conditions before setting out on your adventure. As you travel along Fish Creek Wash on your way to the beginning of the hike you will be going through Split Mountain Canyon, which in itself is worth taking the time to see. Some people may prefer to begin their walk through this area beginning at the Fish Creek Primitive Camp. Doing so would add another 5 miles to your hike (round trip).

Source: Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

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