Sandstone cliffs, badlands, metal dinosaurs, and mud caves: A one-day trip in Anza Borrego California
by Josh Noesser, California Crew
When in California, there are endless adventure opportunities, whether it is the beaches, mountains, or the deserts. Many find it hard to decide what they should do while enjoying this oasis of entertainment. When asked, I always recommend a place to visit for the day or two, so long as they have a 4×4.
Anza-Borrego, located near Palm Springs and Salton Sea in the low desert of California is not just another State Park, but a place that is full of scenery, adventure, and memories. This wonderland is full of locations waiting to make a life memory. Some of the items you can see while in the Anza Borrego include the highest concentration of mud caves in the world, real oasis, beautiful but deadly badlands, natural towering sandstone cliffs, and to top it all off, metal dinosaurs and other creatures! To enjoy this epic adventure, below is a list of trails I put together to make a most memorable trip for you, family and friends.
Please make sure you travel with a group, or at least two vehicles.
Trail 1 – Metal Sculptures
Time Required – 1 to 2 Hours (Start early)
The Metal Sculptures in Anza Borrego is probably the least off-road part of this trip but makes for a great starting point. Located all over Borrego Springs there is no better spot to start your trip. With over 130 metal sculptures in the area, there is no telling which one will be your favorite. Some say it is the T-Rex, while others say the sea serpent. Once you see the amount of time and details each one of these take, you could easily spend the day there alone.
Route Directions – Sculptures are in Borrego Springs; see the guide at trailsoffroad for navigation instructions to start your adventure!
Trail 2 – Canyon Sin Nombre
Time Required – 30 Minute to 1 Hour
On the way to your first official off highway trail, you will have a lovely drive through the north rim and western edge of Anza Borrego. Along the highway, you will travel up to roughly 3,000 feet then back down to near sea level.
Once upon Canyon Sin Nombre, go ahead and air down and disconnect your sway bars. Canyon Sin Nombre is full of stunning views created by the Elsinore Fault. The fault has torn this landscape apart making for a short stunning drive through a narrow canyon that is full of sediment over 500-million years old.
Route Directions – To get to Canyon Sin Nombre from the Metal Sculptures: Head south out of Borrego Springs on S3 to Highway 78. Turn right on Highway 78 (west) roughly 7 miles to the S2 connector. Take the second S2 connector south or east, roughly 32 miles. The trail will be on the north side of the hill. S2 also goes by the Great Southern Overland Stage Route.
Trail 3 – Vallecito Wash
Time Required – 15 to 30 Minutes
The next stop along the route is Vallecito Wash. Even though this trail has several great features on it, use this wash as a desert super highway by taking it to Arroyo Tapiado. Travel roughly 3 miles up Vallecito Wash to Arroyo Tapiado’s trailhead on the north (left).
Trail 4 – Arroyo Tapiado
Time Required – 1 to 2 Hours
Another wash trail, Arroyo Tapiado isn’t about the trail but more about the what’s there. Arroyo Tapiado is full of ancient mud caves. In fact, it is the highest population, highest density, and deepest mud caves in the world. When exploring the Mud Caves, be careful because they can easily crumble and collapse on you just by touching the walls. The mud caves start about 2.3 miles up the trail and continue for roughly 2 miles.
Route Directions – To get to Arroyo Tapiado, take Vallecito Wash roughly three miles to the second major wash on the right.
Trail 5 – Vallecito Wash (Again)
Time Required – 15 minutes
Exit back out of Arroyo Tapiado the way you went in and head to Vallecito Wash again. Take Vallecito Wash south down to the next major wash, Arroyo Seco Del Diablo, and head east up the trail.
Trail 6 – Arroyo Seco Del Diablo
Time Required – 1 to 2 Hours
Arroyo Seco Del Diablo is part of the badlands of Anza Borrego, full of tight canyons and tall cliff walls. This trail will give you something to think about. If a little more experienced, check out the short spur named Diablos Tail while exploring the canyon. Once you exit Arroyo Seco Del Diablo at the top, take Diablos Drop (6 miles up) to the northeast.
Trail 7 – Diablos Drop
Time Required – 30 to 45 Minutes
Even though this trail has a scary name, Diablos Drop usually isn’t anything to fear. This connector trail is easy unless it has rained in the recent past. When you arrive at the drop, you will be introduced to the stunning views of Anza Borrego Park. The worst of the drop is the initial 100 feet. Beyond this, you are safe to drop down. Diablos Drop ends at Fish Creek.
Route Direction – To get to Diablos Drop, follow Arroyo Seco Del Diablo roughly 6 miles, and the Diablos Drop trailhead will be on the northeast side.
Trail 8 – Fish Creek
Time Required – 20 to 30 Minutes
Fish Creek is one of the largest washes in the park, with the wide banks, it I common for people to carry higher speeds. But be careful, the trail hides rocks large enough to bend a rim that are hidden in with the sand. Take Fish Creek west, then north for 2 ½ miles roughly to the first canyon on the left.
If time is running out, the exit to the highway is to the right (east) down Fish Creek.
Trail 9 – Sandstone Canyon
Time Required – 1 to 2 Hours
According to how far you want to go back and how much hiking you choose to do, Sandstone Canyon will likely be one of your top spots along the route. Full of 200+ foot tall sandstone cliffs, Sandstone Canyon really brings the “awe” to awesome. The trail does get much harder past the third and largest rockslide, so it is recommended that only advanced off-road drivers continue beyond this point. But don’t sweat it, hiking up this canyon is easy.
Please keep in mind that this is an in-and-back trail.
Trail 10 – Fish Creek (Again)
Time on Route – 1 to 2 Hours
Its time to start heading towards the highway. Take Fish Creek back southeast (they way you came in) towards the exit of the network of trails you have been exploring. As you travel down the trail you will be submerged into another great scenic area full of unique rock patterns and formations. Along the route you will pass by the Elephant Knees which is on the right side of the trail immediately before you enter into the Split Mountain. Keep an eye out for the large sign on the right edge of the wash. Split Mountain will likely be another one of your favorite spots along the trail. This area is known for its unique rock formations created from the pressures of the fault line, and Wind Caves, which is roughly a one mile hike round-trip. Heading down the trail you will be constantly immersed with stunning views.
This may be the end of your trip due to time; if so, exit to Highway 78 by following the asphalt road left at the end of Fish Creek. But if you have some additional daylight, then check out Blow Sand and/or The Slot.
Trail 11 – Blow Sand
Time on Route – 30 Minutes to 1 Hour
It might be time do dust off the jeep on the outside and in. Blow Sand Hill is a quick side trip while heading to the next trail. Blow Sand is a sand hill climb on the side of a mountain not far from The Slot. Many jeepers try to climb the steep side of the hill but are usually forced to take the easier right side of the sand hill instead. Do you think your 4×4 can make it?
Route Direction – To get to Blow Sand from Fish Creek, turn left and take the asphalt road roughly 8.5 miles to Highway 78. Turn left on Highway 78 and continue for another mile, then exit the highway to the right (north). You will see Blow Sand at your 11 o’clock on the side of the hill.
Trail 12 – The Slot (Short drive then hiking trail)
Time on Route – 1 to 2 Hours
The Slot is a unique slot canyon formation in the center of Anza Borrego. The narrow hiking trail is roughly a ¼ mile long but gets extremely narrow in spots. Add the 100 foot tall cliff walls that have been cut out by rushing water and you get the same feeling as Sandstone Canyon, only tighter!.
Please note: park at the top parking lot or you will be forced to drive out through the park via dirt, which will take another 1 to 2 hours.
Route Direction – The Slot is four miles further west on Highway 78 from Blow Sand; the trailhead will be on the right.