Fish Creek Wash

Excerpts from California Desert Byways: 68 of California’s Best Backcountry Drives (Wilderness Press)
Page 3 of 3   |  

LOCATION: Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. San Diego County.

HIGHLIGHTS: If you do only one drive in the park, this should be the one. It has it all: an outstanding scenic and geologic experience, wind caves, and Sandstone Canyon, a slot canyon with walls 200 feet high. On the way to Fish Creek Wash is the Elephant Trees Area, where an easy 1.5-mile self-guided loop foot trail introduces visitors to the area's diverse vegetation. Elephant Trees (Bursera microphylla) are small trees or shrubs noted for thick trunks in which water is stored. They bloom in early summer with a small creamy-white flower.

DIFFICULTY: Easy to moderate.

TIME & DISTANCE: 4 hours; almost 25 miles.

MAPS: Lindsays' Anza-Borrego Desert Region (E–F, 4–6). ACSC's San Diego Region (D–E, 7–8). CRRA, p. 117 (C–D, 10–11).

INFORMATION: Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

GETTING THERE: Take S.R. 78 to Ocotillo Wells. Go south on Split Mountain Road, and zero your odometer. At mile 7.9 you'll reach Fish Creek Wash [N33°02.316' W116°05.823']. Turn right (west) into the wash, and zero your odometer again.

REST STOPS: Fish Creek Primitive Campground, early on the drive, has toilets and tables, but no water. Dispersed camping is allowed, but fires must be in metal containers. You must use your own wood and haul out the ashes.

THE DRIVE: Head up wide, gravely Fish Creek Wash toward Split Mountain's namesake “split,” created by powerful floods cutting through the rising mountains. The action has exposed colorful red walls, cobbles and, at mile 3.6, fascinating pressure bends, or anticlines, in the canyon's rock strata, which you will see on your right. The split separates the Vallecito Mountains on the right (west) and Fish Creek Mountains on the left (east). At mile 4.2, on the left, is the trailhead for the 20-minute hike up to the wind caves, huge rocks honeycombed with holes and caves. The view from them takes in Elephant Knees (a fossilized reef of compacted oyster beds), and the Carrizo Badlands.

Drive along the base of sandstone cliffs, and at mile 6.8 you will see the Loop Wash spur, on the right [N32°58.868' W116°09.008']. (It's similar to Fish Creek Wash but narrower, with sandy spots and possible rockfalls. It rejoins Fish Creek Wash 2 miles farther ahead [N32°58.242' W116°10.331'].) At about mile 12.4 look left for the sign for Sandstone Canyon [N32°58.747' W116°12.872'], a high-walled slot in the rock cliffs. It's driveable, technically, but it becomes very narrow (you will see paint on the rocks from vehicles that have squeezed through). You may also find it blocked by rocks and boulders, as I did about 1.5 miles in. Turning around in its narrow confines can be an adventure as well. Consider walking into it instead of driving. Afterward, retrace your route in Fish Creek Wash to return to Split Mountain Road.

Tony Huegel is the author of the acclaimed Backcountry Byways series of books, published by Wilderness Press. Find out more about his books at

Published: 2 Jul 2007 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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