Recently, a friend saw a picture of an awesomely desolate (and pretty) desert up on my computer screen. She was wondering where it was taken, and we told her that it was a Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in California. Her reply was, “That’s a state park?!?” I guess us Easterners figure that national parks get all of the great scenery, and the state is left with what’s leftover, which is usually the second best. Although this may be true in eastern states, out in California there is so much beautiful scenery that the state gets left with some pretty nice views. This specific picture was taken from Wind Caves, in the eastern part of the park. The coolest thing about this site is the “caves”; holes that have been carved in the rocks by the wind. They really aren’t big enough to be caves, but they’re known as Wind Caves none the less. The view from the caves is also awe-inspiring, as you can see over a maze of washes, badlands, and sand hills. It really does have a rustic beauty to it, almost like a scene from a sci-fi movie.
To get to the wind caves, take Highway 78 to the town of Ocotillo Wells. From the town, head south on Split Mountain Road for 8-10 miles (approximately). Then, turn right (west) into Fish Creak Wash (careful where you drive off the road—there can be quite a drop into the wash in some places). You will be heading toward the Fish Creek Primitive Campground. This is definitely a wash, and as such the driving conditions change after each flood. It would be completely inaccessible, even to 4×4 vehicles, after a rain, but we saw a minivan at the Wind Caves parking area the first time we drove to the caves (I wouldn’t personally recommend driving this road in a minivan, or any other low-clearance vehicle, for that matter!) The second time we drove the road, the sand eventually got to us, and we ended up walking the last mile or so to the trailhead. If you do drive this wash, be ready to encounter sand, rocks, and all sorts of junk (logs, trash, etc., etc.) that gets deposited in the wash during a flood.
The canyons that the wash twists its way through are incredible. The walls soar high above your head, giving welcome relief from the hot sun. This is a must-do drive for anyone who loves geology.
After you’ve driven down the wash for 3-5 miles, the wash takes a sharp turn to the left and opens up into a wide, sandy area. On the left side of the road is a small white sign that reads “Wind Caves” and the number of miles to the caves (which is wrong). It’s actually only a little over a mile to the caves, but in some ways, it feels longer because some of the trail is climbing very steeply uphill. You can park (as we did) just next to the trail head, or you can park across the wash in a wide open sand/rock section. The trail starts at the sign, and climbs steeply, then levels off and climbs across some stony hills. Then, you get your first glimpse of the Caves. The Caves are actually a group of rocks that the wind has carved holes into. There are short caves (no more than 6 ft. deep), holes, tunnels, etc. The caves are really cool (and children love climbing around the caves and rocks), but you can continue beyond them to some very pretty overlooks. Pretty, that is, if you like looking at uniquely shaped badlands, sand dunes, dark gray mountains in the background, and California blue sky above (this was where we got the picture our friend saw). Actually, the view wasn’t the best the day that we were there because of the dust that was kicked up by all the ATVs driving through the wash. (Take my advice…don’t go to Anza at New Year’s!) All of the dust in the air gave a surreal effect to the scenery and made the whole thing look like something out a movie that was filmed on a sound stage. Just in case you thought that the scenes in movies don’t really exist…!
All of us had fun climbing in and out of the holes, sliding down the rocks, and hiding in caves above eye level so that people walking down below couldn’t see us. It was also fun to watch our then 21-month-old twins sliding through holes that only they could fit through. I highly recommend this hike for families with children.
Return by the way you came. I’ve heard that there are more sites to see in Fish Creek Wash, but usually by the time we’ve gotten to Wind Caves we don’t want to have to travel any further.
Camping (1/08): There are several types of camping in Anza-Borrego. The first type is a campground with flush toilets, drinking water, showers, fire rings, a pricy fee, etc.. There are three of these campgrounds in Anza-Borrego ranging in price from $20-$29 per night. There are also a horse camp ($20 per night) and a group camp ($53 per night) that also have these facilities. The second type of campground has vault toilets and, if you are lucky, picnic tables. There are 9 of these, and all of them are free except for Bow Willow campground ($7 per night), but Bow Willow also has drinking water and picnic tables. Fish Creek Primitive Campground, which you will pass on your way to Wind Caves, is one of these second types of campgrounds. The third type of camping is my favorite: free range (or open) camping. There is no charge for open camping, and you can basically camp anywhere on dirt roads that there are no signs saying “no camping”. However, there are some things that the park service requires of those backcountry or open camping, including:
Camp at least 100 ft. from water
Fires are not permitted to be built on the ground. If you want a fire, bring along a metal container to build your fire in.
Pull over to the side of the road so that other vehicles can pass you. Do not trample vegetation or geological formations.
Pack it in, Pack it out—pick up your trash and dispose of it in trash cans located at the visitor center and elsewhere. (We always keep a bag or two with us to collect our trash in.)
Visitor Center: The visitor center is located on Palm Canyon Drive, just east of Borrego Springs. It is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily except during the summer months of June-September when it is open weekends and holidays only. Here there are real restrooms, exhibits about the park, information, water, and a nice nature trail. Make sure you pick up a free park magazine and a $0.93 map. Unfortunately, the map is a must have, as it is nearly impossible to negotiate the park without it. Yes, there is a map in the magazine, but it is terrible, no matter how good it looks. The magazine also has trail descriptions in it and current prices of campground and entrance fees.
ATV’s are allowed on the park roads as long as they are highway legal. However, the ATV’s kick up a lot of dust. When we were there on New Year’s the air in some places was choking and the pretty view was almost obscured. It doesn’t help that there is place just for ATV-ing (Ocotillo Wells State Vehicular Recreation Area) just to the north of Ocotillo Wells.
Would I go 100 miles out of my way for this?
With 26 hikes, this book takes you to some of the best of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.
- 1:29 PM PDT on October 23, 2017
- 6:00 PM PDT on October 25, 2017
Mon Oct 23
Clear. Lows overnight in the low 70s.
Tue Oct 24
Sunny skies. High 99F. Winds ESE at 10 to 20 mph. Stronger winds in and below canyons and passes.
Wed Oct 25
Mainly sunny. High 94F. Winds SE at 10 to 15 mph. Stronger winds in and below canyons and passes.
Thu Oct 26
Sunny skies. High 97F. NW winds shifting to S at 10 to 15 mph.
Fri Oct 27
Mainly sunny. High 94F. Winds E at 5 to 10 mph.