Stark and barren, yet beautiful in their nakedness, Anza-Borrego's skeletal mountain ranges conceal more than they reveal to casual passers-by. If you want to know them better, you must leave the security of the automotive cocoon and start walking--up a canyon or a wash, or onto a hardscrabble ridge sweeping upward into the fierce blue sky.
Out there you can experience the essence of the desert--the palpable force of the sun's heat and pure white light; the throat-drying air; the prick of a cactus spine; the profound silence.
The southern spurs of the Santa Rosa Mountains are as good a place as any to discover the wilderness of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Midday temperatures have declined from the 110-115 degrees typical of July and August to a comfortably toasty 80-85 degrees, so November is a perfect time to spend an hour, or even a whole day, following any or all of the hikes listed below.
Wear hiking boots (if you have them) to keep cactus spines at bay, and carry at least one pint of water for each hour of hiking. Even though the sun has retreated quite far south by now, sun-shielding clothing is still a good idea.
All three walks listed below originate along the same paved road, Borrego-Salton Seaway (County Highway S-22), about 18 miles east of Borrego Springs. The mileages referred to in the descriptions below are keyed to the green mile-markers spaced each mile along this highway.
Palo Verde Wash/Canyon
At mile 32.9, the highway dips to cross a dry riverbed. This is Palo Verde Wash, named for the palo verde trees that dot its course. You can park on the road shoulder nearby. Follow the wash generally north toward a prominent cut in the mountains ahead--Palo Verde Canyon. You'll find the wash is "braided"; it consists of multiple channels cut during past flash floods. Just keep close to the middle to stay on course. After about one mile of walking, you can make a short side trip over to some low ridge spurs to the left (west), where you might find some nice examples of the multiheaded cottonpro cactus, a locally rare, barrel-cactus look-alike.
After 1.3 miles, the canyon walls begin to close in on both sides and travel slows a bit as you're forced to step over more and bigger rocks. Progress up the canyon ends after 3 miles, at which point you'll find yourself in the bottom of a bowl flanked on three sides by sheer walls soaring over 400 feet high. At intervals of several years or longer, flash floods tear through here, creating for a brief time a terrific waterfall on the west wall.
Smoke Tree Wash Canyon
The highway dips to cross broad, sandy Smoke Tree Wash at mile 34.6, about 0.2 mile west of the signed entrance to Arroyo Salado Primitive Camp. Rather flat and easy to walk at first, the wash progressively narrows to what becomes, at 2.3 miles, a fissure overhung by menacing conglomerate cliffs (definitely not a good place to be during an earthquake). Up the canyon another half mile, look for a major side canyon on the right, heading northeast. Scramble up this side canyon a short distance to discover the Natural Rock Tanks--large depressions in the bedrock created by the scouring action of flash floods. The tanks can hold water for weeks or months after major storms, temporarily meeting the needs of the local population of bighorn sheep and other creatures. Don't expect them to be wet this month, unless a storm or two comes along with plenty of much-needed rain.
Ella Wash/Coachwhip Canyon
A sandy road, which may or may not be suitable for standard passenger cars, goes up Ella Wash and Coachwhip Canyon for about 1 mile. (This road intersects the highway at mile 34.8, just west of the Arroyo Salado Primitive Camp entrance.) Wraith-like thickets of smoke trees adorn the canyon's lower end, which is framed by sandstone formations.
As you proceed farther into many-fingered Coachwhip Canyon, take the time to explore several of its more intriguing tributaries. From some of these ravines it's possible to scramble to the top of the headwall that surrounds the area on the north. There you can either be satisfied with the spectacular view across the Borrego Badlands to the south, or continue climbing north up one of the ridgelines toward the crest of the Santa Rosas, miles away and thousands of feet higher.