“Against my better judgment, I’m going to join you.” That is how this adventure in the Anza Borrego Desert started when Greg decided to get onboard with a bit of riding way out in the east county of San Diego. It was late in the evening when we pulled the trigger to do a 28 mile shuttle run bright and early the following morning. Pretty much all the information I had gathered on riding in this desert was that you have only a small window after winter and spring rains to ride unless you are into abusive sand slogging. Southern California just had a sizable winter storm that brought plenty of rain and snow to the area. The window was supposedly open so it was time to go. It was still dark when I started my eastward trek and when I arrived at the upper trailhead in the early morning light it was cold with a little snow on the ground. It was a pretty winter scene in all directions. I soon met up with Greg and we beat feet to the lower trailhead about five miles south of Ocotillo Wells. I wanted to be the trail at around 9AM but I had underestimated how long the logistics were going to take so it was just before 10AM by the time we started pedaling.
The first chunk of the climbing up Pinyon Mountain Road off of Highway S2 was not bad at all as the snow was not deep and the tire treads had created dirt lines in the 4WD trail. As we climbed higher the tire tracks became compacted snow vice dirt and climbing became more interesting. As the snow became deeper, you had to stay right in the middle of the tire tracks other wise your pedals would strike the side of the groove and on more than a few occasions this started a series of pinball pedaling that often ended in putting a foot down in the snow.
As we reached the high point on the ride in the saddle between the Pinyon and the Vallecito Mountains at just under 4,000 feet the snow was a good foot deep. It was a gorgeous scene and the snow riding was still not too bad. We then came to an unmarked fork in the trail that was not annotated on the USGS topos or the park’s map. After a bit of head scratching we came of with the theory that one of these forks is a dead-end and the other is the through route off the mountain. We opted to go with the fork that had the most tracks on it. Slightly downhill we went and after a quarter of a mile we were presented with a wonderful vista at the turnaround of a dead-end trail. The reason this fork had more tracks was because there was two sets of tracks for every vehicle, one coming and one going. (This is Bill’s dumb thing not to do on the trail tip #276) The grade of this fork was just enough to make climbing on the tracks in the snow way too energy consuming so we hoofed it back to the fork.
The correct fork turned out to be the path less traveled. The trail only had maybe two or three vehicles pass through since the storm so the snow was not particularly compacted. The temperature had also risen enough that there was a slush factor developing. This combined to make for a squirrely and often laborious descent that slowed our progress. It was a great exercise in finely balancing momentum, steering finesse, and body English to keep moving forward. Get just one of these factors out of whack for a split second and a comically frustrating series of escalating over corrections would ensue. The end result usually was finding myself standing in deep snow humping my bike back into the tire grooves.
We soon came to one of the signature spots on this trail for the jeepers known as “The Squeeze”. It is a slot between two rocks that is just barely wide enough for a jeep to get through and it includes a step down. This was the only technical thing I had seen so far today so I felt inclined to give it a go despite some snow and ice in potentially inopportune spots. I ended up making it but not without the backend of the bike trying to pass the front for a scary second.
After a little less than two miles of the downhill slogging the snow was not longer a problem. We had stopped to grab some snacks after our last patch of snowy uphill hike-a-biking when we saw a low flying prop plane pass overhead. The plane suddenly swung around and made another pass over top. We joked that this was probably a patrol plane and they were wondering what the hell we were doing out here and were already calling us idiots in for a rescue later on tonight. We chuckled as the plane flew off thinking that they were up there shaking their heads at the sight of us.
From this point we had a down right awesome bit of downhill riding that would net us our highest speeds of the day. It was over far too quickly and we soon found ourselves doing a bit of mild climbing before descending into Hapaha Flat. It was quite comfortable and sunny now and we stopped at Split Rock for a snack and to snope around for the Indian Pictographs which were supposed to be around here. The reason for the name of the rock was much more obvious than the pictographs. We found indian morteros easy enough but only after carefully examination did we find the some faded and diminutive pictographs. I was expecting something more on the impressiveness scale like the ones in Moab so I was a little disappointed.
The next two miles was quick and the sandy trail was just what I hoped it would be, packed and fast. I was digging this section. The wide open Hapaha Flat gave way to the more defined Fish Creek Wash as we gradually descended into a different geological era when this area was the seabed of the Gulf of California. The steep walls were composed mostly of large sedimentary rocks that looked like you could pull one out from the bottom and the entire wall could come tumbling down. I was not going to test the theory.
At we continued along, the wash twisted and turned and the large rocks gave way to mud sediment and sandstone layers. While the jeep trail was for the most part was “just a wash” the scenery around us was an ever changing tapestry of textures and colors. We passed by numerous smaller washes that were feeding into Fish Creek wash. Many of the washes contain interesting features that I have only read about so far. With each passing wash both the moisture in the soil and the drag on our tires increased. We had about six miles left in the ride when the resistance of the wash significantly overcame the pull of gravity and riding down the wash transitioned from mild spinning to increasingly laborious.
Fish Creek Wash used to be a free flowing creek that cut through soil and rock faster than tectonic forces could push up what is now Split Mountain from underneath. The result is a spectacular gorge that I was not expecting to see in San Diego County. Even though I was pretty pooped and the wash was a solid slog and at this point, this was cool stuff. The kind of stuff you should see at least once.
While mashing along through Split Mountain a State Park Ranger rolled up in his jeep and eagerly greeted us with “Hey we have been talking about you guys”. The plane that overflew us was indeed the state park patrol plane and they did do a double take and before radioing in a “You are not going to be believe this” call. He was happy to see us as he knew he would not have to spend the night out looking for lost and stranded bikers. After some chit-chat we went along our way and finished up the final and downright brutal two miles of slogging to the waiting car.
This was an amazing ride that is not about the trail but the scenery all around it. Slogging builds character, and I sure felt like one after this ride. With the diverse spread of terrain that you travel through, I suspect there will be some measure of slogging no matter when you do it. While I’m in no hurry to rush out and do it again in the coming weeks, I am going to get back out here with my truck, hiking gear and my boys to do some exploring in the lower reaches where there are mud caves, slot canyons and more pictographs. I am stoked to have gotten out into this back corner of San Diego County.