This spectacularly varied hike in Anza-Borrego State Park’s east end features a wealth of geological oddities, echoing canyons, and sweeping vistas. Including Fish Creek Wash, Wind Caves, Elephant Knees, and the gorge that “splits” the mountain, this popular off-road destination also makes for great hiking and camping.
Distance: 12.5 Miles
Elevation Gained: 700′
Difficulty: Moderately Strenuous
Note: It’s entirely possible to drive the entirety of the route from Split Mountain Road to the wash leading to Elephant Knees, but you’ll probably need 4-wheel drive.
I find it mildly surprising that this is only the third time I’ve hiked in Anza-Borrego. One of those hikes actually started in Cuyamaca State Park and descended along the PCT to Scissors Crossing, so that is probably only half a hike. I’m trying to figure out why I don’t hike there more, and I’m guessing it has something to do with some combination of distance and intimidation. The distance part is simple, although I’ll readily drive further to hike in the mountains. I know for certain that I prefer the forest to the sand. However, deserts are dry, hot, inhospitable places that usually hold their charms for me for a limited time. I love them, but a little seems to go a long way.
Enter Split Mountain, which is a sort of catch-all term for the variety of destinations on this hike. The “Split Mountain” refers to a gorge carved out by once-flowing Fish Creek, which is now a wash and concentrated flood channel for monsoon precipitation. Over time, the creek cut through the sandstone in a manner similar to Zion Canyon, effectively splitting two mountain ranges. The result is sheer cliffs on both sides of a wide, flat, sandy canyon. Trucks regularly drive through the wash, but in doing so miss a lot of the details, which includes some great rock formations and examples of erosion and stratification.
After Fish Creek Wash passes between the two ranges, it opens up into a vast badlands. These undulating “mud hills” are remnants of silt and sediment that once formed the bottom of a shallow sea that covered much of inland Southern California. This inland sea has since receded back to the present-day Gulf of California, but it has left behind numerous mementos.
One of the most striking examples is the Elephant Knees formation, on which a layer of fossilized mollusk shells tops soft, easily eroded sedimentary rock. The hard, erosion-resistant fossils prevent erosion on the top of the butte, while water flowing down from the top has cut a number of channels and left rock formations that resembles the knees of an elephant. The water then continues to flow downward, cutting gullies and washes into the soft, sensually curving mud hills. The resulting badlands are otherworldly.
Another attraction here is the Wind Caves formation, where wind has carved out holes and “caves” into the rock. While most of these caves are pretty shallow and useless for spelunking, the formation is a nice place to goof along. Sadly, the caves have attracted a lot of visitors, who don’t always clean up after themselves. I suspect this area receives a steady stream of weekend campers who never quite learned camp clean-up etiquette or the “leave no trace principle.” After examining some non-indigenous rock carvings, I learned that Andy, Nathan, Roberto, and Janet “were here.”
From this central hub which leads to various washes into the mud hills, up to the wind caves, and deeper into the badlands, there are numerous hiking or driving opportunities for the adventurous. This area is stunning in its variety, starkness, and memorable rock formations. I don’t exactly regret waiting so long to enjoy Anza-Borrego, as I know I still have a tremendous amount of country to explore. However, I’m far more inspired to get out here more often. It’s a strange, but beautiful landscape.