Bow Willow Canyon – Rockhouse Loop

Way out in the middle of God-Knows-Where, there’s a tiny little line shack tucked into one of the myriad desert canyons of Anza-Borrego. The destination is not really the purpose for the hike; rather, this is a hike of silence and solitude in the midst of a stark, nearly pristine wilderness.

Distance: 8.7 Miles
Elevation Gained: 1,200′
Difficulty: Moderately Strenuous
Time: 4:00
Critters: Jackrabbits

Get there like this:


This was the first leg of what would turn out to be an epic day of walkabouts. Actually, before I even got to the trailhead, I had already had a couple of adventures. It snowed in southern San Diego County, and I drove through a snow flurry. Driving through snow flurries at night looks a little like traveling through hyperspace. On my way through the desert, I was stopped at a Border Patrol checkpoint. The officer stared at me for 10 seconds before he started talking. Then, he interrogated me on what I was doing. I might have been annoyed, but I remembered that only a crazy person or a drug/immigrant trafficker goes driving through the middle of nowhere before the sun comes up. They let me pass.

This was another foray into the mysteries of Anza-Borrego. I’ve ignored the desert more or less through most of the last year and half plus of living in San Diego, and I’m finally coming around to its beauty. This is not a place for trees (although I found some), water (although I found that too), or lushness (yeah, a little touch of that as well). It’s a place of space, hard edges, and foreboding that only masks what is ultimately an inviting and satisfying region.

Inviting does not mean that this place is easy. There is little to no water. Every single plant seems to have it in from you, from jumping cholla cactus that “jumps” off the bush to embed into your skin or the ocotillo, which is a candelabra of sticks that are all covered in inch-long spines. It’s a rocky, hard place, and I can see why many people might avoid it. I can also see why so many people love it, and the extremes in people’s views toward the desert reflect the extremes inherent in the desert. This is a place for which you must prepare, and it always seems willing to exact a toll. Many people, myself included, love that.

The loop I took for my first hike of the day travels about .5 miles into Bow Willow Canyon before veering into a narrow side canyon. After following this canyon up to a broad, rocky plateau, the trail traverses a divide between Bow Willow and Rockhouse Canyon. The trail then descends into Rockhouse Canyon, where it follows the wash to the remains of an old line shack (the eponymous Rockhouse). Afterward, the trail veers north over a low saddle and then down into open woodland of desert willows, from which Bow Willow Canyon gets its name. Shuffle, shuffle, shuffle; back to the car.

A solitary fan palm. No clue where this loner gets its water from.

While you won’t find a lot of trees (just one lonely palm), you will find silence and solitude the likes of which simply don’t exist in San Diego County. Deep into the canyon, there was no sound except breathe and foot on sand. Even the wind was still, leading to a silence so deep that it almost rivaled the utter stillness of Haleakala Crater. On a cold December day, the insects were hidden, leaving no animal sounds to be heard. Early in the morning, most planes were not flying. I produced the only sounds, which ceased as soon as I stopped.

Be warned that this is a fairly challenging hike requiring route-finding, boulder scrambling, and a lot of uneven footing. There was a long stretch where no trail existed and the route was marked by ducks (small piles of stones). This sounds simple in theory, but small piles of stones are difficult to pick out in a predominantly stone landscape. It’s probably best not to attempt this unless you are a seasoned and confident hiker. I rarely use a compass, yet I used one repeatedly on this hike. There are no “trails” here, and most of the hiking occurs through washes (easy enough) or cross-country (nerve-wracking). If you take this hike, be careful, or better yet, go with others who are experienced. And always, always, always tell somebody exactly where you’re going when you hike in the desert.

At the love shack is a little old place where we can get together.

There. Now I sound like your mother.

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