The Carrizo Gorge

This past Saturday, I explored an area of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park that I had long wanted to explore, but never had the time to do so. I initially planned to include a route up the Carrizo Gorge in the 5th edition of Afoot and Afield San Diego County, but after one false start where we tried to replicate Jerry Schad’s downhill route from the 3rd edition, I found myself out of time for scouting a bottom-up route.

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Our earlier attempt ran into an imposing wall of Chinese tamarisk, an invasive species known for sucking up water supplies and crowding out native vegetation. The upper reaches of the canyon from about 5 miles above the end of the road to the headwaters near Jacumba are nearly impenetrable due to the tamarisk. The lower reaches of the gorge are almost entirely cleared thanks to the State Park’s and Conservation Corps’ eradication efforts over the past decades. The lower gorge is now a viable hiking route from the end of the road to about a mile past Goat Canyon.

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Brittle brush and desert chicory

Some folks may wonder about this route as a possible access to the Goat Canyon Trestle. First, it’s important to remember that not only is the Goat Canyon Trestle private property that’s forbidden to hikers, mountain bikes, vehicles, and equestrians, but that the railroad police have reportedly been citing people for the trespassing violation. We didn’t find out whether we could make it to the trestle, since the approach route I considered quickly proved to be nonviable.

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Thanks to my friend John and his generosity with his Wrangler, we (myself, John, and Don) were able to drive to the trailhead and begin our hike from there. Our wet winter has produced memorable blooms across Southern California, but this is one part of the bloom that few people have experienced or will experience owing to how remote the area is. Much of the lower gorge is carpeted in several varieties of phacelia, brittlebush, and a host of annuals. Green vegetation blankets the slopes and floor of the gorge, and the cacti blossoms are just starting to show.

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An informal trail provides a clear route through the first 1.5-2 miles, and after that the going becomes rougher as the terrain and vegetation often oblige hikers to head up the creek. The creek is a boulder-hopping affair that, while not technically difficult, can become a bit wearisome due to the constant uneven surfaces. Several spots featured standing water that provide a crucial watering source for the resident bighorn sheep and other wildlife in the surrounding wilderness. The removal of the tamarisk has allowed the re-emergence of native vegetation, including the eponymous carrizo, a type of reed commonly referred to by its Spanish vernacular name.

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Given how much rain we had in January and February, and also owing to the clear evidence that water runs through the gorge on occasion, I was a little surprised to find as little water as their was. Despite this being the desert, the gorge also drains numerous side canyons that harbor water sources. I speculate that the tamarisk upstream, particularly the dense overgrowth at Carrizo Creek’s headwaters, saps the downstream flow and prevents run-off from reaching the lower parts of the gorge. I hope at some point that the park is able to eradicate the tamarisk in the upper reaches of the gorge, or else run-off will eventually help the tamarisk re-invade the lower gorge.

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We made it as far as Goat Canyon, which we planned to climb to the edge of the State Park boundary just below the trestle. However, only 50 yards into the canyon, we reached a pair of dry waterfalls that proved to be a bit more than we were interested in tackling. Given that I am looking to include this hike in the next edition of Afoot and Afield, it seemed foolish to push through on a route that I wouldn’t be able to include, much less actually enjoy in the moment. We did identify a possible route up the canyon’s northern ridge that would serve as a suitable climb to reach a viewpoint of the trestle. However, we did not have the time or the inclination to attempt it this day.

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I plan to include Carrizo Gorge in the 6th edition of Afoot and Afield. I would have liked to include it in the 5th, but I ran out of time. I plan to come out here to spend a three-day weekend, which would allow time to explore some of the side canyons, which also feature palm groves and possible native features, as well as the northern ridge of Goat Canyon and whether it’s a viable route to a viewpoint of the trestle. It’s an absolutely gorgeous hike that, tamarisk and trestle traffic aside, is about as pristine as it gets in Anza-Borrego.

4 Replies to “The Carrizo Gorge”

  1. Three friends and I did the 18 mile, 13 hour hike back in May of 1995, after first talking to Jerry Schad regarding the trail. There was no trail and the farther we got down the gorge the worse it got. We ended up hiking through the middle of the stream, which had a fair amount of water then. I gave an update to Jerry and he changed the trail from four to five stars. That first few miles was really nice but then it got just too overgrown.

    If you’re interested I’m up for helping break a trail from De Anza down into the Gorge.

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