Amongst the variety of landscapes in southern California's Anza Borrego Desert State Park are numerous canyons, ranging from V-shaped valleys at the edge of the mountains in the north and west to rocky washes in the desert areas of the south and east. These are mostly quite shallow, except where they cut through certain resistant sandstone layers, where they form slot canyons up to 100 feet deep and typically narrow for half a mile or so. The rocks tend to be rather weathered and pale in colour, and although the canyons are not particularly pretty they do have good curving passages, interesting rock textures and are generally easy to explore.
Location: Most slot canyons are found around the undulating badlands that extend from the southern and eastern foothills of the Santa Rosa Mountains, in the northeast corner of the park. Some can be seen from country road S22, the main highway through this area - any of the dozens of dry washes that radiate from the mountains over a 10 mile section of the road are likely to become deep and narrow for a while if followed upstream. The two described below are the Middle and South Forks of Palm Wash, both of which may be explored starting from the trailhead to Calcite Mine, an area two miles from the road that was used for excavation of calcite by the military in the 1940s. This hike starts just over 1 mile inside the state park boundary; a 4WD track drops into a valley (the South Fork) beside the road, climbs the far side and continues to ascend gradually, passing above other small canyons and crossing the Middle Fork after about 1.5 miles.
Another frequently visited canyon known simply as The Slot is reached by CA 78 which crosses the middle of the park. 1.5 miles east of the junction with Borrego Springs Road and 5 miles west of Ocotillo Wells, a dirt track - Buttes Pass Road - heads north across flat, sandy ground towards a ridge of low hills. The track forks halfway to the westernmost peak (West Butte); the left branch climbs a little to the head of a ravine (Hawk Canyon) then bends away to the southwest, eventually crossing the ravine lower down. The mile or so between these points is generally narrow, particularly so for a 200 yard section in the middle, and can be followed starting from either access point. Vehicles can drive up the canyon floor from the southern end for a short distance.
Photographs: 11 views of canyons in Anza Borrego Desert State Park.
Map: TopoQuest topographic map: The Slot, Palm Wash.
South Fork of Palm Wash - this runs alongside S22 for a mile or so, either side of the Calcite Mine trailhead. The road follows the top of a narrowish ridge and offers great views of many square miles of badlands and canyons to the north. There is a small carpark next to the start of the trail and another a short distance west, overlooking the valley which at this point is broad and open. The interesting part of the canyon is reached after walking upstream along the level sandy floor for about half a mile - a fallen slab of rock creating a natural bridge marks the point where the walls become vertical, although the true narrows are found after another 20 minutes walking and extend for a few hundred yards. The rocks are composed of various similarly textured coarse sandstone layers, pale brown in color, some of which have a knobbly appearance due to embedded pebbles. There are no obstructions in the canyon, which opens out to a wider section still with sheer walls and angled, dusty, weathered strata, that enclose a streamway filled with large boulders and sandy patches. Several branches fork off on both sides, while the main canyon eventually ends beneath a dryfall of about 10 meters.
Midde Fork of Palm Wash - the track to Calcite Mine is very rough and parts are too rocky and rutted even for some 4WD vehicles so most people make the journey on foot. It is about a mile from the trailhead on S22 to the Middle Fork, easily recognisable as the track descends quite steeply to the canyon floor, just below the lower end of the narrows. The rocks here are whitish grey and have the same form and texture as those in the southern branch. The passageways are quite sinuous with tight curves and a floor of smooth rock, but this slot like section doesn't extend very far - beyond is a more open stretch then some shallower narrows that end beneath a dryfall. All can be explored in just 30 minutes.
The Slot - this is the most visited slot canyon in Anza Borrego and is marked on the official map. Buttes Pass Road which leads to the upper end should be passable by all vehicles; if not it takes less than an hour to walk the 2 miles from CA 78, over cacti-covered land that has various places good for camping (which is allowed free anywhere in the park). The canyon at this point has similar features to parts of Cathedral Gorge in Nevada - many small branches with mud walls, pinnacles and other eroded formations. Lower down, the wash cuts through a more resistant sandstone layer and for a few hundred yards becomes a true slot canyon, often quite dark due to overhanging cliffs above and in places just 1 metre wide. The colours are rather drab though - light brown/grey and generally without nice reflected light patterns. The walk through is easy, and soon the passageway opens out to a section accessible by vehicles, by driving up the canyon from the point where it is crossed by the approach road. Soon after the end of the narrows there are several climb out routes. A few short side canyons join from the right side but these don't extend very far.
|Palm Wash and The Slot
|Three short, fairly shallow slot canyons through grey-brown conglomerate rocks surrounded by desert badlands, towards the low elevation east side of Anza Borrego Desert State Park
Length: South Fork and Middle Fork - both about 1.3 miles from S22 to the dryfalls. The Slot - 0.4 miles to the end of the narrows
Management: California State Parks
Rocks: Mudstone, conglomerate
Season: Fall, winter, spring; summers are very hot
Trailhead: Palm Wash - start of Calcite Mine Road; 33.281205,-116.096426. The Slot - along Buttes Pass Road; 33.182121,-116.214153