Heading back west we decided to spend some time in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park but first stopped by the Ocotillo Wells SVRA information center and decided to explore that area for a bit. Since this was a Tuesday in December the place was virtually empty. After speaking with both a volunteer and a ranger in the Discovery Center we decided to stay overnight back up the road a bit in Anza-Borrego at the Fish Creek Wash campground. As a primitive campground it is free and has a vault toilet. There are six numbered sites with fire rings but we saw indications that people have camped at many unofficial spots within the campground boundaries. With the exception of one F/A-22 Raptor (I think) which came screaming out from deep back in the wash (probably on a training flight out of the Naval Air Facility El Centro) and scaring the crap out of Willow we had a relatively quiet evening with a stunning sunset across the backside of the small hill sheltering our end of the campground.
The next morning we left the campground and headed back to Ocotillo Wells and took the whole day to make a large circuit of the SVRA.
As is our usual Modus operandi we did the bare minimum of pre-trip research and instead relied on our sense of adventure and proper equipment and training to get us out of any sticky situations we might find ourselves in. We did know that there were several named spots we wanted to check out such as Blowsand Hill, Devil’s Slide, the Gas Domes and the Pumpkin Patch. With a printed map in hand we headed away from the Info Center towards our first target which was Blowsand Hill.
After a couple of wrong turns and trails that led us towards closed territory we eventually spotted a small sign pointing the way and found ourselves up at the top of Blowsand Hill surrounded by stunning 360 degree views on that breezy and clear winter morning. We stopped at a little pull-off and got in a quick drone overview with our DJI Spark.
After getting that overview we headed back down the hill on the side opposite the way we had come up it. We next decided to head in the direction of Devil’s Slide and eventually found our way using only the paper map and the infrequent signs letting us know what wash we were on, entering or crossing over. There were a few informational signs telling the story of how Devil’s Slide used to be called Black Butte due to gold nuggets with a decided blackish color being found here sometime in the 1840’s by the notorious one-legged fur trapper Thomas “Pegleg” Smith. We tried to make it up to the top several different times on several different paths but found no success even with our tires aired down into the low teens psi, in 4-lo and with our rear locker engaged. It was just too steep and the sand was too deep for our mildly prepped Tacoma. We soothed our dashed egos by driving around to the side and took the “easy” way up to the top and then drove down one of the steep trails so, yes, we got to the top of Devil’s Slide…technically.
Back on more subdued ground we decided to test out our drone’s “follow me” mode for the first time. We had not seen or read anything prohibiting drones and we were, literally, the only vehicle in sight and so we gave it a go. We launched it and directed it over to our right side, set it up in the correct mode and had it focus on the Tacoma. We took off quickly up the small dune to the right of Devil’s Slide and the drone kept up well. There was a small point where it seemed to lose track of the Tacoma and so we slowed a bit. That’s when it figured things out, caught its bearing and began following a little too well. As I was keeping track on my tablet inside the Tacoma’s cab I saw it almost slam into the back of the truck and so quickly changed direction and that seemed to finally snap it out of its suicidal intent and it took a breather…and promptly lost sight of the truck at about the 30 second mark. Still, a good first trial which you can view below.
We tried a few more times on ground without sharp elevation changes and with the drove farther away from the Tacoma and the results look good. Our last test was simply to drive away on Shell Reef Expressway (the main dirt road in front of Devil’s Slide) and see how well the drone could keep up. With the smaller target of just the rear of the Tacoma the drone did well until we got up to about 30 miles per hour and then you could see it moving around a bit to try and reacquire the Tacoma and then eventually giving up and just hovering, defeated and in shame. You, your bandwidth and data plan will thank us for sparing you those longer, larger file size videos. In general the best result came from slower movement and with the drone shooting from the side of the subject, in this case the Tacoma.
Our first navigation whoops of the day came on our way to the Pumpkin Patch. On the paper map we were aiming to turn left off of Shell Reef Expressway onto East Bank Wash and then eventually take a right onto Pumpkin Patch Trail. Whatever it was we decided to take a right turn on we came to find out was incorrect but not before we were reminded to always keep your eyes on the road and eventually we found what, at first, we thought might be the Pumpkin Patch but was in fact something else, something weird and more strange.
Our little, jarring whoops took the form of bottoming out the Tacoma, teeth-rattlingly hard, on a little drainage cut we didn’t see because I was looking at the optional trail off to the right or, in other words, I had my head up my ass where it is hard to see where you are headed.
After a quick inspection we found that the relatively lightweight factory TRD underbody protection had done its job and continued on our way none the worse for wear except for a little bit of collected dirt in some of the nooks and crannies on the underside. Actually it was not far past that slam that we arrived at what we first thought might be the Pumpkin Patch but quickly decided this was not a geological feature but instead the result of humans stacking stones and adding “humorous” touches to them.
Now knowing this was not the Pumpkin Patch we were looking for we headed back out in the general direction we had come (bypassing the Slam Spot) and tried our luck again in finding the correct route. Eventually we came across one of the small “street signs” letting us know which wash we had come to and figured out the way to our next destination.
There was a vault toilet and a shaded picnic area over to one side. The real area of interest was fenced to keep the inevitable morons from driving all over the “pumpkins” but that certainly and unsurprisingly doesn’t stop another class of douche from carving their initials in various individual pieces.
The pumpkins are of varying sizes, from golf ball to maybe 36″ or so in diameter and some are in better shape than others. They are a unique but not necessarily rare geologic feature called a concretion. They can be formed through various methods but here at Ocotillo Wells they are made much like a pearl is made. When loose sand gets wet it can naturally “grab” onto a harder item like a pebble or piece of shell. When the water evaporates the sand hardens around the initial object. Over many millennia (in this case around 4 million years!) if they are not disturbed when underground, they can grow ever larger. Later, erosion caused these to emerge from the softer surrounding sands where the wind and blown sand have shaped them into the forms we can enjoy and wonder about today…except moron vandals like “S & L” who don’t give a damn about history or geology or leaving no trace, only caring about themselves. What Jerks!
Leaving “the patch” we drove off on Tule Wash, continued over the Cross Over Trail until eventually coming to and turning south on Freedom Trail which got us headed in the general direction of our next destination of the Gas Domes. You need to understand that the paper map has no mileages between different spots, only the general distance scale on the bottom left corner of the map which we had folded and hidden away so we could manage the floppy map and focus our attentions on just the area we were traveling through at any given moment. With that in mind it is difficult to always discern whether a particular trail you come across is an actual named trail or just a wild route initiated by past offroaders (which is legal to do in that part of the SVRA). Most of the named trails have “street signs” up at their intersections but some do not and some have their signs knocked down. This means you need to slow down every time you notice tracks so you can see if there is a sign and be able to get your bearings. After a few false steps we finally found the signed intersection of Freedom Trail and Sand Rail Wash. Our map then showed that Cahuilla Trail would be the next major intersection which would again refine our direction of travel to the Gas Domes.
Just one of many Gas Domes in the area this is a fine representative example of another geologic curiosity. This area is part of the Salton Trough where the Earth’s crust has been pulled apart, stretched and thinned. Molten magma deep below the surface creates gases which rise up through these thinner areas eventually mixing with ground water making it much like a carbonated beverage, albeit a muddy, sulfurous one.
Still on the subject of water coming up from the ground our next and last curiosity stop of the day was the Artesian Well which was all of a mile further along the road. At the intersection of Cahuilla and Artesian Trails we found the “street sign” broken and on the ground right next to the well itself. We pulled it upright and twisted it into the ground enough to stand tall again (although we don’t know how long that would last and we did inform the rangers that it needed a professional fix when we stopped by on the way out of the park).
The well itself is all that remains of a venture undertaken by the Imperial Valley Oil and Development Association in the early 1920’s. About 200 investors were involved including many wealthy and influential men in the community at the time. The well was named after assemblyman W. J. Beal. After drilling several thousand feet down at around 4000 feet the drillers hit a pocket of hot, pressurized water which flowed with such force that it made further drilling impossible and so the well was abandoned as just a local curiosity called Artesian Well. That impressive flow has since slowed until today it is merely an intermittent trickle out of the small pipe sticking above the ground.
The outlet is shaded by a healthy but stunted palm tree and the flow is directed into a small trough where it is dispersed so as not to gather into a mud pit.
The water has a hint of carbonation in it which you can hear down in the pipe in between “eruptions” and a slight smell of sulfur which made even Willow – “First of Her Name, Drinker Of Mud Puddles, Roller On Dead Things” turn up her nose and leave to go explore the surrounding area.
Now at about 3pm and being at the far eastern end of the park from where we had started we loaded up in the Tacoma and headed south on Artesian Trail. Knowing we were headed back to Fish Creek Wash Camp outside of the park we decided to take a scenic, circuitous route that found us heading down Alkali Trail, up Tarantula Wash and up and down so forth and so on until we eventually came to Roadrunner Trail which closely parallels highway 78. Had we been efficient and in a hurry we could have made it to the highway from the Artesian Well in probably 30 minutes. Instead, tires still aired down and having fun it took us around 90 minutes and then another 20 poking along Roadrunner Trail until we got into the town of Ocatillo Wells itself and the turnoff onto Split Mountain Road which led back to our campsite.
Our GPS track tells the hard, factual story: 73 miles and 4 hours and 43 minutes at “car speeds” with an additional 10 miles and 37 minutes at “bicycle speeds.” Bicycle speeds translates as slow progress because of sand, mud, severe wash-boarding, rocks or all of the above. Easily another hour would have been spent stopped at all the places we visited as I took pictures and read the informational signs and took in each scene. We saw two different pairs of motorcycles go by us in the opposite direction throughout the whole day! It was a great choice we made to do this mid-week and have the whole place essentially to ourselves. We’ve heard that on weekends and holidays the place can become overrun with hundreds of dust and noise-making machines (otherwise known as ATVs) so we were happy it worked out as it did.
We saw that there is an area above the Pumpkin Patch at the northern end of the park in the Badlands area dedicated to 4×4 training which sounded fun if we had more time. Next time we are in the area we will head that way first thing in the morning to try our hand and the Tacoma’s abilities out. Even with that full day exploring we only scratched the surface but peaked our interest in seeing and exploring more next time we are in the area.
If you want to visit the park there are a few nice details to know. There are more than 85,000 acres of desert for you to explore and play in here. No fees are collected for camping or day use and, with only a few exceptions marked on the map, you can camp wherever you want for 30 days a calendar year. Some of the organized campgrounds offer vault toilets, shade ramadas, picnic tables, and fire rings. There is no water available though so remember to bring your own. The showers next to the Discovery Center take quarters and are about 25¢ a minute if I remember correctly.
Have fun and get dirty out there!