Monday, August 24, 2020

The Slot (Anza Borrego)

The Slot at Anza Borrego
1.5 miles round trip, 200 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Rough unpaved road to trailhead, no entrance fee required

The Slot- as its name suggests- is a narrow slot canyon carved into the desert of Southern California's Anza Borrego Desert State Park. While quite common on the Colorado Plateau in Utah and Arizona, such slot canyons are far more rare in the western reaches of the Sonoran Desert in California. The narrow and contorted passages of the canyon are a lot of fun to explore, providing opportunities for a bit of rock scrambling. The most spectacular part of the canyon is just a third of a mile long, but hikers can continue following the canyon as it widens up to enjoy some views of colorful badlands.

A quick word of warning: as this is a narrow slot canyon, you should only ever visit during good weather. If rain threatens or if there is rain in the forecast in the nearby mountains, skip this hike: this narrow canyon would be an unescapable trap during a flash flood.

I visited the Slot with my mother during a February trip to Anza Borrego to see the superbloom. The canyon is a short drive away from Borrego Springs, a town in the heart of the park. From Christmas Circle in Borrego Springs, we followed Borrego Springs Road south to its junction with Highway 78. We then followed Highway 78 east for a mile and a half, turning left onto the Buttes Pass Road (there is a small sign for this road on the left side of the highway). We followed this sandy road another mile to a junction, where we took the left fork for Borrego Mountain Wash; this road soon led to the unmarked trailhead for the Slot, a parking area at the rim of a canyon.

At the trailhead, there was a view of the canyon below with San Ysidro Mountain rising in the distance across Borrego Valley. While it was possible to appreciate that the canyon below was quite narrow in spots, this grand view placed more emphasis on the vast expanse of the desert and the ruggedness of the badlands of the canyon.

View of the Slot from above at the trailhead
From the trailhead, rather than descending directly down a steep slope to enter the canyon below, we followed the trail that headed off to the right, which descended fairly gently to the base of the Slot. At the bottom of the canyon, we followed it to the left, heading west into the heart of the Slot.

The canyon very quickly became very narrow. Vertical walls rose around us, forcing us into a passage that was at times just a little more than a foot wide. We had to contort our bodies at points or scramble up and down rocks to get through certain parts of the canyon, making this hike a fun adventure. While lacking the color of Utah's red rock slot canyons, Anza Borrego's Slot still impressed with the its many sedimentary layers and the simple narrowness of the canyon.

The Slot
At times, the canyon walls were narrow enough that boulders falling from above had simply become lodged into the Slot.

Boulder lodged above the Slot
The most spectacular stretch of the canyon came as we traversed a narrow but straight passageway. Above, a leaning pillar of rock spanned the canyon, supported by the walls of the other side of the canyon. The canyon was narrow enough that this rock pillar was able to impact the opposing wall softly rather than shatter and it has been able to remain standing. Passing beneath the pillar, it almost seems to be a natural arch; but studying it from a distance, it is clear that it is a toppled pillar rather than an eroded free-standing arch.

The leaning pillar of the Slot
After passing the leaning pillar, the canyon soon began to open up a bit. Although the bottom of the canyon was wider here, the walls of the canyon were still vertical and quite spectacular. Interesting eroded features were carved into the canyon walls, including at one point a dry waterfall where another wash must meet this one. 

The canyon opens up
As we continued down the canyon, the walls of the canyon became progressively less steep, eventually transitioning into colorful badlands. We followed the wash as it swung to the north and we ended our forward progress at the point where a steep 4WD road dropped into the wash from the west. From here, we had the option of following this 4WD road uphill and then returning along the Borrego Mountain Wash road, which follows the rim of the canyon. However, wanting to re-experience the wonders of the narrowest stretches of the Slot, we turned around and went back through the canyon again.

Badlands at the end of the hike
It's possible to shorten this hike by skipping the broader part of the canyon at the end and turning around as soon as the canyon begins to widen; doing so would reduce this to a 3/4 mile round trip hike.

We saw a number of other hikers during a short hike here: this is one of the more popular spots in Anza Borrego Desert State Park. As the passageways in the Slot are extremely narrow, there are spots where you'll have to allow others to pass. It's not a hike for social distancing during these Covid-19 times but when the time allows, this narrow slot canyon should be a part of any trip to Anza Borrego.

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