Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Wind Caves (Anza Borrego)

Carrizo Badlands from the hill above the Wind Caves
1.2 miles loop, 400 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Rough 4WD road to trailhead, no entrance fee

Wind Caves is a short hike to some fascinatingly eroded rocks that offer sweeping views over the desert, mountains, and badlands of southern California's Anza Borrego Desert State Park. This short hike is one of the most scenic destinations in this desert state park located two hours from San Diego; however, reaching the trailhead requires a 4WD vehicle to drive the sandy Split Mountain Road. This is a remote destination that sees few visitors: do this hike to enjoy the solitude and views that make Anza Borrego Desert State Park so special.

I visited Wind Caves with my mother during a February trip to Anza Borrego to see the superbloom. Wind Caves is a bit of a drive 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 six and a half miles to the town of Ocotillo Wells, where we turned right onto Split Mountain Road. We followed the paved Split Mountain Road for eight miles until the pavement ended. Here, the road forked: the left fork led to a mine, while the right fork headed towards Fish Creek Wash's deep cut through Split Mountain. This was the roughest stretch of the road: we followed the wash through the deep pass in the mountain, which was extremely dramatic with overhanging cliffs and beautiful anticlinal rocks. As we finally exited the canyon through Split Mountain and Fish Creek Wash widened up, we spotted a trail leading uphill to the left. We parked in the wash here (there's no defined parking) to start the hike up to Wind Caves.

The road through Split Mountain
The trail immediately embarked upon an uphill climb, making a short but steep ascent to reach a small plateau. A small summit rose ahead at the end of the ridge beyond the plateau, a flat stretch of desert ridgetop dotted with creosote and ocotillo. The trail widened out a bit as it crossed the plateau; at the far end, it began wrapping around the south side of the ridge, providing spectacular views of the deeply eroded Carrizo Badlands. Elephant Knees- a high badlands ridge rising over the jumble of gullies and the maze of ridges- stood out above this remarkable landscape, with the Laguna Mountains rising in the distance.

Elephant Knees and the Carrizo Badlands
The Sonoran Desert plants that make Anza Borrego such a fascinating landscape were on full display here: many barrel cacti and ocotillo dotted the mountainside, a weird combination of plant tentacles and spiny basketballs decorating this remote desert. In late February, the ocotillo were in full bloom, sporting rows of beautiful red flowers at the ends of each of their long spindly arms. Hummingbirds buzzed around, feeding off the plentiful nectar from each of the ocotillo blooms.

Barrel cactus
Ocotillo blooming, Whale Peak in the distance
Hummingbird feeding at a blooming ocotillo
As the trail wrapped around a ridge, the Wind Caves appeared before us: a collection of odd, eroded tunnels and caves in a number of rounded sandstone outcrops. The scene was otherworldly in late day lighting, seeming more like the abodes of dwarf aliens on some desert planet than Earth (incidentally, Tatooine scenes from the original Star Wars film were largely shot in the California desert!). We wandered over to the caves and began exploring: many were large enough to pop inside, though none were particularly deep.

View from inside a cave
We wandered through the caves for a while, exploring and squeezing through the sandstone passageways while enjoying the views of the Carrizo Badlands and nearby Whale Peak and the Vallecito Mountains.

Wind Caves
The formal trail ended here at the densest collection of sandstone wind caves just a half mile from the trailhead, but many social paths in the area provided opportunities for additional exploration. I decided to check out the low summit right above the Wind Caves: a well-worn social path led up to the ridge behind the sandstone cluster and then a ridgetop trail led west to the summit, about 100 feet in elevation above the caves below. From here, the views of the Carrizo badlands were even more impressive: mud hills rose above the intensely eroded badlands to the south and west, with the Laguna Mountains rising high above it all. Whale Peak rose to the west over the broad bottom of Fish Creek Wash. This was a spectacular badlands view, easily a match to the more famous Fonts Point view of the Borrego Badlands. 

View of Carrizo Badlands and the Wind Caves from atop the hill
Returning to the main collection of Wind Caves, we chose to make our way back via a different path: another social path led to a small knoll on the southeastern side of the wind caves and then began traversing alongside the slope of the mountain, heading back towards the trailhead just downhill of the trail that had brought us in. This social path delivered more views of the Carrizo Badlands as well as unique view of the many, many tunnels and arches cut into the sandstone of the Wind Caves complex. As this social path wandered along the mountainside, we were able to see a couple of isolated sandstone outcrops, each of which also sported the eroded passageways and arches characteristic of these Wind Caves. After crossing through two small ravines, the social path climbed back onto the plateau that we crossed on our ascent and then rejoined the main trail; we made the final steep descent back to the trailhead from here.

Wind Caves
The Wind Caves of Anza Borrego Desert State Park are a beautiful and quiet destination, with interesting geological features to explore and vast views of silent badlands populated only by cacti, creosote, and ocotillo. If you have a 4WD vehicle during your visit to the park, this is a lovely spot to visit for stellar views and some fun exploration on a short and relatively easy hike.

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