Section Hiking The Desert Trail: Mexican Border to Borrego Springs

  • Updated: January 12, 2020
  • Post By: Matthew Hengst

January 12th to 16th, 2020
Desert Trail Section Hike
Bucktrack's Desert Trail Info
Dirtmonger's Desert Trail Info

I've been back from Thailand for a little over a week with only a brief three day excursion to backpack Santa Cruz Island with Jen and I'm having a bit of a hard time adjusting to being back. I've been eyeing contract work options but at least so far the options I've found haven't worked with the timing of the next big outdoor event: attempting the Pacific Crest Trail starting on May 5th!

So, priorities being what they are I started to look around for ways to use the time to better prepare for the PCT since I'd spent the last few months diving instead of hiking. I wanted to get out and backpack, it needed to be fairly local, and I didn't want to repeat any of the sections I'd be hiking on the PCT come May.

That led me first to the California Coastal Trail which I put aside due to the fact the southern section is basically just walking down the streets around San Diego and anyone who had thru hiked it ended up having to stealth camp in urban areas. Not ideal for a guy that dresses in neon green.

I also came across a proposal for something called the Hot Springs Trail but I wasn't able to find any sort of a map online and I didn't feel like laying out $50 for another print guidebook that would end up rotting away in my closet.

Then I came across the Desert Trail. A proposal by Russell Pengelly back in the 60s for a desert route stretching from Mexico to Canada that seems to have largely fallen into obscurity these days particularly in the California section. There are two solid sources for information Buck and Dirtmonger who have both hiked the entire trail. Outside of that information is sparse.

The blue line shows the Pacific Crest Trail while the red is the Desert Trail. (To see the entire Desert Trail route from Mexico to Canada see Dirtmongers page here.) So it was in range, went through areas where I'd done peaks but hadn't done any sort of distance backpacking, and the weather was almost ideal. So I had a plan!

Since I needed a ride to and from the hike and my girlfriend is the gainfully employed part of our little duo I settled on hiking the 11th to the 17th. The 11th was my cache day and I ended up getting picked up on the 16th near Borrego Springs due to foot issues.

Day 0: Setting Up Caches

The problem with this particular stretch of desert is of course that there isn't really any reliable water. Note that I did find a few pools during my hike but a lot of them were not in any condition to drink out of.

So my solution as others have done before was to set up caches along the way.

Based on the amount of time I had before my next commitment I decided to plan from the Mexican border up to Mecca and if I fell short I crossed a major road three times which would give me fallback options. I have been nursing a flip flop related foot injury since Thailand and I figured I should do something on the easier end.

We picked three locations off major paved roads and walked a short distance away to dig holes in areas I thought were unlikely to gather any attention.

I left the water in gallon jugs while my food was just wrapped in a trash bag and I tried to bury it deep enough that no animals would dig it up.

After a lot of driving, digging, and general tomfoolery we placed the third cache along Sweeny Pass Road and retired to the nearby campground nearby called Bow Willow where we enjoyed a pleasant evening of food and champagne around a fire.

Day 1: Southern Terminus to Carrizo Gorge

10 miles, 840' gain

The next morning we awoke and packed up as quietly as we could since any sound seemed to carry painfully across the campground.

By 8 am we were in Jacumba Hot Springs looking for one last hot breakfast before Jen dumped me down by the border.

The cafe we tried initially was closed for a few days but we found spa nearby that served up a hearty breakfast and passable coffee also giving me the chance to top off my phone one last time.

After finishing up it was a short drive to the border wall.

If you haven't been down there the physical wall itself isn't very impressive. The network of electronic and physical monitoring that backs it up is where most of the deterrent comes from.

We parked briefly by the wall, had a nice chat with one of the local border patrol that just wanted to make sure we didn't intend to leave a vehicle parked 2 feet from the wall, and I loaded up.

My plan was a conservative two days until the next cache so I was carrying 2 gallons of water plus a little extra just to be safe.

There is of course no indication that this is the start of any sort of route and the few locals I passed on my way through town gave me looks like they didn't usually see people backpacking along here.

After a short distance walking through town I turned along an unmarked dirt road that shortcutted along an abandoned railroad track. This turned into single and double track ruts that occasionally petered out in the brush. I was avoiding the trail tracks since I'd read online that the rail company had started enforcing the private property signs along it.

After a brief bushwack I intersected a well graded dirt road that leads to the De Anza nudist resort.

If it wasn't for the closure I could have hopped onto the rail tracks and followed those for quite a distance but alas, I wasn't about to risk an expensive ticket just to avoid a little suffering.

I bushwhacked my way over to highway 8 where Jen was waiting to see me before she took off and soon I was alone.

Leaving the road was a small challenge due to the barbed wire fence but I found plenty of places in the rocks where I could crawl carefully underneath. As near as I could tell the land itself is a mix of state and BLM so you're allowed to be back here.

I was finally in something approaching wilderness, possibly trespassing, and certainly on a route used by migrants. And it was a bit hard to get lost in the experience with all the helicopters buzzing around.

I did run into open water in this area but it was stagnant and didn't look like something I'd particularly like to drink given the choice. I also passed some old ruins along the way though it was just wood and stonework spread around on the ground by now.

Just shy of 6 miles into my hike I got a look down into the first real obstacle of the trail Carrizo Gorge. The beta I'd found online said the gorge was impassable and mentioned some alternate route that they neglected to provide a detailed map for. But as always I'm somewhat of a stickler that if I'm doing a route I want to do *the* route so I was determined to try the canyon.

I found the remains of an old road leading down to the confluence of Carrizo and Tole Canyon and surprisingly running water. If you're looking for an early camp you could do worse than around this spot.

Setting off north along the canyon there was no real trail but at least I could make my way around the vegetation. At least at first.

The railroad tracks were tantalizingly close but I'd been warned they were closed and walking them risked a rather pricey ticket. So I resisted. A few hours later as I was climbing 90 ft up the side of the canyon to get around a particularly stubborn mix of brush and cats claw I will admit I had doubts I'd made the right choice.

A little before 5 pm it started to get noticeably colder and I settled for a small patch of dirt to make my camp. This was my first outing with my Nemo Hornet 2 person that's going to be my home for the solo sections of the PCT and it deployed reasonably easily. And of course more importantly it's green!

Day 2: Carrizo Gorge to Carrizo Creek

15 miles, 70' gain

The night had been cold and breezy so I probably should have put my rain fly on for the extra warmth but I had another new piece of gear which was a Versalite sleeping bag. And I will say that it lives up to everything I've heard and I actually had more trouble not getting too warm when I was cocooned inside.

I made coffee while waiting for the sun to come up and once it was a bit warmer I emerged and got moving.

After yesterday I was braced for more misery but I soon started to find traces of a trail and clear evidence that someone had been clearing out brush back here. It looks like the BLM had been working on clearing out invasive Tamarisk which had the pleasant side effect of making the canyon much easier to pass through.

I did pass rather close to the famous Goat Canyon Trestle but I never had a good view from the canyon.

The use trail grew stronger and eventually dumped me out on a jeep road where I ran into a group of day hikers just out for a stroll.

After a long walk down said jeep road I was able to locate my first cache without difficulty and dig the contents out of the dirt. My only issue was that I ripped the thin trash bag I'd put my food in which made a bit of a mess but nothing had disturbed it in the last two days.

My initial plan had been to camp here and drink as much of the extra water as I could but I really wanted to get further away from the road.

The next section was the longest water carry and I had three days planned to get through it. I threw 12 liters into my backpack along with three days of food and set out slightly less happy than I'd been before. And I carried another half gallon for dinner that night just in case.

I crossed the pavement, picked up another dirt road, and started a slightly less interesting but easy to walk section.

At the first stand of trees I came across a group of guys in RVs who were entertained to see me backpacking out here and graciously offered to take the empty gallon water jugs I was carrying on the outside of my pack.

I also had cell phone reception here for the first time since leaving the 8 allowing me to check in with family as I walked through the brushy wash. I had one other trailer drive by me but other than that I didn't see any signs of activity.

I settled down for the night amidst the brush in Carrizo Creek figuring it would protect me from the wind and had another long pleasant night.

Day 3: Carrizo Creek, Diablo Canyon, Carrizo Badlands

10 miles, 770' gain

I awoke to frost covering everything and my water bottles partially frozen but as before as soon as the sun came up the temperature rose rapidly.

I continued along the jeep road angling for Diablo Canyon. The roads can get a bit confusing around here since they don't seem to match up exactly with any of the map layers I had with me but even the short cross country bits were easy going.

Diablo Canyon starts out wide and narrows into a pleasantly shaded canyon with beautiful high walls.

This was a really pretty section and I considered coming back through with the jeep sometime to show Jen. I did run into one section I marked on the map where the side of the canyon had collapsed and it looked like a few vehicles trying to get over had gotten stuck in the mud.

The canyon eventually let me out into the Carrizo Badlands where I continued along a series of jeep roads. I could see several different helicopters in the distance including a few military ones flying in formation and a smaller white on that seemed to be running a search pattern.

I reached an overlook right before I'd be dropping down to Fish Creek Wash and my feet were hurting me enough I decided I might as well stop early and enjoy the view. Then 10 minutes later a white jeep passed me and disappeared down into the wash. Then a second group of vehicles arrived maybe 20 minutes later.

Normally I'd be annoyed at the traffic but this second group turned out to be the guys who I'd met in the RV's back by by first cache. And they were once again happy to take any empty jugs I had and more importantly shared the best tasting ice cold Corona I think I've ever had.

They soon left wanting to get back to their campsite before dark and I didn't get any more road traffic. I did get buzzed by that smaller helicopter that seemed to be running a search pattern but once he got a close look at me he never came near again.

I curled up in my tent, cooked a warm dinner, and settled in for the night.

Day 4: Carrizo Badlands, Fish Creek Wash, Hapaha Flat, Dave McCain Spring

10 miles, 2,000' gain

The next morning there was once again frost covering everything and I desperately struggled to delay my usual morning bathroom routine until it was a little warmer outside.

Dropping down from where I camped I had a short cross country section to take me across to Fish Creek Wash. Looking at the satellite maps it looks like I could have just followed the road along the wash to the right and met up without any cross country but what fun would that have been?

I followed Fish Creek Wash through several junctions always bearing right. It narrowed as I continued north which gave me some well appreciated opportunities to take a break in the shade.

At Hapaha Flat things opened up again and I again took the junction north towards Dave McCain Spring.

Just the sort of desert sign that worries my mother when I share it with her: a potentially dangerous animal and evidence that some dumbass had been out here shooting at random things.

I didn't bother looking around at the spring since I still had about a gallon of water on me. The satellite shows an obvious campsite at the end of the road and the USGS does have a mark that says Water below the dry spring so I do kind of wish I'd taken the time to go check it out.

Instead I left the road and picked my way along the rocks following the occasional duck or footprint.  I checked my phone and found I briefly had cell reception though that ended once I topped out.

The flat section had a rather pleasant sandy wash and my sore feet once again led to me deciding to stop early.

Yes, I know. Sleeping in sandy washes in the desert generally isn't a great idea since rain can ruin your night rather suddenly. But I was basically up on a pass and away from the low point so I decided to risk it in favor of sleeping on a comfortable bed of sand.

I really enjoyed this campsite since it was the most remote I'd had in several nights.

Day 5: Harper Flat, Harper Canyon, Borrego Springs

9.5 miles, 30' gain

In the morning I continued cross country to a wash on the north side of Harper Flat where the map said I was on a jeep trail but I never found any tracks.

This turned into Harper Canyon which required a bit of boulder scrambling here and there to avoid deadfalls.

The northern end of Harper Canyon rejoined another road and took me through the aptly named Cactus Garden.

Past the garden there were private property signs everywhere but I had roads leading where I wanted to go and I was happy enough to follow those. I was once again back in cell reception which was perfect timing considering I'd finished my latest audio book and really wanted to continue on to the next in the series.

And here I had a choice. Cache 2 was waiting for me by the 78 with enough water and food to carry me through the next 16 miles or so to the next pavement and water cache. But my feet had been so painful for the last few days I was struggling to enjoy even the short 10 mile days I'd been doing.

So I decided better to hop off the trail, rest up, and look at continuing from here later.

Jen was off work early and was able to come out to retrieve me at a reasonable hour. I set up my tent near the cache just to have a place to escape the sun and then later stay warm and this passed the first few hours rather pleasantly. Then the wind picked up. And grew stronger. And then even stronger to the point I was starting to fear for the poles of my tent. A little after dark I ended up having to remove the poles and stay inside the collapsed tent texting friends about my amusing predicament while waiting for Jen to arrive.

It's good to have friends.

Jen eventually found me and we had a quick dinner in Borrego Springs before heading back for Orange County to get ready for the next adventure. Stay tuned for more!

You Might Also Like