Sheep Canyon Hike


This was our sixth (counting an early trip through Salvador Canyon) trip through the Sheep Canyon wilderness and our last, at least for some time. We had entered from four other routes on prior trips. Peter, looking at the topographic maps, picked out a promising route in by climbing a ridge north of Salvador Canyon. It looked reasonably flat, and used an entry point from a trip described in Schad’s guide.

Ribbonwood up close

Ancient cans

On several of our other trips we were pressed for time, and had long, exhausting days. Trying to learn from this, we started in Friday night after dark. We first met at Carmelita’s, a Mexican restaurant in Borrego Springs with a surprisingly busy bar, and then drove in to the second stream crossing-as far as I felt comfortable driving my 2WD Escape. The moon was nearly full, which provided some light as we crossed through the willows, a densely vegetated area with a clear trail, well worn by horses. We hiked for a few hours, arriving at the base of the mountain, and made camp in a sandy wash. On the way we spotted a dead hawk, and a big fat scorpion sitting in the road. The moon was beautiful, and we each took several photos-all fated to not come out.

Friendly scorpion



I’ve long thought of playing music on a hike-even to eke out a few simple notes, but I had never learned an instrument. This year though I’ve been accompanying Finn to his recorder lessons and learning to play a little. I brought my mom’s old recorder on the hike, encased in a hand woven sleeve she made back in the 70’s, and three songs from Finn’s class (I can’t play anything by memory yet): Juba, When the Saints Come Marching In, and Old MacDonald. I played a bit by moon and headlamp. I’m no good, but it was still a pleasure to play, and Peter was a patient (that is, captive) audience.

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Heading in

Salvador canyon

We headed out at five the next morning, expecting it to get hot. We had a little less water than I would have liked, but we expected to get to a stream by midday. The climb up the ridge went well. There was a little navigating, but the decisions were relatively simple. Along the way we spotted two agave roasting pits (there’s a photo of one below).

Agave roasting pit

The Cahuilla used to collect agave in the mountains (where they grow) and roast them in a big, shallow pit. You can find these on the top of ridges. Once you learn to spot them, they’re relatively easy to find: a flat spot, with dark soil, devoid of any large rocks.

Huge ribbonwood



We crossed Sage Flat around noon, spotting a snake along the way, and were running a little short on water. The next section was a stretch where we wanted to learn the route, having missed it on other trips. We picked up a trail, but lost it, and, being a bit tired and dry, pushed on to the stream, coming to in the same spot we had stopped twice before. We filtered water, drank a bit, and, a rarity for us, took a nap–a perk of having started early the day before.  Picking back up, we dropped into the bowl and came across a long hose that wrapped around the mountain. I’m guessing this is for some irrigation for the mountain sheep.  I followed one end of the hose for a bit, and didn’t find the end.  Past this we detoured to see a curious rock formation and  continued until we found a decent site in the bowl and made camp.

Friendly snake


Filtering water

Even though I have a small, lightweight tent, I was glad to leave its weight and bulk behind on this trip. I always imagined I brought the tent even when it didn’t threaten rain to quell any fear of mountain lions at night. But I haven’t been really worried about a lion at night in a while—and I always knew any worry was irrational. And, as it turns out, the thought of a lion sneaking up and crushing my skull in my sleep wasn’t a concern. But I missed that moment of getting away from feeling exposed—to be in a separate environment for a moment. I played the recorder and read for a little while, but a cloud of bugs came and made it a bother.  A big spider also climbed into my bag—I presume attracted by the light, or all the bugs. I finally slept, a little fitfully. I woke several times to a big bright moon.

Rock formation

Looking into the top of sheep canyon


The next morning we headed down the canyon. Peter was in a route-finding zone, and led most of the way. We made good time and were out in a couple of hours. We stopped one last time to get water, and headed across the wash back to the car. The day before my heel was hurting a bit, and it turns out two sizable blisters had formed under it, deep under the skin, caused by my socks getting caked with dirt. Peter fortunately had some moleskin, which kept it from getting worse.


Dropping packs down



It was fairly uneventful back to the car, although hot (Peter’s watch read 103). It’s always pleasant to end a hike with a walk across the flat wash, and this was more pleasant than most, as we had made good time. I drove back home via the Salton Sea and Palm Springs, tired, sore, and happy to see everyone.

Peter's right leg

Exiting Sheep Canyon

Sheep Canyon Hike/Bike


I’ve been hiking in the desert for about 18 years now. I first followed routes from Schad’s “Afoot and Afield in San Diego County” and traveled with various friends from school or went out on my own. Some time ago I started hiking with Peter Thomas, who’s been my hiking partner now for about 14 years. Peter started planning trips by piecing together sections from guidebooks with sections that aren’t in any guidebooks, but looked like feasible routes from topo maps. Recently, we’ve been exploring a loop route from Sheep Canyon to Shingle Spring to Fig Tree Valley in the Anza Borrego Desert. This is a description of the trip this weekend.


This was our fourth time to this particular area and route. The first time we came in from Anza to the north using bicycles and a trailer to get to the start of the loop. On that trip we had a lot of trouble with the bicycles and, especially, the trailer getting stuck in the sand. It was long and exhausting and it was dark by the time we came out on the second day. The second time we came in from the mountains to the west. A ranger there warned us that a coming storm would make the access road impassible, so we shortened our hike to a day hike, making it to the saddle at the top of Sheep Canyon. The third time we came in again from the mountains. That trip was also long, and we ended up having to navigate our way out in the dark.


This trip was a reprise of the first trip using bikes to get the the trailhead but I was using a Surly Pugsley instead. The Pugsley has 4-inch diameter tires which allows it to travel through soft sand. The plan was for Peter to ride in Thursday night from the south, for me to head in Friday morning from the north, and we’d meet at Middle Willows. On Friday morning I drove to the top of Turkey Track in Anza and the end of a rocky dirt road. The forecast was for a storm to come in the next two days and deposit 1-3 inches of snow the first day and 3-5 the second. I was a little worried about the road getting muddy, but I guessed I could drive out after the storm. I parked and headed in to Coyote Canyon on the bike.


I didn’t set up the bike until the night before when I realized my rack wouldn’t fit over the tires, so I just rode wearing my pack. The Pugsley was great. It seemed made for this. I rode on jeep trails and through rocky washes all the way to Bailey’s Cabin in Fig Tree Valley without ever having to walk the bike. I did take one fall over the handlebars with a firm thud to my helmet (thank you, helmet), but otherwise it went smoothly.


The next section of the canyon from Upper Willow to Middle Willows, two sections of dense vegetation, is an important desert bighorn sheep habitat and is closed to motor vehicles, so it was rougher going. I started down a wrong route in Upper Willows, got stuck, backed out, and found a route around the Willows. This was rocky and harder to navigate. I passed a monument to Juan Anza de Batista which seems to be in the middle of nowhere. I came to the Middle Willows which has a narrow path right through it. I started on the path, lost it, and got stuck. If I were on foot I could have pushed through the brush to pick up the path but not with the bike. I put the bike down and searched on foot for the path. After finding it I pushed the bike through to that path and followed it the rest of the way out. I came out the other side where Peter was waiting having come up from the south the day before.


We filtered water there and headed over to Sheep Canyon on the bikes. We stowed the bikes at the head of the canyon and started hiking. Sheep Canyon has an annual stream in the upper reaches, but there was no water at the bottom. This is the case with all the streams in the desert. They start in the mountains, fed by a spring, run down a canyon, and then stop, usually before reaching the valley, absorbed back into the ground. It always seems odd to me for a stream to have two endpoints. Somehow I think they should be a line with only one dry endpoint. Although we were fairly sure we’d find water eventually in the upper reaches of the canyon, we couldn’t camp without it, so we decided we follow the stream bed for an hour, and, if we didn’t have water by then, re-assess. We did find water shortly.


Traversing the canyon is slow going and involves a fair amount of scrambling over boulders and pushing through brush. The number of people who traverse these routes is small and drops off quickly the farther in you get. We typically don’t see anyone in the mountains on our trips (we didn’t this time). So even when there is a known route, there is no trail. Or, at least not a hiking trail like you typically imagine or see — a clear path with markings. Here and there you can find and follow thin signs of a trail. In some places it’s clear, but it inevitably disappears. It gets grown over, washed out, or breaks into separate routes. Following these spare trails is always an little emotional roller-coaster. There’s a high when you’ve found it and are following it and a let down when you lose it. When we lose it we usually push through and try to pick it up again. Sometimes the the trail will lead you around an impassible section in the canyon, like a drop-off or very dense brush, so it’s important to stay on it. We’ve gotten better over the years at following the trail, at picking up little signs of it, and being able to predict what routes they tend to follow. We take turns leading as it takes more effort to stay on the route and sometimes one or the other is doing better at it.


We made it to the lower reaches of a wide bowl near the top of the canyon and made camp. Somewhat coincidentally we found the same spot from a previous trip: a nice, flat, sandy spot near the stream. It was getting dark and cold as we set up the tents. We filtered more water, made dinner, and got to sleep. Nights are often long for me when hiking as we go to bed when it gets dark. I’ll sometimes get a lot of reading done (this time I picked up a book from our little library on the way out, which, so far, is pretty good). This time I slept pretty well and only woke a few times. It was a windy night and sand was blowing in under my rain fly and through the mesh tent. When I was reading I could feel the pages get gritty from the sand. Our tent pegs were set in the sand and not too firmly. I woke once to reset one when it blew loose letting the tent flap loudly in the wind.


We try to pick sites that are close to water, are out of the wind, have enough space to pitch tents, and receive the morning sun, so as to warm us when we get up. But the choices are often restricted. This site didn’t receive morning sun, so it was cold when we got up. We tidied up, left our packs and tents, and headed up the canyon. We had had difficultly on previous trips finding the best route out of the top of the canyon, which involves some difficult climbing up steep, rocky slopes. Although we weren’t heading out that way this time, we wanted to scout out routes. We had a trail description from a book by Lindsey, but it was a little cryptic in this section. Even standing looking at the hills we weren’t quite certain of the right route. We settled on one that looked like the best candidate which we’ll try another time.


In the desert your view is seldom obscured by trees or foliage which allows you to pick out routes visually as you go along. Also, because the foliage is seldom dense at high elevations (away from water), if the slope of the terrain on a topo map is moderate, you can be relatively certain that you can traverse it. We use this to choose paths in unknown areas. However, you often have to choose an approach along a certain ridge line or canyon. As the ridges separate, if you weren’t careful in selecting your route, you can find yourself in an impassible section, on a ridge that has a sudden, steep drop off, or facing a cliff.


We bring a GPS on these trips but, since we’re not following a marked route, the GPS can only resolve where we are, not where we should be. We also bring a SPOT device. This can send a message at pretty much any location to a satellite, and we use it to send tracks of our route. It also allow you to send a call for help if need be. I started carrying it a few years ago after my third heart attack and after the boys were born. I also bring on every trip a small vial of nitroglycerin as well as extras of my heart meds. in case I have heart problems. I think the risk of having a heart attack on a trip is very small (it’s been 11 years since my last heart attack), but it’s always in the back of my mind when I’m in remote locations and far from medical help. In theory, if I had an attack, we could call for help with the SPOT and I can take a bunch of nitro., although I don’t know if extraction is possible in some canyons.


After finding what we thought was the right route out, we headed back to our camp, packed up, and started out down the canyon. These spring-fed desert canyons are simply beautiful. Around every corner is another striking spot essentially untouched by humans. There’s a stark contrast between the steep canyon walls with roughly hewn rocks, studded with agave and dry desert plants, and the canyon bottom, thick with palms, mesquite, catclaw, and water-loving brush. The boulders on the bottom of the canyon are typically larger, and smooth, carved by the water. In many spots the water carves out clear grooves and divots in the rock.


It often reminds me of the garden at the Getty museum in L.A. There’s a small man-made stream there that trickles down the hill making different sounds as it moves over varied surfaces. The streams here are what I imagine those man-made streams are emulating, and they’re much more compelling in their natural form. In every corner they create a new little picture, a new set of sounds.


We always see some wildlife on the way although of course it’s relatively sparse. In the canyons, we always see birds and usually some frogs. We occasionally see snakes, probably one every trip, or every other trip. This time I stepped near a boulder, heard a rattle, and jumped aside. I never did see the snake. It’s unusual to be rattled at. It’s happened only about four times to me.


After a few hours of descending (always harder than ascending) we came out at the mouth of the canyon. As much as I love climbing in the mountains, I always have a feeling of relief on coming out. Route finding on the desert floor is relatively easy, and you’re not required to be constantly watching your footing. We picked up our bikes (my rear tire had a slow leak, so I pumped it up a bit) and headed out. On the way we passed a set of three four-wheel-drive vehicles heading in, and a lone hiker, also headed to Sheep Canyon. He gave Peter’s bike rig a thumbs up. Strapped to his pack was a small solar panel, which Peter asked about. It was a kit, and incorporated bamboo, which seemed to me to be the selling point for the hiker, who also sported a pair of bamboo hiking poles. He used it to charge his smart phone. He relayed the story of the maker, a young retired Silicon Valley millionaire, who, after making his millions, dropped out and started pursuing pet projects like this solar panel. We all nodded in agreement on the wiseness of this decision.


We rode the rest of the way out, carrying our bikes over three stream crossings. We finally came to Peter’s car, strapped our bikes to his rack and drove to Anza. The plan originally was for us to split up at Sheep Canyon and for me to head back North and come up via Turkey Track, but I decided it better not to travel alone, especially in such a remote area. It took longer than I anticipated for us to drive around to Anza. Peter couldn’t drive me all the way to my car, which was out on the end of a rocky dirt road. So he dropped me off and I got on my bike to ride the last section. I rode in a short way and ditched my pack on the side of the road, taking just my headlamp and car keys (double checked), so I could travel faster. The sun had just set and it was getting dark and cold.


At the end of a long trip there’s always a little pleasure in finally coming back to your car. And if you ever want to bond with your car, there’s no better way than to have it start up for you when you’re exhausted, all alone, in a cold dark remote location. It did start (I immediately forgave it any past offenses) and I drove out, stopping to pick up my pack. The storm had never materialized so I didn’t have to test my guess that I could still drive out if the road turned muddy.


Through Anza and part of the way back to Temecula I could only get AM talk radio and spanish FM. I listened to AM talk hosts lament the results of the election (“I’m telling Boehner-not one more dime of my tax dollars”) and discuss the minutia of college football.


Peter and I took a lot more photos. You can see a slideshow of them here.

Our weekend sicko outing

Day 1.  So, like Christy said, we’ve all been sick for 5 days now.  The boys seem to be on the mend, with lingering coughs.  It’s driving me crazy as I haven’t been able to study, and there’s a lot to do at work.  I have a hike planned for the weekend which I’ll have to cancel if I don’t get better soon and It’s always a bummer to not be able to get the boys out on the weekend.  We all know  these things pass, but it’s no fun waiting for it to end.

While cooped up inside today, Ezra, Finn, and I made a dragon out of cardboard, pasta, batteries, sticks, a garbage bag, lots of toy discs, and a bunch of tape and paint.  Ezra had the idea to use batteries for the nose and eyes.  I don’t know what made him think of that.  It turned out pretty well.  They both got all quiet while painting him (I assume it’s a him) which is always a good sign that they’re into it.  We let it dry outside (this always takes a long time as the paint is usually super thick in places), and I added arms and ears/horns.   We posted a photo on FB.   Pictures with the boys usually get a few ‘likes’ from moms, which is always fun.

Ezra and I took apart one of his Rokenbok toys while Finn was napping. We were at first taking it apart because we thought it was broken, but right before disassembly we tested it one more time, with new batteries, and it worked.  Ezra was all keen on seeing the insides, so we took it apart anyway.  It was interesting–lots of gears triggered by what looked like an IR reflected path trigger, a 555 IC timer, and another chip.  It would be fun to design these.  We triggered it on and off a few times with the guts open, to watch the gears churn, and then put it back together.

Ezra spelled ‘LEGO’ on the chalkboard, which was great.  I had to really play dumb and coax him into doing it.  He gets hung up because his letters aren’t “perfect”.  They look perfect to us, of course, which is what Christy told him.

Finally, as we were getting stir crazy, we took the Metro to La Grande Orange for dinner.  On the way back a homeless looking passenger complemented Finn’s orange Crocs.  He went on to tell me his shoes busted open in the toe just that day, that it wasn’t a big deal as he gets them for $10 somewhere downtown, and that he goes through a pair every three months or so.  I thought to myself $40/year for shoes isn’t bad.  He kept talking to us as we left the train and got on the elevator, where he struck up a conversation with another passenger who was carrying golf clubs (“I used to golf when I was a kid but I wasn’t any good because I’m near-sighted”).  By then I was glad that he had moved on.