aka Operation Sandstorm
Day One - Anza Borrego Desert State Park
The Mud Caves of Arroyo Tapiado
Ryan and Nick spent Day Zero driving south from Oakland to just a few miles north of the Mexico border. After driving for like 12 hours, they found a nice spot in a canyon just off the main highway that runs through Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.
I met up with them the morning of Day One, and we began our tour with a quick drop down into Canyon Sin Nombre. Full of geologic oddities, Canyon Sin Nombre was an appetizer for the wonders we would see for the next few days.
With the desert heat beating down on us, we headed north through Vallecito Wash to Arroyo Tapiado. We had yet to see another vehicle as we made our way through the winding canyon in search of the mud caves that are hidden in the canyon walls.
We found the "E-Ticket" cave, affixed our head lamps and journeyed forth. As we made our way into the darkness, the temperature dropped to about 60 degrees, a relief from the blistering 97 degrees outside. These caves are formed by the flow of water from rainstorms over tens of thousands of years.
After the respite from the heat, we put the AC on max and headed east towards the infamous Diablo Dropoff. This one-way downhill pass separates the south part of the park from the northern part. It drops several hundred feet over about a 1/2 mile. It's pretty steep and the driving is challenging because the road is severely rutted and gouged, and there's loose sand everywhere. The camera doesn't come close to capturing how steep the section is. But, it's an easy enough challenge, the hardest part is overcoming the mental hurdle and committing to the one-way trip.
At the bottom of the drop-off, we encountered a somewhat challenging rock garden that we had to work our vehicles through. My Tacoma, while certainly capable, is stock and isn't lifted. As we rolled slowly into a winding canyon, I went over a step of rocks.
As my front tires dropped over the step, the angle was such that my frame slammed down hard on the rocks that made up the step. I had visions of my oil filter being sheared off on the rocks or my drive shaft bent beyond function.
Fortunately, my frame took the hit and my back tires still had enough contact with the road that I could back up some to reposition. But I couldn't move much without damaging my frame or worse. In a moment of teamwork, Nick and Ryan jumped in and together we stacked big rocks under my tires to give me the clearance to get over the obstacle that I was stuck on.
The trail had humbled me and I was worried about what may lay ahead for us.
Fish Creek Wash & Sandstone Canyon
Diablo Drop-off leads into Fish Creek Wash, which we followed north into Sandstone Canyon. Sandstone Canyon is a fantastic drive thru what some have called "a slot canyon for vehicles". There are two points were the trail squeezes down to a vehicle width. With just an inch or two on either side of the Ryan's jeep, he tried pulling his trailer through.
Unfortunately, I did a bad job of guiding Ryan through the obstacle and the bike rack on his trailer got caught on the canyon wall and broke. After taking some time to reset and reevaluate, we took the rack off the trailer and were able to pass through the narrow obstacle. At the end of the canyon Ryan was able to turn his rig around and then Nick and I successfully guided him back through the two obstacles.
Up until this point, I had been shooting a lot of video but this incident humbled me. I realized how much I have to learn about off-roading and I decided to be more focused on the driving and the teamwork.
Night One Campsite - Hawk Canyon
After winding through Fish Creek Wash and Split Mountain, seeing geologic oddities like Elephants Knees and rocks curled inward at the meeting of fault lines, we headed north into the Borrego Badlands. We found an incredible campsite nestled in a canyon. With the sun setting a solitary bat circled overhead while Ryan grilled up rib-eye steaks. With night time temperatures in the mid-70s, we spent the evening telling stories by the glow of the fire pit, as the full moon rose above the sheer canyon walls. This is the best campsite I've ever had and I will gladly take any of you there.
Day 2 - ANZA BORREGO DESERT STATE PARK
With the rising sun bearing down on us, we quickly packed up camp and rolled out with air conditioning on max. We made a quick stop in the town of Borrego Springs to refuel, re-provision, and see some of the towering metal statues that litter the desert-scape. As we drove towards the T-Rex sculptures, we saw a lonely coyote wandering through the desert, stopping occasionally to track us.
We made our way out to Font's Point, an overlook of the Borrego Badlands. The scope and scale of this view has to be seen in person to be appreciated. We looked out over the craggy landscape and could see the Salton Sea off near the horizon. Very impressive and totally worth going out of route to spend some time out there. With temperatures climbing above 105, Ryan deployed an awning from the side of his trailer and we had a quick lunch and cold beverages.
Night 2 Campsite - Coyote Canyon
With the hot rock in the sky beating down on us, it was hard to keep up with hydration and we were all feeling fatigued. Tired of the somewhat technical driving and the washboard roads, we decided to make camp soon. We made our way through the ocotillos and cactii into Sheep Canyon, crossing over Coyote Creek.
This creek/canyon is notable because in 1775, Juan Bautista de Anza led an expedition from Mexico into California and made camp here for a few days. Eventually the Anza expedition would travel to Monterey, then further north to establish the Presidio and Mission in San Francisco. Negotiating the rocky pass into the canyon and rolling through the sandy desert, my mind drifted back 250 years ago, imagining the Anza expedition working their way through this very valley, and of the indigenous people who made their lives in this landscape.
We pulled into camp around 3. This is a special spot for me because I took Frankie out here a few months previous. It's not much to look at during the day, but as the sun sets this place has a special charisma. Unfortunately, we'd have to get through several hours of the hottest part of the day first. We deployed every awning and shelter. My 12v refrigerator struggled to keep cool and it was too hot for my solar panel and batteries. We hid in the shade, wearing wet towels around our necks and drinking so much water.
Once the sun set, we explored the area and followed a trail towards a palm oasis nestled at the intersection of two valley walls. We enjoyed deep dish pizza for dinner while taking in the absolute silence of the valley, as the full moon illuminated everything for miles. A truly spectacular night at a special place.
Night 3 - Lytle Creek, San Bernadino Mountains
Night 3 Campsite - Stockton Flats
Exhausted from the punishing heat of the desert, we made a move to the mountains above the Inland Empire, not only to get some altitude to beat the heat, but also to be in better position for Ryan and Nick to depart for the Bay Area the next morning. After winding our way over the mountains surrounding Anza-Borrego, we passed through rural east county San Diego before taking a straight shot north on I-15.
Late Sunday afternoon, we crawled up the rocky trail along Lytle Creek, pulling over often to let dozens of oncoming off-road rigs go by. The weekenders were leaving and hopefully we'd be able to score a choice campsite at this very popular spot.
We ended up behind a lifted 90's 4Runner, which struggled to make it up a rutted rocky sandy incline. As the 4Runner's wheels struggled for traction, an oncoming crew of 4-5 fully loaded Toyota Tacoma rigs approached. As is custom they yielded to those of us going uphill. Eventually the 4Runner made it up, but it was Ryan's turn to take on this minor challenge with his heavy rig. Ryan's Gladiator walked up the incline like nothing, and as it crested the driver of the first Tacoma gave Ryan facial props and an "OK" handsign for his smooth negotiation on the obstacle. Ryan pulled forward and the young Tacoma bro said "I LOVE your build man". The highest compliment had been exalted upon Ryan and he was giddy for the rest of the night.
Climbing up to nearly 6500 feet, we navigated through the twist and turns of the forest road until we found a perfect campsite at the foot of a mountain clearing, under the shade of several enormous pines. Traces of snow glistened in the crevices of a nearby mountain top and a cooling breeze refreshed our tired bodies. We felt like we were alone in the Sierras, but in reality 10+ million people live in the valleys below us.
After we took turns using the hot-water shower on Ryan's trailer (!!!), we set up our camp chairs and got comfortable for the evening. Tired from the heat of the desert, the drone of the interstate, and now perhaps the altitude, we settled on a dinner of appetizers, including the stinkiest brie this side of the Atlantic, and cold beverages. With the firepit rolling a soothing orange flicker, I glanced to my right and saw the lunar eclipse rising over the mountains. An awe-inspiring moment for sure that my cameras couldn't even come close to capturing. What a magical night in the mountains.
As we drifted off to sleep, an owl perched itself in one of the pines in our camp and began loudly hooting. It was startling at first but then amazing to hear the hoot echo off the mountain walls. Soon enough he flew away and let us sleep.
Monday morning was our get-away day. With our hearts full of bro-radery and our brains filled with new memories, we packed up camp, made our way off the mountain and went our separate ways. We will do this again and you'll join us next time. Thanks for reading along!