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Rock Tanks

Started: 2019-03-04 19:24:06

Submitted: 2019-03-04 22:19:38

Visibility: World-readable

18 February 2019: In which the intrepid narrator hikes through the desert foothills to natural rock tanks carved from solid impermeable stone

On President's Day, while visiting the sun in Borrego Springs, I decided to undertake the Rock Tanks Loop route described in my hiking guidebook, Afoot and Afield: San Diego County, heading into the desert foothills in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

I got a late start after considering my options for hiking during the day. I dropped by the state park's storefront in town and picked up a small map of wildflower sites; though it was still too early in the spring for the full wildflower bloom. (Given how much rain the desert got in the last week -- up to and including my drive into Borrego Valley the previous day -- it seems likely that this year may end up being a great year for wildflowers.)

Palm Canyon Drive
Palm Canyon Drive

I drove east through town, past Christmas Circle, the giant lazy roundabout in the middle of the town's tiny commercial strip, surrounded by empty subdivided lots and a handful of low buildings, built to handle the heat of the desert. On the desolate hills surrounding the valley I could see snow at around 3000 feet.

I stopped at a state historical landmark dedicated to Peg Leg Smith, a legendary settler and prospector who allegedly left a fortune in gold buried somewhere in the hills. A faded sign encouraged anyone seeking his fortune to add ten stones to the very large pile of rocks nearby.

Peg Leg Smith historical landmark
Peg Leg Smith historical landmark

I reached my trailhead, where Palo Verde Wash crossed the Borrego-Salton Seaway, and realized that I had forgotten my hiking guidebook in my hotel room. The guidebook seemed critical given that the route (judging from the description in the book) only loosely followed a trail. I turned around and drove back to my hotel, picked up the guidebook, and then dropped by the state park's visitor's center to buy two USGS 7.5' topographic maps: Fonts Point, for my hike today; and Borrego Mountain for my planned hike the next day.

On my return to the trailhead, I spotted a large pickup that had gotten stuck in a puddle of mud next to the road, in a low spot where a wash crossed the road. I had seen the puddle next to the road when I passed (twice) earlier in the day; and I presume the truck decided to splash uproariously through the puddle and had instead gotten stuck. There was another pickup truck nearby, and appeared to be preparing to winch the stuck truck out of the ditch.

Palo Verde Wash
Palo Verde Wash

At length I set out, heading north-northwest from the paved highway up the Palo Verde Wash. The USGS topographic map showed a jeep trail on the route, but I didn't see anything resembling a trail on the ground, only an occasional track that might have been a footprint or might have been random erosion.

Octillo in Palo Verde Wash
Octillo in Palo Verde Wash

The route took me uphill across the open desert, roughly following the dry bed of the wash running out of the mountains immediately to the north. It was early in the spring, and the desert was tinted a pale green from the tiny grasses that grew from the winter rains. The ground was covered in rocks ranging from fist-sized to microwave-sized, all washed down from the mountains above me by flash floods. Every step I took carried me further into the desert, towards the Santa Rosa Mountains, away from the thin string of civilization promised by the two-lane paved highway.

Scattered clouds over Borrego Valley from Palo Verde Wash
Scattered clouds over Borrego Valley from Palo Verde Wash

As I approached the mouth of Palo Verde Canyon, clouds swept over the Santa Rosa Mountains, blotting out the sun, threatening rain at any moment. I continued walking into the canyon, wary of any sign of rain that would portend a flood, but no rain fell as I walked across the dry sandy floor of the desert wash, around the desert shrubs and the occasional tree clinging tenaciously to life in the canyon, eager to drink any water they could.

Clouds descend over Palo Verde Canyon
Clouds descend over Palo Verde Canyon

I missed my turn walking up the canyon, a poorly-marked trail heading up the packed dirt forming the side of the canyon. It began to drizzle as I backtracked, pulled out my guidebook to double-check the route, and then found the trail, clinging to the side of the valley. I followed it upwards, bypassing a narrow choke-point on the canyon floor, within view of a tiny mine shaft drilled into the rock, and up onto a gentle saddle point at 2000 feet between the surrounding hills, while the drizzle gave way to a few minutes of snow flurries, then subsided, leaving the gray skies for the rest of the day.

Octillo under cloudy skies above Palo Verde Canyon
Octillo under cloudy skies above Palo Verde Canyon

I followed the trail down the far side of the saddle, picking my way on an awkward descending traverse along a slope where a rockslide had obliterated any trace of the trail. I picked up the trail at the end of the rockslide just in time to reach the bottom of Smoke Tree Canyon, a narrow dry canyon with couch-sized granite boulders surrounded by scrub clinging to slope on the side of the canyon.

Smoke Tree Canyon
Smoke Tree Canyon

And right there, at the end of the trail, where two nameless branches of the canyon joined, were the Natural Rock Tanks: a handful of depressions in the solid rock where water pooled, long after the rain water stopped flowing in the wash and disappeared into the dry earth.

Natural rock tanks in Smoke Tree Canyon
Natural rock tanks in Smoke Tree Canyon

I walked up the canyon, surveying the rock tanks, marveling at the water they held in this alien desert landscape.

Natural rock tanks in Smoke Tree Canyon
Natural rock tanks in Smoke Tree Canyon

I ate a snack on the dry floor of the canyon, then began my descent down Smoke Tree Canyon, following the path of least resistance downstream towards the road. I scrambled down a dry waterfall and found, to my surprise, a small group of three people sitting on the sandy floor of the canyon, under the overhanging solid rock wall of the canyon, eating lunch over a tiny camp stove. They invited me to join them, so I did, sitting cross-legged on the sand. They were Israeli exchange students, living in Los Angeles, who had come on an overnight hike in the desert, and were following the canyon downstream to the road. I ate the bagel they offered, and offered my trail mix to the group, then drank their Israeli-style "mud coffee", consumed with the coffee grounds decanted to the bottom of the cup. We talked about hiking, and I tried to give them advice on national parks in the American southwest to see on their visit. I told them that Kiesa "doesn't believe in deserts", which they took a little too literally. Then I bid them farewell, and wished them well in the remainder of their hike, and continued my descent down the canyon.

Jaeger in Smoke Tree Wash
Jaeger in Smoke Tree Wash

The canyon wound through the hills for two miles back to the road, cutting through conglomerate that looked fragile enough to disintegrate at the most gentle touch. I climbed over and around car-sized boulders, worn smooth by water, and marveled at the force of the water necessary to move a rock that size.

Conglomerate walls of Smoke Tree Canyon
Conglomerate walls of Smoke Tree Canyon

For a brief interval the canyon cut through stronger rock, forming a narrow slot canyon; then opened up again as the rock grew softer again, still sitting near its angle of repose, barely stronger than packed dirt.

Smoke Tree Canyon
Smoke Tree Canyon
Scattered boulders in Smoke Tree Canyon
Scattered boulders in Smoke Tree Canyon

I continued to follow the wash downstream, over packed sand, around early yellow wildflowers blooming in the desert. The tan slopes of the canyon climbed above me, rolling hills reaching towards the saddle point I crossed earlier. I scrambled to the top of a low hillock, an island in the middle of the dry wash, and surveyed the land around me, the canyon turning into a valley eventually opening onto the larger Borrego Valley at its mouth.

Smoke Tree Canyon opens onto Borrego Valley
Smoke Tree Canyon opens onto Borrego Valley

I reached the highway, then walked along the highway for a mile to my car, parked in Palo Verde Wash. I strayed from the highway to walk along the open desert, climbing up and down the hillocks making up the desert floor, before finally reaching my car, and returning to my hotel in Borrego Springs.

For more photos from my hike, see Photos on 2019-02-18.

We reject kings, presidents, and voting.
We believe in rough consensus and running code.
- Dave Clark, 1992