About the Trail
Technically two trails, Fish Creek Wash to Sandstone Canyon are the embodiment of the American West. These dusty, weather-beaten trails have been trod by Native Americans, Spanish explorers, and pioneers. These are trails that meander through a landscape that juxtaposes smooth, rounded boulders scattered across the parched earth with jagged, crumbling mountains encircling this stark terrain. These are trails that have made us fall in love with the desert in all its austere and unrelenting beauty.
While these trails are easy and you can tackled them during a day-trip, dedicating two or even three days for an adventure will give you more time to explore the rich geology of this magical land and enjoy the glittering night sky.
Located in Anza-Borrego State Park, the combined Fish Creek Wash and Sandstone Canyon trails are an out-and-back trail that covers an approximate 47 miles in total (just under 24 miles one way). Technically, you could head out a different way because the park is covered by a vast network of trails but our preference is to do this one as an out-and-back.
On it’s own, Fish Creek Wash to Pinyon Mountain (the point where you turn around for “back” part of the trail) is about 21 miles. Sandstone Canyon, an offshoot from Fish Creek Wash, is slightly more than 2.5 miles from the entrance to its end and you could bypass this short section of trail, but don’t! You really don’t want to miss the opportunity to explore the otherworldly scenery you’ll find in Sandstone Canyon. Trust us!
Getting to the Trailhead for Fish Creek Wash
The trailhead for Fish Creek Wash is about 8 miles south of Highway 78 in Ocotillo Wells, just off Split Mountain Road. Make sure you have plenty of fuel because the nearest gas station is 26 miles away in Borrego Springs.
The best time to visit this trail is in the fall, winter, or spring. We highly recommend avoiding it in the summer—it IS the desert and temperatures can become dangerously hot.
About 1.5 miles from the trailhead there is a primitive campsite along with a pit toilet (if you’d like to use a restroom before hitting the trail, this is your last chance). The area around the campsite is wide open and this can be a great place to meetup with friends before heading off on your adventure.
The Terrain Along the Trail
The terrain is mostly smooth and level, covered with soft sand and smaller rocks. It can get very dusty, which is something to keep in mind when traveling in a group and when passing by campsites—maintaining your distance between vehicles is key for visibility and slowing down will prevent campers from eating your dust.
Points of Interest Along the Fish Creek Wash Trail
There are also multiple points of interest along this trail, all of which have been shaped by the environment—water, wind, and the unceasing activity of our restless planet. And Anza-Borrego is a particularly restless land as both the Elsinore and the San JacintoFault Zones cut through the park and the infamous San Andreas Fault Zone is to the east. This area also sits between two tectonic plates in what’s called a “mush zone,” which is why there are so many earthquakes continually reshaping the land here. (Don’t worry, most of the tremors are minor.)
All of this natural activity makes for a landscape that is dynamic, ever-changing, and always engaging. In fact, you’ll often see geology students scattered about the trails because the area has a relatively complete geologic record that goes back about seven million years, representing both marine and terrestrial environments.
One of the first points of interest you’ll come to are the wind caves. Like everything else in Anza-Borrego, these sandstone “caves” have been shaped by the environment. More specifically, these natural sculptures have been created by wind erosion and are a beautiful reminder of how magnificent and alive our planet is. The hike to the caves is only about 1 mile but it is steep and this is the desert so make sure you’re wearing some good shoes and bring water.
Just a short, tenth of a mile drive from the wind caves is a large formation called “Elephant Knees,”named for its resemblance to the lower legs of a giant pachyderm. Even though you can easily see it from a distance, if you’re up for another, less strenuous, hike you can get a closer look at this geological marvel that is made up of sediments as well as the fossilized remains of marine life deposited over the millennia.
About eight miles from Elephant Knees is the entrance to Sandstone Canyon and we highly recommend you explore this trail because, even though it’s short, it packs a punch in terms of stunning scenery. Every time we travel down this trail, we feel like we’re on another planet, one that’s reminds us of a certain location from a very popular, big screen sci-fi saga.
If you’re making this trek a day trip, Sandstone Canyon is a good place to stop for lunch or take a break and just enjoy the views. If you’re spending a day or two in the area, you may want to consider making camp here one night because there’s a fantastic site at the end of the Canyon.
There are a few narrow sections along this offshoot trail, so be aware that full-sized vehicles may find themselves squeezing through some very tight spaces. Also, keep in mind that nature is continually shaping and molding this living landscape and places that are passable today may no longer be in the future due to rockfall or other natural activity.
Off-Roading in the Desert
After leaving the canyon and heading back onto Fish Creek Wash towards Pinyon Mountain, you’ll once again find yourself on a wide-open, sand-covered trail, surrounded by sun-washed rocks, brilliant blue skies, and desert scrub. After passing Olla Wash, the occasional sand- and mudstone rock walls rise up on either side of you and you’ll see stocky chollas and spindly ocotillos looming above, like sentries guarding the secrets of the desert. Everywhere you look, there is beauty to be found.
The End of the Trail
About 5 miles from Sandstone Canyon’s entrance you’ll come across a marker for the McCain Spring and a sign about mountain lions. Even though we’ve never seen a mountain lion in all the years we’ve been coming to Anza-Borrego, it’s always a good idea to follow the advice on the sign and be aware of your surroundings—just because you don’t see them doesn’t me they don’t see you.
The marker for McCain Spring is also where Fish Creek Wash turns into Hapaha Flat Road and from here it’s just over 3.5 miles to Pinyon Mountain, which is the turnaround point. If you’re tempted to continue rather than turning around, you should know that the Pinyon Mountain trail is rated as difficult.
For the most part, the rest of the trail is an open, sandy track with desert flora spread out on either side, more ocotillos, chaparral yuccas, chollas, and creosote. It’s a pretty drive offering ample opportunity to soak in the scenery.
The final stretch of trail does include a nice rocky descent (and, since you’ll be turning around, a nice rocky ascent), but it’s not difficult and only adds a bit of interest to your journey.
If you’re looking for any easy trail brimming with desert beauty and enchantment, then the Fish Creek Wash and Sandstone Canyon trails are for you. We’ve done them several times and they always keeps us coming back for more because this area is ever-changing due to weather, erosion, and abundant tectonic activity and every time we go, there are new sights to see.
Trail Info & The TrailRecon Score
- Trail: Fish Creek Wash to Sandstone Canyon Trails
- GPS Coordinate to Trailhead: 33.03832, -116.10001
- Length: 47.24 miles
- Difficulty: Easy
- Vehicle Requirements: 4-Wheel Drive, High Clearance
- TrailRecon Overall Score: 12 (out of 15)
- Scenery Score: 5 (out of 5)
- Engagement Score: 2 (out of 5)
- “Do It Again” Score: 5 (out of 5)
We gave the scenery a score of 5 because there is so much beauty and numerous points of interest along this desert trail. Depending on the time of year you visit, how much (or little) it’s rained, and how much tectonic activity there’s been, the views are ever-changing—you could come to Anza-Borrego a hundred times and see something different with every visit. The landscape is a juxtaposition of smooth and soft, jagged and sharp. Rounded boulders and craggy mountain peaks, prickly cactus and delicate desert blooms, muted colors—sage green and dusty gold—and brilliant blue skies and cotton candy sunsets…they embody the unique beauty that can only be found in the desert.
In terms of points of interest along Fish Creek Wash and Sandstone Canyon, they range from rich geological wonders to layers of human history. The park was once an inland sea and contains a nearly complete geological record going back 7 million years and the fossilized remains of numerous creatures have been found here. The area is also filled with the history of events and people who shaped our nation, from Native Americans, to Spanish Explorers and pioneers who traveled the Southern Emigrant Trail which traversed this stretch of desert.
As for engagement, we gave this trail a 2 because the terrain is mainly smooth and level with gravel and small rocks. There are a few sections with larger rocks and the descent towards the end of the trail is sandy, requiring you to pay attention but, for the most part though, this trail is an easy trek through the desert.
Finally, we gave the trail a 5 for the “Do It Again” factor because we have done this trail more times than we can count and we’ve already got plans to head back in the near future. This is a trail worth doing again and again, and it never gets old.
The following TrailRecon videos feature highlights from Fish Creek Wash and Sandstone Canyon.