Fish Creek Wash & Sandstone Canyon

In Jerry Schad’s “Afoot & Afield in San Diego County” hiking book, Sandstone Canyon is mentioned as one of the most spectacular small washes in the desert, and this had me curious for a while now.

However, getting to the entrance of Sandstone Canyon alone, via Fish Creek Wash means ~12 miles (19.6 km) driving on bumpy desert “roads” after leaving the pavement of Split Mountain Road, near Ocotillo Wells. The “washing boards”, soft sand, and rocks sticking out here and there mean that most often, it’s not possible to go faster than 10-15 miles per hour. This adds roughly an hour to the already long two-hour drive (for a daytrip) from our home to the Fish Creek turnoff from Split Mountain Road… which comes after descending into the desert from Julian, via the annoyingly winding Banner Grade section of Highway 78, I’d like to add (which is twice the fun if you have an RV in front of you – I guess we could say that I have a love/hate relationship with that highway;-).

I’ve been to the Split Mountain area before, when Joe and I went to see the wind caves and the fossil reefs better known as Elephant Knees. That was early 2013, and the desert trail in Fish Creek Wash from Split Mountain Road to Elephant Knees was really bad then (for a 2WD vehicle with high clearance, anyway), especially at the beginning – a flash flood had moved a whole lot of boulders around in Summer 2012, and it was pretty hard to make out any road at all in some areas back then.

But when I read online a couple of weeks ago that parts of the road in Fish Creek Wash had been improved a little bit, I decided to just give it a shot. As usual, my first trip was more about scouting than anything else, and since I didn’t know if I would be able to get there at all with my car, I didn’t start too early, and also took my time to stop on the way whenever I saw something that looked interesting enough to approach it with the camera – and there’s plenty of curious details:

Somewhere there, my camera battery ran low and I swapped it for the other one in my camera bag without further checking (this would bite me back later, read on)… :-P

To my own surprise, it was actually fairly easy to get all the way to the entrance of Sandstone Canyon. In some spots the sand/gravel was quite soft, and stopping would’ve been a surefire way to dig myself in, but by just keeping up a slow but steady speed I didn’t run into any problems. I even drove into Sandstone Canyon a little bit, but didn’t want to push my luck any further (by the perhaps well-known “let’s peek juuuust around the next corner” curiousity;-) so I parked the car and began to walk into the canyon. I left some of the photo gear in the car, because I didn’t really see the need to haul the telephoto lens, or carry the empty battery…

It was about 2 in the afternoon by then, and walking on the soft gravel in the canyon was slow. After walking for about 15 or 20 minutes, I saw a very narrow little side canyon that looked interesting and climbed in, but it ended with a big boulder blocking the way after only a couple of yards. I still wanted to make a photo, but when I turned the camera on, the battery warning in the viewfinder showed! What the… ?! Turns out I had an empty battery in my camera bag that I had forgotten to charge, and swapped one empty battery for the other – great! :-P

So, I tried to conserve battery by getting everything set with the camera turned off (tripod, frame, focus), then turn it on, fine-tune focus and exposure, make the photo, and turn the camera off again immediately, without chimping. :) I was still able to make plenty of photos with the nearly-empty battery that way.

After another 10 or 15 minutes, I reached an area where a big rock fall had blocked passage for probably most vehicles (I couldn’t actually believe to see tire tracks going through it, but some 4WD cars seemed to be able to get past, over that jumble of canyon wall debris). Past it, I continued for another 30 minutes, but being fairly unimpressed with what I had seen so far I decided to eat something, and then turn around to be back at Elephant Knees around sunset – better to be in a place you’re familiar with when the light is getting good!

On the way back to Elephant Knees, as it was getting darker (the sun disappears behind the mountains to the West a bit earlier that the actual sunset, prolonging the sweet “blue hour”) I let a dirt bike rider pass and, thinking that he knew his way, just followed him. Slight mistake, because soon after, I found myself in Loop Wash, which parallels Fish Creek, and was pretty much at the limit with what I want to drive with a 2WD car. Oops!

Elephant Knees at the blue hour was gorgeous, despite a cloudless and clear sky. I worked my way up on a mud hill (for each two steps up, you slide one step back down) to one lesser reef with a good view of the main fossil reef, and the landscape surrounding me couldn’t have been more abstract, alien and fascinating: standing on a hard and crunchy fossil reef, surrounded by soft mud hills that appear almost silky as they roll off into the distance; weird and sparse dry remainders of some vegetation, and all tinted in the cool hues of the blue hour.

A wonderful end to the day. All that was left was driving the remaining 4 miles (6.4 km) to reach the pavement, and then juuuust two hours home via Banner Grade, once more.

Looking back at the GPS log that I recorded in Sandstone Canyon, I probably should have walked up at least another 30 minutes, possibly more, where a major forks seems to have some interesting rock formations, with the possibility to climb out then and cross over to Olla Wash and the Mud Palisades. Next time, next time…

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Next: A Saucerful of Badlands

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