OverviewThe Coyote Mountains are a small, rocky range situated at the transition between the higher Peninsular ranges of San Diego County, and the lower Imperial Valley and Salton Basin. The chief attraction of this range is Painted Gorge, a mile-long segment of the main canyon where the rocks are colored in various shades of red, pink, purple, green, yellow and ochre. The mountains are located in far-southern California not too far from the Mexican border. The range and summit lies within Imperial County, abutting the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.
The highest point of the Coyote Mountains is Carrizo Mountain. An old mine road winds through Painted Gorge and up the hills to a turn-around about 300 feet below the summit. A use-trail and some cross-country makes for an easy hike to the top. The mountains sit within the Yuha Desert Recreation Area, which features tracks for off-road vehicles. The badlands below the range extend many miles north and east, and are popular with the off-road crowd. A few venture into Painted Gorge and to the turn-around up high, but the road up high is narrow, steep and rocky with some very exposed sections demanding an experienced driver and a beefy Jeep (if you'd like to see what it's like, you may view a video here).
This road serves as the natural route to the top. In Fall and Winter, this is an enjoyable hike, and especially when the gate is closed (Jan 1 to June 30), you will probably have the mountains to yourself. It's very remote, stark desert, and very peaceful. The mountains feature no significant brush other than ocotillo, barrel cactus, creosote and shrubs. Wildlife includes the Peninsular Bighorn Sheep, and as usual, snakes when warm. Summer is very hot: things heat up as early as March and stay warm even into October.
Getting ThereFrom San Diego, follow Interstate-8 east into Imperial County, following the highway as it descends into the desert. Exit at the community of Ocotillo, and go north to an immediate right turn onto Evan Hewes Highway (Imperial County Route S-80). Follow this road about 4 miles to the Painted Gorge Road (signed). Turn left and follow Painted Gorge Road north through a small community of homesteads and trailers. Pay attention to junctions: one in particular will be signed for the Painted Gorge (if for some reason the sign is not there, it's the first major Y-junction. Go left).
The homesteads and buildings end after a little over a mile near some power lines. The road afterwards gets slightly rougher. About 3 miles from the highway, the road splits again at a Y, go right. The road then drops through a notch into a flat basin where a lone, shot-up BLM bulletin board stands. Make a soft left and find the road again ahead of you. It bends left (west) and comes to a gate at the mouth of Painted Gorge, about 4 miles total from the highway.
This gate is open between July 1 and December 31. The road after the gate is pretty good for about a half-mile, but rocky segments can make the drive difficult. There are some good pullouts and campsites in spots inside the gorge.
If driving from the east, exit Interstate-8 at the Dunaway Exit, go north a mile and a half to the Hewes Highway, then go left for about 7.8 miles to Painted Gorge Road. Along the way you pass through Plaster City, a giant set of manufacturing plants that turn the raw gypsum mined up in the Fish Creek Range into wallboard.
Ocotillo is a small community with the barest sense of a business district. The main gas station off the interstate seems to be closed for the time being, and there's really no place in town to get groceries. There is a ramshackle book store (essentially a hoarder's home) and a bar that has an ATM if you need it. If you need basic supplies, it's best to stock up while in El Centro (coming in from the east) or the small towns such as Jacumba in San Diego County, before the highway dips into the desert.
Plaster City, CA, where your wallboard gets born.
Red TapeThe gate leading into Painted Gorge is closed every year from January 1st to June 30th to protect the bighorn sheep during lambing season. Hiking is not prohibited, however.
Most of the mountain range is enclosed within the Coyote Mountains Wilderness, administered by the BLM.
CampingThere are plenty of places to pull aside for camping, a few with fire rings. There is no developed camping immediate to the area. Try to re-use old sites and pack out all trash.
External LinksTrip Report, 11-15-12 (www.surgent.net)
Trip Report, by Bob Burd
Route to topWhere ever you park, walk within Painted Gorge a ways (about 1.5-1.8 miles from near the gate). Where the gorge makes a hard right, find a road leaving the canyon bottom to your right. You may not see it walking in, but if you come to a jumble of rocks that is impossible to drive, you've gone too far. Backtrack and you'll see this road.
Walk the road upward. Many side roads veer off, and some look just as good as the main road, so it can be minorly confusing at times. Stay straight at a junction about 0.25 mile up from where the road left the canyon bottom. After that, stay on the obvious main road. After about another 1.5 mile, the road ascends over a lip of rock and then meanders on the upper highlands. You'll come to another junction, and may see a small cairn on the rocks to the right. Stay right and walk upslope about 300 feet, then stay left at the next junction. This road is slightly green/tan in color, due to the minerals. Ignore the better-looking road that veers south.
Up ahead is a craggy ridgeline. The road switchbacks, then runs up the east side of this ridge. Here, the road's condition is very bad should you be driving, but fine for walking. It is steep, with ledgy rock and outward leans. Walk to the turn-around, then angle left, finding a foot-path that snakes up the slope to the saddle below the summit and a smaller eastern bump. Angle left again and walk upslope over open terrain and rock to the very top. The summit features two benchmarks, one generic and the other with "Carrizo" stamped into it. From the gate, it's about 3 miles one way with about 1,700 feet of gain.
The views are very nice. North are the Fish Creek Mountains, near Split Rock in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. East are badlands and the Imperial Valley. South is Centinela Peak in Mexico, and larger Mexican ranges farther on, while west is the sweep of ranges making up the mountainous eastern half of San Diego County.
There are many more minor roads that veer off the main track, so pay attention as it's easy to start walking up one of these if you have your head down.
Panorama from the top. Unfortunately, the day was dingy gray overcast. Those mountain in back are in Mexico.
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