A backpacking trip to Sheep Canyon Camp
The weekend's forecast was dire - heavy rain expected on Saturday and not clearing out until Sunday morning. Well, that didn't deter the trip I'd planned with 5 fellow backpackers. Even Sonya was enthusiastic, despite this being her very first backpacking trip. So on Saturday I drove through a heavy downpour and dense fog down Cajon Pass and south on the 15. I met Sonya in Norco at the Starbucks on 6th Street. Her husband shook his head at us when we said we were still going despite the obvious soaking wet conditions (I'd gotten a similar reaction from mine earlier.) We bought coffee, loaded up her pack into my vehicle, then continued south. We were hoping that the rain that we were experiencing in the valleys would let up as soon as we crossed the mountains into the desert. Sure enough it did!
We took Hwy 79 through Temecula, which is a beautiful winding country road. The hillsides are very beautiful since they're green green green right now. We crossed over the PCT near Warner Valley, saw some wild turkeys, then turned on Montezuma Grade. This steep highway takes you quickly down into the desert, to the Borrego Springs area. As soon as we started downhill the rain stopped and the skies turned mostly clear. The views were tremendous!
We drove to the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park Visitor Center where we met Cris, Albert, Nick, and Greg. We inquired on conditions then carpooled north to the Coyote Canyon Road. None of us had ever been here before so we were unsure how far we could drive and where we'd have to start walking from. I thought we had made it to Second Crossing when we parked our vehicles and headed out on foot. But turns out we were only at the First Crossing. So we had 5 miles or so to go to our campsite for the evening.
The Coyote Canyon Road is unpaved, sandy in its lowermost and uppermost regions, and wet and rocky in between. Only Jeep Wranglers and similar very high clearance 4wd vehicles can traverse its length. Of course it's open to hikers, horses, and mountain bikes as well. As we made our way up the road we took advantage of a few side trails that ran parallel. But these trails were quite sandy and slow-going so we opted to stay on the road most of the time. We saw many wildflowers along the road including sand verbena, desert lilies, desert dandelions, chicory, evening primrose, phacelia, and ocotillo.
The road crosses the creek several times. First Crossing isn't too bad, Second Crossing is worse, and Third Crossing is the hairiest. We watched vehicles plow through the stream through a tunnel of willows, what we deemed the "Tunnel of Love". After Third Crossing the road ascends a side canyon and is very steep and rocky. But at the top at a saddle the road becomes sandy again and pretty easy going. We stopped at some rocks near Santa Catarina Spring and ate lunch. I later learned this is where the Anza Party camped in the 1770's while crossing this part of the desert. Here near the spring in Collins Valley is definitely an inviting spot to spend a little time. But we continued about two miles further to Sheep Canyon Camp.
This camp is a primitive one - there are a couple of old tables, only one of which had both a top and seats still intact. There is one shade structure and two outhouses. One outhouse was closed for some unknown reason, and neither outhouse has a roof. There is no trash service, no potable water, and no fee. In the winter and spring, after winter rains, there is water in nearby Sheep Canyon that you can filter. Overall I found the spot to be quite pleasant.
Once we reached camp it started to sprinkle. So we hurried to put up our tents. Sonya had just bought her tent, the same model as mine, and had never set it up before. So this was quite the test, to put it up in the rain! I coached her and then put mine up. I had some trouble because I couldn't find my stakes! So I borrowed a couple of Sonya's. We were in such a hurry that I didn't realize they were so close together that their vestibules overlapped a few inches. We later dubbed them the Siamese Twin Tents.
Once the tents were up, as luck would have it, it stopped raining. We saw a pretty rainbow appear to the east and then walked west up Sheep Canyon a little ways. We filtered water, then walked back to camp. It started to rain again. So we crawled in our tents and proceeded to wait out about 3 hours of rain. So it was a good thing Sonya's tent was so close to mine. We could talk and we shared a stove to cook our dinner. Once we were about ready to hit the hay, the rain stopped. That was the last of the rain.
I had a good night's sleep and awoke to birds singing in the canyon, including a Canyon Wren, whose song is one of my favorites. We got up, cooked and ate breakfast. We all sampled some of Cris' breakfast which consisted of a Quail egg and potato scramble and pad Thai. Yum! Then we packed up for a dayhike and headed up Indian Canyon then Cougar Canyon. Was this ever a pretty spot! Tons of water coming down the rocky canyon and lots of little waterfalls. Sycamores in the canyon were budding and we found mortar holes alongside the stream. Sonya, who is a strong hiker but nonetheless tired from her first backpack excursion, didn't want to bushwack too far up the canyon. I stayed with her at the first sizeable waterfall we saw, while the guys went up further. They reported a bigger waterfall up canyon that you could walk behind. Also Greg found a mortar hole with three pieces of pottery surrounding it. He also saw a frog. Neat! The only thing that would've topped that would be seeing some bighorn sheep. But we only saw sheep scat.
Sonya and I soaked our feet in the COLD water and enjoyed the WARM sun. After a while we started heading down the canyon. Soon after we saw the guys heading down as well. We all met up back at camp where we ate lunch and packed up and then headed out. The hike back was pleasant. The sun was warm but a cool breeze thankfully was blowing. We encountered more people this day, hikers and 4wheelers. Everyone was out on this warm spring day in force enjoying the desert.
Once we were back at our vehicles we loaded up and headed into town. We ate a sandwich at Calico's Deli then headed towards home. I joked with Sonya on the way home that for the first time I actually wore her out! She's usually the one wearing me out on long dayhikes ;)
So, we had a good time. The scenery was beautiful, the company pleasant, and Sonya survived her first backpacking trip including the ultimate test of putting up a tent in the rain. I liked it so much I'm about to do a repeat performance this weekend - despite rain in the forecast - out in Joshua Tree :)