Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Up the Calcite Mines and down the Palm Wash.

Because of a spammer robot that got hooked on this post I have taken it offline and now I am reposting it, hoping to shake that thing off.

Date: December 25, 2012
Place: The Calcite Mines Trail, Anza Borrego State Park, Borrego Springs, California.
Trailhead coordinates:  33.2811, -116.0964
Length: 3.6 miles
Difficulty: strenuous

After completing the Cactus Loop trail we stopped for a breakfast picnic at the park's visitor center, and got trail recommendations from the ranger on duty. Following the recommendation, we went to the Calcite Mines, in the north-east region of the park.

The calcite mines trail in the badlands at the north-east region of the park. There is a dirt road that leads all the way up hill to the mines but it is in very bad condition and would be challenging even for a high 4X4. We parked by the trailhead and hiked all the way up.

Sandstone formation
Badlands, in Anza Borrego as in other places so named, is an area of sediment soil and rocks that have eroded from the mountains. The entire area is carved by wind and flood water. Canyons and gullies run deeply across the land, making it difficult to traverse.
It is also very beautiful. Badlands - maybe for farmers. But for hikers and wilderness lovers it is a shrine of nature. A place where its raw power is lain naked before the eyes.

The trail starts by crossing the Palm Wash northward. On the roadside there were many sandstone formations such as the one to the right. I can imagine it was formed by eddies of long ago floods but I cannot tell what caused these to be exposed in this manner.

Palm Wash, the south fork.
Going up the dirt road gave me some great views of the deep ravine of the middle fork of Palm Wash. At the time I took these photos I did not know I will soon be going down through that very same rock slot. 

Palm Wash, the middle fork.
I didn't see much vegetation on the way to the mines. The intense radiation and the quick water runoff could be very limiting indeed. The shrubs I did encounter were well rooted inside rock cracks.

We saw interesting rock formations all along the trail. Some were very intriguing indeed.

The two-headed sentinel, a view from below

I liked this one so much that I photographed it from the trail below and also from the several view points.

The two-headed sentinel, a view from behind

I even gave it a name - the two-headed sentinel.

The two-headed sentinel, a view from above.

Early on the hike we saw a large rock far up the trail that looked like a huge chunk of pale swiss cheese.

The Calcite Mines trail goes up constantly with no let-up. At some point, quite high up, it crosses the middle fork of Palm Wash. A look upstream revealed some green bushes, hidden inside the wash where they are protected from winds and can rely on extra water during floods.

Wash shrubbery. 
At that point the chikas insisted on having a rest stop. Papa Quail sat with them while I went on to scout ahead.
The swiss-cheese rock
This rock is, in fact, right in the calcite mines area. We got really close to it but didn't climb there. I could, however, get a good close up view of its holes.

I called the chikas and their father and they joined me in appreciation of this geological wonder.

After the attach on Pearl Harbor, calcite was mined in this area to make gun sights. The trail we were walking on was once the road that serviced the mines.
At first we thought that these holes in the rock were man-made: the scars of mining. Thinking about it more, I now believe these are natural. Human mining is considerably more abrasive.

Some carvings, right by the trail, did appear to have been made by chisels. They reminded me of old runes or petroglyphs.

The trail ends at the Calcite Mines sign. A short distance to the south-east rises a reddish butte that  provides an excellent view of the entire area. A narrow foot trail leads to the top so naturally, we all ascended it.

The view from up there was spectacular.

To the east - the Salton Sea.
Salton Sea
To the south - the entire badlands spread before us.

The badlands of Anza Borrego State Park
To the west - the San Ysidro Mountains. In the overcast lighting they reminded me a bit of Mordor.

The most common plant up there is the Creosote, or 'stink' bush. I didn't think it smelled that bad. It grows all over the park, but it was in the Calcite Mines area that we first saw its flowers:

Creosote flowers

Many of the Creosote bushes bore brown ball-shaped galls, induced by the Creosote gall-midge fly.
Creosote gall

Upon descending from the red butte Papa Quail suggested that we return via the canyon. There were two factors to consider. One being that we didn't know whether the canyon is passable, and the other being that the canyon continued eastward towards Salton Sea, crossing the road some distance east to the trailhead where we've parked our car. 
We figured that we had enough time to backtrack in case we run into a problem. Looking down the canton with the binoculars we could see a trail climbing on the hillside to the east and thought it might connect us back to the Calcite Mines trail. So when we reached again the place where the trail crosses the middle fork of Palm Wash, we left the trail and headed into the wash.

Pigmy-cedar bush growing from a crack in the canyon wall.
The upper part of the wash is fairly wide and shallow, and easily traversed. That soon changed. Before long we dropped into a deep, narrow canyon.
Narrow canyon walls
I'd like to pause here for one very important warning for anyone who considers entering such a canyon - keep in mind that once inside, one must go through all the way. There is no other way out. Not unless you're an expert rock climber who can climb sheer rock without equipment.
Most of the year that would not be a problem. In winter time, however, it is crucially important to heed any warnings of flash floods for the area. It doesn't have to rain directly where you're hiking. Any rainfall within that watershed can create a flash flood, and desert watersheds can be very large.
It is not a common event but it does happen often enough. The flash flood is very sudden and very powerful. For anyone caught withing such a canyon, it is deadly!
This isn't an idle warning copied from some desert hiking instruction book. Growing up in the desert myself I have seen plenty of such floods and had the sad experience of witnessing casualties of such a flood in the wash near my childhood home. Please don't take lightly any warning of flash floods.

Okey. Now that that's been said, I can also tell you that hiking through such a canyon is a lot of fun!  It involves a lot of squeezing, climbing, rock scrambling, sliding down rock chutes and such. No theme park can match the unpredictability and uniqueness of Nature's playground. Needless to say, the chikas (as their parents) had a great time!
Boldly going where flash floods have gone before
In some sections, the canyon got so narrow that Winnie the Pooh would never have gone through after a honey feast at Rabbit's. We did ok, though. We had to help the little chika down some of the chutes, but my older one climbed them like a true Bighorn sheep.

Desert trumpet (Eriogonum inflatum)

Being the place where the precious rain water collects, the canyon bed can support more plants than the surrounding area. Quite a few of them were, in fact, blooming at the time.

Pigmy-cedar (Peucephyllum schottii)

Desert lavender
I didn't recognize this one

Inside the canyon we also saw interesting rocks. This boulder fell sometime ago from the canyon wall and split along the layers. It reminded me a bit of a smashed piece of layer cake.

This one looks like someone's hand print. It is called desert varnish and is similar to the red coloring of the observation hill above the calcite mines.
Desert varnish on a rock
Eventually the canyon grew wider. We could even see tire tracks on its gravel bed, indicative of vehicular use. Then we saw the trail that goes uphill to the west and ascended it. Sure enough - we were right back on the Calcite Mines trail, a short distance from the trailhead. We have successfully competed the loop.
The view into the canyon from the top of the exit trail.
I took one last farewell photo of the Palm Wash canyon, going on towards the Salton Sea. I really love the colors of the desert rocks there.
All and all, the entire hike took us about 3.5 hours. We saw interesting geology, wonderful views and many plants.The only wild animals we encountered were ants. No Bighorn sheep there.
Palm Wash
That night we camped in the park next to our new friends that we made at the Borrego Palm Canyon. The sunset was very pretty indeed:
Sunset in Anza Borrego
And the full moon that followed was no less enchanting. I really do love the desert.


  1. Nice views and rocks. The sunset picture is magnificent.

  2. תמונות נהדרות.
    הזכירו לי במשהו את נופי הנגב ומדבר יהודה.

    תודה. נרשם לקראת הטיול הבא :-)