Trip Report: Goat Canyon Trestle 2015

Initial rocky ascent of Goat Canyon Trail, April 2015

Among outdoor aficionados in Southern California, the Goat Canyon Trestle is considered one of the best hikes in the region.  The hike is difficult, remote, and the midpoint of the “trail” is an iconic railroad bridge that is the largest freestanding wooden trestle in North America and the world. After hearing about it for years, I hiked it with a friend of mine in early 2013, and absolutely loved it. I loved the hike because there was no trail, and the route required people who knew who to use a map, compass, GPS, and knew how to read the terrain. I loved it because getting to the trailhead was an off-road adventure in itself. Most of all, I loved the hike because it was an adventure that challenged me throughout the day, even when I was merely exploring around the trestle area.

Plateau before Goat Canyon facing East toward trailhead, Anza Borrego Desert, April 2015

After my trip in 2013, I was convinced that the hike was not just “one” of the best hikes in the region, but the best hike in San Diego County. I was so convinced that I wrote not just one post about the hike, but two (here, and here). While I am not a person who puts much stock in how much traffic my website receives, or who is looking at what, I have noticed – and known over the years that those two posts were and are very popular. In fact – because of the traffic, and because of social media, I assumed that the hike had become even more popular (if possible) than it had ever been. Because I had an affinity for the hike, and I was curious about: a) if it was as hard as I remembered; and b) if it had changed at all because of increased use in the last two years, I agreed to go back to the Trestle with two great hiking and adventure bloggers, California Through My Lens and Shoestring Adventures this year.

Goat Canyon Anza-Borrego, April 2015

This last weekend (April 18, 2015), we headed out, and had an epic adventure to the Goat Canyon Trestle and back. While it was again a long day, it was at the end, a safe day, and that is ultimately what matters on any trip. Now that I’m back at home, and I’ve had time to reflect on my two visits to the Trestle, my thoughts about the hike are the following: first, this hike to me, remains the best hike in San Diego County. As I mentioned above, it is an adventure, and in addition to that, it allows the hiker to see some of the most remote and beautiful terrain of the Anza-Borrego desert in near solitude. It also has an excellent payoff, the Goat Canyon Trestle, which remains in excellent condition, considering it was built out of wood in 1932.

Goat Canyon Trestle, facing West, April 2015

Having said that, my return to the Trestle confirmed something I knew on my first trip: this hike is not for everyone. Before the hike, California Through My Lens spent a couple of minutes needling me about my many disclaimers in my original posts; however, by the end of the day, even he agreed that my disclaimers were accurate, and perhaps weren’t scary enough. While I’m not going to repeat all of them here, I will again say this: this hike requires route-finding through a rugged, mostly unmarked desert area that is somewhat off the grid (greater cell coverage was found by our group this weekend). Even though the mileage is short (4-7 miles roundtrip, depending on how much exploration one does), the route is strenuous, especially given the amount of elevation gained and lost over a trail-less area with lots of loose rock.

Goat Canyon Trestle, facing East, April 2015

If those weren’t enough, getting to the hike remains a challenge. One of the things that I wanted to check on my return was whether a four-wheel drive vehicle was still needed to get to the trailhead. In an abundance of caution, we took Shoestring Adventures vehicle, which had 4WD capabilities. While the dirt roads from the Imperial Highway to the S-2 were rough, there was nothing initially that required the extra power. But, three quarters of a mile south of the Dos Cabezas station ruins, the obstacle that I remembered from 2013 remained. While it is not the greatest off-road challenge, and while my off-roading skills have clearly become sub-par, it was still enough to stop us in our tracks for an hour. During that hour, it was clear that no standard drive vehicle would have the power – or the clearance to get around it, which is something that any future visitors will have to address as well.

Goat Canyon Trestle, Southern view, April 2015

Even though the road remains an adventure, not much has changed with the hike – which is good, because it already was difficult to begin with. On the positive side, the initial portion of the route which ascends out of the Mortero Wash through a hill covered with boulders is easier to follow with a more definitive foot trail. In 2013, this area had a number of flagged out routes which were both misleading and difficult. As of our visit, the route clearly heads out of the wash to the west, and heads up a steep – but passable spur toward the existing foot trail to Goat Canyon. Other than that, the route remains exactly the same as I already described. I will say, however, that while the route is slightly more defined with cairns and foot traffic, it remains by and large unmarked and unmaintained. Potential visitors should still be prepared with maps, compasses, GPS units, and should also be prepared how to use them.

Goat Canyon Trestle, April 2015

Having said all of this, it is a great hike – and hopefully, the panoramic pictures and video I’ve enclosed in this current report inspire you to get out and attempt it safely. If you do go, be sure to bring plenty of water, look for the geocache (which I missed on the first trip), and watch out for the Borrego Sandmen. 

Geocache located on the Southern side of the Trestle tunnels.