San Diego is a hiker’s mecca. From the trails at Torrey Pines State Reserve on the Coast, to the city’s highest point at Cowles Mountain, and through the East County trails of Iron Mountain and El Cajon Mountain, there is literally a hike for every person, and for every skill level. In addition to all of these trails, and the thousands more I didn’t mention, San Diego is also a great location for overnight camping, from backpacking to car-camping and everything in between. Over the last twenty-five years, I’ve been lucky enough to explore much of San Diego’s backcountry in a number of ways, and am thrilled to be working with Expedia.com on this article to recommend some of the best overnight wilderness hiking areas. While overnight wilderness activities have innumerable perks, the locations within the confines of San Diego allow visitors the added benefit of a little extra wilderness solitude to recover from the hustle and bustle of everyday Southern California life. The locations listed below provide a great starting point for overnight wilderness activities in the County, and hopefully provide inspiration for many nights in some of the most pristine backcountry that can be found in Southern California.
California is a state with natural beauty that stretches the entirety of the state to each of its borders. It is also a state where the beauty above ground in some areas pales with the beauty below ground. Like a sunset on an unknown beach, each of these areas offer solitude, otherworldly beauty, and in some cases, some of the most unique terrain on the planet. Even if you've never explored a cave before, each of these spots will interest and intrigue you, and provide you a great introduction to the world below your feet.
Anza-Borrego State Park is one of the hidden gems of Southern California. While it does not have the notoriety of Joshua Tree National Park, Death Valley National Park, or the Mojave National Preserve; it does have abandoned mines, long-lost nineteenth century stagecoach stations, a mountain with a cabin atop it, petroglyphs, the best mud caves in North America, the largest free standing railroad trestle, and much more, including strange myths and legends. It also is home to "the Slot", a little known but excellent short hike that has become one of my favorite hikes in the park.
If you’re a Southern California resident, and you’re looking for a challenge that is a little more exciting than Potato Chip Rock (a/k/a Mount Woodson), the adventure you’re looking for is the Arroyo Tapiado Mud Caves. Since I covered this area in detail back in 2011 here, I’m not going to go into excruciating detail today, because you can read the details here. The caves are located approximately two hours outside of San Diego, and are perhaps the largest network of mud caves in the world, comprising some twenty to thirty caves.
Directions: If you are coming from San Diego, take the I-8 east to the town of Ocotillo, California. Exit the freeway, and turn onto the S-2 hearing North (Left). Follow the S-2 past the brand sparkling new wind turbines, through the border checkpoint, and into Anza-Borrego State Park. Once you are in the State Park, you will want to look for Mile Marker 43, which is also marked as the “Palm Spring” turnout (no, it is not the turnout for the town, it is the turnout for the actual Palm Spring from the Butterfield Stage Line). From this point on you will be “off-roading”.
A couple of days ago, I was talking to a friend of mine, and she casually mentioned that the body of Guillermo Pino was found "in some caves somewhere in the desert". At the time, I didn't know what she was talking about - I hadn't heard of Guillermo Pino, and her description of the area -"some caves" was incredibly vague. I had some theories, however, and after a few questions I realized we were talking about the Arroyo Tapiado Mud Caves, an area I am fairly familar with, and an area I talked about earlier this year (http://lastadventurer.com/last-adventurers-fieldnotes/2012/1/3/the-arroyo-tapiado-mud-caves.html), and an area I was most recently in a year ago. When I got back home, I searched the internet and found out that Guillermo Pino did indeed go missing in the Arroyo Tapiado Mud Caves, and that his body was indeed found there recently. (http://cavingnews.com/20120507-body-of-missing-hiker-found-in-crevice-arroyo-tapiado-mud-caves, http://ramona.patch.com/articles/guillermo-pino-body-in-anza-borrego-cave-successfully-removed-identification-pending, http://blogs.laweekly.com/informer/2012/05/guillermo_pino_missing_anza-bo.php).
Obviously, at a time like this, one first feels enormous sympathy for the deceased's family, and for the deceased himself - this is a tragedy for all of them, and a very sad day for the hiking community in general. The lesson to take from all of this, however, is to always recognize the risks attendent in outdoor activities, and to always be properly prepared for whatever adventure you are attempting. In this respect, its always a good idea to have someone with you, and if you don't have someone with you, have left a detailed plan of where you are going, when you will be back, and possibly to have some sort of portable beacon (GPS or otherwise, such as SPOT: http://www.findmespot.com/en/). The thing that stands out about Guillermo's death is my recollection of the Arroyo Tapiado last year. I remember my friend Jaime and I explored a number of caves; and that the caves closest to the "parking area" were somewhat busy with people (somewhat busy meaning that there was minimal foot traffic going in both directions). But as we delved deeper into the caves, into chambers and other areas off the beaten path, there were no other visitors. At that point, it could have been easy to get lost - and this was in conditions that were pretty much optimal (warm day, other cave visitors).
The end result of this is that sadly, as mentioned above, a young man is dead. The other end result is that traffic to this area - the Arroyo Tapiado - will increase. While thats a macabre thing to say, it is also true. This is an area that has become more popular over the last five years as more people have become interested in outdoors activities, and now that it is in the news, the sensational aspect will no doubt attract more visitors ("hey, this is the cave that someone DIED in"). Disrespectful as it may be, this is how the world works. With this in mind, hopefully future visitors remember to take the necessary precautions needed for visits, and remember to be careful. Because, while the world is beautiful, as Guillermo noted, it is also dangerous, and the lesson we can take from his death - and honor his life - is to always be prepared when adventuring.
Entrance to one of the Arroyo Tapiado Mud Caves
Nothing says “exploring” like spelunking, unless you’re deathly afraid of the dark, bats, confined spaces, or were ever trapped in a cave/enslaved by Morlocks. If any of those things bother you, then caving/spelunking is not for you, and I don’t recommend it at all. Frankly, there’s no shame in not liking caving/spelunking, because in the dark, your mind and imagination can and will play all sorts of tricks as to what you perceive. I remember one time I was deep in a cave; then my light went out. In the sudden dark, I swore that I could hear footsteps paddling softly to my location. In my haste to get fresh batteries into my headlamp, I almost dropped them all over the ground, which would have been a disaster. Of course, once the new batteries were in the headlamp, there was nothing at all to be seen or heard, but to this day, I’d still swear that something was out there.
Yep, no lie - these caves are made of dried eroded mud!
Fortunately, the Arroyo Tapiado Mud Caves in Anza-Borrego State Park are not the fear-inducing type, as they are visited frequently by locals and travelers alike. You are more likely to be a few steps back from your fellow spelunkers than you are to discover something startling in these caves, which makes it a good location to practice your spelunking skills, should you be a novice. The caves are over five million years old, and are formed by erosion. Over the years, when it has rained, the water has cut into the hills, forming the various caves and channels that you can explore. The Arroyo Tapiado (meaning: mud-wall wash) Caves are some of the best preserved and most accessible caves in the world, so if you live in Southern California, this is yet another amazing feature that is accessible in a day’s drive or less.
Directions: From county road S-2 turn out at the signed Palm Spring turnoff. You will want to head down the road (note, this is a dirt road, and you will be off-roading. I’d recommend that if you are going to attempt this that you be in some sort of 4WD or AWD vehicle, although I have seen people make it out there in standard sedans – however, the road gets very soft and sandy, so if you get stuck in your non-4WD car, don’t say I didn’t warn you!) and bypass the spur road to Palm Spring (unless you want to check out the monument), and continue down Vallecito Wash. You can then park at the intersection of the road into Arroyo Tapiado, about four and one half (4.5) miles from S-2 and explore the area on foot.
Tips: Well, these are caves. And there’s a lot of them. You should have a flashlight, and if you’re smart, some sort of helmet. The helmet will protect your head from two things: falling mud, and falling bat poo. Not all caves have bats, but all bats have caves, so there’s a good chance you’ll run into some. Remember that they’re more scared of you then you are of them; and remember that they’re on the celling, so if you do startle them, there’s a high likelihood that they will poo on you, which is not pleasant. Did I mention that these caves are in the desert? They are! You’ll also want lots of water, since you’re in the desert, and since you’re exploring, you’ll probably want some sort of safety net – a buddy, or a rope or string to find your way out should you get lost.
Dry "waterfall" in the Arroyo Tapiado Cave System
I like to take a whole day to explore the area - there’s all sorts of neat canyons in addition to the caves, so there’s plenty of things to see and do. I’ve been told that there’s purportedly ancient fossils in the caves/cave area, but either I’m blind, or these fossils have been picked clean from the caves I’ve been in (FYI, you’re not supposed to remove them, should you find them). One last thing to be aware of: Southern California is a seismically active area, and earthquakes do occur on a regular basis. Additionally, these caves are made of mud, which is not the most stable of building materials even without earthquakes. While your odds of being trapped in a cave in are probably fairly low, you should be aware that the possibility does exist, so do take what precautions you can. Other than that, have a great time, and enjoy exploring!