TR: Sheep Canyon in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

Southern California and far-away places. Hiking, wildlife, cycling etc.

TR: Sheep Canyon in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

Postby jfr » Sat Jan 21, 2012 1:35 pm

Two weeks ago we took advantage of some mild weather to explore Sheep Canyon in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. We drove northwest out of Borrego Springs on Coyote Canyon Road (dirt road) until we reached the truly four wheel drive section of road. This time we took our old 2WD truck, since it has decent clearance, and also because we took our two sons and their two friends with us (we never could have fit all of them, even without backpacks, in our old Saturn). We made it over the three creek crossings, parked the truck, and then started backpacking the four miles to the canyon. If we'd had a decent 4WD truck we could have driven the whole way. Oh well. It was a nice hike anyway, up and over the hill, then across the gradually-sloping desert floor. We set up camp at the mouth of Cougar Canyon, which the kids were going to explore the next day. We were there last year, so we wanted to check out Sheep Canyon this time. The next morning we day-hiked up into the main fork of Sheep Canyon, and had a really great time. It's a beautiful place, full of water and trees. We stayed a second night under the full moon, and hiked out the following day.

The 4WD section of Coyote Canyon Road. 4WD pretty much mandatory!

Hiking across Collins Valley. Sheep Canyon is in the distance, center.

HDR sunset shot of our campsite near Cougar Canyon, with Toro Peak and Santa Rosa Mountain in the distance.

Sheep Canyon has a stream that flows all year, so it differs from most desert hikes in that there are trees and shade in the canyon.

Sheep Canyon in winter colors.

Lots of nice quiet pools.

Plenty of stunning waterfalls.

And even a private cave (or grotto) with a built-in shower!

After we got back to camp we ate dinner by moonlight.

Topo Map. For the full-size, readable topo click here.

Acme Mapper link for our hike. "A" is where you start off-roading at the end of Di Giorgio Road, "B" is where we parked the truck (YMMV), and "C" is Sheep Canyon. The old map that Acme uses says there's a ranger station, but it's long gone now.

The rest of my pics are on my Flickr page.

It's desert season!
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Postby hvydrt » Sat Jan 21, 2012 9:17 pm

That looks like fun. I like the HDR pic!
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Postby bluerail » Sat Jan 21, 2012 9:18 pm

What a very cool place and what looks like a fun trip for everyone...great pics, thanks for sharing
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Yup. I am doing this one

Postby msugarpants » Sat Feb 04, 2012 11:26 pm

What a great hike. Did a 3 day trip in coyote about 12 years ago, and have been meaning to go back to check out cougar and sheep cyn. Now, its a no-brainer. Just gotta make the time.
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Postby rae » Tue Feb 28, 2012 10:19 pm

jfr -

Thank you so much for your in-depth post with all your gorgeous photos and detailed topo map and notes. I stumbled on a photo of the the Sheep Canyon Grotto in a very dated guide book and knew I had to go there. I set about looking for more info online and the posts of your trips were the most detailed and informative I could find.

Based on the info you posted I'm confident I can make this trip but I had a couple questions that you might be able to help me with.

1. I do not have a 4WD or high clearance vehicle, I drive a VW Jetta. Roughly how far do you think I could make it down the off-road portion of the trek? I saw on a previous trip you took a smaller car did you have to stop before the second crossing? (Just looking for your best guess, I won't hold you accountable if i get stuck :wink:)

2. How is the terrain from where you parked to the camp area? It looks mostly easy going from the map and your photos but I saw it described as very strenuous on a SD Reader write up about the hike. Perhaps they were just referring to the latter portion in the canyon?

3. Last one I was thinking of heading up March 10th, I saw your last 2 trips were in January but had done a previous one in March. Do you think it's too late in the season tempature wise? Also give the lighter than usual rain this year do you think there will still be water? I was hoping to bring my filter along to limit the water we have to hike in with.

Sorry to bombard you with some many questions but your expertise would be greatly appreciated. I'm still learning about desert backpacking and welcome any tips you can share on this trip.

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Postby jfr » Wed Feb 29, 2012 9:33 pm

Hi Rea! Thanks for the nice comments. It was a really fun trip, and I'm sure you'll enjoy it. This area is one of the nicest in Anza-Borrego State Park. Having an oasis at your campsite is a wonderful thing; it sure beats carrying several gallons of water.

Anyway, here's some answers to your questions:

1. In our old Saturn, with slow careful driving, I've gotten past "Second Crossing" on Coyote Creek Road. But even if you only get to First Crossing, it will only add an extra mile or so onto the hike. The camp was about four miles from Third Crossing, so the longest you'd have to hike is six miles, even if you were babying your car. Our car is old, so we drive it way up on the side of the road when we need to avoid rocks, and that's when the bushes can scratch your paint; our car is old enough to have "scratch-proof" paint and "dent-proof" fenders. :lol:

2. The terrain is easy to hike on, as you can follow a dirt road the entire way. The first part, up and over the hill, is rather rocky, but it isn't difficult, just different. The hill climbs about 300 feet in elevation. On the other side it drops about 100 feet, but over the long trek across Collins Valley it's rather deceptive, as it looks relatively flat, but you end up gaining another 500 feet. I think that Jerry Schad (in the Reader article) is describing the canyon exploration part of the trip when he calls it Strenuous. There are boulders to climb on, and thickets of the thorny "catclaw" plant to be avoided, as well as the usual yucca and cholla. But there is also a faint path, as he says, and you should try your best to find it and stay on it. At one point the path climbs up to the right (as you head upstream) onto a plateau, thus avoiding a steep waterfall section. This path is worth looking for, so don't give up if it seems to fade out; cast around and you'll be sure to pick it up again. You'll be bushwhacking, so wear long pants unless you like scratched, bleeding legs!

3. March sounds like a great time to go. If there are going to be any flowers blooming this year you should see them then. As far as I know, the stream runs all year in both Sheep and Cougar Canyons. You might have to travel further upstream until you find it. Also, there is always water in Lower Willows, at Third Crossing. Bring your water filter; you'll be just fine. That's what I did, and the water was tasty!

If you go on a weekend, there will probably be people camping there that have trucks, so you can always ask someone for a ride back to your car if you run into any trouble. There is no cell service in Collins Valley, as far as I know.
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