Anza Borrego: Santa Catarina Spring to Sheep Canyon

As 2016 came to a close I could finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. A few work trips jammed between the traditional holiday trips made for quite a busy few months. I’m not complaining by any means but lots of travel, work and few days off takes a toll on you.

As I burst out of the tunnel and into 2017 I found myself in an unfamiliar situation. I had free time. I didn’t have to work on the weekends. What to do? My friend Kai and I had been talking about doing a backpacking trip for a while, so we both agreed that the time was now and off to Anza Borrego we went.

I had been to Anza Borrego before and it was Kai’s first time. After going back and forth on a route, we settled on Santa Catarina Spring just outside of the eccentric desert town of Borrego Springs. This would be an ideal, mellow hike for us as we were trying to avoid some of the death hikes that we had got ourselves into in the past. We parked our cars out on the sandy, desert roads and off we went.

They say this river runs all year from Santa Catarina Spring, even in the summer.

Stuck in Mud

We got really lucky with the weather, as the record rainfall from the weekend before  had given way to sunny skies and warm weather. As we approached the spring we discussed how mellow the weekend was going to be, however we both knew that nothing ever goes 100% planned on these nature trips.

The trail proceeded to hug a steep cliff and drop down into the shrubbery of the spring. What I imagined was once a nicely groomed trial we realized had turned into a torrent of rushing water after the previous weekend’s rainfall. Given the dense foliage, the sun had never gotten a chance to dry up the trail, leaving a thick layer of sticky mud.

With no real alternatives other than turning around, we went ahead and gave the mud trail a shot. Our shoes were sinking in a solid six inches at times to the mud and it was so sticky that it threatened to pull your shoes off at any moment. Hesitating between steps to look for a dry spot only made it worse as you sunk in deeper.

When all was said and done, it was only mud. We powered through that couple hundred yards of trail at a snail pace unscathed, with just some extremely muddy shoes and wet socks to show for it.

We didn’t take photos during the toughest patches. Losing your balance meant getting reeeeally muddy.
Bobcat? Could be a dog, but there were no human prints to go along with it. So let’s say bobcat.
Lunch break after the mud section.
Palm grove at Santa Catarina spring.

Scouting out a Camp

Our rough plan was to camp at Sheep Canyon Campground, tucked away in a nook of the mountains about three miles to the west of the valley that you reach after the spring. This section of Anza Borrego is also accessible by a rough jeep path that you can take into the valley. We knew this, but we were surprised by the amount of people that actually drive out there. There was one large group that was having a desert party with beer, chips and lawn chairs, the whole nine yards. As we were approaching our destination of Sheep Canyon, we noticed that quite a few cars were already parked there in the distance. When we saw two caravans of cars heading that way as well, one of which included the people from the aforementioned party, we decided that it might be a good idea to rethink our plans of where we would set up camp. There’s nothing wrong with people, but listening to kids scream all night is not exactly why we seek out these remote locations to backpack. I could get that experience camping at the park down the street from my house.

In no rush, we decided the best situation was to wait it out. We sat up on a perch about a mile away, ate some snacks and debated if it was worth it to continue down the same route towards that camp. Our patience paid off as the larger of the caravans eventually pulled away. We decided that it was safe to approach.

When we got there we saw that there were some very basic campsites set up against the mountainside, equipped with a bench and a fire pit. Having a campsite next to people that were car camping kind of kills the backpacking vibe, so we continued on and opted for a nice spot on the sandy bank of the creek that shoots down out of the canyon.

Snow-capped peak off to the east.
We’re going the right way, right?
Anza Borrego day party.
Sizing up the traffic at Sheep Canyon.
Camp for the night.
The creek, which was flowing pretty good, abruptly gets absorbed by the sand.
Weiners and corn for dinner.
It’s always better camping near rivers.

Sheep Canyon palm grove

Despite the amount of backpacking that I do, I don’t necessarily have the best equipment. I kind of have a “if it’s not broken, it works attitude” about it, and for a lot of things in general for that matter. Anyway, I woke up in the morning chilled to the bone by the desert night. My thin little sleeping bag doesn’t do much good even though I was sleeping extremely layered in clothing. Meanwhile, Kai was nice and toasty in his down bag. Something for me to look into I suppose.

We woke up with the sun, packed our stuff and headed off for a little out-and-back trip up to the palm grove in Sheep Canyon. After a good bit of rock hopping your way up the canyon, following the river, you arrive at the palm grove, a true oasis. The dry, rocky cliff sides give way to moist and shady foliage, complete with a 15 foot waterfall. Palm trees line the river and one could easily forget that they are in the middle of the desert.

After a good photo op, we descended through the boulder ridden canyon and started off on the 8 miles that stood between us and the car.

Gets chilly in the desert.
You can see the palm grove nestled up in Sheep Canyon.
Back towards the car.

Santa Catarina Spring

On the return trip we took a slightly different trail that takes you above Santa Catarina Spring instead of through it. It gives you a nice overlook of this little piece of paradise, which is what it must have been hundreds of years ago for the Native Americans.

There is a historical marker at this look out, marking the passing of a Spanish expedition through that very trail in December of 1775. The Spaniards, who were in route to populate and create missions in the San Francisco Bay, must have been quite delighted to stumble upon this oasis after crossing miles of the flat and arid Colorado Desert. From what I read, the natives had called this valley home for quite some time and initially didn’t have many issues with the settlers. However, around 1900 the US wanted to tax them for their land, which resulted in a series of wars and the eventual removal of the natives onto a reservation.

Not the happiest of endings, as goes the history of colonization of the US, but it was cool be at a place with so much history behind it.

Overlook of Santa Catarina Spring.
One more river crossing.

It wasn’t an extremely long trip, but 24 hours out in nature is a nice reset of the brain. It’s not long enough to start to miss the things you left at home, but it’s long enough to take a deep breath and dive back into the routine. Anza Borrego, another one in the books.

8 thoughts on “Anza Borrego: Santa Catarina Spring to Sheep Canyon

  1. Great write-up! Can you tell me if there is cell phone reception in the Sheep Canyon Campground area? Thanks again!


  2. Really enjoyed your photos and descriptions. I’ve not been to Sheep Canyon or Santa Catarina Spring so it’s definitely on my list now! I was just there this weekend and visited a similar palm grove (Palm Mountain)…it looked very similar to the grove you were at, but I think it’s in a totally different area. It was a bit wet but not muddy. So exciting to see so much water!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Another nice column. I’ve heard the wildflower season is something special out at Anza Borrego — and is should be spectacular because of all the recent rains. Have you any idea when the flowers will begin to blossom?
    -Uncle Lee

    Liked by 1 person

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