What to expect while hiking the US-Mexico border

California shares 140 miles of international border with Mexico. The border that most people come to know, whether through the news or personal experience, is usually the urban, fortified crossings, which in reality are not representative of the vast majority of that border. Of those 140 miles, most are rural, rugged, and hard to reach. The virtually impenetrable, robust border fences and security measures of populated areas like San Diego/Tijuana can paint a false picture of the whole reality, when just a handful of miles east, the dynamic is vastly different.

Out in the more remote areas of California, over the mountains and into the desert, the border is harder to access and a far cry from the layers of defense found in urban zones. Some parts of the border have a physical fence, while others just have vehicle barriers or simply don’t have a border at all. These remote swaths of fence-less frontier are a hotbed for crossings, a challenge for border patrol, and the epicenter of the MAGA ‘build the wall’ campaign. However, with all political agendas and propaganda aside, these remote border regions are also used by outdoor enthusiasts for other reasons — the magnificent open space for hiking.

But hiking the border is not a walk in the park. The beauty and remoteness that you may be searching for come with complicated baggage.

The border is defined by a network of corridors to escape north and border patrol technology to penetrate inaccessible areas. Evidence of the migrant struggle is as plain as day, while the aid of concerned citizens can be seen lining the paths. The terrain dictates everything you see in these parts, a constant reminder of the role geography plays in the relationship between North America’s two most populous nations.

In my latest overnight hike near the border, I experienced all of the above — an interesting, but somber look into the world of immigration. It’s a world that feels so distant, yet so close at the same time.

Inside the canyons that lead to the American dream

At the edge of California’s coastal mountain range, a series of gorges, valleys, and creek beds snake their way down to the desert floor. This rough terrain is among the sections of border deemed too rough to build a wall. Eleven miles of uninterrupted, fenceless desert mark the international border.

It was in these canyons where my latest backpacking trip took place. While the flow of traffic through these canyons generally heads northward, I wanted to go against the grain, hiking south to the border’s edge, for these canyons are not only a great display the beauty of California’s deserts, but they also house an array of well-preserved Native American history and artifacts. Petroglyphs, rock shelters, grinding holes, and pottery can be found extremely well-preserved in these remote, hard-to-reach canyons. It’s a real treat for those willing to trek miles into the trail-less backcountry.

Canyons heading into Mexico.
Heading south, entering the labyrinth of canyons that head down toward Mexico.
Footprints in the sand near the Mexican border.
A lone set of footprints (not mine) wanders the canyon wash.

As you exit the high-speed freeway traffic of California’s interstate 8 and head south into the web of canyons, the evidence of travelers heading north is unmistakable — tossed water bottles, backpacks, torn clothing, shoes, and all sorts of discarded items line the sandy stream beds.

However, more surprising is the evidence of those who have ventured into these canyons with a different purpose: to aid those who are traveling north. Gallons of water, canned food, fresh socks, bag-sealed clothing, and notes of encouragement are abundant throughout. And I mean abundant. There is enough water to quench the thirst of a small army, scattered among the rocks nearly every step of the way.

It’s not uncommon to see stashed water along the border to help migrants, but the scale and remote placement in this fenceless area was impressive. The network of supply caches reached all the way from the interstate to miles deep into the wilderness. Some of the water bottles were identical, presumably placed by the same group (non-profit groups do this), and others looked more like one-off drops, a single person hoping they can save a single life.

Water bottles left for immigrants.
Gallons of water and a pile of fresh socks are stashed under this freeway overpass, a gateway out, or into, the canyons.
Water left for immigrants near the Mexican border.
A water jug perched on a rock, sitting idle until the next thirsty traveler passes.
Jacket of an immigrant left behind.
A small jacket tossed on the side of a creek bed.
Backpack of an immigrant left behind.
A discarded backpack.
Water left behind for immigrants near the Mexican border.
Food and water dated October 18 and 19 with a little note: ‘Con amor y fuerza’, with love and strength.
Beans left for passing immigrants near the Mexican Border.
Unopened canned beans and tuna.
Supplies for immigrants near the Mexican border.
This cache contains nearly a full change of clothing, baseball caps, water, and a note that translates to ‘God bless you. Friend, good luck on this journey. Enjoy the gift. With much love for you.’
Supplies left for immigrants near the Mexican border.
Another cache complete with a religious print out and a note that I didn’t read, as to not ruin the bag’s seal. I can see the words for ‘border’ and ‘don’t give up.’
Empty water bottle near the Mexican border.
A water jug wedged between the rocks that appears to have been used long ago.
Empty backpack near the Mexican border.
This roller backpack was filled with empty water bottles. A roller pack is not the best call in these canyons, as you literally cannot roll it anywhere.
Drywaterfall in Pinto Canyon near the Mexican border.
An idea of the type of terrain that one encounters while climbing out of the canyons near the border. This waterfall, a relic from a wetter era in North America’s history, stands about 50 feet high at the mouth of this canyon.
Paz spelt in a palm tree with nails.
The word ‘paz’ or ‘peace’ has been nailed into a palm tree near the border.
A shoe left behind near the Mexican border.
A lost shoe lays among the brush.
An ancient native american mortero hole in Pinto Canyon.
As I mentioned, the canyons contain excellent artifacts of the Native Americans that once inhabited these areas, long before an arbitrary border drastically changed the outlook of this land. This is called a ‘mortero,’ a rock used by Native Americans to grind nuts and seeds.
Petroglyphs near the Mexican border in California.
Incredible Native American petroglyphs found on the rocks overlooking the canyon floor.
Petroglyphs near the Mexican border in California.
More petroglyphs (just a few examples of many).
Sandy wash near the Mexican border in California.
We hiked to the base of the rocky hills seen straight ahead, which marks the international border. In this stretch of desert, there is no physical barrier at the border for 11 consecutive miles. You can tell by the footprints that this route is fairly well traveled, by hikers and migrants alike.

A somber reminder of the dangers in crossing

Deep in one of these mountainous gorges, only about a two-mile walk north from the border, lies a reminder of the danger of the crossing.

A welded cross protrudes from the canyon floor among a thick grove of palm trees. It’s a memorial to Martín Torres, a 38-year-old man who passed away in the canyon, presumably making the trek north.

The sign, written in Spanish, translates to the following:

In memory of Martín Zam. Torres. He was born Nov 29, 1969 and left July 20, 2008. Don’t fill your hearts with pain and shame, but remember me every morning. Remember the joy and laughs. I’ve only gone to rest a little. Even though my absence causes pain and suffering, my peace has lessened the pain and has relieved me.

As I stopped to read the sign, seemingly out of place in this beautiful canyon, it acted as a reminder of the dangers of those who trek north. I never so clearly appreciated the privilege of being born in the US, not needing to go searching for opportunity in other corners of the world, not needing to traverse treacherous desert canyons for it.

Who was Mr. Torres? How did he die? These are answers that those who left the cross may not even know. Getting injured or sick this far from civilization without the proper equipment could easily be a death sentence.

A metal cross that marks a memorial site for an immigrant who died crossing the border.
Memorial found within the palm grove.
A metal cross that marks a memorial site for an immigrant who died crossing the border.
Close up of the message on the memorial.

The hills have eyes: A run in with border patrol

Knowing that the canyons are high-traffic corridors for migrants, smugglers, and coyotes alike, I knew to stay out of the pathways at night, which is when crossings are most common. The off-chance of running into someone at night is a situation that I think everyone would rather avoid. Who knows what someone who is nervous and scared will do when coming across a stranger whose hiking gear looks not-too-far from what border patrol wears.

That said, we climbed out of the canyon at night and found a nice, sandy bowl surrounded by granite boulders to pitch the tent. This route led only to a dead-end of cliffs, so it would be an unlikely place to run into travelers, a safe location to avoid any unwanted nocturnal encounters.

We hadn’t seen another soul for the whole 15+ miles that we had covered at that point, until we saw a lone man hiking up a ravine toward us.

In the morning we packed up our bags and made for a route to exit the network of canyons and arrive back at my car. We hadn’t seen another soul for the whole 15+ miles that we had covered at that point, until we saw a lone man hiking up a ravine toward us.

What looked like a park ranger from a distance, turned out to be a border patrol agent upon closer inspection.

I figured that he was simply out for a desert patrol, but soon realized that he was actually headed straight toward us. As he drew near, I could see that he was a young man with short blonde hair, seemingly younger than myself.

Initiating the conversation, I let out a “Good morning!” as the gap between us shrunk.

He drew to a stop, breathing heavily after a fast hike up the gully from which he arrived, making a winded comment about how tired he was. He began to question us about where we were going, where we had been, and where we parked.

It seemed that he was satisfied with my answers, yet wouldn’t quite be satisfied until he heard my girlfriend Madison talk, who is Mexican. When he did in fact hear her flawless, American-accented English, he thanked us for our time and left in a hurry. He murmured some inaudible words into his radio, presumably relaying information about us to his superiors.

When he left, he didn’t continue on in the direction that he was headed, but to the contrary, turned right back the way he came. That’s when I realized that he had ventured miles in the backcountry with the sole purpose of questioning or capturing us, according to our citizenship status. The closest border patrol dirt road (not open to the public) was over a mile away.

We had been detected. Whether by drone, infrared, motion sensors, or binoculars, we’ll never know, but I was eager to ask the agent for curiosity’s sake. However, our encounter, which lasted less than two minutes, had ended as quickly as it began, and the agent had sped off before we could process what that rendezvous had meant.

After a quick break, we too followed the same gully that the border patrol agent had taken to make it back toward our car. While literally following the agent’s footsteps, I made a curious observation.

This gully was also lined with stashed water jugs, which the agent had left unmolested. One might think that the agents would dispose of the water along the way, as it wouldn’t take much work to poke each with a knife as you hiked, but the agent left them where they were, untouched.

Perhaps the border patrol agents value the water caches just as much as those who leave them out there. When it comes down to it, no matter what you think about the water caches encouraging immigration or not, no one wants to get called to pick up bodies.

Nighttime shot of camping in the desert under a full moon.
We camped in this patch of sandy desert high up on a ridge between the canyons. The full moon clearly illuminated the desert landscape. This is a 15 second exposure on my handy little Canon point and shoot.
Panorama shot of the California desert border region.
Here we are not far from camp, looking out at the peaks on both sides of the border. I love the colors of desert sunrises.
Evan Quarnstrom and Madison Snively enjoying backpacking in the desert.
Enjoying the winter sunrise.
A border patrol agent walks near the Mexican border in California.
I didn’t ask the border patrol agent for any selfies, but I snapped a few photos as he walked away.
Water left behind for immigrants near the Mexican border.
An example of water caches that the border patrol agent strolled by and didn’t touch.

What does it all mean?

I didn’t document my observations of the border so other hikers will be more prepared, more inclined, or more scared to hike in the border region. My goal is to provide facts, both written and visual, as most of the country, or the world for that matter, hasn’t the slightest clue of what to expect at one of the world’s most infamous international borders.

Someone from San Diego may look at my observations and think that I am stating the obvious, but I think those who do not live near the border, who haven’t been to the remote, fenceless regions of our country, have a lot to learn from these photos and words.

In conclusion, if you don’t feel comfortable hiking near the border, then no pressure. Don’t do it. But for those who enjoy, or want to enjoy these unique areas, while this may not be the quintessential manual of what to expect, you at least have seen the tip of the iceberg and might start to view the region in a new perspective.

Sunrise in the California desert.
Peering through the canyons at the Mexican sunrise.

One thought

  1. That is really nice. I come to San Diego once or twice a year and my buddy and i ride Harley’s down by Jacumba and other areas close to the border. We have been doing this for the last twenty years, there has been a few hikes, but i have never seen anyone.

    Like

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