Unique hikes of San Diego: Goat Canyon Trestle

Where is the world’s largest wood trestle?

It’s not exactly a question that most people think about while drinking their morning coffee, but nonetheless, it’s an interesting one for residents of San Diego County.

Tucked away on a bone-dry mountain slope of Carrizo Gorge in eastern San Diego County, the Goat Canyon Trestle spans 600 feet and stands 200 feet tall — making it the largest of its kind in the world.

The 87-year-old structure played a key role in the construction of the ‘impossible railroad,’ built to create the first direct railway to San Diego from the nation’s interior.

Quietly looming over the remote canyon in the Anza Borrego desert, it’s an interesting piece of history for San Diego and a treat for those who enjoy a rough desert hike.

Getting there

Before you read any further about how to get to the trestle, I must add a few disclaimers to avoid any missing person searches:

1) The hike is hard and requires route finding skills. While there is a trail for much of the hike, certain parts will require directional skills and/or GPS navigation. Does that sound like you? Ok, next point.

2) Do not hike here in the summer. Temperatures are scorching.

3) A vehicle with clearance is highly recommended, but not necessary for the brave souls who aren’t afraid of getting stuck.

4) Do your research. I am not going to spell out every detail in this post. Study the terrain and know your surroundings.

If you are still reading, this hike might be for you.

In the past, the railroad tracks themselves could be used for the hike. You could hike from the bottom or top of the gorge, a pretty long distance either way, but a relatively easy hike on a gradually sloping flat surface. Now walking on the tracks is prohibited.

Some people may still test their luck with the illegal route on the tracks, but the most direct and legal route starts at the base of the Jacumba Mountains, at Mortero Palms.

The route follows snaking canyons 1,200 feet up to a saddle, and then drops down 1,000 feet into Goat Canyon to arrive at the trestle. About 6 miles or so roundtrip, the hike doesn’t sound too bad on paper, but requires excellent physical condition to climb up and down the steep rocky canyons.

To get to the Mortero Palms trailhead, there are multiple options that can be used from a web of dirt roads off the S-2 highway. I have used two of the options — one about 5 miles from the town of Ocotillo and another further north, about 8 miles from Ocotillo. The first option is more direct and has an easy path to cross the tracks. The second option, further north, crosses the tracks at the old railway station of Dos Cabezas.

With some clearance on your vehicle, either option will get you to your destination, however, don’t rely on your navigation apps. Use them as an aid. I noticed that multiple times Google Maps tried to reroute us down ‘faster’ roads that either were extremely rough, or involved tricky crossings of the tracks. That said, I was impressed that Google Maps knew the various dirt roads at all, which it did a fairly good job of navigating.

Route finding

Once at the trailhead, getting to the trestle requires the ability to route find, as well as some good ol’ endurance.

Starting at the elevation of about 2,000 feet, you must first climb up to a saddle at 3,200 feet before you can catch your breath with more level hiking.

Considering that most canyons and gorges in the Anza Borrego desert have no use trails whatsoever, orienting yourself to the trestle is easier when compared to other similar hikes, but even so it should not be underestimated. There are fairly worn trails and cairns marking the path, but there are also plenty of canyon forks and boulder fields where you could go wrong.

Once climbing out of the initial canyon network and into a more sloping, hanging valley, the route is unmistakable and will take you over the saddle and down into Goat Canyon.

Starting off at the trailhead, be sure to immediately take the north canyon to Mortero Palms, not the south canyon, which can be tempting.
Boulder scrambling ensues.
The toughest section is perhaps just after the palm oasis. There was water running down what looked like the more simple route, so we had to opt for the next best option that was dry.
A Native American-used rock shelter among the palms.
There’s a nice mortero in the shelter, visible in the bottom center of the above photo. There are more morteros on the trail, but somehow I didn’t find them despite actively looking. My fellow hikers found a few that I missed.
Elevation is gained quickly, and, likewise, a view of the valley is quickly rewarded.
From here on out the route is well-defined, climbing over the saddle seen in the center of the photo.
Lizards rule the land back here. They darted each and every way throughout the duration of the hike. This appears to be a flat-tail horned lizard. He was much more open to photos than the other lizard species.
A Phainopepla posing long enough to get his photo.
The wild flowers are loving the rain that March delivered. Here is some lupine.
Indian paintbrush.
Checkerspot butterfly.
Descending into Goat Canyon has a few rough spots like this.

A history lesson awaits

While many hikes end with a peak, or a waterfall, Goat Canyon is unique in that you get a very tangible history lesson as the reward for completing the trail.

I recommend doing your research on the trestle before hiking, so the visual imagery will complement what you know, instead of going back to fill in the blanks afterwards.

As I mentioned earlier, the railway was created as a direct link between San Diego and the interior of the United States. Previously the only route into San Diego was via Los Angeles to the north.

Goat Canyon Trestle, the world’s largest freestanding wooden trestle.

It was dubbed ‘the impossible railroad’ due to the precarious, loose, and rough granite-strewn terrain that it traversed.

The railway was actually completed in 1919 without the trestle, utilizing 17 tunnels to wind and climb thousands of feet from the desert floor to the mountains.

It wasn’t until an earthquake destroyed a tunnel at Goat Canyon in 1932 that it was decided that a trestle would be built to circumvent the canyon instead — not just any old wooden trestle, the largest freestanding wooden trestle in the world. The remote location certainly made it an engineering feat for its time.

Wood was selected as the trestle material to withstand the drastic temperature changes of the desert, which during the summer months can regularly fluctuate by more than 50 degrees Fahrenheit in the span of a day.

The trestle was completed in 1933, re-opening the railroad for business. Over the years the track went in and out of use as it faced additional problems from earthquakes, landslides, tropical monsoons, and general decrease in demand as the interstates and vehicles became more widely used.

The tracks haven’t seen action since 2017, when another tunnel collapse forced it to shut down.

If you poke around on the internet, there are some interesting stories about the tracks and those who worked on its construction.

One that caught my eye was about mysterious light orbs that haunted the track, causing some of the construction workers to desert and even resulting in an official investigation, which produced no explanations.

From Goat Canyon you can see two train cars that derailed and came to rest on the steep hill below the tracks. Rumor has it that the conductor saw one of these mysterious light orbs, thought it was an approaching train, hit the brakes, and caused the train to derail, killing one of the crew on board.

My source on these ghost stories is from YouTube, so take it with a grain of salt.

A great view of Goat Canyon and its trestle, just one of the many tributary canyons that feeds down into the massive Carrizo Gorge.
Two derailed train cars slide into Carrizo Gorge.
Our trip ended at this lookout point here, but you can continue down the canyon to get a close up look at the trestle. We had friends waiting for us back at the trailhead, so time was of the essence.

A must for the adventurous

The hike to Goat Canyon has so much to offer for those who love the desert.

You get to see a palm oasis, Native American morteros, an array of desert flora and fauna, sweeping views into Imperial Valley, and, of course, an old piece of San Diego history.

I must stress that those who are not used to hiking in the backcountry off-trail, should leave this one up to the experts. There are too many things that can go wrong, from not even being able to get to the trailhead, to finding yourself in the wrong boulder gully.

For those who are up to the task, enjoy this gem of local history that awaits, unbeknownst to most, in our own backyard.

Bonus photos for those that have made it this far. Zoomed in on Whale Peak as seen from Goat Canyon.
Couldn’t help but photograph this cute guy.
Interstate 8 heads off into Imperial Valley.
More lizards. Here is a Great Basin Fence Lizard.
Cleveland’s beardtongue flower.
Beavertail cactus primed for a healthy bloom.
Just a few cars at the trailhead. Note the VW on the left that made it to the trailhead. It’s doable, but a big risk.

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