SoCal desert explorations: Fish Creek Mountains

Many people complain about the onset of winter, but for others the change is welcomed with open arms. We all know that snowboarders and skiers live for the arrival of the cold, but it’s also a joyous time for desert aficionados.

As the Earth rotates on its axis and robs the northern hemisphere of its daylight and warmth, opportunities arise. The scorching desert heat that fends off most visitors for 4-5 months of the year gives way to a mild, temperate climate, ushering in those who have been patiently waiting to explore the warped, arid terrain.

Over the past couple years I’ve grown a fond, borderline obsessive relationship with the southern California desert, and I had been champing at the bit to make my debut return for the 2020/21 season.

During the ‘offseason’ I formulated a rather robust laundry list of hikes that I wanted to do once the desert became accessible. By the time November arrived, desert temperatures were already plenty cool, even cold one might say, so I started to mull over my list and pick one of the pending adventures.

Storm dodging

It just so happened that my weekend hiking window coincided with the first strong winter storm of the season. Rain, wind, and even snow pelted San Diego County from the coast to the peaks, so I set my sights inland on the low desert, safe inside the desert rain-shadow to avoid any downpours.

I homed in on the Fish Creek Mountains — a jagged, modestly sized range that protrudes from the low desert about 15 miles southwest of the Salton Sea.

The Fish Creek Mountains are bone dry, sheltered from approaching storms by the mile-high barrier of peaks that lie to the west. The mountains are distinguished by their abrupt prominence from whence they rise out of the flat desert plains.

The edge of the lost lake

In (not so) ancient times, the Fish Creek Mountains were the backdrop to a wildly different landscape. They stood at the shore of Lake Cahuilla, the former body of water that occupied the massive basin that the Salton Sea now hardly fills.

Fed with freshwater by the meandering course of the Colorado River, Lake Cahuilla ebbed and flowed over the millennia and provided a lush habitat for the wildlife and Native Americans that called the desert home.

As a result, signs of past human habitation and sea-life can be abundantly found at the former edge of this immense body of water, adding an extra layer of intrigue when hiking the age-old trails.

So, I recruited a fellow hiker (my friend Nate) with a 4wd vehicle and set off from San Diego before the sunrise to experience a new corner of the southern California desert.

Here is my exploration of the Fish Creek Mountains.

Nate Straus hikes on loose rocks in the Fish Creek Mountains.
Our route commenced on a very old, faint miner trail. This trail gives you access to the inner parts of the range, but from there you are on your own.
A distressed chuckwalla sits on a rock in the colorado desert.
Not too long after starting we came across this large Chuckwalla. It was frozen on this rock, either from poor health or cold temperatures, or likely a bit of both. It wasn’t there when we returned so it either got its shit together or was picked up by a bird.
Anza Borrego desert viewed from the Fish Creek Mountains.
Gaining a bit of elevation to get perspective of the desert. The terrain slopes towards the east (right) as it dips below sea level and arrives at the shore of the Salton Sea.
Fish Creek Mountains on a cold fall day.
Once we climbed a thousand feet or so our destination came into view: The high point of the Fish Creek Mountains (2,371 feet, labeled ‘Eagle’ on topo maps).
Nate Straus rests while hiking in the Fish Creek Mountains.
Nate catching a breather and soaking in the wide open desert. We didn’t come across another human all day.
After more climbing we entered the mountain ‘plateau’, where even higher peaks protrude. This cactus-filled valley is the home of old mines and campsites.
I tried to do some research on what was mined up here, and how long ago, but nothing came up on the internet. Maybe someone can shed some light in the comments?
An old mining structure found in the Fish Creek Mountains.
The rock foundation of an old structure used by miners.
Old mining tools found in the Fish Creek Mountains.
Old metal pieces of machinery that were left by the miners.
A steep boulder gully in the Fish Creek Mountains.
After scurrying across the flat plateau, we had to scale the side of the Fish Creek Mountains high point. There is no easy way to summit, so we decided to scale this boulder-strewn gully. It was tough hiking.
A steep boulder gully in the Fish Creek Mountains.
Looking back down at the gully that we ascended. This was the toughest part of the hike.
Nate Straus hikes near the summit of the Fish Creek Mountains.
Nate and I approaching the summit as moist storm clouds pass in the background.
A mylar balloon on an agave plant in the Fish Creek Mountains.
Don’t let go of your balloons! They land somewhere.
The high point of the Fish Creek Mountains in California.
After pushing for a false summit, the true high point of the range came into view. We did about 2,300+ feet of elevation gain to get there. Seen in the distance on the right are peaks in Mexico.
A storm rages on the eastern slopes of the mountains in San Diego County.
Views west towards the storm raging up in the coastal mountains of San Diego County. Believe it or not, it was snowing up in those clouds.

Nate Straus and Evan Quarnstrom on the high point of the Fish Creek Mountains.
Nate and I bagging the peak. We got so lost in lunch and conversation that I forgot to sign the summit log. Oh, well. I’ll get it next time.
Nate Straus hikes cross country in the Fish Creek Mountains.
To avoid the treacherous gully on the north side of the mountain that we used to ascend, on the way back we looked for an easier way down on the south side. After crossing the ridge seen at the top of the photo, we did find a more reasonably sloped gully to get down.
A big horned sheep skull in Imperial County.
This was cool to find. I didn’t see any live big horned sheep though.
A close up of a big horned sheep horn in the Fish Creek Mountains.
Admiring the strength of the horns.
An old mine in the Fish Creek Mountains of Imperial County.
We found another mine in the proximity of the previous mine on the way back.
A mining device found in the Fish Creek Mountains.
This appears to be the anchor for a mechanism that was put in place to descend into the mine. The metal wire was wrapped around a stake in the ground with a boulder placed on top of it. Super safe!
Clouds pour into the desert near Borrego Springs.
As we descended back down to the desert floor, the storm intensified. We didn’t get much rain, but downpours leaked over into the desert and the wind began to howl. This photo is looking north towards Ocotillo Wells, and even further, Borrego Springs.
Sands storms rage across the desert near Borrego Springs.
The wind whipped up some sand storms out in the Salton Sea basin. Glad that we didn’t have to deal with that.
A Native American potsherd found near the Fish Creek Mountains in California.
Down on the desert floor I found some artifacts left behind by the Native Americans who used to live here on the shores of Lake Cahuilla. Here is a decent-sized potsherd.
A Native American potsherd found near the Fish Creek Mountains in California.
Another potsherd that has been unearthed in a desert wash.
A shell found in the desert near the Fish Creek Mountains.
Here is a shell, evidence of the gigantic lake that once covered this sand.
Bullets in the sand near the Fish Creek Mountains.
Most of the Fish Creek Mountains sit outside the Anza Borrego State Park boundaries and are under BLM control. Thus, they are a popular place for shooting guns. The littering caused by shooting still really irks me. I hike 10 miles all day and the only trash I find are one balloon and thousands of bullet casings. I took a handful with me.
Railroad tracks near the Fish Creek Mountains of Imperial County.
Crossing over the old railroad tracks where we parked. A successful day of desert exploration.

6 thoughts on “SoCal desert explorations: Fish Creek Mountains

  1. Great post! That’s another area I haven’t hiked yet but plan to. I’m glad you point out the litter that one finds in the desert. Some people, like us, find the desert as a natural paradise, while others see it as a wasteland.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading. I think people would be shocked if they saw the amount of shooting litter in the desert for themselves. Removing all the casings, bullets, and targets would take years! There were about 50 people shooting at the base of the mountains this day, just doing their part to add to the trash :/

      Liked by 1 person

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