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.
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.