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Oriflamme Canyon's gurgling waters are borne to the open air high on the east slope of the Laguna Mountains. For five miles they trickle over polished granite and schist bedrock, tumble over small waterfalls, and nourish a line of oaks, sycamores, willows, and cottonwoods. At Mason Valley, off County Highway S-2, they finally sink into the porous sand of the Anza-Borrego Desert.

The scant precipitation of the last three rainy seasons hasn't done much to sustain a copious flow of water down the bottom of the canyon, but one or two good storms this winter season should resuscitate the stream. At one spot in the canyon, the water cascades over a 15-foot precipice tucked within a hidden grotto of rock framed by overarching riparian vegetation. This is the modest destination of the short but semi-rough three-mile desert hike described here. Wear long pants, or else you'll be subjected to intolerable levels of flagellation meted out by low-growing catclaw shrubs and prickly pear and cholla cacti.

From mile 26.8 on Highway S-2 (1 mile south of the Box Canyon Historical site), turn west on the dirt road signed "Oriflamme Canyon." (Four-wheel-drive vehicles are recommended beyond this turnoff.) Drive two miles, stay left as the road forks, and continue for one more mile to a rough side road on the left. Park off the road, descend to the canyon bottom, and then make your way upstream (southwest). You'll travel alongside a trickle or a torrent, depending on the recency and intensity of the winter rains. Alternately, you can try to find and follow an old, mostly overgrown cattle trail that stays up on the right side of the canyon for about one-half mile before it dips to cross the canyon bottom. In the narrowing canyon bottom ahead, you walk back and forth across the bubbling stream and over orange and brown leaf litter. Look for Indian morteros -- grinding holes worn into streamside granite outcrops where the Kumeyaay Indians once processed acorns and other foods.

After 1.3 miles, a rocky tributary canyon comes in from the right (west). Forge ahead another five minutes or so to where you can hear water falling down the 15-foot-high cataract, below and to the left of the trail. Watch out for poison oak if you choose to scramble or wade to the shallow pool at the foot of the falls.

Storm activity could render the four-wheel-drive road impassable for vehicles, so check with Anza-Borrego park headquarters (760-767-5311 or 760-767-4205) for the latest information. If time and energy allow, you can always walk, instead of drive, that road, adding a somewhat tedious six miles to your hike.

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