Sandstone Canyon has been called the most spectacular small wash in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Like a hidden jewel, this particular natural feature requires time and effort to find -- and it is often necessary to have a four-wheel drive vehicle with high clearance to get to the canyon.
After leaving the pavement of Split Mountain Road (8 miles south of Highway 78 at Ocotillo Wells), you must navigate on wheels 10.5 miles "upstream" along Fish Creek Wash to reach Sandstone Canyon's gaping mouth. This long but not tedious drive on sand, silt, or mud starts with a spectacular tight passage through the gap of Split Mountain, then continues through the more open but severely desiccated terrain of the Carrizo Badlands. Late-summer rainfall in the Split Mountain area can be prodigious but spotty, so it is possible you may encounter some wet ground in October, as well as splashes of sand verbena blossoms here and there along Fish Creek Wash.
Although you can drive a short way into lower Sandstone Canyon, it is better to start hiking right at the canyon's mouth. You then can admire, at a leisurely pace, the canyon walls, which feature horizontally stacked layers of tan and dark brown sandstone, soaring to almost 200 feet in some places. The narrow bottom of the canyon is filled with light-colored sand and boulders, washed down from durable granitic rock formations at higher elevations in the nearby Vallecito Mountains. A few large, wispy smoke trees inhabit the canyon, along with thorny catclaw bushes, exquisitely fragrant desert lavender bushes, and various other small shrubs.
At a point 1.2 miles up from Fish Creek, a major tributary enters Sandstone Canyon from the right (north). Up this canyon a short way is a small tinaja, or seasonal pool of water, right below a narrow, almost unclimbable "dry fall," or pouroff.
At 1.7 miles up the canyon, another major tributary enters from the left. This narrow slot canyon may be followed for 0.5 mile to the top of the gently sloping plateau above and to the south of Sandstone Canyon. Follow, if you dare, a path along Sandstone Canyon's south rim, where you can get a raven's eye view of the canyon floor straight below.
At 2.1 miles a third major tributary enters from the right. With some cleverness and effort you can work your way up through various branches of this ravine and reach the top of the Mud Palisades overlooking Olla Wash. These "palisades" are actually the face of a receding cliff cut into the flank of the Vallecito Mountains.
Past the third major tributary, you can trace a sinuous ravine upward another 1.3 miles and reach a saddle at the head of Sandstone Canyon. From there -- if time allows and the spirit moves -- a tough little scramble up a rocky slope to the southeast can take you to peak "Diablo," where you get an inclusive view of the entire Carrizo Badlands region. It is also possible to venture west of the saddle and connect with June Wash, which drains south toward Agua Caliente Springs and Highway S-2.
Those who intend to wander far from the Sandstone Canyon drainage basin should have a topographic map or other appropriate navigational aids, and the knowledge of their use. The landscape here includes some of the most intricately convoluted terrain in all of San Diego County.
This article contains information about a publicly owned recreation or wilderness area. Trails and pathways are not necessarily marked. Conditions can change rapidly. Hikers should be properly equipped and have safety and navigational skills. The Reader and Jerry Schad assume no responsibility for any adverse experience.