Tranquil Mine Canyon and its several tributaries slash deep into the Pinyon Mountains of central Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Day after day, year after year, the parched ravines and boulder-splintered hillsides lie open to the searing rays of the sun. Once every several years or so, rain pours in buckets, and a fresh layer of sand, left behind by receding floods, coats the bottoms of the ravines and washes. Some of the water-borne sediment is carried down past the mouth of the canyon, where it accumulates on a broad, tilted alluvial plain, about four square miles in extent, known as Mescal Bajada. On this bajada (the Spanish word meaning “down-slope”), desert agave plants (a.k.a. century plants or mescal) grow in particular abundance.
The next blooming phase of desert annual and perennial plants in Mine Canyon is some months away, so the current appeal of the place centers on its warm, dry weather and the nearly complete absence of sound. Winds tend to be gentle or absent this time of year, and there’s hardly a buzzing insect to be found. Only the distant hiss of an occasional high-flying airliner interrupts the silence.
Anza-Borrego has a free-of-charge “open camping” policy that allows you to stay overnight along any park roadway or in any wilderness area. There are limitations, of course. You’re not allowed to drive your vehicle off of approved roads, no ground fires are permitted, and you must not establish camp next to water sources (in deference to the watering rights of the local wildlife). Mine Canyon has plenty of small roadside spaces for parking for the day or for overnight camping. If you plan to camp in October, try arriving in the later afternoon and departing the next morning before the sunshine gets too intense. Regardless of how long you plan to stay, be sure to bring along plenty of drinking water.
The unpaved road into Mine Canyon (which may not be suitable for low-slung passenger cars) intersects Highway 78 at a point about 16 miles east of Julian. More specifically, the intersection is 2.7 miles east of Tamarisk Grove Campground. Look for a sign, on the south side of the highway, designating “Mine Wash,” which is the name of the lower part of the canyon. Work your way up the gently corrugated surface of Mescal Bajada for 1.6 miles to a parking area and interpretive plaque at the foot of a rocky ridge. Scattered amid the eroded granitic boulders and ironwood trees here you’ll find old morteros, or mortar holes, a sure sign of prehistoric occupation by ancestors of today’s Kumeyaay Indians.
As you drive farther along Mine Wash toward the Pinyon Mountains, notice how the vegetation changes from low-desert types, such as the smoke tree, to agaves and later junipers. Pinyon pines, the namesake of the mountains, grow at still higher elevations.
There’s a short spur road on the right at a major fork in the wash at 3.9 miles from Highway 78. This is an especially nice spot for car camping. From there, the road into Mine Canyon continues uphill a final 0.7 mile south-southwest, and a roadless fork of Mine Wash ascends gently south-southeast. The latter wash, along with its several branching tributaries, is wonderful to explore on foot — especially when long shadows fall across the sands at the beginning and the end of each day. Stoic Mormon tea shrubs poke up amid the rock rubble and bold specimens of teddy-bear and buckhorn cholla cactus glisten in the low-angle sunlight.
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.
Seek and find absolute silence in Anza-Borrego’s Mine Canyon.
Distance from downtown San Diego: 75 miles
Biking length: Variable, up to 3 miles • Difficulty: Easy