Straddling the San Diego–Riverside county line, Rockhouse Canyon and the broad, sloping alluvial basin drained by it — informally known as Rockhouse Valley — constitute one of Southern California’s truly forgotten places. Not much more than a century ago, Cahuilla Indians carried on a traditional way of life here. After the Indians moved to the nearby Santa Rosa Indian Reservation around 1900, a few hardy prospectors made forays into the area, traveling along centuries-old footpaths. Never has a road penetrated farther than the lower reaches of Rockhouse Canyon. Up in the silent valley itself, you might as well have stepped into a time warp. Only the distant glints and rumbles of high-flying aircraft provide evidence of the modern world.
You’ll need several hours to dayhike Rockhouse Canyon as described here. Two or even three days of backpacking suffices to explore the spacious valley lying beyond. Don’t forget, even on a day trip, to pack along essentials such as water, food, and extra clothing. Anza-Borrego Desert State Park has jurisdiction over the lower (San Diego County) section of the canyon, while the Bureau of Land Management oversees the upper (Riverside County) canyon and the valley beyond. For the latest information, phone Anza-Borrego at 760-767-4205 or 760-767-5311.
To get to the starting point from Borrego Springs, drive several miles east and north on Highway S-22. When you reach mile 26.7, just past the Pegleg Monument, turn north on Clark’s Well Road. Pavement soon ends and you continue driving on dirt, bearing left at 1.5 miles onto Rockhouse Truck Trail. After nine miles of dirt-road travel, you arrive at a point where roads into Butler and Rockhouse canyons diverge. This is the absolute limit for vehicles not of the high-clearance, 4-wheel-drive type. Three more excruciatingly slow miles of driving in the appropriate vehicle might or might not take you to the Rockhouse Truck Trail terminus (depending on road conditions).
From the road-end, walk a half mile up-canyon to Hidden Spring on the left, which isn’t much more than a small puddle of stagnant water next to a grove of mesquite bushes. The canyon narrows ahead, and over the next 3.5 miles you trudge uphill on soft sand through a narrow gorge flanked in many places by soaring rock walls.
At a point just south of the San Diego–Riverside county line, you’ll come upon a granite dike (barrier) forming a 20-foot “dry fall” (a true waterfall only during rare floods). Huge boulders litter the canyon floor, mute testimony to the power of flash flooding.
Eventually, the canyon broadens and you enter Rockhouse Valley, named for the ruins of some rock houses probably built by miners over a century ago. Follow the main sandy wash up the west side of the valley until you reach the base of a boulder-strewn ridge 0.6 mile northwest of the valley entrance; then go 0.2 mile due north to find the three rock houses, all of which are roofless. They’re spaced along a low, elongated ridge with a view of the entire valley. Mud used as mortar still clings to some of the walls. Each house had a cozy fireplace inside.
You’ve now come nearly five miles — assuming you left your car at the end of the Rockhouse road. (The spacious Rockhouse Valley, with its ancient Indian trails and more rock houses, lies ahead — beyond what this brief article can describe). If this is to be your turnaround point, you’ll find the return to be faster and easier, assisted by gravity all the way.
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.
Rockhouse Canyon and Valley
Venture into Anza-Borrego’s most remote and least-visited place.
Distance from downtown San Diego: 110 miles
Hiking length: Up to 10 miles round-trip on a dayhike; potentially more for backpacking