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I had barely rinsed off the dirt and dust from our Thanksgiving trip to Carrizo Gorge when we found ourselves heading back to the Anza-Borrego Desert to meet up with a couple of friends. Our destination, though, was at the opposite end of the Anza-Borrego, a remote area called Rockhouse Valley. While the adjacent canyon (informally named Rockhouse Canyon) shares its namesake with our favorite hiking area to the south, the two areas are worlds apart.

Rockhouse Canyon "north" is a curving, narrow canyon with vertical walls on both sides that eventually open up to the broad expanse of Rockhouse Valley. Officially, most of the hike is on federal Bureau of Land Management land, and one leaves San Diego County and enters Riverside County early into the hike. The area is also known for its numerous Cahuilla Indian sites, some which date back 2000 years.

Our journey began with a crawling, bumping ride up the jeep road past Clark Dry Lake bed. Once we passed the Butler/Rockhouse Canyon junction, the trail became rough. John, our hiking partner, would say, “I think this is as far as I made it in my Chevy SUV. I took this as a challenge and put the Land Cruiser in low gear and continued up the narrow trail toward Rockhouse Canyon.

Along the trail we noticed a few ocotillos that seemed to have gotten into the holiday spirit and turned red. We wondered if this was a different type of ocotillo or a phenomenon that we had not seen before.

Once we arrived at the trailhead, we headed into the canyon on foot. We immediately found ourselves surrounded by sheer rock walls. The soft sand and slight uphill grade through Rockhouse Canyon made our trek a bit slow, and at one point we had to scale up a huge dry waterfall. There was evidence of the recent rains all around, and we remarked to each other that we would love to witness a flash flood through the canyon.

Exiting Rockhouse Canyon, we entered the huge expanse of Rockhouse Valley and began scouring the area for the rock house ruins. The valley is amazing, with 8700-foot Toro Peak towering over its northern edge and numerous ridges running along the valley floor; it has the appearance of a large desert amphitheater.

After a bit more searching, we found the three rectangular rock house ruins. According to The Anza-Borrego Desert Region (by Lowell and Diana Lindsay), one of the houses belonged to "one of the last chiefs of the Rockhouse Valley Indians," Manuel Torte and his family. The other rock house was reputedly built over a century ago by a prospector mining for gold.

The lower rock houses marked the end of our journey, and after a few pictures we began the three-mile hike back to the Land Cruiser. The slight downward grade made the return trip much faster, and after dropping off our friends, we enjoyed a dinner in Borrego Springs.

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Javajoe25 Dec. 27, 2010 @ 10:18 a.m.

I've done this hike a few times. Once, years back, I took the side trail that zig zags upp the canyon wall. It is relatively easy to find, just watch for an old wood "Hidden Spring" sign on the left wall at the beginning of the Rockhouse trail. Once up the Spring trail and on the flats at the top, you'll find a nice wide open area with lots of pottery shards and pieces of flint left by the early inhabitants. It is a nice alternative to trekking up the soft sand on the Rockhouse trail.

One time, after hiking the flats and half way down the Spring trail, I and a friend came face to face with a bighorn ram. We were going down, and he was going up, and it was a very narrow trail. Our first reaction was to jump behind a small tree at the side of the trail, thinking the ram might decide to simply knock us out of his way. But he stayed calm and I decided to snap a few photos while I had the chance. But wouldn't you know I only had one shot left on the 35mm film I used at the time. I snapped the shot and thought sure the ram would then wander off. Surprisingly he stood there while I quickly put in a fresh roll of film. I then proceeded to take 22 more shots of the big guy. He posed left; he posed right; he gave me a straight on view, a few with his head up and a few with his head down. I could not believe how patient this sheep was while I got all the photos I could hope for. Eventually he had enough and calmly stepped his way around us.

I've seen quite a few mountain sheep since, but never had the photo opportunity that ram provided. Clark's Dry Lake and Rockhouse Canyon are great areas to hike with lots of morteros and metates and even some petroglyphs, if you know where to look. I highly recommend it to anyone with 4-wheel drive capability.


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