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Layers of history in Bow Willow

The rock house is a reminder of the lonely life of early-day cattlemen.
The rock house is a reminder of the lonely life of early-day cattlemen.

Many of the Anza-Borrego area’s first settlers were cattlemen who needed the wide-open spaces for winter grazing. Cow camps were established in several areas beginning around the 1890s. Cattleman Darrel McCain built the rock house located in BLM’s Carrizo Gorge Wilderness south of Bow Willow in 1933. The 10x12-foot shelter was built to get out of the wind. McCain used two large boulders for the back and side and rock and mortar for the other sides. It also had a fireplace and a window. This hike follows Bow Willow Wash to an arroyo that leads to the rock house and returns via Rockhouse Canyon, named for this historic line shack.

From the campground, walk west up the sandy, wide Bow Willow Canyon wash, past the scattered desert willows that are abundant here. The Kumeyaay Indians used these trees to make their hunting bows, giving the canyon its name. However, the tree is not a willow, but a member of the Bignonia genus, related to jacaranda, with the scientific name of Chilopsis linearis. It has large, beautiful flowers when in bloom.

At half a mile from your car, start hiking up the side canyon to your left. Unofficially, it is called Lone Palm Canyon for reasons you will soon discover. Huge desert-varnished granite boulders cover the walls of the canyon, and the canyon bottom is choked with boulders that have fallen from above. There is no maintained trail up Lone Palm Canyon and it requires a fair amount of boulder-hopping, but the route is marked with ducks and is not difficult. The boulder field is only half a mile long and is followed by easy hiking in a relatively flat, sandy canyon that continues for another 2 miles. The canyon bottom may be sprinkled with dwarf poppy, desert dandelion, Spanish needles, purple mat, and other colorful annuals in season, as well as flowering shrubs, including desert lavender, chuparosa, desert apricot, and creosote bush. At about 3 miles from the Bow Willow Campground is Rockhouse Canyon. Go west, up the canyon for another 0.6 mile to the rock house ruins. It is a surprisingly small, cramped shack that once had a tin roof over its rock and concrete walls, forming a single room that served as kitchen, living room, and bedroom. It is the only such structure for miles around, and it is interesting to imagine what life might have been like for the cowboys who spent months here looking after their cattle.

After exploring the area, head across the valley to the low point in the hills to the north, almost directly across from Rockhouse Canyon. An old Indian trail leads over this pass to Bow Willow Canyon. At one time the park maintained this trail, but it no longer does and it may be hard to follow in places. Still, you can’t get lost. Once you reach the saddle, you will see the sandy Bow Willow Canyon wash spread out below you. Continue hiking north for about another mile, then bear eastward, following the canyon back to the campground.


Distance from downtown San Diego: 106 miles. Allow 2 hours (Anza-Borrego Desert State Park). From CA-163N, take I-8E, exiting on the Imperial Hwy at Ocotillo after 88 miles. Turn north on SR-2 (Imperial Hwy) and drive 16.5 miles to mile-post 48 and look for a turnoff on the left (west) for Bow Willow Campground (signed). Drive 1.6 miles to the campground. There is a charge for overnight use of one of the 16 campsites at the campground but not for day use. Continue to the western-most campsites and park just beyond the last campsite. Facilities available.

Hiking length: 7.5-mile loop

Difficulty: Moderately strenuous over some well-marked trails. Part of the journey requires boulder-hopping and some simple route-finding. Elevation gain/loss 675 feet. Trekking poles can provide some stability on steep portions of the trail. Drinking water is sometimes available but was not in the fall-winter 2013–14. Bring your own water just in case.

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The rock house is a reminder of the lonely life of early-day cattlemen.
The rock house is a reminder of the lonely life of early-day cattlemen.

Many of the Anza-Borrego area’s first settlers were cattlemen who needed the wide-open spaces for winter grazing. Cow camps were established in several areas beginning around the 1890s. Cattleman Darrel McCain built the rock house located in BLM’s Carrizo Gorge Wilderness south of Bow Willow in 1933. The 10x12-foot shelter was built to get out of the wind. McCain used two large boulders for the back and side and rock and mortar for the other sides. It also had a fireplace and a window. This hike follows Bow Willow Wash to an arroyo that leads to the rock house and returns via Rockhouse Canyon, named for this historic line shack.

From the campground, walk west up the sandy, wide Bow Willow Canyon wash, past the scattered desert willows that are abundant here. The Kumeyaay Indians used these trees to make their hunting bows, giving the canyon its name. However, the tree is not a willow, but a member of the Bignonia genus, related to jacaranda, with the scientific name of Chilopsis linearis. It has large, beautiful flowers when in bloom.

At half a mile from your car, start hiking up the side canyon to your left. Unofficially, it is called Lone Palm Canyon for reasons you will soon discover. Huge desert-varnished granite boulders cover the walls of the canyon, and the canyon bottom is choked with boulders that have fallen from above. There is no maintained trail up Lone Palm Canyon and it requires a fair amount of boulder-hopping, but the route is marked with ducks and is not difficult. The boulder field is only half a mile long and is followed by easy hiking in a relatively flat, sandy canyon that continues for another 2 miles. The canyon bottom may be sprinkled with dwarf poppy, desert dandelion, Spanish needles, purple mat, and other colorful annuals in season, as well as flowering shrubs, including desert lavender, chuparosa, desert apricot, and creosote bush. At about 3 miles from the Bow Willow Campground is Rockhouse Canyon. Go west, up the canyon for another 0.6 mile to the rock house ruins. It is a surprisingly small, cramped shack that once had a tin roof over its rock and concrete walls, forming a single room that served as kitchen, living room, and bedroom. It is the only such structure for miles around, and it is interesting to imagine what life might have been like for the cowboys who spent months here looking after their cattle.

After exploring the area, head across the valley to the low point in the hills to the north, almost directly across from Rockhouse Canyon. An old Indian trail leads over this pass to Bow Willow Canyon. At one time the park maintained this trail, but it no longer does and it may be hard to follow in places. Still, you can’t get lost. Once you reach the saddle, you will see the sandy Bow Willow Canyon wash spread out below you. Continue hiking north for about another mile, then bear eastward, following the canyon back to the campground.


Distance from downtown San Diego: 106 miles. Allow 2 hours (Anza-Borrego Desert State Park). From CA-163N, take I-8E, exiting on the Imperial Hwy at Ocotillo after 88 miles. Turn north on SR-2 (Imperial Hwy) and drive 16.5 miles to mile-post 48 and look for a turnoff on the left (west) for Bow Willow Campground (signed). Drive 1.6 miles to the campground. There is a charge for overnight use of one of the 16 campsites at the campground but not for day use. Continue to the western-most campsites and park just beyond the last campsite. Facilities available.

Hiking length: 7.5-mile loop

Difficulty: Moderately strenuous over some well-marked trails. Part of the journey requires boulder-hopping and some simple route-finding. Elevation gain/loss 675 feet. Trekking poles can provide some stability on steep portions of the trail. Drinking water is sometimes available but was not in the fall-winter 2013–14. Bring your own water just in case.

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