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Morteros Trail (Anza-Borrego Desert State Park)

View Kumeyaay rock art, a rock shelter, and bedrock mortars in a cultural preserve.

Split rock surrounded by bedrock mortars
Split rock surrounded by bedrock mortars

The Morteros Trail is part of the 4757-acre Little Blair Valley Cultural Preserve that was created in December 2010 in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. The area was a seasonal home for the Kumeyaay people who harvested the agave and juniper berries found in this area. Numerous bedrock mortars or morteros are found here. Kumeyaay women processed wild foods that they gathered by pounding and grinding them into a flour that were made into cakes or mush that were later consumed. Also found here are “cupules” or small ground-out holes in the rock that may have had ceremonial value. Rock shelters are nearby, as well as a striking Kumeyaay rock-art site.

A half-mile out is a stunning Kumeyaay art design.

At the trailhead there is both an interpretive sign and copies of a trail map/brochure, entitled “The ‘Ehmuu-Morteros Trail.” There are nine signed sites along this walk to help one understand the significance of this Kumeyaay site. The wealth of cultural materials in this small area is incredible and is well interpreted. From the parking area, the trail heads to an area peppered with boulders where several grinding areas are found. Both deep mortar holes (morteros), caused by pounding seeds and wild foods with a large stone (pestle), and smooth grinding areas (slicks), where pounded seeds were broken down into a flour by roller pin action with a handheld stone (mano), are found in several kitchen areas among the boulders. There are several sites with small pounded holes (cupules) that resemble mini-mortero holes that were probably made in association with ceremonies, such as puberty or coming of age. There is even a marked rock shelter that may have been used to store foods, provide shelter from the elements, or was enclosed as part of a ceremonial sweathouse. The highlight of the trail is one-half mile out, where stunning Kumeyaay rock art is found. The sweeping lines of the black pictograph resemble stick figures. The exact meaning of the art is unknown.

The area is rich with plant life. The hillsides are covered with agave, called ’emally by the Kumeyaay, who harvested the plant. Along the trail are darkened areas in the sand, indicating where the agave was roasted. Agave was a staple for desert Indians, who used every part for some purpose: food, fiber to make rope, medicine, firewood, or using the sharp thorn at the tip of the staves as an awl for basket making, as a needle with attached fiber threat, or as a tool for tattooing. Only men harvested the agave because of the difficulty of extracting it from the ground. Yucca, or shah’aa, was used similarly as a food and fiber source.

Other common plants in this area include the higher elevation junipers, jojoba, and ephedra/Mormon tea. There are a variety of cacti, including teddybear cholla, staghorn cholla, hedgehog, barrel, beavertail, and mammallaria. Other common plants include creosote, ocotillo, brittlebush, krameria, and burrobush.

If there is time, combine the walk with Pictograph Trail at Little Blair Valley, a “Roam-O-Rama” article published December 19, 2012.

  • Distance from downtown San Diego: About 85 miles. Allow 2 hours for driving (Anza-Borrego Desert State Park). From SR-163N, exit onto I-8 E. Take SR-79N/Japatul Valley Rd. (Descanso), turning left, toward Julian, at the end of the ramp. After just under 3 miles, turn left to follow SR-79N to SR78. Turn east, away from Julian, driving about 12 miles down Banner Canyon to Scissors Crossing. At Scissors Crossing go south on SR-2 about 6 miles and turn left into the Blair Valley turnoff. Follow the dirt road into and around Blair Valley 2.7 miles to a signed junction with the Ghost Mountain turnoff. Go left and drive 0.8 mile to the trailhead and parking area for the Morteros Trail. Hiking length: About 1 mile out and back. Elevation loss/gain about 50 feet. Allow 1 hour to view all sites. Difficulty: Easy. No water or facilities except for a vault toilet at the entrance to Blair Valley. Carry water. No dogs, horses, or bikes allowed on the trail. Good for children.
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Split rock surrounded by bedrock mortars
Split rock surrounded by bedrock mortars

The Morteros Trail is part of the 4757-acre Little Blair Valley Cultural Preserve that was created in December 2010 in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. The area was a seasonal home for the Kumeyaay people who harvested the agave and juniper berries found in this area. Numerous bedrock mortars or morteros are found here. Kumeyaay women processed wild foods that they gathered by pounding and grinding them into a flour that were made into cakes or mush that were later consumed. Also found here are “cupules” or small ground-out holes in the rock that may have had ceremonial value. Rock shelters are nearby, as well as a striking Kumeyaay rock-art site.

A half-mile out is a stunning Kumeyaay art design.

At the trailhead there is both an interpretive sign and copies of a trail map/brochure, entitled “The ‘Ehmuu-Morteros Trail.” There are nine signed sites along this walk to help one understand the significance of this Kumeyaay site. The wealth of cultural materials in this small area is incredible and is well interpreted. From the parking area, the trail heads to an area peppered with boulders where several grinding areas are found. Both deep mortar holes (morteros), caused by pounding seeds and wild foods with a large stone (pestle), and smooth grinding areas (slicks), where pounded seeds were broken down into a flour by roller pin action with a handheld stone (mano), are found in several kitchen areas among the boulders. There are several sites with small pounded holes (cupules) that resemble mini-mortero holes that were probably made in association with ceremonies, such as puberty or coming of age. There is even a marked rock shelter that may have been used to store foods, provide shelter from the elements, or was enclosed as part of a ceremonial sweathouse. The highlight of the trail is one-half mile out, where stunning Kumeyaay rock art is found. The sweeping lines of the black pictograph resemble stick figures. The exact meaning of the art is unknown.

The area is rich with plant life. The hillsides are covered with agave, called ’emally by the Kumeyaay, who harvested the plant. Along the trail are darkened areas in the sand, indicating where the agave was roasted. Agave was a staple for desert Indians, who used every part for some purpose: food, fiber to make rope, medicine, firewood, or using the sharp thorn at the tip of the staves as an awl for basket making, as a needle with attached fiber threat, or as a tool for tattooing. Only men harvested the agave because of the difficulty of extracting it from the ground. Yucca, or shah’aa, was used similarly as a food and fiber source.

Other common plants in this area include the higher elevation junipers, jojoba, and ephedra/Mormon tea. There are a variety of cacti, including teddybear cholla, staghorn cholla, hedgehog, barrel, beavertail, and mammallaria. Other common plants include creosote, ocotillo, brittlebush, krameria, and burrobush.

If there is time, combine the walk with Pictograph Trail at Little Blair Valley, a “Roam-O-Rama” article published December 19, 2012.

  • Distance from downtown San Diego: About 85 miles. Allow 2 hours for driving (Anza-Borrego Desert State Park). From SR-163N, exit onto I-8 E. Take SR-79N/Japatul Valley Rd. (Descanso), turning left, toward Julian, at the end of the ramp. After just under 3 miles, turn left to follow SR-79N to SR78. Turn east, away from Julian, driving about 12 miles down Banner Canyon to Scissors Crossing. At Scissors Crossing go south on SR-2 about 6 miles and turn left into the Blair Valley turnoff. Follow the dirt road into and around Blair Valley 2.7 miles to a signed junction with the Ghost Mountain turnoff. Go left and drive 0.8 mile to the trailhead and parking area for the Morteros Trail. Hiking length: About 1 mile out and back. Elevation loss/gain about 50 feet. Allow 1 hour to view all sites. Difficulty: Easy. No water or facilities except for a vault toilet at the entrance to Blair Valley. Carry water. No dogs, horses, or bikes allowed on the trail. Good for children.
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