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Canyon adventure two-for-one

Explore two very different canyons while looking for bighorn sheep.

The crossing of Mescal Bajada en route to Bighorn Canyon
The crossing of Mescal Bajada en route to Bighorn Canyon

This Anza-Borrego desert hike takes an adventure through lightly visited canyons where one may encounter a bighorn sheep, view some fascinating rock formations, and find an array of wildflowers if the rains have cooperated. It is also interesting to compare these two canyons and their washes. While similar, they also have their differences. Ironwood trees are relatively rare in Bighorn Wash but common in Nolina Wash, and the yucca relative, nolina, appears to be confined to Nolina Wash. One of the ways that nolina differs from yucca is in having pliant fibrous leaves unlike the stiff leaves associated with the yucca.

Although the route is obvious, for most of the distance there is no maintained trail, and some boulder-hopping is necessary. From your parked vehicle at the junction of the Pinyon Wash jeep trail and the Nolina jeep trail, start hiking west across the flat, sandy Mescal Bajada. About 0.3 mile from your vehicle, begin tending southwest and continue until Bighorn Canyon is visible ahead, which you will enter after covering about 1 mile. The canyon gradually narrows as you hike south through scattered catclaw acacia, rabbitbrush, agave, barrel and fishhook cactus, two kinds of cholla, Mormon tea, and occasional juniper trees. Blue Spring, on the north-facing slope of Pinyon Mountain, is 3.75 miles from your vehicle, if you choose to go there. It was developed as a guzzler for the Pinyon Mountain bighorn sheep and is not a source of water for humans. The best chance for seeing the elusive sheep requires remaining quiet and carefully scanning the steep rocky slopes above the spring or near some of their favorite forage plants: catclaw, encelia, sweetbush, and krameria. Their efficient digestive system allows them to maximize removal of nutrients from what can be well-armed dry and abrasive plants.

If you do go to the Blue Spring, reverse your steps until the low pass to the east that separates Bighorn and Nolina canyons is visible. Then go toward it, following the ducks that lead over the pass and down into Nolina Canyon. Take care making your way down-canyon, where you must negotiate some short, dry falls. The Nolina Canyon jeep trail is 1.75 miles from the pass summit. Scrambling over rocks ends here and hiking becomes easy again. Just follow the jeep trail through soft sand back to your vehicle.

Be prepared with at least a liter of water and check temperatures for all hikes for optimum time for comfort level.


  • Distance from downtown San Diego: About 85 miles. Allow 1 hour and 50 minutes driving time (Anza-Borrego Desert State Park). Drive to Julian. From the junction of SR-79 and SR-78/Banner Rd., drive 22.5 miles to the signed turnoff for Pinyon Wash, 4.1 miles past the junction of SR-78 and SR-3. Drive south 1.6 miles on the Pinyon Wash dirt road to the junction with Nolina Wash and park safely off the road. Passenger autos usually can negotiate the Pinyon Wash jeep trail, but a truck or 4WD vehicle is recommended.
  • Hiking length: This is an 8-mile loop hike.
  • Difficulty: Moderate to moderately strenuous. If not for the length of the hike and some boulder-hopping, it would be easy. Elevation gain/loss is 1280 feet. Trekking poles are recommended for some boulder-hopping. No facilities or potable water.
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The crossing of Mescal Bajada en route to Bighorn Canyon
The crossing of Mescal Bajada en route to Bighorn Canyon

This Anza-Borrego desert hike takes an adventure through lightly visited canyons where one may encounter a bighorn sheep, view some fascinating rock formations, and find an array of wildflowers if the rains have cooperated. It is also interesting to compare these two canyons and their washes. While similar, they also have their differences. Ironwood trees are relatively rare in Bighorn Wash but common in Nolina Wash, and the yucca relative, nolina, appears to be confined to Nolina Wash. One of the ways that nolina differs from yucca is in having pliant fibrous leaves unlike the stiff leaves associated with the yucca.

Although the route is obvious, for most of the distance there is no maintained trail, and some boulder-hopping is necessary. From your parked vehicle at the junction of the Pinyon Wash jeep trail and the Nolina jeep trail, start hiking west across the flat, sandy Mescal Bajada. About 0.3 mile from your vehicle, begin tending southwest and continue until Bighorn Canyon is visible ahead, which you will enter after covering about 1 mile. The canyon gradually narrows as you hike south through scattered catclaw acacia, rabbitbrush, agave, barrel and fishhook cactus, two kinds of cholla, Mormon tea, and occasional juniper trees. Blue Spring, on the north-facing slope of Pinyon Mountain, is 3.75 miles from your vehicle, if you choose to go there. It was developed as a guzzler for the Pinyon Mountain bighorn sheep and is not a source of water for humans. The best chance for seeing the elusive sheep requires remaining quiet and carefully scanning the steep rocky slopes above the spring or near some of their favorite forage plants: catclaw, encelia, sweetbush, and krameria. Their efficient digestive system allows them to maximize removal of nutrients from what can be well-armed dry and abrasive plants.

If you do go to the Blue Spring, reverse your steps until the low pass to the east that separates Bighorn and Nolina canyons is visible. Then go toward it, following the ducks that lead over the pass and down into Nolina Canyon. Take care making your way down-canyon, where you must negotiate some short, dry falls. The Nolina Canyon jeep trail is 1.75 miles from the pass summit. Scrambling over rocks ends here and hiking becomes easy again. Just follow the jeep trail through soft sand back to your vehicle.

Be prepared with at least a liter of water and check temperatures for all hikes for optimum time for comfort level.


  • Distance from downtown San Diego: About 85 miles. Allow 1 hour and 50 minutes driving time (Anza-Borrego Desert State Park). Drive to Julian. From the junction of SR-79 and SR-78/Banner Rd., drive 22.5 miles to the signed turnoff for Pinyon Wash, 4.1 miles past the junction of SR-78 and SR-3. Drive south 1.6 miles on the Pinyon Wash dirt road to the junction with Nolina Wash and park safely off the road. Passenger autos usually can negotiate the Pinyon Wash jeep trail, but a truck or 4WD vehicle is recommended.
  • Hiking length: This is an 8-mile loop hike.
  • Difficulty: Moderate to moderately strenuous. If not for the length of the hike and some boulder-hopping, it would be easy. Elevation gain/loss is 1280 feet. Trekking poles are recommended for some boulder-hopping. No facilities or potable water.
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4S Ranch Allied Gardens Alpine Baja Balboa Park Bankers Hill Barrio Logan Bay Ho Bay Park Black Mountain Ranch Blossom Valley Bonita Bonsall Borrego Springs Boulevard Campo Cardiff-by-the-Sea Carlsbad Carmel Mountain Carmel Valley Chollas View Chula Vista City College City Heights Clairemont College Area Coronado CSU San Marcos Cuyamaca College Del Cerro Del Mar Descanso Downtown San Diego Eastlake East Village El Cajon Emerald Hills Encanto Encinitas Escondido Fallbrook Fletcher Hills Golden Hill Grant Hill Grantville Grossmont College Guatay Harbor Island Hillcrest Imperial Beach Imperial Valley Jacumba Jamacha-Lomita Jamul Julian Kearny Mesa Kensington La Jolla Lakeside La Mesa Lemon Grove Leucadia Liberty Station Lincoln Acres Lincoln Park Linda Vista Little Italy Logan Heights Mesa College Midway District MiraCosta College Miramar Miramar College Mira Mesa Mission Beach Mission Hills Mission Valley Mountain View Mount Hope Mount Laguna National City Nestor Normal Heights North Park Oak Park Ocean Beach Oceanside Old Town Otay Mesa Pacific Beach Pala Palomar College Palomar Mountain Paradise Hills Pauma Valley Pine Valley Point Loma Point Loma Nazarene Potrero Poway Rainbow Ramona Rancho Bernardo Rancho Penasquitos Rancho San Diego Rancho Santa Fe Rolando San Carlos San Marcos San Onofre Santa Ysabel Santee San Ysidro Scripps Ranch SDSU Serra Mesa Shelltown Shelter Island Sherman Heights Skyline Solana Beach Sorrento Valley Southcrest South Park Southwestern College Spring Valley Stockton Talmadge Temecula Tierrasanta Tijuana UCSD University City University Heights USD Valencia Park Valley Center Vista Warner Springs
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