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An adventure in geology

Slipping through the slots of Canyon Sin Nombre

Large palisades mark the entrance to the slot canyon.
Large palisades mark the entrance to the slot canyon.

A couple of very good slot canyons make for an interesting add-on to the impressive geology hike at the upper portion of this canyon. The Roam-O-Rama write up “The pull-apart basin” from 11/22/17 describes the first part of this hike. To reach the slots, start hiking from the parking area down the Canyon Sin Nombre dirt road. The first part of the road is steep but will flatten out as you enter the canyon. Continue for 1.8 miles to the angular unconformity where the write-up referenced above ends.

While you can drive down to the slot canyons, a high clearance 4WD vehicle is required due to the steep, soft sand entrance and some rocky patches once in the canyon.

Both slot canyons have loose rock along the floor, so watch your step. These canyons are made of compacted sand and are not suitable for climbing. The smaller of the two slot canyons is at approximately 1.9 miles from the S-2 (GPS N32.84377, W116.15393). As you’re walking down Canyon Sin Nombre, this will be the second canyon on the left with posts across the entrance to deter vehicles from entering. This canyon has large dome-shaped sandstone outcroppings lining the entrance. Once in the canyon, stay to the right and you will quickly find the slot canyon.

The narrow, twisting passageways can be challenging.

If you are claustrophobic, only take this slot canyon to the point you are comfortable. This slot winds up and narrows—at one point you will need to remove your backpack to squeeze sideways up and around a corner. It opens up after this point and takes you to the top of the ridgeline for a spectacular view. Please note the north/south trail that winds along the ridgeline; we’ll be using this trail from the main slot canyon to complete our return loop. Once you are done enjoying the view, head back down the slot to the Canyon Sin Nombre wash road.

Looking back at the slot entrance.

To find the main slot canyon, continue down Canyon Sin Nombre about 0.5 mile. Watch for Orcutt’s woody aster along the canyon floor; it has a showy purple flower and blooms in the winter after rain. There are also creosote, mesquite, and smoke trees. At 2.4 miles from S-2 (not counting the 1st slot canyon), you will see a butte carved into majestic palisades. Nestled in the left hand corner is the entrance to the main slot canyon (GPS N32.84761, W116.15436) that leads to the top of the ridgeline.

The play of light makes the canyon inviting.

Walls are up to 150 feet high and the slot is around 3 feet at its narrowest. There are some large fallen rocks to navigate over and scattered loose rocks along the floor to watch for. Follow the slot to the top and climb out of the wash to the left for a marvelous 360-degree vista with views of Cranebrake community to the northwest and the Coyote Mountains to the southeast. You may also recognize where you emerged from the smaller slot canyon a couple hundred feet to your left.

There is an easily discernable trail that winds along the ridgeline. To complete the loop, follow this trail generally south. There is a cross trail at 3 miles from the starting point (GPS N32.838600, W116.159503). Turn right here and continue to follow the trail enjoying the vivid ocotillo and views to the distant Whale Peak to the northwest. At about 3.4 miles (GPS N32.835650, W116.163803), the trail fades up a steep slope. Look for a traversable wash to the left which will take you back to the dirt track you walked in on. The top of this wash has some loose rock, but quickly becomes smoother. You’ll have a good view of the colorful Elsinore Fault on your left as you leave the wash. Turn back onto the dirt road to make your way back to your car. It’s approximately 0.8 miles back to S-2.

Directions: From I-8 east, exit at Ocotillo. Go north on S-2 for 13.4 miles and watch for a small brown Canyon Sin Nombre marker on the north side of the road. Park at the top of the trail directly off the road. No facilities.

Hiking length: 5 miles, loop.

Difficulty: Moderately strenuous; elevation gain/loss 900 ft. Vehicles allowed on roads: appropriate off-road vehicle recommended if not hiking to slot canyons. Bring plenty of water.

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Large palisades mark the entrance to the slot canyon.
Large palisades mark the entrance to the slot canyon.

A couple of very good slot canyons make for an interesting add-on to the impressive geology hike at the upper portion of this canyon. The Roam-O-Rama write up “The pull-apart basin” from 11/22/17 describes the first part of this hike. To reach the slots, start hiking from the parking area down the Canyon Sin Nombre dirt road. The first part of the road is steep but will flatten out as you enter the canyon. Continue for 1.8 miles to the angular unconformity where the write-up referenced above ends.

While you can drive down to the slot canyons, a high clearance 4WD vehicle is required due to the steep, soft sand entrance and some rocky patches once in the canyon.

Both slot canyons have loose rock along the floor, so watch your step. These canyons are made of compacted sand and are not suitable for climbing. The smaller of the two slot canyons is at approximately 1.9 miles from the S-2 (GPS N32.84377, W116.15393). As you’re walking down Canyon Sin Nombre, this will be the second canyon on the left with posts across the entrance to deter vehicles from entering. This canyon has large dome-shaped sandstone outcroppings lining the entrance. Once in the canyon, stay to the right and you will quickly find the slot canyon.

The narrow, twisting passageways can be challenging.

If you are claustrophobic, only take this slot canyon to the point you are comfortable. This slot winds up and narrows—at one point you will need to remove your backpack to squeeze sideways up and around a corner. It opens up after this point and takes you to the top of the ridgeline for a spectacular view. Please note the north/south trail that winds along the ridgeline; we’ll be using this trail from the main slot canyon to complete our return loop. Once you are done enjoying the view, head back down the slot to the Canyon Sin Nombre wash road.

Looking back at the slot entrance.

To find the main slot canyon, continue down Canyon Sin Nombre about 0.5 mile. Watch for Orcutt’s woody aster along the canyon floor; it has a showy purple flower and blooms in the winter after rain. There are also creosote, mesquite, and smoke trees. At 2.4 miles from S-2 (not counting the 1st slot canyon), you will see a butte carved into majestic palisades. Nestled in the left hand corner is the entrance to the main slot canyon (GPS N32.84761, W116.15436) that leads to the top of the ridgeline.

The play of light makes the canyon inviting.

Walls are up to 150 feet high and the slot is around 3 feet at its narrowest. There are some large fallen rocks to navigate over and scattered loose rocks along the floor to watch for. Follow the slot to the top and climb out of the wash to the left for a marvelous 360-degree vista with views of Cranebrake community to the northwest and the Coyote Mountains to the southeast. You may also recognize where you emerged from the smaller slot canyon a couple hundred feet to your left.

There is an easily discernable trail that winds along the ridgeline. To complete the loop, follow this trail generally south. There is a cross trail at 3 miles from the starting point (GPS N32.838600, W116.159503). Turn right here and continue to follow the trail enjoying the vivid ocotillo and views to the distant Whale Peak to the northwest. At about 3.4 miles (GPS N32.835650, W116.163803), the trail fades up a steep slope. Look for a traversable wash to the left which will take you back to the dirt track you walked in on. The top of this wash has some loose rock, but quickly becomes smoother. You’ll have a good view of the colorful Elsinore Fault on your left as you leave the wash. Turn back onto the dirt road to make your way back to your car. It’s approximately 0.8 miles back to S-2.

Directions: From I-8 east, exit at Ocotillo. Go north on S-2 for 13.4 miles and watch for a small brown Canyon Sin Nombre marker on the north side of the road. Park at the top of the trail directly off the road. No facilities.

Hiking length: 5 miles, loop.

Difficulty: Moderately strenuous; elevation gain/loss 900 ft. Vehicles allowed on roads: appropriate off-road vehicle recommended if not hiking to slot canyons. Bring plenty of water.

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