Located south of Ocotillo Wells, Lycium Wash via Split Mountain Road is about 45 minutes from Anza Borrego Desert State Park’s Visitor Center, making it an ideal hike for those wishing to have a more primitive experience away from the crowds. It can also be accessed via Highway 78, east from Julian. The thrill of this hike begins with the drive and its views of ocotillo and cholla. It is also an area that is a favorite for viewing geologic features and desert plant and animal life. This route is used by hikers/walkers, trail runners, mountain bikers, and off-roading vehicles.
After turning into the Fish Creek Wash area, continue driving 3.8 miles into Split Mountain Gorge for a geology stop. This impressive gorge is framed with gargantuan walls on either side and is marked with a state park geology information sign. It is a beautiful site where you can view a wavelike appearance of the rock walls known as “the anticline,” most likely a drag fold created in a matter of seconds when a landslide met the ocean floor. After viewing this site, continue driving to 4.4 miles and park across from the Wind Caves Trail. This is where the hike begins.
From the parking area, take the right turn (west) to the North Fork of Fish Creek, passing the first right turn to the north into Oyster Shell Wash, continuing upwash. It is an easy stroll through the sandy wash and past clay hills to the second right on the north side of the wash, which is Lycium Wash. It is signed and about 1 mile from your vehicle. To shave off 2 miles on this hike, you can drive to this point and begin your hike here (5.46 miles from Split Mountain Road). Although the wash is marked, this is not an official mapped hike.
At about 2.7 miles is the junction with Stone Wash on the left. No vehicles are allowed in Stone Wash. Continue hiking until the turnoff left to Jigsaw Wash at mile 3.4. This is the end of the vehicle road that has been followed to this point. In 0.2 milem the route will turn sharply left (north), entering the narrows of Lycium Wash/Canyon. This is the recommended turn around for the 7-mile (or 5-mile) hike. From here the route becomes steep and more difficult with some rock scrambling. If looking for a longer more strenuous hike, you can continue another 2.3 miles to the ridge overlooking Split Mountain for some magnificent views of the surrounding mountains. The elevation gain from here will be another 700 feet and will result in an out-and-back hike of either 11.5 miles or 9.5 miles, depending on where you began your hike. This would definitely result in a full-day’s hike with no water sources. Beyond the narrows, you will be rock scrambling over dry waterfalls. Follow the same route back to your vehicle.
If you hike in spring, you will see magnificent prickly poppies in this area and Orcutt’s woody aster in the wash and hanging from the rock walls. These are species endemic to this area of the desert. Also look for hummingbirds that bounce from flower to flower at the gorge floor. Phainopepla songs can be a constant soundtrack on this hike. Look for nests found within a fortress of mesquite thorns.
Lycium Wash and the Fish Creek area may be visited any time during the desert season, but spring is always recommended for the best flowers and possibly white-lined sphinx moth caterpillars fattening up on evening primrose and crossing the wash, readying themselves to enter the ground for their transformation, several weeks later, into flying moths. Hawks and ravens will linger nearby to feast on the hundreds of caterpillars, more than enough to feed the ravenous birds (and in earlier days, local Indians, who harvested these tasty morsels after roasting them on a fire.)
LYCIUM WASH – SPLIT MOUNTAIN (Anza-Borrego Desert State Park)
Hike along an ancient sea bottom with multi-hued hillsides
Directions: From Julian, drive 34.3 miles east on Highway 78 to the turnoff south (right) on Split Mountain Road in Ocotillo Wells. At 8.2 miles, turn right into Fish Creek Wash and the Split Mountain area. This area is quite wide/sandy and has obvious off-roading activity. Be advised: though the start of the Fish Creek Wash area is wide and mostly navigable for those with high clearance vehicles and experience driving in sand, eventually the road will become rocky and a bit technical. A 4WD vehicle is essential and recommended by ABDSP. Those with appropriate vehicles may continue up the Fish Creek Wash for 4.4 miles to the Wind Caves area and park. Hiking Length: 7 miles out-and-back (can shorten distance by 2 miles by driving to the entrance of Lycium Wash and beginning the hike there for a 5-mile out-and-back hike). Also, an optional strenuous extension to the hike is available. Difficulty: Moderate to strenuous. Elevation gain/loss: about 300 feet (1050 feet if you extend the hike to the ridge overview). This is a full day hike. Allow 4-6 (6-9 hours if you add the extension) hours for a moderate pace, stopping for pictures, observations, and lunch. No facilities. Vault toilets at the entrance to Split Mountain at the Fish Creek Campground. Minimal shade. Creek Campground. Minimal shade.