At the World’s End: Ghost Mountain, Anza-Borrego

Discover the ruins of a '30s-era homestead atop the Anza-Borrego's Ghost Mountain.
  • Discover the ruins of a '30s-era homestead atop the Anza-Borrego's Ghost Mountain.

The majestic Anza-Borrego Desert never ceases to surprise me. It is an alien environment of ghostly, pale rocks and unforgiving heat. Ocotillo plants sprout like underwater coral from the barren sands that hide translucent scorpions and the occasional creeping tarantula.

After hearing rumors of an abandoned house hidden on the ominous Ghost Mountain, I had to get up there as soon as possible.

We didn’t see any ghosts on that a sunny afternoon, but the fascinating ruins of the Marshal South house and the glittering Imperial Valley beyond are well worth the two-hour hike alone.

According to the state park information signs, Marshal South moved his family to Ghost Mountain in the early 1930s in the midst of the Depression. They spent two decades building a home and raising children in the wilderness. Stumbling around the ruins today, it is hard to imagine anyone surviving such extremes of heat and exposure.

The trailhead to the mountain is easy to find, down a marked dirt road off the S2 South of Borrego Springs. No 4x4s are required here. The trail itself is not that well-marked, but obvious in route. It can be tough going in places with multiple switchbacks and loose, gravelly dirt. With each step the spectacular views stretch out further on all sides, until our car was just a sparkle in the dusty lot below. Turkey vultures soared overhead, casting eerie shadows across the pitted scrub.

The ruins appeared suddenly over the rise of the mountain. They are mainly rough adobe walls and the wooden frames of doors and windows, but the remaining artifacts paint a home. There is a stone hearth, a cistern, an ancient sundial. Blistered cans and buckets, a hefty metal bed frame with coils of rusted spring. How did someone get a bed all the way up there, when I'm sweating and parched with just a backpack?

We rested on the rim to contemplate life at vulture level. The sun is relentless, but when the breeze picks up it is cold, unflinching. It cut through our shirts and froze our sweat-drenched shoulders.

Again, I can’t imagine raising babies in such a harsh environment, but that must speak for the Souths and their determination to forge a life up here, so far from the rest of the world.

The rest of the summit was a scramble but definitely worth it. The valleys stretch out beyond, unending and beautiful. The highway isn’t even a whisper away. Ghost Mountain is a lonely, desolate place, perfect for an afternoon in the desert.

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With temperatures at or around 110 degrees, are you really recommending people hike up Ghost Mountain now? Did you do your hike recently?

I would definitely not recommend hiking up there now. We hiked back in February. It took the Reader quite a while to accept this offering from me.

Yes, I've noticed that quite a few of the hikes they publish seem wrong for the season. I don't know why they don't publish hikes that would be more appropriate for the current weather. It seems they don't care about things like that as long as they publish "something."

Otherwise, I did enjoy your article. I've been up Ghost Mountain and even in the best weather, it still amazes me that the Souths lived there year round. I heard the temp in Borrego the other day was 115 degrees. Yikes.

Looking forward to your next article. Keep your boots dry and your whistle wet.

I appreciate your kind words, Javajoe. Being a Brit through and through, this hot weather does me no good at all and hiking is off the cards for me until at least late September, even with SPF 100.

That homestead isn't all that hard to access, even by Borrego standards. I sure wouldn't want to do it now. We hike there in January and February, and that's plenty warm enough.

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