West Butte, Borrego Mountain

This hike offers a serpentine slot canyon and a forever view.

Hikers near the top of the West Butte of Borrego Mountain.
  • Hikers near the top of the West Butte of Borrego Mountain.

This is one of the most popular hikes in the Anza-Borrego Desert. From the top, there is an almost 360-degree view that includes a major part of both the state park and the state vehicular recreation area and views of Borrego Springs, the Borrego Badlands, and the Santa Rosa, Vallecito, and San Ysidro mountains. An added bonus is “the Slot” near Borrego Mountain, which is the only slot marked on a map. There are many slot canyons in the Anza-Borrego — narrow passages carved by water flowing through easily eroded soft formations such as sandstone or siltstone — but this one is the most frequently visited. It is such a narrow passage through towering sandstone canyon walls that you may have to take your daypack off and edge through sideways.

Heading toward a natural bridge in “the Slot.”

Heading toward a natural bridge in “the Slot.”

Start the trip through “the Slot.” From the parking area, find the heavily traveled trail leading a short distance down into the canyon below. After reaching the bottom, go left. The canyon quickly narrows as you descend. In places, the path is convoluted; in others it is straight and very narrow, occasionally less than shoulder width. At one point, the trail passes under a precariously perched rock that bridges the walls of the canyon. It looks as though it could fall at any minute, but it has been there for many years. The narrowest section is fairly short. In less than half a mile it widens to a broad sandy bottom and joins a jeep road. Head back to your car by either following this road or returning the way you came to experience “the Slot” for a second time.

Once you reach your car, start your journey up the West Butte by hiking up the abandoned dirt road leading east and signed “NO Motorized Vehicles.” The road ends in a small box canyon within a quarter of a mile. Look for ducks and a well-traveled footpath leading up a ridge at the road’s end. At the top of the ridge, the trail continues to progress up the west-facing slope of the mountain. The lower reaches of West Butte are heavily eroded sandstone and cobble with very sparse vegetation, mainly with creosote bush and brittlebush. As you reach the top of the mountain, the trail scrambles around decomposing desert-varnished granite boulders. The view from the top is impressive at any time. Especially dramatic is the vista of the Borrego Badlands to the northeast when seen in the late afternoon. After taking in the view, go back the way you came.

  • Distance from downtown San Diego: About 90 miles from downtown San Diego via Julian. From Julian, go east on SR-78 for about 29 miles. Look for an unpaved road on the left, 1.3 miles east of the paved turnoff to Borrego Springs Rd from SR-78. There is a small sign (that can easily be missed) marked “Buttes Pass Road.” Turn left and watch for some areas of soft sand and a few potholes. Most passenger cars can make it with little difficulty. After traveling 1 mile, there is a fork in the road. Take the left fork and drive another 0.8 mile to “the Slot” and the West Butte trailhead and park. Parking is free, but there are no facilities. Bring your own drinking water. Hiking length: 3.5 miles out and back on two routes. Elevation gain/loss about 400 feet. Difficulty: Fairly easy hiking over some popular trails that are not maintained. The trails are identified by ducks and frequent-use patterns.

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