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Best way to see Sandstone Canyon, Red Narrows, and Mud Palisades

A delightful surprise in the Anza-Borrego

Dubbed “Red Narrows” by Canebrake resident Frank Colver, who discovered it a few years ago.
  • Dubbed “Red Narrows” by Canebrake resident Frank Colver, who discovered it a few years ago.

Many years ago, vehicles could drive up June Wash in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. It was closed to vehicles after flooding rains and remains hike-only to this day. The view from Diablo Peak’s north saddle is where Anza-Borrego Desert State Park rangers first discovered Fish Creek’s popular Sandstone Canyon in the 1950s. The view of Sandstone Canyon continues to impress those who look down upon its twisting course that eventually flows into Fish Creek. (For a description of the hike to this view, see Roam-O-Rama, May 10, 2017.) Hiking another 1.88 miles beyond the view up June Wash on the ridge of Whale Peak will lead to a spectacular red-colored gorge that has been dubbed “Red Narrows” by Canebrake resident Frank Colver, who discovered it a few years ago.

Hiking on the ridge of Whale Peak will lead to Red Narrows.

Hiking on the ridge of Whale Peak will lead to Red Narrows.

As with the Sandstone Canyon View hike, begin the hike from June Wash, 2 miles from the road entrance, and head north following a wash that passes through two low ridges. This is actually June Wash. The road from your parked vehicle continues up the north fork of June Wash, which is misidentified as June Wash on some maps or called “false” June Wash.

Many years ago, vehicles could drive up June Wash.

Many years ago, vehicles could drive up June Wash.

Walk up the wash directly west of Diablo Benchmark, where June Wash continues to the north. The viewpoint overlooking the head of Sandstone Canyon is on the ridge to the east. Continue north up June Wash from this point, taking note of a large sentinel ironwood to the west. Alternatively, take an another route that traces the top of the ridge just north of the viewpoint from the saddle or just below the ridge on the June Wash side and follow it northwest.

Walking northwest on the ridgetop provides superb views of the Mud Palisades and the eroded landscape below to the southeast in the Fish Creek drainage. If walking north on the ridgetop, drop down (left) after about 0.4 mile to walk northwest and then north to enter June Wash as it begins to narrow.

Continue hiking up June Wash. In about a half-mile after entering the canyon, there will be a V junction. Turn right or northwest at the junction and work your way up “cholla alley” 0.3 mile until there is a very sharp turn to the northeast. Take care to avoid the many cholla balls found in this stretch of the canyon. Soon after rounding this turn will be the first glimpse of the iron-stained red narrow gorge (elevation 2780´), which is a delightful surprise as the deep, rich color appears suddenly.

Pass through the narrow passageway, which will open up briefly and then narrows into another passageway. This can be followed a short distance until it becomes difficult to travel. The head of June Wash continues to twist and constrict on its way up the Vallecito Mountains until it melts into the slope up Whale Peak. Return the same way along the ridgeline or head straight down June Wash.

If adventurous and prepared to backpack with plenty of water (and have made arrangements for a shuttle), you can proceed northeast over a ridge between the two narrows and drop down 2 miles to join the Pinyon Mountain/Fish Creek 4WD road that leads west to Hapaha Flat. From there, hikers can either proceed north through Harper Flat and Pinyon Canyon/Wash to Hwy 78 or head west along the Pinyon Mountain Road to SR-2.

Distance from downtown San Diego: 114 miles (Anza-Borrego Desert State Park). Allow 2 hours driving time. From SR-163N take I-8E, exiting on the Imperial Hwy at Ocotillo after 88 miles. Turn north on SR-2 (Imperial Hwy) and drive 23.4 miles to the turnoff on the right for June Wash (signed), about a half-mile beyond highway mile-marker 42. Drive 2 miles up June Wash and park. This dirt road has some soft sand. If concerned about the sand, park at the entrance to June Wash and walk up the wash 2 miles.

No facilities.

Hiking length: 10 or 14 miles out and back, depending on where the vehicle is parked; 8 to 10 hours, depending on start point.

Difficulty: Strenuous. Elevation gain/loss 825–2780 feet. Carry extra water.

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