Friday, March 25, 2016

Adventures in Anza Borrego: Whale Peak and Mud Caves

Our next adventure from our base camp at Agua Caliente Regional Park was a hike to the highest peak in the area. At 5,349 feet Whale Peak offers a tempting respite from the desert heat below. Jerry Schad's excellent book Afoot and Afield in San Diego County offers two approaches to this peak, a 13 mile loop from the desert floor and a 4 mile out-and-back from 4,000 feet.

Hans and I had hiked this peak once before. In 2006 we had an epic 16 mile day on the trail with two of my buddies, Kathryn and Celine. On that day we chose the long West route and, due to the lack of defined trails on this peak lost our way, adding several miles to an already long day.

This time, having a 4WD truck, we decided to do the shorter North approach even though the access road sounded a little gnarly...would we be able to get past The Squeeze??? But, fortuitously, in the pool the evening before we talked to a couple of locals who told us that when we come to the second high point on Pinion Mountain Rd. we should park on the spur road to the right and walk up the ravine where we would find a good trail to the peak. This starting point is located before The Squeeze.

This turned out to be excellent advice. The road was a bit hairy for our big truck, quite narrow and sandy in places. We ended up with a moderately strenuous 5 mile out-and-back hike on a mostly obvious trail. I say mostly because any route to Whale Peak includes finding your way through rocky sections marked with cairns that can be difficult to follow at times. Also, when I saw a photo of The Squeeze later I knew our truck would not have made it through...which would have added four miles to the hike!

We could see Whale Peak from our camp site.
It is the highest point on the left in the distance.

We parked on this little spur road off of Pinion Mountain Rd
opposite a hillside with interesting rocks protruding from the side.

The trail started with a steep rock scramble up a ravine.
Hans, Martin and Chelsea are hanging out on the peak with the valley including our campground in the background.
I even found our entry on the trail register from our 2006 hike!

The next day we explored an area known as the Mud Caves. Less than 10 miles from Agua Caliente Regional Park via decent roads through sand washes, the Mud Caves are located in Arroyo Tapiado and are created by wind and rain erosion of this ancient lake bed.

There are 22 known caves and 9 slots. Some of the caves are hundreds of feet deep and have huge rooms inside. We chose to avoid the caves due to concern over their safety, especially since there has been a fair amount of rain in the desert this year and we saw plenty of signs of sliding mud in the surrounding mud hills. The slot canyons were fun to explore though!

Approaching the mud hills of Arroyo Tapiado.

We walked up three separate canyons and encountered cool arches like this in each one!

The morning shade was welcome as we walked into each slot canyon.

Not many plants were able to take root in this bleak terrain, but amazingly we had spring flowers!

Multiple arches.

After leaving Arroyo Tapiado we made a loop drive on the back roads, coming out through Canyon Sin Nombre.
This beautiful area required 4WD to get through. It's hard to see Hans but he is in front of the truck scouting the route.

Our last morning at Agua Caliente we hiked the Moonlight Canyon trail again...we really enjoyed the variety of short trails available at this county park!

Our second Three-Lined Boa sighting in as many weeks!

All over Anza Borrego the beavertail cacti are just on the verge of an explosion of pink!
Looking down on the campground from Moonlight Trail with the Whale Peak range in the distance.

Campground Review

Agua Caliente Regional Park is about 100 miles east of San Diego in the Anza Borrego desert. It's got 140 campsites, many with full or partial hook ups. There are a few miles of trails at the park, but many miles of exploration is readily available in the surrounding desert.

The park is only open from Labor Day weekend to Memorial Day and it is very popular due to the geothermally heated pools onsite. The three pools range from 83 to 102 degrees and the warmest pool is indoors and adults only. This park can be extremely crowded on the weekends.

Due to the popularity of this park reservations are recommended on the weekends, midweek there were plenty of sites available. We happened to stay here during spring break and the park was 99% full over the weekend and about 25 - 30% full on weekdays.

When we made our original reservations for February we had the enormous site #104, but when we changed our reservations due to family health issues we had fewer sites to choose from and site #99 was pretty tight with barely enough room for our truck and trailer and a tiny sitting area behind the rig. Most sites are pretty close together and some are rather unlevel.

Despite the close sites and weekend crowds, we loved our stay here! Fortunately we only had neighbors over the weekend. The views are spectacular, the pools are nice during the week, the trails are lovely, the wildlife watching was excellent, and the exploring in the surrounding desert is spectacular...oh, and we happened to be here during a good spring bloom!

Verizon signal was nonexistent, except for a few hours each afternoon with our booster.

We had site #99 and you can see that site 100 is close, just a couple of feet up from us.
Also, site 99 had very little space behind it for a sitting area...but the views were good.
Our door side got blasted by the afternoon sun.

Looking at our site from the other direction.

Shuffleboard and horse shoes.

The indoor pool is the hottest at 102 degrees...adults only.
9:30 - 5pm daily, 6pm - 9pm on Friday and Saturday.

There are two outdoor pools and both are all ages.
This is the coolest pool at 83 degrees. The other outdoor pool is about 96 degrees.

One of our favorite sites #96. It sits at the end of the row with nice views and pretty plants.

Site 98 is very narrow just like our site to the left.

Another favorite site is #104. It's at the top of the hill with commanding views, only one neighbor and it's a really big site.

There are several cabins for rent.

Seen from the pool!

Hooded orioles like ocotillo flowers.

Rosie loved this park!
Here she is basking in the sun without a care in the world!

Next up: we move on to Anza Borrego State Park.


  1. All places we haven't been. Wonderful that you were able to head out and enjoy some R&R here.

    1. We will definitely return to this park, especially midweek. There is so much more to explore around here!

  2. Such gorgeous views from your campsite! We've hiked the Moonlight Trail and really enjoyed it; looks like staying there sometime would be fun to take advantage of the other trails. We intended to soak in the indoor pool (the outdoor pool was temporarily closed when we were there) but the chlorine fumes were so intense we changed our minds. Did you find the pool to be overly chlorinated?

    1. At this time the chlorine smell was extremely faint, barely noticeable.

  3. Whale Peak is an uphill hike no matter where you start! I agree the late-great Jerry Schad's 'Afoot and Afield in San Diego County' is the gospel!, The Canyoneers from the NAT have continued to contribute to Roam-o-Rama articles in 'The San Diego Reader', another good source.

    Those cabins were being constructed last time we were there. It's been too long -
    Thanks for the nice review of the park.

    1. Yeah, Whale Peak is no cake walk!

      Jerry Schad was a great trailblazer!

  4. What a great park! And of course you found the best hikes. So good to read about your adventures out on the road again.

  5. This should be on our list as we would be meandering around that area sometime this winter. Thanks for scouting it and experiencing it for us. Will see if we can hike Whale Peak, its looks daunting and not sure if we can do 16 miles in a day.
    We've been in Utah for a while now and has been looking at red dirt and red rocks, and here you are in CA and we are looking at white rocks! what a contrast!

    1. This time it was only a 5 mile out and back to Whale guys would enjoy that one!

  6. What a great spot. We have had that one on our list for a while, but never made it out there.

  7. Looks like a lovely hike, snake and all!

    1. Oh yeah, the snake definitely adds to the experience!

  8. Oh, how I love slot canyons. So much fun to explore there...I sure hope it works out next year to visit there Lisa.
    What a sweet picture of Rosie...

  9. Boy you guys are determined to get up there to 5000 feet. Love that you got the important information in the pool. I’m not sure we’ve been in a pool the entire time we’ve been on the road. Those hot pools sounds very inviting. And views of bighorn sheep. Wow! Campground sounds nice. Thanks for all the information. Gorgeous view from your site. Avoiding the caves sounds like a good move. Love the slots. So glad you could get out and enjoy this. Hope things continue to improve for your parents.

    1. Who needs pools when you got the lovely ocean at your door step?!?!

  10. I've looked at Whale Peak a couple times when we were at Anza Borrego SP. Maybe it will be up next:) Now the Mud Caves I really wanted to see but the ranger really recommended that we not go there. I didn't realize that people died from collapsing roofs. Glad you didn't go in either. However...I didn't know about the slots!! Those I need to see!!

    1. Yeah, you guys would enjoy the route we took to the top of Whale Peak. I can give you slightly more detailed info if you go.

      Yes, the slots are a much safer way to go!

  11. Forgot to mention the very cool Bighorns...lucky you!! And Rosie is too cute sleeping in a cozy natural bed:)

  12. Glad you're back on the road again. What an interesting place to hike and camp!

  13. Great hikes - you're seeing wonderful flowers and critters there! Love the pics of you and Hans in the arches and rocks. We will definitely check out this park next time we're in the area - those views are amazing. Enjoy ABSP, we enjoyed our time there in December, except for the winds. Wonderful to have FHUs in a state park!

  14. That park looks like a great base camp. AB is so big it would take a long time to explore it all.
    Love that Rosie will stay outside and relax like that. We can't get ours to sit still when they go out!