The desert is more than just a home for an assortment of interesting creatures and plants. For instance, just a short ways East of the San Diego-Imperial county line and slightly North of State hiway 78, is an area called the San Felipe Hills. This area is quite meager in vegetation. It’s major attraction is barren but interestingly shaped mud deposits.
Eons ago all this area was at the bottom of an ancient sea. Even to this day, a drive up U.S. hiway 86 toward what is called Travertine Point will reward the careful observer the visible shoreline coloring the harder rocks. It is possible to follow this shoreline as it rambles along below hiway 78.
I’ve camped and explored this fascinating place many times. I love the stark beauty and variety of shapes and colors.
This month I want to share with you some of the sights that I think illustrate the variety of scenes you can encounter there. Lets go back to November of 1967. It was early morning, the sun had just peeped over the horizon casting long shadows over the desert. It was still cold out, but the sun felt good.
My friend “W” and I had left Los Angeles, very early in the morning and had the roads pretty much to ourselves. Turning South at Riverside, we rolled along until we stopped at Temecula for gasoline and a leg stretch. Even in the roomy cab of a full-size, long-bed, barely broken-in, 1967 Ford F-250 Camper Special (without the camper), driver and passenger (who kept falling asleep) had to really stretch out occasionally.
From Temecula, we turned East onto State route 79, heading along a two-lane road, no passing allowed until we passed thru Warner Springs (no one was stirring).
From Warner Springs, the road swings Southwest until the junction with County hiway S2, where we turned off the road and again had a stretching of arms and legs. We could still see our breath in the early morning sunlight. The “pull-off” was a favorite place to stop and had wide dirt areas used by the big 18-wheelers.
Refreshed, we got back into my truck and headed Southeast toward the tiny “town” of San Felipe (a large dark tree, and a watering place by the road). The hills on our North side were called the San Felipe Hills. We were headed to another set of hills also called the San Felipe Hills, but much further out, near the Salton Sea. Range cattle and a great deal of cactus grew on both sides of the road.
Finally, still on S-2, we came to the junction with State hiway 78 called Scissors Crossing. Turning East we entered Sentenac Canyon, named for an early pioneer Paul Sentenac who built a stone house on a rise above the canyon trail. Water flows into a small pond in the canyon below. It was the first water for travelers on the long rise up from the true desert below.
For the next few miles, thru what is often called “the narrows”, the low mountains on each side of the road pressed closely accompanied by a drop in elevation. We were heading down to the desert, and the vegetation changed accordingly.
A forest of Century Plants flanked us on our left side with their ten to fifteen foot high stalk, capped, in season, with saucer-size yellow flower clusters, in layers to the top of the stalk. At the base, sharp pointed daggers of gray-green color.
The mountains drew back, and the desert opened up to our view. One could spend several years exploring the many sandy and dirt roads that connected to hiway 78 and disappeared into the distance. We were almost to our destination; passing Ocotillo Wells on our right as well as the road to Split Mountain.
Crossing the San Diego-Imperial county line, we saw a power line substation in the distance. Pulling off the road at the small substation, we stopped, got out of the truck, stretched arms and legs. At that location, it seemed as if we were the only people in the world!
It had been a long drive, and there were faster ways of getting there but none so interesting as our route. Now the graded dirt road across the paved road beckoned.
Climbing back into the truck, we crossed the road and started our adventure.
A little ways in, a wide valley came up to our elevated dirt road. I took the tire tracks off and down onto the valley surface, driving over to a small hummock in the middle. We were there!!
I circled the hummock to see if anyone else was camped at this spot. No, we had it all to ourselves. I did not have a camper shell yet for the truck, so I aligned the truck with the rear of the bed facing East to catch the morning warming sun tomorrow. Next, I removed the tiedowns holding my faithful Tote-Gote power scooter in the back, lowered the tailgate and rolled the scooter gently to the ground.
My friend was shifting the items, such as food to the cab where there was shade.
Soon, we had a snack, and looked at the map to plan our afternoon’s exploratory. I had rigged the scooter to carry both of us. Saddle bags kept sweat shirts, tools, and first-aid supplies. We both being photographers, slung our cameras around our necks, and after a few pulls on the starter rope of the scooter’s six horsepower engine, off we wobbled as I compensated for carrying both of us instead of just me.
Our first target was to run the graded dirt road further North to get an idea of what was in our potential area. We zipped along, skirting small sand dunelets, bouncing, and feeling the wind in our faces, clear, warm sunlight and looking all about us. This road would have taken us all the way to the Truckhaven Trail (now known as the Borrego-Salton Seaway).
I had converted the power scooter to wide tires, like those on golf carts to give flotation over sand as well as rocks. After a while, I turned around and we returned to our camp for refreshment. From the camp, we rode slowly East. This put us into the San Felipe Hills.
The area was a wonderland, stark, bare, and flat calcite and gypsum crystals eroded out from the muds flashed and twinkled at us as we slowly drove the scooter through winding passages and up and down small hills. We stopped from time to time to take pictures. My friend was enthralled! All this wild, yet beautiful scenery confined into a small area of a few miles.
We returned to camp, to rest and prepare it for dinner, watching the shadows, and inflating the air mattresses for our sleeping bags. Along with my traditional Coleman lantern, I had a small 40 watt Honda generator along. As nite fell, I compared the light from the 40 watt light bulb with the lit Coleman single mantle lantern. The generator chugged quietly, and the lantern hissed. The light was about equal. Soon, it was time to sleep for the dawn comes suddenly to the desert.
And it did. The sun rose, casting it’s warm rays on our makeshift beds in the truck box. My friend was fascinated with a show of constantly shifting mirages in the East. They did not last long, but they were impressive. After breakfast, we packed up the camp for another day of exploration.
I had filled up the power scooter’s gas tank and oil. On a front box I carried spare gasoline and a gallon jug of extra water. A quart of oil was in one of the saddlebags. Soon we were ready to roll on East deeper into the San Felipe Hills.
That day would be a day of discovery. Our wanderings took us to a natural spring. While it had a lengthy pool, it was not more than six inches deep. We stopped to photograph it. Around its very edges were small paw prints of some desert animal.
From there we continued riding and looking.
Soon we came upon a scattering of old pipe, cables, wooden boards and posts. This was the remains of an unsuccessful attempt to find oil. I suspect they found only clay and salt or alkaline water. Heading South our travels took us to an old airplane wing tank or belly tank. Someone had drilled here for oil too and found an artesian well. A pipe rose out of the ground with a valve on it. Turning the handle caused
water to gush from it into the slit open airplane tank. Animals drank from this too.
We saw many surprising things in the San Felipe Hills and in later years I found lava drops that had solidified into half drops instead of closed drops up to an inch in diameter. Our return leg to camp took us to a small gas volcano. It bubbled from time to time. It probably was carbon dioxide gas. It was not flammable, and there are “dry ice” wells under the South end of the Salton Sea.
After a long day on the scooter, camp looked mighty fine. Food, drink, chairs to sit in and enjoy the beauty and solitude of this wonderful place. The next day we returned to our homes in Los Angeles by the same route we used to get to the San Felipe Hills. I hope you enjoyed our trip. Jerome W. Anderson