Lori Carey Photography

Friday, November 7, 2008

South Coyote Canyon, Sheep Camp and The Slot - Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, Part I

Coyote Canyon in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is closed to all use every year between June 1 and September 30 to allow the endangered Peninsular (Desert) Bighorn sheep unrestricted access to the important water source of Coyote Creek. It has become our tradition to venture out to Sheep Camp via the South Coyote Canyon trail shortly after the canyon re-opens every year with the folks from Project-JK, usually as a "newbie" run to introduce others to the desert environment, teach them the proper way to handle and use their jeeps' capabilities on the different types of terrain, talk with them about the necessary gear and equipment for venturing into remote regions of the desert, and reinforce the Leave No Trace principles. We are very privileged in California to have such a diversity of open trails to provide endless opportunity for discovery, but we realize that it comes with a tremendous amount of responsibility to not only do our part to protect the environment, but to teach others as well and maintain a zero-tolerance policy on our outings. For many folks, it is the first time they have taken their jeep off pavement. For others, it is the first time they will forge a deep water crossing and navigate a rocky climb. And there are even others for whom it is the first time they will venture into the desert environment.

The success of past newbie runs has caused an explosion in the number of people signing up. This year's Coyote Canyon run had 30 newbies and 8 mentors, a very large group to coordinate and keep moving on the trail, and I've got to hand it to WayOfLife and the rest of the mentor team for smoothly pulling it off. Less than half of the group chose to spend the night at Sheep Camp, making for a large but manageable group.

Trailbud and I, accompanied by my better half and his son Ryan, were the advance team; we got on the trail about two hours before the main group to check in at the visitor center, make sure there were no surprises on the trail, and to secure the campsite. I let Bill take the wheel since he's done so much work on my jeep the past two weeks and deserves to have a little fun, and we led the way which meant I also got to be the lucky one to jump out and run ahead to make sure the course was clear before proceeding at a blind obstacle. It's much less work to be number two, or at least be the driver and have a passenger to send out! The guys had warned me that we had no time for photos on the way in to camp, but I still managed to grab a few of them on the trail.

The first thing I noticed on this trip was that the Teddy Bear Cholla was so blackened and withered everywhere we went that I initially thought a fire had scorched the desert floor. Teddy Bear Cholla is one of the hardiest and most drought resistant desert plants in Anza-Borrego, and I have never before seen it in such a drastic state. What was really surprising, though, is that the Ocotillo was in bloom. The park reports that September rain (the desert got rain and I didn't???) has resulted in sporadic wildflower blooms in a few areas. That's one of my favorite things about the desert; it has its own seasons and you never know what you will find. I remember finding a carpet of wildflowers in full bloom at Amboy Crater last January.

Most of the South Coyote Canyon trail is loose sand and an easy drive. It's not uncommon to see 2WD and even passenger cars up until the second water crossing, which is 100 yards long and can be quite deep in years with good rain. This year it was only about 18 inches deep. And less experienced drivers who make it past the second crossing are usually deterred by the notorious half mile climb through the steep rocky pinch.

If you had planned to do South Coyote Canyon for the fun of water crossing #2 and the rocky hill climb, I am sad to report that the park service has completley tamed the trail and it is now a mere shadow of its former self. While the crossing is still fun as you drive along the river bed through the green tunnel of trees, all of the big rocks have now been removed from the river bed. No more surprises waiting to catch the unaware. The little ledge at the top of the climb that used to intimidate newbies is no more. Worse than that, the hill climb has had all of the larger rocks boulders removed and is now no more challenging than driving over cobblestones. They even blasted and removed half of the big rock at the top that used to threaten body damage as you navigated the tight bend at the top.

More people will now have access to Sheep Camp, good for them I suppose, but sad for me and those of us who prefer to go places where few others can. Although it's been tamed, it is still a scenic drive through a beautiful area of the desert, and the remote and primitive Sheep Camp will always be one of my favorite places to spend the night. Unfortunately, it no longer makes a good training trail as we had always used the climb to teach proper technique, and proper tire placement is no longer as important as it had been.

Hit the jump for the rest of the trail report.

Since we were making such great time on the trail, despite the photo ban I made the guys stop for the poser shot on the only remaining rock on the climb because it's just not a jeep run without a great flex shot.

Here's Trailbud and his 4DR:

And Bill in my 2DR:

Sheep Camp is located in Sheep Canyon, and is accessed via a side trail off the South Coyote Canyon trail. The trail to the camp is just very loose sand and easy to navigate. Despite stopping to talk to a group of jeepers at the bottom of the climb (they really wanted to check out the JKs, and having both a 2DR and 4DR to show off kept us talking for a good twenty minutes), we made it to Sheep Camp in record time and began setting up. Bill handled the tent while I set up the kitchen area (we always set up one main kitchen area so we can socialize while we cook) and for a change I had the opportunity to take a few photos of this beautiful location before the main group showed up.

Trailbud coming in to camp:

And the surroundings:

This is the actual "camp" itself:

There is a fire ring, and a pit toilet a short hike away. This is where we set up the kitchen. This is also what allows to do the one thing that we always do here and no where else; show trail videos! It's always a big hit with the newbies, and of course the regulars get excited because WayOfLifette makes everyone look like a star in her videos. I didn't get any photos of it this year, but here is a shot I took last year:

Part Two will pick up from here and continue this trail report. I know this is a somewhat strange place to stop, but I don't want to wait any longer between posts and I have a 4:30am wakeup call tomorrow. I can't finish tonight if I want to grab any sleep. ;)

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