Friday, March 3, 2017

Rock Hill Trail, Salton Sea

We had a serious downpour in San Diego County and the news said it rained for something like 22 hours straight! Luckily the skies cleared for my day off and the drive east on I-8 knocked my socks off! The hills were like a sieve! There was water gushing from every nook and cranny in magnificent cascades the likes I've never seen before.

My goal was to go back to Anza Borrego but when I arrived I was physically exhausted for no real reason. I got about a third of a mile in and decided maybe today was a 4x4 recon day. I jumped back in the truck and pounded some coffee hoping it would work it's magic while I checked out some new areas. I drove back through Ocotillo to the Chevron station south of I-8 and felt the urge to continue to Hwy 98. I found a bunch of interesting places I've read about in other blogs, like The Crucifixion Thorn Natural Area and new plateaus in the Yuha Desert, and before I knew it I was in Calexico. 

I continued on the 98 east and resigned myself to go all the way to Yuma and maybe beyond. I told myself, I have camping gear, a credit card and two days off so why not. I went until road work presented a detour on I-8 that made me double back almost to where I started, so I left Arizona for another time and just drove aimlessly west-ish. I exited the freeway and merged on to Hwy 86 which heads into the Coachella Valley and thought maybe I'd go to that desert and do a trip down memory lane. By this time the giant coffee I drank kicked in and made me have to pee so I stopped in the little town of Westmorland to do that and get gas, since I was clearly in the wind. As I exited the gas station parking lot I noticed signs for the Sonny Bono Salton Sea Wildlife Refuge and my truck turned itself in that direction. I passed several geothermal plants and farms over grown with some type of vegetable that was blooming yellow flowers until finally arriving to a round-a-bout parking area at the Refuge.

As soon as I got out of my truck the sound of birds and the smell of funk filled the air. While reading the information kiosks I saw a sign for the Rock Hill Trail which said it was just one mile long. I can do that, I thought to myself while grabbing my backpack and binoculars. The trail is really just an old ranch road lined with native plants and more informational kiosks. I cruised along, checking stuff out and feeling glad that I stopped.

The trail climbed up to a spillway on the All American Canal and turned north toward what I guessed was the Rock Hill, seeing as it was the only hill in the area.

All this time I was expecting to see the Salton Sea was on my right so it caught me off guard when I realized it was on my left! I guess I am further east than I thought I was.

The trail turned into a catwalk between the Sea and a brackish water slough surrounded by salt flats. I looked through my binoculars at the variety of birds, and remembered admiring the same types of birds with Josh at Lake Arrowhead one year.

I climbed the tiny section of incline to the top of Rock Hill and sat on a bench, taking it all in. If I didn't tell you this was the Salton Sea I could easily pass these photos off as my neighborhood in Ocean Beach. This lake blows my mind every time I visit, and I've been coming here since I was a little kid. While I sat there I remembered being on a school field trip in second grade maybe? I filled my lunch box with what I thought were seashells, only to have my mom get mad at me when they stunk up the house. Turns out they were barnacles, not seashells. Oops. One of the informational kiosks told me barnacles were introduced here during WWII when float plane pilots were practicing their landings and take offs in the sea. The barnacles were stuck to their skids and found a nice home in the lake and have since over run everything that is built near the shore.

While I surveyed the area from the higher vantage point, I thought about this terminal lake and how devastating it would be if it dried up. It already smells like a thousand buttholes in the summer and the thought of it turning into something like the Owens Lake makes me shudder.

On my way back toward my truck I heard fighter jets passing over head and looked up to see three flying in formation. Shortly after I watched as three pelicans took the same formation and wondered if they did it on purpose. 

The birds aren't the only creatures living here; a little cotton tail popped out of the bushes to say hello.

The mud from the recent rain preserved the footprints of the other, more secretive critters, like this bobcat. I learned recently that bobcats and mountain lions use what is termed 'direct register' in their gait. This means their back feet step nearly directly into their front feet's tracks. This aids in traction like having kicked steps in snow. These tracks are examples of an indirect register gait which probably occurred because he was slipping around a bit in the mud. At least that's what I think is going on here. Keep in mind I'm only google educated.

The more I looked at the ground the more critter tracks I saw. I think this is from a racoon.

And I think this is an Opposom. I never realized they have opposable thumbs, did you?

For what looks to be such a harsh environment, it is teeming with life.

Back at the trail head I checked out the visitor's center and the beautiful garden of native plants around it. Flower season is here, guys!

I was still feeling off and decided to head home. I continued on Hwy 86 and after being questioned by the border patrol at a checkpoint turned left onto Hwy 78 in Ocotillo Wells. There I saw a helicopter hovering really low to the ground and when I turned my attention back to the road, saw an agent dressed in full military gear walking on the shoulder. I thought back over the day and realized I had seen 4 agents on ATV's near the town of Ocotillo, a border patrol vehicle with lights and sirens stopped on the side of I-8 with agents climbing down a ravine. Something must be up I thought and later discovered there was a huge bust in North County, so maybe that had something to do with it.

I made my way across the desert on Hwy 78 and drove over the bridge at scissors crossing where my jaw dropped to see a ton of water in the San Felipe Creek. I pulled a u-turn to get some pictures and found the water caches have already been set up, but class of 2017 may not need them with the season we've had. I have never see water in San Felipe Creek. It was a beautiful sight!

As I continued up Banner Grade I saw road crews trying to remove a boulder that was 10 feet tall and as wide as the eastbound lane. The whole area has been reshaped by mudslides which is interesting to see. 

So, while it wasn't my longest hike at only about 2 miles, it was still a fun one and I saw a lot of cool places I'm planning to return to.


  1. The author never mentions the Sea's impending demise. She will be scandalized to learn that The Imperial Irrigation Department has a secret agenda. The IID owns 120,000 acres now under water. They want to reclaim that land so they can construct multiple geothermal power mills. A longtime IID employee, Bruce Wilcox, was appointed by the governor to oversee restoration. This is the guy who ruled out any sea to sea solution. Get the picture? Look for a remake of CHINATOWN soon.

  2. Hi John. Thanks for reading. I did mention some of the issues in a general sense, but the purpose of this post was to share my nice walk by the Sea in its current state. Thanks for sharing the info though.