One of the amazing things about California is that it has a plethora of different terrain types. From high alpine mountains, to vast coastal forests, to beaches, foothills, and everything in between, it has a variety of places to visit. California also has a number of deserts, from the vast and ominous Death Valley, to the well-known Mojave. The least known desert in California is the Anza-Borrego Desert, which is just East of San Diego, California. The Anza-Borrego Desert is a large area, stretching from the Mexican border to the South, to the Salton Sea on the East. It is also an area with a rich cultural history, geologic history, and an area with a number of strange backstories. One of the strangest stories about the Anza-Borrego Desert is the legend of the Borrego Sandmen – large, completely white bigfoot-like creatures that purportedly roam the desert for unknown purposes.
Chris - The Last Adventurer
If the Borrego Sandmen exist (which they probably do not), the place they would likely call home is one of the most unique spots in the park, the Arroyo Tapiado Mud Caves. The Arroyo Tapiado (translation: mud wall wash) is an area of the Anza-Borrego Desert which is home to the world’s largest collection of mud-caves. These caves are over five million years old, and have been formed by erosion. Over the years, when it has rained, the water has cut into the hills, forming the various channels and caves that you can explore. As the Arroyo-Tapiado are in a remote location; and are now located in a California State Park, they are some of the best preserved mud caves in the world as well.
The caves are located near the park’s southern border, approximately a two hour drive to the East of San Diego. Once visitors are in the park, they should look for mile marker forty-three on Highway S-2. This turnout is also labeled with a sign “Palm Spring”; which refers to the old Butterfield Stage Stop, and not the current town of Palm Springs. From the turnoff, it is a four and a half mile (4.5) drive to the caves on an ungraded, sometimes sandy road. While this road is relatively popular with off-roaders, and mostly packed sand, it is worth noting that there is no actual road, so potential visitors should judge the conditions accordingly before proceeding in their vehicles.
After you have traversed the Arroyo Tapiado Wash, which provides great views of some of the Borrego Badlands, you will find yourself, as I did, in a canyon. From this point, there is a popular foot trail into the first of many (20-30 caves). From the moment you enter the first cave, there is an otherworldly feel to the experience. Within ten feet, the temperature drops from the heat of the desert, to a cool year round temperature of around sixty degrees. Within twenty feet, the light from the opening has faded, and you find your eyes searching to see any feature in the pitch black darkness that exists. Fortunately, if you are an astute hiker and explorer like me, this darkness will be only temporary as you will soon switch on your headlamp that you brought with you; but if you are looking to scare either total strangers or the rest of your group like a Borrego Sandman, you can lurk in the darkness that the caves provide.
Chris - The Last Adventurer
From the initial entrance, the first cave winds through a number of mostly open passages, before forking toward a large “dryfall” (dry waterfall) on the left; and a canyon on the right. While the dryfall is a great sight, if you are looking for more caves to explore, you will want to follow the passage on the right. From the canyon behind the initial cave, there are many openings to the many caves; and there is a great deal of hiking that can be done through the canyon. While these are great opportunities, visitors should be mindful of the fragile formations that do exist; and should also be mindful of their location, as well as what equipment they have brought to explore the area. Visitors should not attempt to explore the area in either extreme summer heat (100 degree plus temperatures) or during a rainstorm. Having said that, if you follow the simple safety precautions of traveling with a group, bringing the proper equipment, and visiting at the right time, you will have an epic adventure, and possibly even discover some of the secrets of the Anza-Borrego Desert in the Arroyo Tapiado.