Borrego Sun - Since 1949

Visitor's View – Sandstone Canyon


Last updated 1/24/2023 at 2:29pm

You might call it a dead-end road to nowhere, but if you are new to exploring Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, it's an off-road route you won't forget.

Desert visitors filled with wanderlust and a spirit of adventure can enjoy a beautiful day in the desert during a visit to Sandstone Canyon.

This remote destination is one of the most spectacular slot canyons in California's largest state park and the only one accessible by high-clearance vehicles.

Tucked deep into the curdled landscape of the Carrizo Badlands, the canyon has often been called "the Queen of all desert washes."

In addition to the steep walls and narrow passages, Sandstone Canyon is a geological wonderland.

So, gather your group of explorers, pack a delicious picnic and let's take off for an adventure into the badlands.

Sandstone Canyon is a dead-end tributary of Fish Creek. Hikers can continue to explore deeper into the barren landscape, but vehicles are limited by geological forces that have caused large blocks of rock to tumble into the canyon.

Those planning to make the trip should be equipped with high-clearance, all-wheel or four-wheel drive vehicles. It's important to remember that OHVs are not allowed within the state park and all vehicles must be street legal.

If discovering the treasures of the state park is your goal, pick up a copy of "The Anza-Borrego Desert Region," a mile-by-mile guidebook and map of the park that is invaluable to the park explorer. It can be purchased at the Park Visitor Center or the State Park Store in the Mall on Palm Canyon Drive.

So, let's begin the adventure.

From Borrego Springs head south from Christmas Circle on Borrego Springs Road until you reach Highway 78. Go east to Ocotillo Wells and turn south on Split Mountain Road until the pavement ends at Fish Creek Wash in 8.2 miles.

The adventure begins.

Start your trip odometer here and check to make sure you have food, water and gas for at least 30 miles of off-road travel. It's not a difficult road, but it is a dirt road with soft sand and rock, so you won't be moving along at high speed. Besides, there is so much to see, you will want to meander, stop often, and take lots of pictures.

Fish Creek Wash runs through Split Mountain, a spectacular landscape of towering cliffs and geological forces on display.

Your guidebook will provide information about interesting points along the way.

In a little over four miles, the road exits the canyon and swings west into the Carrizo Badlands.

There are many highlights to visit along the way but keep moving if Sandstone Canyon is your destination today.

The wash will widen, and you will have fascinating views of formations such as Elephant Knees at mile 4.7, a tall, eroded butte to your left capped with a layer of marine fossils.

At mile 10.7 look for the Layer Cake, a multi-colored formation of layered sandstone on your right. This is an eroded pedestal of sandstone formed more than 3 million years ago and exposed by the winds and flash floods that have swept through here for thousands of years.

As you pass the 12-mile mark, keep an eye out for a sharp left turn into a gap in the walls of Fish Creek Canyon.

This is the entrance into Sandstone Canyon.

As you travel the few miles up the canyon, it will become narrower, and the vertical walls will push upward.

In places the canyon will narrow to no more than 15 feet in width, and you may often think you have reached the end because you will not be able see beyond a sharp bend.

At some point, look for a wide spot to stop. From here, explore on foot and listen to the silence as the engulfing cliffs mute outside noises.

There is much to explore here, and beautiful spots to enjoy the picnic lunch to brought.

Hiking the canyon will allow an intimate connection to this natural wonder, only discovered in 1955 by park rangers who spotted the narrow canyon while looking down from Whale Peak to the west.

When ranges first reached the canyon in December 1955, they found evidence that others had been there with dates scratched in the sandstone from 1939, but this was the first "official" visit.

Today, good maps, and reliable recreation vehicles allow desert explorers the opportunity to visit places like Sandstone Canyon and hundreds of others preserved as part of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

We hope you enjoy your adventures.

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