Split Mountain Adventure

NOTE:  You can click on a photo to see it enlarged!

San Diego — OK. Call me an opportunist, but I’m not likely to turn down a chance to get back off road again.  Perhaps this is telling me something about what my next decisions relative to my vehicles should be… but meantime I’ll gleefully leap at such an opportunity, especially when it comes in the form of a good friend and photographer like Cynthia Sinclair.

She asked if I knew anything about Split Mountain in the Anza Borrego desert and the answer is yes.  Though it has been a few years (OK, nearly 30) that were mere microseconds in geological time so I doubted it had changed all that much.  It is called “Split Mountain” because that is what it is: a crack in the prehistoric mountain chain that separated the Carizzo Badlands from the Salton (Sea) basin.

As the harder rock landforms were inexorably pushed upward, the erosion maintained the cut, now called Fish Creek Wash, and the result is a big hill (“Mountain” to the locals) that is neatly split in half forming a deep and steep chasm a thousand feet tall in some places.

I did not recall it being spectacularly photogenic unless you were a geologist, but still it is an interesting place and though I always have a camera at the ready, often the reason for getting out into the wilder places is imply to BE there; to let nature’s power and majesty put you in your place and remind your sometimes cocky little human brain that larger forces exist in the universe and that in the end, they will win out if they have to eradicate this pretentious terrestrial skin cancer to do it.

My uncle would have laughed at the modern concept of “survival” of those pitted against nature.  That is, he believed, a battle we “two-leggeds” cannot win and are foolish to start.  But nature is not set in opposition to us in the first place, it is we who have generated the antagonism.  Nature does not set out to kill any part of itself, including us; but it will, with divine indifference, let us kill ourselves through lack of knowledge and preparation and the insistence on staying overly long in places where our species is unequipped to live.

My uncle’s people did not do combat with nature; they would have been unable to comprehend terms like “peak bagging” implying you have captured or beaten a mountain who existed on a different time scale and was not even conscious of your presence much less engaged in a contest.  Their goal was to get to know nature and in so doing, learn how to live comfortably and in harmony with it… and so thrive.

These xeric lands we now see as a recreation area, a place to play, were created by and sometimes still ravaged by, forces that leave us ‘mighty’ humans little more prepared for the unexpected than are the ants on a city street’s sidewalk.

So with some of my old maps and a few new ones and some stuff for emergencies, we were off on Sunday morning, headed east toward the desert.

It was quickly evident that my memory was mistaken about the photogenic qualities of the area – a mistake exaserbated immensely by some GREAT clouds. Entering into the wash running through the split it is a wide fan.

On the Ocotillo Wells end of Split mountain and the Fish Creek Wash Rd.  (Click to Enlarge)

On the Ocotillo Wells end of Split mountain and the Fish Creek Wash Rd. (Click to Enlarge)

Here, near the outlet of the wash, are walls showing the ancient sediments filled with smoothed river rocks.  It almost looks like ruined concrete created by some giants.

Eroded hillside showing river worn rocks imbedded in the sediment.  Clikc on image to enlarge.

Eroded hillside showing river worn rocks imbedded in the sediment. Clikc on image to enlarge.

Fish Creek Wash is the site of a spectacular anticline.  This is a place where the strata, under immense and conflicting pressures, was distorted into nearly a circle.  Here was evidence hard to ignore of cataclysmic energies played out over time spans incomprehensible by human standards.

Famous Fish Creek "Anticline" of folded rock.  Click on image to enlarge.

Famous Fish Creek “Anticline” of folded rock. Click on image to enlarge.

As one moves away from the locus of the anticline the strata is still folded dramatically but less severely

THe folding of the rock continues past the Anticline but is less severe.  Click on image to enlarge.

THe folding of the rock continues past the Anticline but is less severe. Click on image to enlarge.

Once again I was the assigned navigator on this little adventure.  But this area is much more complex and filled with cross trails and tracks than was the drive to Vista Del Malpais chronicled in the last post.  The goal du jour was twofold.  The main object was to follow the main wash until it reached the practical end running in this direction at the base of a spectacular drop off  but also we were searching for a place where the walls’ sediments were filled with the fossils of ancient shells.

Once past the anticline you are past the main “split” in the mountains but Fish Creek Wash continues on.  The road has lots of side washes many leading to very interesting places like Oyster Shell Wash where, at the end, the southern hill side is sediment filled with the remains of mostly broken ancient oyster shells.

We stayed on the main wash road going through cuts and canyons, some of them extremely deep with sheer walls rising hundreds of feet. At some places the walls are worn smooth as if cut by a giant blade and at others are streaked like the desert-varnish clad walls of the mighty canyons in Utah.

High streaked walls along Fish Creek Wash.  Click on image to enlarge.

High streaked walls along Fish Creek Wash. Click on image to enlarge.

It was often very clear that LOTS of water occasionally came roaring through theses canyons and down the washes as the flows often left deep flow marks and also strewn rocks and boulders that clearly were brought down from somewhere else.

Large rocks from upstream washed down by some serious water flowing through the canyons.  Click on image to enlarge

Large rocks from upstream washed down by some serious water flowing through the canyons. Click on image to enlarge

Some places had clearly interwoven layers of smooth sediment and rock strewn beds showing the rise and fall of the land and the ancient sea bed. And strangely, right next to smooth walls were deep furrows of complex and broken strata.

The further we went, the narrower the canyon became.  And soon we were threading our way along the wash floor between towering and sometimes overhanging walls.  The wide angle lens used to take many of these shots seems to remove a sense of scale but here is a shot of the car in a narrow slot and you can get a feel for their real depth.

Canyon walls dwarf the little SUV as the canyon becomes narrower and narrower.  Click on Image to enlarge.

Canyon walls dwarf the little SUV as the canyon becomes narrower and narrower. Click on Image to enlarge.

And in some places, where giant rocks had fallen from the cliff faces, the passage was so narrow that a full sized truck would have had trouble getting through without putting the tires of one side up on the wall.  Here is one tight squeeze where the navigator got out to help guide the driver through to avoid leaving parts or paint to mark the passage.  Even with mirrors pulled in it was a tight fit with, in the middle, about 3 inches of total clearance.

A tight place on the canyon floor.  Click on image to enlarge.

A tight place on the canyon floor. Click on image to enlarge.

Suddenly, while down in these slot-like canyons, the sky turned dark and ominous.  In the narrow canyons we could see only a sliver of the sky and it really looked like the sort of sky that could dump some rain on the mountains.  We were clearly NOT in a good place should that happen and, worse, be surprised by a wall of water coming at us we came around a bend.

So, discretion being the better part of valor, especially in light of our inability to see if this was just a passing cloud or something more, we turned around at a wide spot to head back into the wider parts of the wash.

On the way back the navigator made a blunder (I know, hard to imagine…) and instead of heading up the side wash we were after, we found ourselves on a loop trail.   In fairness, his old map was in error about the angle of the entrance of the side wash into the main stream probably due more to the action of water carving the route over time more than sloppiness on the part of the cartographer.  To further compound the error, this road continued to repeat the mapped angles and directions of the intended one… for a while…

But in the meantime, the cloud formation over a large mound of earth brought us to a stop and a chance to leap out and photograph it.

loop trail cloud 01

The light was bringing out the erosion details of the ancient sediments and the sky was seeing if it could match the textures.

Shot along the Loop Wash trail.  Click image to enlarge.
Shot along the Loop Wash trail. Click image to enlarge.
 Back on the main trail and once again heading north, the afternoon sun was now moving fast toward the horizon.  Still there were some wonderful clouds and distant buttes that demanded a shot.
THe clouds were incredible, such as this one that seems to be eminating from the butte in he distance.  Click on image to enlarge.

THe clouds were incredible, such as this one that seems to be eminating from the butte in he distance. Click on image to enlarge.

We were hoping with all of the clouds, the sunset would be spectacular.  The wind was blowing dust up to the north in the badlands creating some great sunset effects over at Salton Sea, but where we were it was simply blowing the air clear.  We were not going to be able to get clear of this area and to an overlook, so with the sun just minutes from the mountains we pulled over to see what might present itself for a photograph.

I was taken by the flow marks and baked mud in the wash pointing straight at me from the mountains and setting sun so waited until the sun just started creeping behind the mountain for a shot.

Sunset on Fish Creek Wash.  Click on image to enlarge.

Sunset on Fish Creek Wash. Click on image to enlarge.

Finishing the shot above and turning back to stow the gear, it seemed to me that the little car seemed pleased with itself.  Nothing about it would suggest it could have gone where it has, much less have comported itself so well.  Cynthia’s excellent driving helped a lot to extended the abilities of the car.  But we were over roads that no driver could negotiate without seriously lowering the resale value of their car if they lacked the clearance and traction; or even with all that if they lacked the driving skill.  My Montero has lots of clearance but its 2WD system would have been stuck up to its eyebrows in the sections of deep, soft blow sand we went through over and over.

This unpretentious little machine went places normally reserved for expedition-ready Jeeps and 4WD rigs. So it seemed fitting to end the trip with a parting portrait of “Henry” — the little car that could…

"Henry" poses proudly after negotiating some rough sections of Fish Creek Wash in Anza Borrego Desert State Park.  Click on image to enlarge.

“Henry” poses proudly after negotiating some rough sections of Fish Creek Wash in Anza Borrego Desert State Park. Click on image to enlarge.

I can’t help but wonder if, safely back in its parking spot, it looked around, straightened its shoulders and sat a little taller than normal then nudged the other cars, mostly city bound rigs, and told them he’d bet they could not guess what he had done that day!  I imagine he was mightily pleased with himself and his story as they gathered closer to hear, trying to fancy what it must have been like to escape off of the pavement for awhile and see such incredible things.

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About ndking

Commercial Photographer and Professor of Photography at San Diego City College
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