Fish Creek Mountains Wilderness is a Bureau of Land Management designated and managed area containing 21 388 aces. The public lands here became part of the National Wilderness Preservation System in 1994. The wilderness area is situated 25 miles west of Brawley, California, and the Vallecito Mountains can be seen to the northwest. The Fish Creek Mountain Wilderness occupies the northern section of the Fish Creeks Mountains with the Carrizo Impact Area, which was a munitions range during World War II, on the southern section. The Carrizo Impact Area is off-limits to the public as it still contains unexploded devices and hazards.
The Fish Creek Wilderness consists of a plateau rising like a great wall from the surrounding desert floor with mountain peaks visible in the distance. The region is laced with twisting canyons and hidden valleys. The steep slopes in the area are dotted with limestone outcroppings that have resisted the erosion that created the rough terrain. Rainfall in these parts swirls around the resistant geological formations, carving winding drainages that create narrow chutes for runoff. Sheltered regions at the base of chutes, where evaporation does not occur as rapidly, result in pool formation. These pools remain all year round and create water sources for local wildlife.
An ancient lake, Lake Cahuilla, receded more than 500 years ago, but the remnants of its shoreline remain visible. For those up to the challenge in this rough terrain, hiking, backcountry camping, and wildlife watching are popular activities.
The Anza-Borrego Desert State Park sits immediately to the west and south of Fish Creek Wilderness and provides numerous recreational opportunities and RV camping for visitors in the area. Explore the region with an RV. Rentals can be found at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park RV Rentals. A little farther to the west is Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, which also provides recreational and camping opportunities.
The Fish Creek Mountains Wilderness can be accessed at Ocotillo Wells from California State Highway 78. Proceed on Highway 78 for three miles to the San Diego/Imperial County line and then take the Split Mountain Road south to the Gypsum Mine Rail Road and turn south again down the wash. The Fish Creek Mountains Wilderness is on the west side of the railroad, across from the wash. The Split Mountain Road is paved and easy to traverse for RVs and tow vehicles. However, the dirt road that follows the wash to the Wind Caves trail and Fish Creek primitive campground is naturally surfaced and only appropriate for four-wheel drive vehicles with high clearance.
The climate in this area is extremely hot in the summer. Visibility can be reduced in hot, dry, windy weather. There are not many services and amenities in the area, although there is fuel in Ocotillo Wells. Ensure your vehicle is serviced and topped up on fluid levels, especially coolant, when traveling in the region. It is a good idea to carry a five-gallon jug of water in case of emergencies. Cellular service in the region is spotty, so don't rely on GPS maps or personal devices for navigation.
The Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is located on the southwest border of the Fish Creek Mountain Wilderness area. This state-run park allows open camping, but there are also 12 campgrounds located on the 600000-acre recreation area. Two of the campgrounds provide RV camping and are reservable and open year-round. These campgrounds have amenities such as water supplies, showers, and flush toilets.
The Borrego Palm Canyon Campground has 52 hookup sites with some fully serviced sites and 65 non-hookup sites. The Tamarisk Grove Campground, has 27 RV sites with cabins available for rent. The campground has lots of shade and shelters at each site over picnic tables. Campsites also have fire rings; however, collecting deadfall is not permitted so firewood must be brought in or purchased. Pets are permitted in the campgrounds but not on hiking trails and in the backcountry. Generators are permitted between 10 AM and 8 PM. Primitive non-reservable campsites are also spread throughout the state park.
Backcountry camping is permitted in the Fish Creek Mountains Wilderness areas, however, campers must adhere to “Leave No Trace” practices. Backcountry camping should be on previously disturbed sites and trash packed out. Primitive camping is permitted for a maximum of 14 days at each site, after which campers must move to another site at least 25 miles away.
The Fish Creek Primitive Campground is located on the Fish Creek Wash off of Split Mountain Road. This area has six sites on soft sand that make for comfortable sleeping spots. The campsites area has great views of the desert wilderness stretching out below it. There are no services or amenities in the wilderness area and campers need to be prepared for the desert. See How to Camp In the Desert for more information on desert campaign practices.
Hiking in the Fish Creek Mountains Wilderness is most popular between October and March when temperatures are cooler and more hospitable to strenuous activity. There are plenty of hiking routes along washes and canyon floors in the wilderness area on unmaintained trails.
Ensure you pack plenty of water for your trip and have footwear adequate to the rough terrain. The most frequented hiking and camping areas are at the Fish Creek Primitive Campground and the Wind Caves Trailhead which be accessed south of Ocotillo Wells off of the Split Mountain Road, and then to the west along the Fish Creek Wash. This trail is seven miles in total and is an out and back trail rated as moderate in difficulty.
Backpacking is permitted in the wilderness area but visitors must adhere to the Leave No Trace principles. Be aware of the live bombing range nearby and ensure you stay out of the restricted zones!
The Wind Caves Trail, which is best traversed in the cooler months, provides access to the wind caves. The caves are situated just under a mile down the trail. They consist of three rows of rock formations with a walking area in between the structures.
The sand-colored geological formations are pockmarked with holes and tunnels of varying sizes. These caves were formed when wind carved out softer sediments from the surrounding harder rock. An interesting geological playground was formed with views of the surrounding pristine desert wilderness that is well worth a visit.
This unique butte has “wrinkled” formations along its northern side, which resemble an elephant's knees. Amazing views can be enjoyed from the butte and along the trail providing access to the area. It can be hiked to from the Wind Caves Trail, or access via Split Mountain pass in a high clearance off-road vehicle may be possible. This is described as a magical place with amazing topography and an abrupt drop to the desert floor below the butte.
Nearby Anza-Borrego Desert State Park has many features, but one of the lesser-known is the Arroyo Tapiado Mud Caves. These caves are popular with spelunking enthusiasts, and guides to the area can be found in the Anza-Borrego Park Package available at Desert USA’s online store.
There are 22 caves and nine canyons of varying lengths. Some of the cave areas are up to 1000 feet in length, have 80 foot high ceilings, and are up to 35 feet in width. Features such as skylights, where a sinkhole has formed in the cave's ceiling, provide added interest.
The caves were formed by Fluvial erosion during heavy rainfall periods, when channels were cut into the hills by erosion and hardening mud formations. Use caution when exploring the caves as there are narrow squeezes and steep drops. Many parts of the caves are appropriate for experienced cavers only.
Located just north of the Fish Creek Mountains Wilderness, the Ocotillo Wells State Vehicular Recreation Area provides 85,000 acres of desert terrain for off-highway fun. The State of California operates the park and open camping is permitted on site. Check out off-road vehicle destinations such as Blowsand Hill, where massive dunes are present. There's Devil’s Slide, a 200-foot granite and sand island with reputedly haunted mine shafts; Barrel Springs, where water supply attracts wildlife in the mesquite sand dunes; and Shell Reef, the location of fossilized oyster shells on what was an ancient sea reef. Also, look out for Gas Domes, where gas bubbles escape from cracks in the desert floor, and Pumpkin Patch, where wind and water have created globular sandstone concretions!
The Fish Creek Wash is a 25.6 mile, off-highway vehicle, out and back trail. The wash trail provides access to primitive camping sites and hiking trailheads as well as local caves and geological formations. OHV users may spot wildlife along the route, and should endeavour not to disturb local inhabitants. The trails are accessible all year round and are lightly trafficked, so the adventurous can enjoy the natural OHV trail without encountering a lot of other users.