Coachwhip Canyon is possibly named for the fastest snake around these parts, the coachwhip. A coachwhip, when sensing danger, wastes no time fleeing into the protection of the brush or the rocky walls of a Borrego canyon. Like the coachwhip snake, so it is with Coachwhip Canyon, itself a twisting retreat into hundreds of tributaries carved by wind and the flash floods of the thunderstorm season. At around 1,000′ elevation, Coachwhip is situated in the south foothills of the Santa Rosa Mountains, which rise quickly another 5,000′ to crest more or less at the common boundary of San Diego and Riverside counties.
For color, there is much greater opportunity in springtime, after the winter rain, provided there is rain. In wet years, wildflowers abound in all of the little tributary washes. The vibrant pink sand verbena is most seen along the canyon edges, while the shrubby lavender, brittlebush and creosote take up spaces in the seasonal streambed, just off the beaten road. Spanish needle, aster, and lupine border the natural foot trails in the bottoms of the lesser tributaries.
The canyon could also be named for the coachwhip plant, more often called the ocotillo. Ocotillo is not entirely unknown here, but of course it’s very common throughout the Borrego valley to the west. In fact, we are almost clear of the valley here, with somewhat less than a mile to go easterly to the highway pass from which a clear view of the Salton Sea may be seen. At nearly a 1,000 foot elevation, just into the Santa Rosa Mountain foothills but still rising from the ancient bottom of an ocean millions of years ago, the geological variations in this area are greater realized the more time you spend here. In California’s early days, when the Borrego area was heavily prospected for minerals and surveyed for agricultural (and even railroad) uses, Coachwhip and its neighboring formations were known as “California’s Painted Desert.” The attribution probably didn’t hurt the admission of the area into the current-day state park.
Primitive camping in the canyon is highly accessible by vehicle, with many places offering refuge from the westerlies (which may blow away tents, shake the RV considerably or otherwise coat the bar-be-cue chicken with sand). Somewhat expected is a lesser birding experience; natural food resources are sparse, yet on one personal visit a fair number of white pelicans were seen flying a few hundred feet above the cliffs! (These came from the Salton Sea, not far from here.) Coachwhip’s cliffs and hills by moonlight are especially where it’s at–for the most austere of moments–for in those illuminated moments one is fully connected with the same opportunity to feel this wonderful land as did Borrego’s early cowboys and, far earlier, native peoples.
Coachwhip Canyon is accessed via a wash, known as Ella Wash, that crosses County Road S22. If you see the access road to Arroyo Salida Campground on the south side of the Borrego-Salton Seaway (County Road S22), you are very near the entrance road to the canyon, but it is a few feet to the west of the road to the arroyo and on the north side of the Seaway (what a great name for a stretch of desert highway!) Latitude and Longitude of the entry point are: 33°17’01.55″ N and 116°09’12.77″ W. Four-wheel drive is recommended for the sandy route along Ella Wash, named after the wife of Jack Calvert, who was superintendent of the Anza-Borrego State Park until 1952. Ella’s namesake bears to the left at the first serious fork after about a half mile of northerly progress, via a series of broad curves alternating left and right. The canyon walls narrow considerably in places, and the projecting boulders in the soft roadbed seem not so soft if the chassis of the vehicle should hit them; a high clearance will greatly help. Ella Wash continues from the aforementioned fork for upwards of a gentle mile into the ever-interesting canyon, where finally the trek must become a hiker’s experience (even for jeepers). A second fork just past Ella Wash (again, stay left) is a more direct driving experience before reaching a vertical wall on your right and a bottleneck, at least for larger vehicles, a few minutes up the tributary.
The canyon can be haven to photographers who have discovered its reflective properties in the moonlight. Check out the slide show located in the right sidebar. For a Google Earth viewport, and more photos from Coachwhip Canyon, please click on the “2” numeral of the pages link below.
Click on any of the photos from Coachwhip Canyon in the mosaic below to enter the slide series. Photos by Barbara Swanson.