Up Fish Creek Without a Paddle

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed in a crowded state like California, especially if you crave solitude as I do.  I guess in many ways I’m a fish out of water.  But if you’re willing to work a bit it is possible to find some space to call your own – at least for a while.

Dawn on November 25th, “Black Friday” 2011 – the zenith of our increasingly consumerist society.  As shoppers lined up outside the big box stores hoping to get a deal on a gadget or two, I was headed to an area of Anza Borrego Desert State Park located near the town of Ocotillo Wells that I’ve never visited.  Fish Creek Wash (and most of Anza Borrego Park for that matter) is not an area most bicyclists consider prime riding terrain, mainly because bikes are confined to existing “roads” within the park.  Most of these routes follow sandy washes before petering out in the mountains that surround the plains.  Soft sand is the major issue out here if you’re riding a “normal” bike with skinny tires, but if you possess a fat bike like my trusty Pugsley it’s not much of an issue as long as you don’t mind some gruntwork. 

My Pugsley and I have been many places and we’re not done traveling yet.  As familiar as I’ve become with this bike through the many miles I’ve pedaled with her, she still feels a bit heavy whenever I start out on a ride.  Perhaps it had something to do with the 2 hour drive and the early wake up time required to get out to this area at dawn, but I felt a bit tired pedaling away from the car. Despite the creaky legs, within the first 10 minutes or so I entered the Split Mountain area in the lower reaches of the wash. 


The scale of this ride and that of my mammalian vulnerability immediately began to sink in.  This is without question a reptile ride: there are no water sources out here unless you’re willing to chew a cactus or two.  To combat my human frailty I was carrying almost 2 gallons with me for this 50 mile, out-and-back ride.  Reptiles and other desert wildlife were in my thoughts because let’s face it – the human animal is weak and vulnerable.  We are increasingly dependent on our life support system of technology to get by in a hostile world.  In an ironic twist, I silently laughed wondering how the sheer canyon walls would mess with my GPS signals.

Fiddling with my GPS as I rounded a bend in the canyon, one of the park’s namesake borrego, a Peninsular Bighorn Sheep ewe, startled me as she rushed for the safety of the hillside. With their numbers estimated to be only 900 or so in California I considered this a good omen for the rest of the ride: I was off the beaten path.  As she climbed toward the ridgeline amongst the boulders I could see only her movement – when she remained motionless she was completely invisible to me.  Scanning the hillside for a minute or two looking for signs of more sheep (hopefully a massive ram or two to photograph), I found only rocks – or maybe there’s just a whole lot of motionless sheep out there in the washes.  Moving on, I left the unseen herd of sheep to the morning solitude of one of their last strongholds.  After all, I have many places I could be riding and this is their canyon.

A few miles north it became apparent why Split Mountain was named as the earth swallowed me whole.

Spat out the far end of Split Mountain, a formation more at home in the fairy tale landscapes of southern Utah rose above the dessicated primordial ooze.  The fluted hillside of Elephant Knees caught the morning sun and I paused to take in the view.  I had read before my ride that Fish Creek once contained year round water in several pools that supported a species of desert pupfish.  However, last century a large flood swept down from the mountains through the wash and filled the pools with sand.  It is now feast or famine and no water remains in the wash through the 120 degree heat of summer.  I’m sure that a hundred years from now this area will appear very different, but until then it remains almost frozen in time.

Only floods of sandstone rushed into the wash from the side canyons during my time in Fish Creek…

… with the occasional cascade of mud.

For hours I climbed like a desert salmon fighting the current of the slow but steady grade in lazy switchbacks toward the sky and the distant Laguna Mountain range.  Here and there the tide of canyon walls closed in then receded as if driven by the orbit of some unseen moon.  The slow rhythm of the wash’s course combined with the increasingly warm sun produced a ride as soothing as warm milk before bedtime.  Though the grade increased at times to the point of requiring the need to stand and pedal (especially in the areas with soft sand) it still was only a 3500 ft gain over 25 miles or so.  Still, I couldn’t help but feel as if I were swimming upstream throughout the 3.5 hour climb to the high point of the ride.  The occasional sighting of a Giant Desert Squid did little to dampen my maritime mood.

Reaching the high point of the wash, a valley stretched into the distance before me with no visible trace of humanity other than the faint trace of a dirt road.  Vowing to return another day and descend into that valley and up into the mountain range beyond, reluctantly I turned around and rolled with the current back toward Ocotillo Wells. 

Sometimes it’s nice to be a fish out of water.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Up Fish Creek Without a Paddle

  1. Charles says:

    Wow. Excellent post and pictures by a glutton for punishment.

  2. Bill Stinchfield says:

    Just finished reading it, Tom. WOW! Enjoyed both the great photos and the narrative. Well done!
    You saw parts of Borrego that we did not see when we were there.

  3. Knowth says:

    I’m just starting to find some of these area myself, and I’ve been here for how many years now? I have a plan to ride across most of Anza Borrego off-road next month – hopefully I’ll see some more interesting things out there!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s