Moonlight Canyon

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Agua Caliente County Park near Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is definitely one of the more remote County Parks in San Diego, but it has a lot to offer. Besides a fully-equipped campground with a variety of tent, RV, and cabin sites, it offers several therapeutic pools and spas fed by naturally occurring mineral springs. The indoor spa, heated to a relaxing 102 degrees, is an awesome way to relax after a day of desert hiking. The campground is surrounded by numerous springs which attract all kinds of interesting desert wildlife, making it a great spot for bird-watching.

Of course, most important to our interests, are the several hiking trails contained within the park. Our first adventure here was along the Moonlight Canyon Trail. We found the trailhead at the southeast edge of the campground next to campsite #140, just past the shuffleboard and horseshoe pits (does anyone actually play shuffleboard)? Peak 1882, a potential side trip from this trail, rose before us.20151112DSC_4693-EditMoonlight Canyon

The trail started off going up and over a small hill, past some less than scenic chemical storage buildings.20151112DSC_4694-EditMoonlight Canyon

We then quickly descended into a damp wash, lush with vegetation.20151112DSC_4696-EditMoonlight Canyon

We wound our way through the brush before ascending again, this time up a short granite slope.
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Looking back from the top of the small rise, we had some great views of the campground and the Vallecito Mountains beyond.20151112DSC_4700-EditMoonlight Canyon

From this point on the trail became much easier, but it was still uphill and rocky. We were surrounded by the speckled slopes of the Tierra Blanca Mountains.20151112DSC_4704-EditMoonlight Canyon

As we continued on, I found much of my attention occupied by the rocky trail and, but while watching my footing, I caught a glimpse of some movement along the shadowy slope to my left. Looking up I saw two bighorn sheep, a male and a female, among the rocks.20151112DSC_4715-EditMoonlight Canyon

We moved slowly and cautiously up the trail, watching the sheep on the rocks above us, and trying to get a better angle from which to photograph them (preferably without wiry Ocotillo branches in the way). The sheep moved quietly along the mountainside ahead of us, maintaining a constant distance. When we stopped to shoot more pictures, they stopped, as if to pose for us.20151112DSC_4744-EditMoonlight Canyon

Eventually, the male wandered off in the opposite direction. The female continued ahead of us for a little ways, always keeping a close eye on our whereabouts. But she, too, quickly grew weary of our presence and bounded off.20151112DSC_4756-EditMoonlight Canyon

We waved goodbye to our cloven-hooved friends and returned our attention to the trail ahead of us. We had reached a saddle and were briefly on level trail here.20151112DSC_4757-EditMoonlight Canyon

We quickly found ourselves descending, still marveling at the colorful mountain slopes.20151112DSC_4776-EditMoonlight Canyon

The trail bent to the left and around the half mile point, we had to make our way down some more rocks.20151112DSC_4783-EditMoonlight Canyon

Upon hitting the sandy canyon floor, we paused to admire the tall rock walls on either side of us. It was dark and shady in the narrow confines of the canyon, but in the distance we could see the late afternoon sun illuminating the valley beyond.20151112DSC_4786-EditMoonlight Canyon

We made our way along the sandy path. While “Tierra Blanca” literally translates to “White Land,” up close we found the rocks around us were a variety of shades of pink, white and grey.20151112DSC_4789-EditMoonlight Canyon

We heard the buzzing of a humming bird’s wings right before we saw him land on a branch along the canyon wall.20151112DSC_4798-EditMoonlight Canyon

The canyon floor consisted mainly of soft sand which made for generally easy travel. There were a few spots where we had to scramble/slide down some rocky spots however.20151112DSC_4807-EditMoonlight Canyon

Winding through the narrow canyon with its towering pink and red walls veiled in shadow was almost like walking on another planet. 20151112DSC_4810-EditMoonlight Canyon

Just shy of 1 mile, the trail plunged into another thicket of mesquite.20151112DSC_4818-EditMoonlight Canyon

On the other side of the vegetation we found a small spring, water trickling down the rocky slope of the path. 20151112DSC_4819-EditMoonlight Canyon

Continuing to wind through the canyon beyond the spring, desert willow and other lush vegetation crowded the trail. 20151112DSC_4821-EditMoonlight Canyon

Continuing on, the canyon began to widen and the bushes receded as we neared the mouth of the canyon.20151112DSC_4830-EditMoonlight Canyon

At 1.25 miles we spotted an isolated picnic table along the edge of the trail. Despite the secluded feeling we enjoyed within the canyon, we were never really very far from the campground.20151112DSC_4840-EditMoonlight Canyon

The trail bent to the left, heading back towards the campground. Wiry Ocotillo branches stuck up all around us. New leaves were sprouting, the result of recent rains.20151112DSC_4843-EditMoonlight Canyon

From here it was just a short walk back to the campground. The trail let out near the RV sites, and we followed the road to our left to get back to the parking area.20151112DSC_4850-EditMoonlight Canyon

Take Highway 78 east to Scissors Crossing. Turn right (south) onto S2, and continue for 22 miles to Agua Caliente County Park on the right. Pay the parking fee at the campground entrance, then drive around to the Day Use Parking area near campsites 7 and 8. The trailhead is located in the southeast corner of the campground near the horseshoe and shuffleboard area, just past campsite 140. map

Total Distance: 1.5 miles
Difficulty: Easy – Moderate
Total Ascent: 394 feet
Dog Friendly?: Dogs not allowed
Bike Friendly?: Bikes not allowed
Facilities: Bathrooms and water at campground
Fees/Permits: $3 parking fee per vehicle

For more information, visit:
County of San Diego Parks & Recreation: Agua Caliente County Park
Park Map with Trails
View route or download GPX in CalTopo

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