South Coyote Canyon Trail
South Coyote Canyon Trail travels up the canyon wash, passing close to a campsite of the second Juan Bautista de Anza expedition in 1775. The campsite was chosen because it had a suitable water source for the expedition; hand-dug wells produced enough water for nearly 800 head of stock and more than 200 people. In time, the area became known as Borrego Sink.
Juan Bautista de Anza first passed through the Borrego Valley in March 1774, on his first route-finding mission to the new Spanish settlements in California. Santa Catarina Springs was their campsite on March 14, 1774. They reached the spring on the feast day of Saint Catherine and, following tradition, named the spring after the saint. Fray Francisco Garcés carved words in a willow tree near the spring recounting the difficulties they were having with the natives.
Even though the route was partially known on Anza's second journey in 1775, conditions were just as difficult. The expedition, from Tubac in what was then Sonora, Mexico, (now part of Arizona), would take five and a half months to reach Alta California. The winter was harsh that year, and many expedition members suffered, including Gertrudis Rivas, an expectant mother. The expedition battled its way across the Yuha Desert through winter snows, following San Felipe Creek through the Borrego Badlands before heading up the daunting Coyote Canyon. Gertrudis went into labor on Christmas Eve near Middle Willows Spring, just north of Collins Valley past the end of the vehicle trail. She gave birth to a son whom she named named Salvador, meaning "savior" in Spanish. The child's name lives on in Salvador Canyon on the northwest side of Collins Valley.
Set in the heart of Coyote Canyon, Collins Valley was named just after the turn of the twentieth century for a squatter named Collins. He took the opportunity to jump claim on an earlier homesteader's property.
The Galleta Meadows Estate marker near the start of this trail commemorates Sebastian Tarabal, a Cochimi Indian of Baja California who guided Juan Bautista de Anza on his first expedition through the difficult region.
Rancho De Anza is bypassed these days as the trail enters the first narrows of the canyon. This was one of the earliest farming claims on the old trail, just north of the El Vado historical marker. El vado means a shallow part of a river, effectively a ford.
Doc Beaty, one of the colorful settlers of the Borrego Valley region, had tried his hand at many things: horse breaking, breaking unheard-of records in Wild West shows in Los Angeles, and mining. In 1913, he set about establishing a farm in Coyote Canyon with his family. He went on to become an important figure in the development of old Borrego. In 1927, he sold his valuable 1,000 Palms Ranch, so named because of the many palms upstream in Salvador Canyon. In 1936, the property sold again and was renamed Rancho De Anza by the new owner, A. A. Burnand Jr. Burnand also became a figurehead in Borrego Springs as a founding member of the Borrego Land Development Company.
Coyote Canyon runs from Anza to Borrego Springs and offers two separate vehicle trails, one from the north and one from the south. Of the two, the southern approach is more popular with hikers and four-wheelers. It is also slightly easier, although a rough half-mile section will test any vehicle. For eight months of the year, hikers, horses, and mountain bikers can connect the two trails via a 3-mile section of the canyon between Middle and Upper Willows. Between June 1 and September 30 each year, Coyote Canyon is closed to all users to protect water sources for the rare peninsular bighorn sheep. A seasonal closure gate after Second Crossing restricts users during this time.
The trail leaves from Borrego Springs to the north, passing the historical marker commemorating Sebastian Tarabal. It passes the graded road to Vern Whitaker Horse Camp before leaving the citrus groves behind and entering Anza-Borrego Desert State Park up a formed, sandy trail. There are three crossings of Coyote Creek; the first is usually dry, the others normally have year-round water that may be up to 24 inches deep. Conventional vehicles can generally handle the trail as far as Second Crossing but should not attempt to cross. You can view abundant succulents at the Desert Gardens. The gardens make a pleasant spot for a picnic. Two small tables have been set among the ocotillos, cane chollas, teddy bear chollas, creosote bushes, beaver tails, and prickly pear cacti. Many hiking and horse trails leave from along this trail and access other remote corners of the park.
Second Crossing is approximately 100 yards long, with a moderately soft bottom. It is often the deepest of the three crossings, but a slow steady approach in a high-clearance 4WD will normally be trouble free. Do not attempt this if the creek is in flood or appears unusually deep.
The notoriously difficult stretch of trail comes a short distance after Third Crossing. The trail ascends a steep, rocky pinch that consists of loose, fist-size rocks and large embedded boulders. Careful wheel placement and a spotter to help select the best line and watch the undercarriage are a big advantage. However, with a careful experienced driver at the wheel and a bit of care, most stock SUVs will make the ascent. Good tires with sturdy sidewalls are also an advantage to help minimize the risk of flats from sharp rocks. This is the 6-rated section of the trail, and it extends for half a mile. The first 200 yards are the worst; park at the base of the climb and scout ahead on foot to be sure you want to tackle it. This is not a safe place to back down should you change your mind. It is difficult to pass on this section, so if you see oncoming vehicles, wait for them to finish their descent before you head up.
Once at the saddle, looking north into Collins Valley, the difficult part of the trail is over–although you do have to return the way you came. The trail reverts to a smooth, sandy surface as it descends into Collins Valley. A trail to the east leads a short distance to a historical marker at the site of Juan Bautista de Anza's camp near Santa Catarina Springs. The springs can be seen from the trail a short distance farther. The green growth and trees of the marshy area around the springs stands out clearly in the drier surroundings. The springs are a major source of Coyote Canyon's year-round water supply and attract many species of birds and other animals. The springs themselves cover a large area and are the largest single natural water supply in San Diego County.
The trail forks in a short distance. To the left leads around an alternate, slightly longer loop around Sheep Canyon, which passes a primitive camping area with a few picnic tables and pit toilets but no other facilities. There is no fee. Looking farther up the canyon from the camping area, you can see an area of fan palms. The Indian Canyon-Cougar Canyon trail for hikers and horses also leads off from near the campground. This trail passes an Indian sweat lodge as well as grinding stones.
The main trail continues through Collins Valley before it swings past the entrance to Salvador Canyon, where there are more fan palms, and drops into Coyote Creek. The trail here is lumpy and uneven, but even though it is slow going, it will not cause any difficulty to anyone who has made it this far. Water flows in this section of Coyote Creek for most of the year. The trail ends at the closure gate just south of Middle Willows, where a keen eye will find the mortar beds of Indian camps from a time long past.
The trail is best suited for small and midsize SUV because of a couple spots where there is tight clearance between large boulders. Good clearance and tires, and an absence of side steps and low-hanging brush bars, are a definite advantage.
Current Road Information
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
Maptech CD-ROM: San Diego/Joshua Tree