We are both avid lovers of history and take any opportunity we can get to explore and learn about different cultures, so we we thought it would be fun to check out the Pictograph Trail out in Anza Borrego Desert State Park. It is a fairly short trail, which is what we wanted since we are just getting back into hiking and especially since we were concerned about lengthy exposure to the sun.
Unfortunately this area cannot be easily accessed from the south, which meant that we had to drive first up to Julian. We headed east on I-8 and then chose to drive through Mount Laguna on Sunrise Hwy (S1), which then meets with Hwy 79 (or you can take Hwy 79 directly from I-8, the exit is before Sunrise Hwy when heading east) . Hwy 79 comes to an intersection in Julian where you can either turn left to continue on Hwy 79 into Julian, or right to switch to Hwy 78 which will take you east into the desert. Obviously we wanted the latter option, so out to the desert we went.
And it turns out that we climbed up next to a historic landmark: The Butterfield Overland Mail Route. Hey, I’m always down for a mini history lesson!
The road “ends” (but really it connects to the other dirt road that branched off from S2) and you’ll see the sign for Pictograph trail on your left, where you can turn and continue on to the trail head. If you continue to the right just a few yards there is a parking lot in front of the “Ehmuu-Morteros Trail”. This is where we made Desert Rookie Mistake #1: we were unsure about continuing with the car and figured we were closed enough to walk to Pictograph Trail so we just parked at Ehmuu-Morteros. Let me tell you, do not just shrug distance off in the desert. “Oh, it’s not that far” when you really have no clue can turn into “I’m dying of heatstroke on a back road with no one else in sight”. And because we like to go big or go home, we immediately made Desert Rookie Mistake #2. We had our backpacks with us and wanted to give them a trial, so we figured we would take them on this “short” walk. Because adding extra weight was just what we needed! Careless behavior is extremely risky when you’re in the middle of nowhere, but in the desert it can have much greater consequences. Thankfully it seems like a popular enough trail that during the day you’re likely to come across other people, but this doesn’t mean you should take unnecessary risks. Not too far into our walk we realized our folly and how long the road actually was, so we returned to fetch the car.
Before we could do so, however, we were distracted by Ehmuu-Morteros and decided to check this site out a bit first. It is less than a mile round trip, but it turned out to be a fascinating trail so we explored for quite some time. They have markers designating the 9 points of interest, which are all part of a native settlement, and as you walk through it really is striking to imagine the life led by those who inhabited the area. As I was sweating and chugging water from my backpack every few minutes I thought of the people who called this area home, who dealt with these harsh condition daily and did what they had to in order to survive out here. The main draw of this site is of course the morteros, or “bedrock holes”, which seem to have been used for food preparation. If you’re familiar with the practice of grinding seeds, herbs, etc. with a mortar and pestle, this is the same idea. The mortar is just worn into the stone, rather than being in the form of a bowl.
There are other sights to see around the village as well:
There is even a pictograph here!
We found what looks like it could perhaps be an arrowhead, or something of that nature. Or a conveniently shaped rock…
I had to take a break in the shade for a while, the sun was beating down on us and with the extra weight of my backpack my body needed a rest.
Walking around through here was definitely a fascinating and strange experience, they speculate that the area is still very similar nowadays to what it was like when inhabited by this village. Can you imagine calling this place home?
Of course there were plants and creatures throughout the area that caught our eye, in the midst of the dry and prickly landscape.
And our little butterfly friend who hung out with us for a while:
We finally made our way back to the car, where we re-energized with some snacks and water, and we then made our way over to the Pictograph Trail. There is a parking lot at this trail head as well, and the hike from there is about 2.5 miles round trip. We began the trek, this time without our backpacks, but about halfway up I realized that the heat had really taken its toll. At this point we had been in the desert for a few hours, and it was at the hottest point of the day now. I knew that even if I made it to the end I would still have to make it back, and I just wasn’t sure I could do it. I felt disappointed in myself, and I knew that Jeremy really wanted to see the pictographs so I felt as though I was letting him down. He was pretty over the sun as well and he could tell I was struggling, so he kept offering to turn back which I eventually took him up on.
From this point we headed back to the parking lot. Right in front of our car there was another rock shelter, which we were able to climb down into. We stayed in here for a few minutes to escape the sun and cool off.
After we rested we finally decided to head home.
Rather than going back into the mountains through Julian we decided to drive S2 through the desert, which would eventually meet the I-8 again in Ocotillo about 85 miles east of San Diego. The drive was absolutely beautiful, switching between winding mountain roads and straight shots through the desert floor.
We pulled to the side only once or twice for a photo (like this one above). The rest (including the approx. 100 others not shown here) were from my happily snapping away in the passenger seat. The only site that we actually stopped to explore for a few minutes was the Carrizo Badlands. We caught a glimpse as we passed, and when we saw a turnout from the main road that would take us closer we couldn’t resist. This was a seriously awe inspiring sight, I felt like I should be picking my jaw up off the ground. Once we were home we researched this area a bit and discovered that there are mud caves that you can explore, which was immediately added to our list. Jeremy insisted that we try to camp there, but that much time in the desert sounds like the worst idea to me… Nevertheless, we’re definitely planning another visit to this region of the desert.
My take away from this adventure was not at all what I thought it would be. We began the day with one plan, though admittedly not a very well laid out plan, and wound up with a completely different experience. One of the most important things that you have to remember, whether in the wilderness or just in your day to day life, is to roll with the punches. Every second of every day is not going to happen exactly the way you intend, that isn’t how life works and that is usually what makes it more exciting. Though I was disappointed to not have seen the original site we were planning to visit, we ended up with an educational day in the desert. We learned about an interesting native culture, as well as some of our own limits and what we need to do better the next time around. And to top it off we had a peaceful and solitary drive that provided a refreshing break from the noisy and crowded city.
After we wake up from what will inevitably be a 20 hour nap, we will start looking for our next adventure. I can’t wait to see what the next weekend brings!