Distance: 9.2 miles
Elevation: 500 – 2400 feet
Season: October – April
The Painted Gorge and Carrizo Mountain are located in the Coyote Mountains of extreme South-central California, just miles from the Mexican border. They rise above the Imperial Valley and form a dramatic example of an extreme desert mountain.
Endangered Peninsular Bighorn Sheep occupy this range, which means the roads into it are closed from January 1st to June 30th every year during lambing season. This makes it a perfect time to visit the range, as you will be all by yourself on the rocky jeep trails having an amazing level of solitude. On this hike we saw every sign of those bighorn sheep, except the sheep themselves. We found their tracks, their droppings, and even their wool!
You can access this magnificent place by taking I-8 from San Diego or El Centro and taking the Ocotillo exit. Turn right onto the Imperial Highway (S2) toward Plaster City and El Centro. A few miles east of Ocotillo, look for Painted Gorge road to the left. This dirt road will drive past a myriad of old trailers and rickity shacks and then will head up into the Coyote Mountains. Eventually the road reaches a shot-up information board put up by the BLM. Here several dirt tracks depart in various directions. The most obvious track veers off slightly to the right. To get to the Painted Gorge gate, you can either follow this and then immediately turn left up the wash or follow the faint road straight ahead from the sign and into the same wash. Once in Painted Gorge wash, drive ½ mile to the gate.
From the gate, hike up Painted Gorge with its myriad of colors, ranging from purple, to burgandy, yellow, beige and white. The geology is extremely complex in here, with volcanic, sedimentary, and metamorphic rocks all mixed together in an astonding diversity I have never seen before.
The route continues 1.4 miles up Painted Gorge wash and then a jeep track heads up the slope to the right. If you continue up the gorge, it will dead end in about ¼ of a mile. The jeep track then begins a relentless climb nearly 2000 feet to the top of Carrizo Mountain. The landscape constantly changes as you climb. At first you will be looking directly down into the gorge. Then, views across the Imperial Valley open up. Ocotillos and brittle brush begins to dominate the vegetation.
There will be a number of side roads that branch in all directions, but just stay on the main track as it continues to climb. In about 1 mile you will enter a bowl where the fascinating “raspberry” cactus begin to appear. Officially they are called the many-headed barrel cactus (E. polycephalus), but to us, they are the “raspberry cactus” because in the distance, these red conglomeration of those heads looks like a raspberry.
The trail will continue to climb through several geologic layers including sparkly mica-filled metamophic rocks, red and yellow granites, and white sandstones. At 3.2 miles you will reach a basin of sorts full of wonderful campsite opportunities. The summit of the mountain will now be visible in the distance. You will soon encounter two major intersections. At the first intersection, stay right on the main track. Then, later when the main track appears to veer right 180 degrees, stay straight on the fainter track. At 4.5 miles you will reach the end of the road.
At the end of the road, it is a short 500 foot scramble to the summit of the mountain. At the summit, the entire Anza Borrego Desert State Park comes into view. You can see the Salton Sea (150 feet below sea level) to the northeast, the snow-capped Santa Rosa and San Jacinto ranges to the north, Whale Peak to the northwest, the 6000 foot escarpment of the Laguna Mountains to the west, Mexico to the south, and the Imperial valley to the east.
There may be no better way to explore the California desert in such solitude than to explore Painted Gorge and Carrizo Mountain during lambing season!
Carrizo Badlands from the Summit