Our friend Michela let it be known that she wanted to get into backpacking by asking me for advice on gear and where to go hiking. Well, gear advice is easy enough to make, so I made some. And then I offered to take her (and a guest) backpacking with Vicki and me, for training purposes (and for fun!).
If there’s one thing that I’ve learned over the years, it’s that it is very important that your friend have a good time on their first backpacking trip. You want good weather, a beautiful location, a relatively short hike with minimal elevation gain, tasty food, and pleasant company. In other words, the new hiker should have a great time. If they don’t, then they’ll never go backpacking again. It’s better to save that miserable rainy weekend when your tent blows down, your clothes are all wet, and the fire won’t light for another trip. Wait until they are addicted to backpacking before you try anything difficult. A tough hike that seems like a terrible ordeal while it’s happening can become a great story to tell afterward. But don’t try it with a newbie.
Now, when you’ve never been backpacking the choices of where to hike seem endlessly daunting. Luckily, at this time of year our choices had been limited by weather: It was freezing cold at night up in the mountains, especially at the higher elevations. So the obvious choice, if you live in Southern California, is the desert. And, since the Thanksgiving holiday weekend is the traditional start of Desert Season, we decided to join the rest of the off-roaders heading to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. But still we were left with the question: Where exactly would we go? It’s a very big park. But the park is also mostly about driving. Off-road driving. Hiking in the park is only for when the path gets too narrow to drive on it. In fact, backpacking isn’t big in the desert, as water sources are rare, and you can only carry so much of it. Therefore, Vicki and I decided that a good backpacking trip for a newbie (and her guest) would be to go to the Wind Caves.
The drive out there was interesting. We headed east from Julian on Route 78, and got stopped by a zero mph traffic jam where the road winds down through Sentenac Canyon. We never found out what caused the jam, but we avoided it via a long detour north, on County roads S2 to S22, and popped out in Borrego Springs. The views were great as we dropped down into the desert. Then, since we were there, we stopped off at Park Headquarters, checked out the desert museum, and bought a nice map of all the dirt roads in the park for one dollar. The detour ended up working out just fine.
Then we headed out to Ocotillo Wells, and watched all the motorcycles and quads playing on the big sand dune. But by this time it was starting to get late, so we headed down Split Mountain Road to (drum roll, please) Split Mountain. We drove through the cleft and parked below the Wind Caves. We readied our packs and began hiking just as the sun was dropping behind the Laguna Mountains in the west. This was a good thing, as temps were still in the eighties and we had to climb up and out of Fish Creek Wash.
The trail to the Wind Caves was thankfully short (about a mile), but was very steep in the beginning. I had warned her about this beforehand, and since the steep section ended quickly, life was still good. The trail was just long enough to make her feel like she did some real hiking. Michela’s guest, a fun-loving fellow by the name of Braxton, was traveling ultra-light (he let Michela carry the tent!) and he insisted on leading the way up the trail. If THIS was what backpacking was all about, then he was completely in favor of it!
We made it to the caves with plenty of light still left in the sky and plenty of time to set up our camp. Or there would have been had Vicki and I bothered to do it. Unlike Michela, who had way too much energy and who immediately set up her new tent on the nicest spot with the best view, Vicki and Braxton and I sat nearby on the sandstone bedrock and simply stared off into the west at the sunset. Michela soon joined us. Many photos were taken of the alpenglow. It was peaceful and relaxing. The moon was nearing full and was already in the sky, lighting up the desert terrain. We saw some neighboring campers (far below us in the wash) light their campfire and shine their flashlights around. We blinked our headlamps at them and they blinked theirs back at us, conveying no useful information, as we laughed and blinked some more, except that we secretly knew that they were jealous of our excellent choice of campsite.
Vicki and I picked a spot not too far away for our tent but we only set up the inner tent with the bug screening. Not that we needed it, as there were no bugs and the weather was calm and warm. It was a perfect night for sleeping out under the stars. While I inflated our air mats and got the sleeping bag out, Vicki went off to get the water boiling for dinner. This was our usual division of labor when on the trail.
I soon went to find the others, and I was pleasantly surprised: Because we were at the Wind Caves, Vicki had picked a nice comfy cave for us to have dinner in! It was cozy with a soft sandy floor, and it was dark in there, except for the low blue flame of the stove, contrasting with the moon shining bright beyond the mouth of the cave. It was a perfectly primordial kitchen. We drank tea and hot chocolate as we waited for the freeze-dried chicken and rice dinners to rehydrate, sitting and talking by the light of our LED headlamps.
The sun sets early in late November, the nights are long, and we weren’t very sleepy, so I lit up my “buddy burner” in the cave. (Campfires are only allowed in the park if you bring your own wood and your own container to burn it in – you aren’t allowed to burn the park’s vegetation as there isn’t much TO burn, and carrying wood and fireplaces is highly impractical when backpacking.) A buddy burner is essentially a gigantic candle; it burns well, it burns bright, and it burns for a long time. It doesn’t weigh much, either. And it truly transformed that cave into a welcoming home away from home. We were cave men. And cave women. And life was good.
Video of our buddy burner inside one of the Wind Caves
Still, a buddy burner only burns for so long, and we had plans to wake up before dawn to catch the Leonid Meteor Shower, which was due to peak that night. So we went to bed. I set my alarm for three A.M. and actually woke up just before it went off. By that time the moon had set and the sky was dark. There were lots and lots of stars, the kind of starry skies you can only see when you’re far from the busy light-blinded night of the civilized world. Vicki didn’t feel like getting up, so she stayed in our warm sleeping bag looking for shooting stars through the screening of the tent.
I walked over to see Michela and Braxton, and showed them some of the stars that I knew, like Orion with his belt and his sword and his bow and his bright red eye named Betelgeuse. “Beetlejuice!” We laughed. “Is that the Little Dipper?” she asked, pointing to the Pleiades (a star cluster that I always call the “micro dipper”), and I told her about the seven sisters and their relationship with Orion. I then showed her the Big Dipper and the actual Little Dipper and the funny “W” shape of Cassiopeia, all of them useful for finding Polaris, the North Star. But in all this time Michela never saw a shooting star. I had seen two of them when I first woke up, but none since. This year’s Leonid Meteor Shower was turning out to be a dud. “Meteors, Schmeteors” we said, and then went back to bed and got a couple more hours of sleep.
Just the same, I woke up at the first light of dawn, when there was barely any red in the sky. I got dressed and grabbed my camera. I wandered around the wind caves taking pictures. I wanted to take one of Michela’s new tent as a silhouette against the eastern sky, and, even though I was walking as quietly as possible over smooth rock, I managed to wake up Braxton. Or at least I think that I did. I could have sworn that I heard a growling sound coming from the tent! But I only paused for a moment: Good photos come first! If he wanted to charge out of the tent and attack me he was welcome to try. But of course he didn’t; he was way too comfortable in there. I took my shot and continued onward to the next photographic opportunity. Dawn brightened, people woke up, and the sun rose, illuminating the distant mountains with reddish light. More photos were taken.
Dawn panorama video
We retired to our cave for breakfast. We cooked several varieties of food, from freeze-dried eggs and hash browns, to oatmeal, to ramen noodles. Braxton had his own special food, but we shared some of ours with him anyway, laughing at him because he looked so hungry. We sipped coffee and hot chocolate, and I even drank a can of soda (a most non-backpacking type of food). It was all very mellow.
But, like all good trips, all too soon it was time to pack up our gear. We stuffed our sleeping bags into stuff sacks and deflated our air mattresses. We took down our tents and rolled them up. We crammed everything into our backpacks, or tied it onto the outside. By the time we were fully packed the first group of day-hikers had arrived, so we commandeered one of them into taking several group photos.
“Did you really spend the night up here?” They asked.
“Yes we did! And it was beautiful!” We replied.
And then we hiked back down the alternate trail to the cars, Braxton leading, as usual. He sure had a lot of energy! The alternate trail went past a lower set of Wind Caves, but these were much smaller than the large ones up above. Soon enough we were heading down the last steep slope to the cars. The hike was over.
Did Michela learn anything about backpacking? She said that she did. And I think that she likes it, because she and Braxton decided to spend another night out in the desert by themselves. And, as it turns out, they did just fine. But that’s another story.
More photos can be found on my Flickr Page
A map with GPS tracks can be seen on my CalTopo Page