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Mortero Palms to Goat Canyon Trestle, CA

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Guide 11 Triplogs  1 Topic
Rated  Favorite Wish List CA > San Diego
4.5 of 5 by 4
HAZ reminds you to respect the ruins. Please read the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979 & Ruins Etiquette
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Difficulty 3.5 of 5
Route Finding 4 of 5
Distance Round Trip 5.75 miles
Trailhead Elevation 2,014 feet
Elevation Gain 1,400 feet
Accumulated Gain 2,400 feet
Avg Time Round Trip 6 hours
Kokopelli Seeds 17.75
Interest Off Trail Hiking, Ruins & Historic
Backpack Possible - Not Popular
Dogs not allowed
feature photo
Photos Viewed All Mine Following
27  2017-03-13 Jim_H
21  2016-05-28
Goat Canyon Railroad
14  2014-03-08
Drive to Mortero Palms Trailhead
7  2014-03-08
Drive to Dos Cabezas and S2 via Jojobacnyn
11  2014-03-08 rwstorm
9  2014-03-08 azbackpackr
30  2014-02-21 rwstorm
15  2013-04-07
Mortero Palms
Page 1,  2
Author Jim_H
author avatar Guides 55
Routes 44
Photos 7,651
Trips 1,608 map ( 9,661 miles )
Age 40 Male Gender
Location Phoenix, AZ
Historical Weather
Trailhead Forecast
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Preferred   Mar, Nov, Apr, Feb → 10 AM
Seasons   Early Autumn to Late Spring
Sun  5:29am - 5:50pm
5 Alternative
Flora Nearby
Named place Nearby
Culture Nearby
Railroader's Dream Hike!
by Jim_H

This is a really fun hike to a very interesting destination: the Trestle over Goat Canyon, or Carrizo Gorge. There is a lot of history surrounding this trestle, but I won't deal with that here, this is strictly for the hike. Ample resources exist on the internet to learn about the trestle, the railroad, and their construction, but this write-up is for the hike.

It is my opinion that this has always been a social trail hike, and it is gaining popularity, so route finding should improve, despite the lack of real trail construction. Due to this hike's destination, it may attract those who don't normally hike in wild areas. Know that there is no reliable water out here, no cell reception, and you are very likely to be totally alone, all day. I do not know if people come more by the tracks or the trail, but a notebook located near the tunnel entrance at the far end of the trestle filled up in 2016, so this is still a fairly popular destination.

Access to the Mortero Palm Canyon Trailhead is a decent challenge. I was able to do it just fine in my 2013 Subaru Outback, knowing where to start from off of the S2 highway. In fact, I basically just went with the dominant 2-track once I left the S2. This is an important idea, as a similar concept can be employed to hike this well worn social trail hike.

From the trailhead, which is basically a turn around at a dead end, walk down into the wash and down wash slightly, locating a beaten path that appears in the riparian vegetation. From here, follow the trail to the next canyon to the north. This next canyon is the one with the Mortero Palms. These palms are visible from the road as you drive in and are still a few miles out, but not on any part of the hike.

At times, this hike has a lot of braided social trails, but at other it is a clear trail, almost built in some spots. Down low, it is often braided. You want to follow the best trail, or the one that takes you to a (probably) dry stock tank. At this point you have two options, one I recommend (option 1), and one I do not (option 2). For option 1, I recommend turning north and following a trail running parallel off the long side of the tank. This is a social trail that gets better once through the low vegetation, is generally visible and cairned for it's length. Going perpendicular to the long side of the tank and continuing up canyon to the palms is option 2. If you only came for the palms, take option 2.

I took option 1 because I went out with the logical idea that the best route, or the one most visible to me while going out, goes to the palms and then on. In reality, my experience was that the best route goes to the trestle and does not go through the palms. So, option 1 leaves the tank and crosses into the next drainage or slope to the north. It is well traveled and cairned as it climbs steeply up on to a ridge before it tops out and drops down into the upper parts of Mortero Canyon. Though this social trail is steep, sometimes loose, and gains a couple of hundred more feet in elevation than if one stayed in Mortero Canyon, you never have to get around or over large granite boulders or put yourself in situations where a fall may be deadly. I felt this way, at least.

After cresting the ridge, the trail is very defined and loses some elevation as it drops back to upper Mortero Canyon. From this point, I do not recall a lot of braiding or confusing side trails. It is a pretty straight forward hike across rolling terrain to upper Goat Canyon. Enjoy the scenery, the views to the east when they are there, and look for sheep. I wasn't even trying when I spotted to Ewes on the ridge above. Well, I saw 1, there were 2 in the picture.

Descending to Goat Canyon starts easy enough, and has only small areas of boulders to get around. This is once again cairned for route finding. The situation changes as you get further down and the canyon steepens. Remember that this is a pretty popular route, so it should be doable. Some parts do constitute technical hiking or scrambling, but not climbing, in my opinion. Early on there are no views of the railroad, then distant views of the tracks come in to view. Eventually, once pretty far down canyon and nearly to the trestle, you catch your first glimpse of it. Confirmation that you are on the correct path to some destination, after all! The final descent is steep and may be challenging, but it is marked by cairns and slow travel with the idea that someone else came before you should keep you on safe terrain. Once into the boulders, things begin to let up, you soon level out, and then you pretty much just walk over to the railroad.

At present, it is not recommended to return via the railroad, as that is appearantly illegal, despite being owned by the City of Sand Diego (from what I found on March 16, 2017). With the current rock falls over the railroad near the trestle, no trains will be coming through any time soon. Hike around the nearby tunnels, over the trestle, maybe go down canyon and explore what appeared to be water flowing in Goat Canyon after the wet winter of 2017, and then return the way you came. If you are backpacking, you probably want to stay nearby.

More on Option 2.
Keeping in mind that I recommend option 1, some may take option 2. I went out on option 1, but knowingly broke my rule of returning the way I came and descended through option 2, simply because I wanted to see the Mortero Palms. I knew it was a route, after all there were ample foot prints in the gravel on the bottom of the wash, but I could have gotten into trouble. This is because above the palms, a few sections of the route were very hard for me to locate, or I just got completely off route in the rapidly waning daylight, and I ended up scrambling down some rather large boulders. Being alone, a fall here would have been deadly. It could simply be that I didn't pay attention and was way off route, but I greatly preferred the trail conditions of option 1. If you still want to see the palms, it is probably better to head to them, visit the main groves, and then return to option 1, either before or after your primary hike to the trestle.

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2017-03-17 Jim_H
    WARNING! Hiking and outdoor related sports can be dangerous. Be responsible and prepare for the trip. Study the area you are entering and plan accordingly. Dress for the current and unexpected weather changes. Take plenty of water. Never go alone. Make an itinerary with your plan(s), route(s), destination(s) and expected return time. Give your itinerary to trusted family and/or friends.

    Most recent Triplog Reviews
    Mortero Palms to Goat Canyon Trestle
    rated 5rated 5rated 5rated 5rated 5
    A highlight of the trip. Missed the palms going out, hit them coming back. Spotted 1, but really 2 Big Horn Ewes on a ridge above upper Goat Canyon and found this to be more of an adventure than expected. The Palm grove was nowhere near the highlight of this one. Worth a repeat, too.
    Mortero Palms to Goat Canyon Trestle
    rated 5rated 5rated 5rated 5rated 5
    This was my first hike in Anza-Borrego in many years. Enjoyed hiking to the palms but we discovered that the hike to the trestle isn't exactly hiking. It's bouldering, and although the distance to see a view of the trestle is said to be only a couple of miles, it would take many hours.

    Also, I forgot to look for the actual "morteros" which are the grinding holes, or bedrock mortars, where the Indians ground up seeds for food. But, the palms were worth seeing. Very pretty!
    Mortero Palms to Goat Canyon Trestle
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    Indian Hill to Goat Canyon Trestle
    After failing at my attempt to traverse the mountain from Mortero Palms directly into Goat Canyon, I decided to try Plan B. While the scrambling route over the hill proved to be much slower than I had planned, I knew that I'd be able to cruise at 3+ mph on the railroad grade. Unfortunately, I was unaware that the old road around Indian Hill was long closed, and added nearly 2 miles to my planned route. So instead of a 7 mile round trip, I was no looking at 11 miles. And it was already 3pm. Oh well, I loaded up on water and snacks, parked next to an immigrant watering station (I figure there's no reason to break into my truck if there's plenty of water and a bag of beef jerky right next to it!), and took off at a good pace for the railroad.

    This area is truly beautiful. The ocotillo forest is fully abloom and the afternoon sun was tolerable. The rugged, rounded rocks are very picturesque. Unfortunately, the old road is like walking on the beach. Slow and very difficult. After the first mile though, the ground firmed and my pace quickened. The old road connects to the railroad just as it comes out of a tunnel to the north. Far down in the canyon below you can spot Carrizo Palms.

    There is a well used path on the outside of the tracks making hiking quite easy. The railroad grade increases in elevation, though I never realized it until looking back down to where I had come from. It appears that many visitors using this route ride mountain bikes, an option which I might recommend for anybody who wants to shave some time off their trip. Hiking on train tracks isn't that exciting after all, unless you are into the history of it all. All kinds of remnants of the building of the track remain, and it seems every piece of steel has a date on it. It helps you see when things were originally built, and when they might have been rebuilt or repaired.

    Shortly after the first tunnel, you round a corner opening up views of Carrizo Canyon, and the Goat Canyon Trestle in the distance. From here, the tracks cross numerous smaller trestles and three more tunnels while winding it's way along the mountainside before reaching Goat Canyon. There's a fifth tunnel just beyond the trestle as well. All the tunnels are short enough to hike without the need for light, though one of them was a little bit dark in the middle.

    The construction of both the trestles and the tunnels are truly amazing to see. I kept considering the economics involved in building this "Impossible Railroad" and wondering how it ever made sense financially. Alas, I am not a railroader!

    Along some of the lower trestles, there are two derailed boxcars laying several hundred feet downhill of the track. I can only imagine how they came to get derailed; but more intriguing is how they managed to stop before reaching the bottom of this very steep canyon slope!

    Upon finally reaching the Goat Canyon Trestle, (5.2 miles in 1:35) I realized I would have plenty of light for a non-hurried return trip. I crossed the trestle along the tracks, and took a break to snack on the other side. While returning, I noticed that there was a catwalk across the trestle down below the tracks! I found my way down under the start and immediately realized that my pack would have to be left behind. There were some ducks and tight squeezes ahead of me.

    I had to climb two ladders that were sketchy, but seemed ok. Another ladder that lead all the way to the bottom of the trestle was an absolute no-go :scared: . The main structure of the trestle appeared to be in good shape, but the catwalk was rickety and in some disrepair. Occasionally there were pieces of an old hand rail, but often there was not. The footboards were loose, split and splintered. It made for the highlight of the trip! Check out the video here:

    In retrospect, I wish I had taken a few minutes to hike up Goat Canyon to get a view from above, but I'll save that for when I make this trip via the Goat Canyon route over the mountain from Mortero Palms.

    I headed back along the tracks the way I came. The lighting was nicer, but the return was pretty boring otherwise. On the drive out I passed two other hikers who had been out all day, and offered them a lift back to their car at the Dos Cabezas tower. Apparently they were not used to driving in the back of a pickup on dirt roads ... and I was even on my best behavior!

    I enjoyed a few minutes amongst the wind turbines as the sun set over the desert. They are amazingly large, and make the coolest noise as the wind whips through them. (20 sec. video here:

    I had an unsatisfying dinner in Yuma and managed to be home by 11pm. Plans to return here are already in the works! :)
    Mortero Palms to Goat Canyon Trestle
    rating optionrating optionrated 3rated 3rated 3
    Mortero Palms
    On my way back from San Diego, I planned to spend a few hours having fun in the Anza Borrego and had my eye set on the Goat Canyon rail trestle. Using Randall's triplog from Feb 12, and the GPS track info added by Hank, I decided that a 6-7 mile out-n-back from Mortero Palms would be a worthy day for me.

    After finding the trailhead (there's a huge new windfarm in the Imperial Valley that has made a mess of new roads), I made a quick visit to the perennial Dos Cabezas Spring (not much more than a trickle) before heading one canyon over.

    I set off looking for the route up to Goat Canyon. It was a sandy wash and there were a few cairns, but otherwise it was pretty much an explorative journey. As the trail began to ascend, I found myself doing a lot more scrambling than I had expected. I had my hiking poles out, prodding and poking the ground in front of me, since it is now into snake season. That made things more treacherous too since I think this would be much easier without the poles.

    It was in the mid 80s and I was sweating pretty good under the desert sun as I climbed the boulder-filled canyon. I began to doubt my ability to get to the pass, and then down the other side to the railroad before having to do it all again in reverse.

    That's when I spotted Mortero Palms! What a neat oasis in the desert. I always wonder how these palms come to grow in such random spots. There's one in Aravaipa that always throws me for a loop. Palms are not native to the desert after all...

    Anyway, the palms offer a densely shaded and borderline creepy area with tons of frond debris strewn about making the footing surprisingly slippery. After some photos, I pushed on up canyon, which required a couple of interesting route selections, backtracking, and short climbs.

    When I got above the palms, I re-evaluated my situation and decided that I was not prepared to make the trip over to the railway. The route-finding was proving more difficult than I had hoped, and I had begun too late in the day. So I turned around and headed back down to the truck before embarking on Plan B...

    What I can say for sure is this area is awesomely rugged and stunningly beautiful. I have every intention of returning here on a trip specifically for the mission, rather than a pit stop on the way home from the coast. The route over the mountain to Goat Canyon is still on my list!
    Mortero Palms to Goat Canyon Trestle
    rated 5rated 5rated 5rated 5rated 5
    Anza Borrego Feb2012 - Goat Canyon Trestle & Indian Hill

    Prelude - From my "boyhood affinity with trains", I've always had an awareness of the Goat Canyon Trestle (just Google "GOAT CANYON TRESTLE" and see what you get). With a recent HAZ Forum thread targeting the nearby Carrizo Gorge (check out => viewtopic.php?f=4&t=6639&start=0&hilit=carrizo ), and a non-HAZ posted hike description (check out => ), my interest was piqued to go explore the "Impossible Railway" in the Anza Borrego. The Goat Canyon trestle was built in 1932 after an earthquake collapsed one of the tunnels of the Carrizo Gorge section of the San Diego and Arizona Railway. At 200 feet tall and 750 feet long, it remains to this day the longest, tallest curved wooden trestle ever built in the United States.

    Friday Feb 3rd - "Establishing Base Camp at Mortero Palms Trail Head" - With our weekend itinerary set (check out => viewtopic.php?f=4&t=6639&hilit=carrizo&start=20#p78510 ), Clark Norgaard and I checked out from work noon-ish. I make the side trek to Casa Grande to pick up Rob Gay while Clark makes a side trek to Ahwatukee to pick up Ken Schopen. We rendezvous at the Gila Bend McDonald's two-ish and our race red F-150 and red Ford Expedition form a convoy heading west along the I-8. We exit the I-8 at the Imperial Highway turn-off in Ocotillo CA (check out => PHOTO #26 link goes here...). About 8 miles along the Imperial Highway, just past the Border Patrol check point; you will find a kiosk and sign indicating "Mortero Wash" (check out => PHOTO #25 link goes here...). It's a 4WD from here to the trail head. About 4 miles from the Imperial Highway you reach the railway tracks and water tower at the Dos Cabezas ghost town. We stop to strategically place some rocks to improvise a rail crossing grade. Onto the Mortero Palms trail head where we set up camp in the glow of our headlights. An almost-full moon rises to supplement our field lighting. I'm on dinner duty - camp dinner menu includes choice beverages, BBQ steaks, corn-on-the-cob, gherkin pickles, grilled mushrooms and onions. We have a cozy camp fire and complete solitude - no evidence of any other campers in our corner of the Anza Borrego tonight. Somebody points out that the time is after midnight...

    Saturday Feb 4th - "Mortero Palms to Goat Canyon Trestle with Return Via the Tracks" - At sun-up Clark prepares a camp breakfast of fresh perked coffee, bacon and scrambled eggs. We organize our packs and consult our maps (check out => PHOTO #24 link goes here...) one last time before tackling our convoluted trail. Any doubt we are at the wrong location is allayed when I find a trail marker labeled "MORTERO PALMS". Paying heed to our trail notes;

    "One of the most critical parts of this hike is getting started up the correct canyon. There is a choice of two main washes each of which split into multiple possible routes. The correct wash is NORTH-WEST with an immediate turn to the WEST. It is tempting to take the South-West wash, which will also get you there, but adds about 0.75 miles to the trek."

    We manage to find multiple cairns along our route giving us some assurance that we are on the right path. As we amble into the palm oasis, we are somewhat awestruck and reassured we're on the correct path. Again, paying heed to our trail notes;

    "It is possible to exit the palm grove to the right or left. To the right is a water chute that can run strong in the spring months. It is climbable and the most direct route up."

    We make this our chosen path. There are plenty of options, all very climbable... The path is fairly obvious and well cairned taking you to the crest. At the crest we once again pay heed to our trail notes;

    "Probably the trickiest part of the hike is route finding along the relatively flat section between Mortero Canyon and Goat Canyon. Mortero Canyon peters out at the 1.5 mile mark and becomes a rolling desert meadow lined with cholla, barrel cactus, agave, ocotillo and cat claw. There are several possible routes to Goat Canyon, but the best one tends to the right and bypasses the beginning of Goat Canyon. Again, the best advice is to find the most well-worn trail and stick to it."

    We listen to this "best advice" and stick to the well-cairned, obvious trail. Soon we are descending into Goat Canyon as the side walls begin to box up. There are multiple pour-offs with work-around on either side. As the trestle comes into view, our jaws drop - it is stunning! The 35 foot dry waterfall is also dropping our jaws - so we consult our trail notes once again;

    "This first glimpse occurs at a particularly steep and tall drop-off, some 300 yards from the trestle. On first inspection, it appears you can't get there from here. However, you can make it by climbing to the left, then dropping into the scree-choked canyon below."

    As we contour over to the left, an obvious path down the scree chute comes into view. A little bum surfing and we're at the trestle! There's a group of about 10 people at the Goat Canyon Trestle on this Saturday about lunch time. We find out that they are all from a San Diego area motorcycle club out on a day trip. They've hiked the 5 or 6 miles along the tracks starting from the I-8 near the town of Jacumba. One of their photographers obliges me and takes a group shot of us with my wide-angle lens camera. We cross the trestle and the tunnel to go check out the earthquake collapsed tunnel (the reason for building the trestle by-pass in the 1932). On our return crossing of the trestle we note that each one of the columns is from a single redwood tree. That's more than 175 feet for some of the column members! The return route north along the tracks starts at about mile marker 102 and ends near mile marker 109 at the Dos Cabezas water tower. The route is filled with eye-candy including train wrecks, smaller trestles, multiple tunnels, palm oases, and railroad artifacts.

    Rob posted his SPOT Track on HAZ =>
    1,735 AEG and 10.62 miles later (check out => PHOTO #01 link goes here...), we bum a ride to our base camp from San Diego Aaron and his dog Tula. They were checking out the water tower at Dos Cabezas when we ambled by. We negotiate a ride in the bed of his F-150 in exchange for a couple of choice beverages back at the Mortero Palms TH. As the sun sets, temperatures plummet from 71degF to 40degF in about 30 minutes! That camp fire keeps our conditions perfect while Ken whips up a camp dinner of BBQ burgers with jalapenos. That night I get a weeks' worth of sleep - nothing like some fresh air and a little bit of exercise to promote some zzz's! SIDE NOTE: We had to perform emergency surgery on Ken to remove an embedded tick at his waist line - WTF? Not something we expected to come across on a desert trek - always associated ticks as long grass residents =>

    Sunday Feb 5th - "The REAL Indian Hill Rock Art Site" - Ken whips up a camp morning meal of breakfast burritos. It's soon time to break camp and head over to the rock art sites (armed with some tips courtesy of Hank Luke aka Grasshopper). We meet a couple from the Sierra Club at the REAL Indian Hill that point out the alcove and the cave and the fertility rite area. Lunch at the Lazy Lizard in Ocotillo and we're on the road home... Check out the rest of the story at =>

    Denouement - It's almost unimaginable to think that this rail line was re-opened in 2004 and trains actually ran until 2007 (check out => and and ... ata_player ). Also need to get a portable metal camp fire set-up for future back country adventures. Photos and Hike Description to follow...

    Permit $$
    CA State Parks - Fee: typically $2-$15 per vehicle, view more information

    Map Drive
    High Clearance possible when dry

    To hike
    From San Diego, CA, take I-8 east to the Ocotillo and S2 exit on the western edge of the Imperial Valley, or from Yuma, AZ, take I-8 west to the Ocotillo and S2 exit on the western edge of the Imperial Valley. Proceed north on the S2 highway through the town of Ocotillo, continue on through the wind farm, and proceed through the Border Patrol check point and enter Anza Borrego Desert State Park. Shortly after entering the Park, there will be a sand road on the west side of the highway with an informational sign. This sign is visible from the highway, and the road should be signed as, "Mortero Canyon Rd".

    Turn on to the Mortero Canyon Road and follow it as it gains elevation and heads southwest towards the mountains. This is mostly a 2-track, and while a high clearance passenger car may be able to make it to the trailhead, a few sections may require some level of all wheel drive. I do not see this as Honda Civic appropriate. My Subaru Outback was just fine, once I found the correct turn off. The roughest sections are in the lower foothills section.

    You will pass through the low foothills and rougher/ rockier sections of the road as you draw near the railroad tracks. If you keep with the dominant road pattern, you should be fine, as there are some turn offs and braided sections. Nearing the tracks, the water tower used to refill the old steam locomotives comes in to view, and you will enter a large sandy area, or rather a large cleared area. Proceed through this area, and continue on the 2-track which the parallels the railroad tracks, moving to the south, and you will come to a crossing over the tracks after you go up a small hill. Turn right here and cross the tracks. Just after the crossing, turn right and go back north for a short distance before you take a left fork and head westward once again. The rest of the way is pretty straight forward towards the trailhead; follow the dominant 2-track road and you should be fine. You will need to make a right turn towards the Mortero Palms/ Canyon Trailhead just before the road dead ends at the Dos Cabezas Spring. If you go to the spring by accident, turn back and take a left to the dead end at the trailhead. There is a sign, the 3rd of 3, at this turn off. The first was at the turn off near the paved road, the second was as you enter the Protected area, and this one is the last.
    page created by HAZ_Hikebot on Mar 17 2017 11:05 am
    3 pack - loud whistle
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