Sunday, October 28, 2012

Rockhouse Canyon 4 Day Backpack Trip - ABDSP

One of my Bighorn Sheep Count partners invited me on a 4 day backpack trip thru Rockhouse Canyon and the lower Santa Rosa Mountains area. He has been hiking in that area for many years and knows a lot about the area. Rockhouse Canyon / Valley have an interesting history with the early cowboys of the Anza Borrego desert and the indians who called it their home. One great book you can read is Old Time Cattlemen and Other Pioneers of the Anza-Borrego Area by Lester Reed

I got out to the Butler Canyon / Rockhouse Canyon junction a little early so I decide to go explore Butler Canyon a bit. The road going in had about a mile long stretch of deep soft sand around Alcoholic Pass, I needed 4WD for sure in my big truck.

Heading up Butler Canyon I found this old hand cart. If you have been up there before you too have probably seen it.
Old hand cart in Butler Canyon
Old hand cart in Butler Canyon

I saw there was a BM named "House" on the topo map so I thought I would go try to find it, that was when I bagged my first balloon bundle of the trip. These were a pain in the ass to get off the cholla and there was some bloodshed for my efforts
Balloon cluster on a Cholla next to the House BM

All three BM's were there and even a register! The last entry was Feb 2012 from the always present Monday Maniacs.
House BM
House BM Register. Monday Maniacs are everywhere!

Nice view of Butler Canyon from House BM
View of Butler Canyon from House BM

The next morning Gary and I drove out to the end of Rockhouse Canyon rd and it was pretty much a mess. We had to pile rocks in several places and at one point needed to tie a rope around a boulder and drag it out of the way so we could pass. We loaded up our backpacks and headed out. Gary knows many of the old indian trails so we followed them thru most of Rockhouse Valley.

Day One

On our first day out we would explore some of the side canyons and upper flats to the east of Rockhouse Valley and then camp out overnight at the old Santa Rosa Village ruins in upper Rockhouse Valley.

You can still see some faint inscriptions from the early 4WD folks that used Rockhouse Canyon as an off roading area. I think it says "Sand Buggy 8 VW's 1969"
Buggie Inscriptions

Looking west out towards Rockhouse Valley from the upper flats east of the valley. Toro Peak is straight ahead in the far distance
Looking towards Toro Peak from Rockhouse Canyon flats

Gary calls this the sweat house
Gary calls this the Sweat House

This is the real Cottonwood Spring, the topo maps have it in the wrong location. It is mostly dry now and you can see where there were rocks piled up to help create a small dam of some type
Cottonwood Spring

Up in an unnamed side canyon you can find remains of small camps probably from early cowboys and ranchers.
Cowboy Camp

Here is an old jug and a metal container that was for Log Cabin Syrup, anybody remember the originals?
Log Cabin Syrup and a jug

Looking into Rockhouse Valley. Toro Peak is on the left and on the middle right Peak 6582 (Dawns Peak), Rabbit and Villager Peaks(click image for a larger view)
Looking into Rockhouse Valley. Toro Peak is on the left and on the middle right Peak 6582 (Dawns Peak), Rabbit and Villager Peaks

After a long day of around 10 miles and low 90 degree temps we made it to the ruins at the old Santa Rosa Village in upper Rockhouse Valley. There are around 7 old ruins and this was the largest of them
Santa Rosa Village Ruins

Here is a night shot I took while watching for meteors
Santa Rosa Village Ruins at night

View of Buck Ridge from the Santa Rosa Village Ruins
Buck Ridge view from the Santa Rosa Village Ruins

Some kind of old kiln or small fireplace, a small rock shelter and rectangle shaped foundation at the village
Some kind of old kiln or small fireplace
Small shelter
A rectangle shape structure

Day Two

The next day we did some more exploring in side canyons and filled up our water bottles at an unnamed spring Gary found a few years back. It had good running water and it felt good to tuck down into a shaded area with some cool spring water. Our goal for the day was to be at the upper Cottonwood trees just below Toro Peak at around 5,000'

Gary is filtering water from the spring, the cool water was so refreshing!
Gary getting water from the spring

Exploring in more side canyons I found a funky big crater on a hill and large rock pile next to it, I have no idea what it was from or it's purpose
Not sure what this big crater is or the rock piple next to it

Gary showed me where a metate and some pottery sherds were up on anther side canyon
Metate in an outcast living space

We followed more old indian trails the rest of the day and there are sections where you can see large rock piles that some believe the indians would throw a rock on each time they passed by
Indian trail with rock pile next to it. There were many of these

Another long day and near 10 miles of hiking we finally get to the Cottonwood trees. We did a lot of hiking and gained probably another 2,000' in elevation. We were now at around 5,000' elevation and the cooler temps felt good.
The cottonwood grove

This is the main camp area at the Cottonwoods. You can tell this is where most everyone camps. Gary told me he has seen people up here before and most of them are coming down from Toro Peak and hiking out thru Rockhouse Canyon as a point-to-point trip. The wind was blowing pretty strong and the Cottonwood leaves shimmered with a brilliant yellow light in the wind. This was a very peaceful spot and I really enjoyed the blowing of the Cottonwood tree leaves at night in the moonlight
This is the campsite everyone uses at the Cottonwood site

Day Three

The third day out we hiked over the Santa Rosa Mountains towards Toro Spring. There was a great view of Buck Ridge and Rockhouse Valley once we got up on a high saddle
View of Buck Ridge and Rockhouse Valley from the Santa Rosa Mountains near Toro Spring

We followed more old indian trails but Gary was leading and had to do a lot of brush trimming to get a clear trail. I don't think anybody goes out here at all. That is why it makes a great place to have a dope farm.

Looks like they cleared the brush underneath the Ribbonwood trees and brought in miles of irrigation lines that they tapped into an unnamed seep and also Toro Spring. We found lots of irrigation lines and bags of supplies like starting pots and fertilizer. Most of the lines have been cut by the DEA I guess.
Dope farm water lines
Remnants of the dope farm
Remnants of the dope farm

It looked like the farm was right on top of a large cultural site. There were some concentrated areas of pot sherds and morteros
Large cultural site near the dope farm

I found a broken metate fragment
Broken Metate fragment

You could also find items of historic interest like these old square headed nails
Old square head nails. These were on the large cultural site

It is rare to find pottery in the desert with ornate painting, this was a cool find
Pottery sherd with lines painted on it

Up near the Cottonwoods are another set of ruins, I think these are usually referred to as the "upper rockhouse ruins". There is not a whole lot to look at
Upper Rockhouse Ruins

Here is a great view of Nicholias Canyon as we head down to find a place to camp for the night
Nicholias Canyon

Here is what is left of the old mining debris in Nicholias Canyon
Old mining debris in Nicholias Canyon

Trekking down thru Nicholias Canyon was not as easy as one might think. It is filled with boulders and thick brush.
Hiking thru Nicholias Canyon

If you have read Schad's description of this hike you know he mentions a dry fall you will need some rope for to lower your packs. With two people you can hand them down without a rope but it would be easier with rope. There are several dry falls you need to negotiate but here is a photo of the largest
Dry Falls at the bottom of Nicholias Canyon

Down in Nicholias Canyon the wash bottom is cement hard from recent rains. We found a sandy spot to camp out for the night. Gary told me that mosquitos might be a problem so I stopped at REI on my way out and bought a Bug Hut Pro...turned out to be great advice.

Here is camp on the last night of our trip
Camp spot in Nicholias Canyon

Here is what the wash looked like most of the trip back down and thru Nicholias & Rockhouse Canyon
Monsoon Rains created a strong water flow leaving cement hard wash floors

Day Four

On our last day of the trip we were going to just take our time and hike back down thru the wash and stop by the lower rockhouse ruins.

Here are a few photos of the more popular lower rock house ruins. You can easily see people have been piling the rocks back on over the years.
Lower Rockhouse Ruins
Lower Rockhouse Ruins
Lower Rockhouse Ruins

During the trip Gary shared with me a location of some pictographs. Here are a few photos of them with before/after shots with DStretch applied. I spent a little bit more time trying to get just the enhancements to show thru and I like the result.

This pictograph figure was about 3' wide and 3' tall, a very large painting
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Most likely a painting of a man on a horse

Not sure on this one

These look familiar

This was a great trip and I hope you enjoyed seeing some of my photos of the area. If you plan to hike a multi day trip in Rockhouse Valley you will need to know where water sources are and bring a filter. We carried 7 liters each day and filled up at springs along the way.

Total Mylar Balloons this trip - 10+ I lost count.


  1. What a great description! I did some exploring up and over the santa rosas from Rockhouse myself. We followed a different set of indian trails and have stories to share. get in touch :)

  2. Sounds like a great trip. Hope to get out there soon.

  3. very nice and informative trip report