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Anza Borrego Mud Caves

If it’s “Pseudokarst,” is it “Pseudo Spelunking”?

Kevin BlumerPhotographer, WriterJaime HernandezPhotographer

It’s amazing how long it can take to scratch a particular itch. The Anza Borrego mud caves came onto my proverbial radar screen about a decade ago while reading a hiking and exploring Web page.

The planned trip was put on the backburner for many reasons, but one was that the mud caves are in a corner of the Anza Borrego Desert State Park that I don’t often visit. It takes longer to get to and it’s more remote once you show up. Other destinations were easier propositions.

The mud caves’ number came up last winter when my brother Joel and his wife Emily came down for the holidays. They were living in Utah at the time and were glad to escape winter’s icy grip, if only temporarily. What better way to have an adventure than to go some places that are new to everybody?

As usual, the 4Runner was well-stocked with tools and gear. We were prepared to fly solo, but we didn’t have to. Jaime Hernandez in his 80- series Land Cruiser and Josh Burns in his new-to-him TJ Wrangler completed our vehicular trio.

Anza Borrego’s mud caves are in an area of the park called the Carrizo Badlands, which are home to slot canyons, deep gorges, and two well-known one-way drop-offs. The area is well-mapped and trail signs are numerous. Still, it’s a place that can spell trouble if you show up sans map and common sense.

The mud caves themselves were formed as water coursed through a thick deposit of silt. This is similar to, but not the same as, the traditional cave-creating process that produces a karst topography. Since it’s not the same, it gets stigmatized with the prefix “pseudo.”

There are 22 of these pseudokarst caves in the Arroyo Tapaido, and we only had time to explore one. Our proposed itinerary also included heading down the Diablo Dropoff and emerging through the Split Mountain Gorge.

Quick as we could, we grabbed our flashlights and headed into the cave’s opening. Each sinewy corner led to another, beckoning us farther until we reached a “window” that signified the end of the cave. Then we backtracked.

So, does pseudokarst automatically mean it’s pseudo spelunking? In this case, yes. We didn’t don hard hats, carry oxygen meters, or crawl on our bellies. No one was overcome with claustrophobia. Does it matter? No! We had a great time and would like to go back and see the other 21 mud caves we missed out on. The karst and the spelunking might have been “pseudo,” but the adventure was 100 percent real. Here’s to scratching old itches.

Jaime passed around his smart phone, which was loaded with an awesome stargazing app. Simply point the phone at the sky, and the app shows and labels the stars and constellations. Point the phone at the ground, and the app will “see through” the earth and show you the stars on the other side. The ethereal soundtrack completed the experience.

The plan was to follow Arroyo Tapiado until it met Arroyo Seco Del Diablo, and then descend the steep, sandy Diablo Dropoff. The map showed the two arroyos meeting farther upstream. We found that while Arroyo Tapaido probably does intersect with Arroyo Seco Del Diablo at some point, said point is past a place where Arroyo Tapiado pinched down into something we didn’t want to mess with at night. Diablo Dropoff would have to wait for another occasion. We turned around here. We could’ve gone back and picked up Arroyo Seco Del Diablo from Vallecito Creek, but we were out of time.

Jaime and Josh had to hit the highway to home, but the 4Runner and its occupants had unfinished business near Borrego Springs. The valley floor is populated by more than a hundred metal sculptures made by artist Ricardo Breceda. The land and sculptures are privately owned, but the public is welcome to visit and admire. The sculptures are easy to find during the day but blend in after dark. We managed to find this giant bird. It looks like Joel is being supported by the center cables, but they’re really holding up a metallic pig that’s about to become an entrée.