The Mountains of California
Carrizo Mountain • Highpoint: Coyote Mountains
• Yuha Desert Recreation Area
• Imperial County

The road's end below the summit

Stick Scott at the top!

Summit rocks and benchmark

My truck

The gate

View of the summit from the Hewes Highway, two days later

More Plaster City

Date: November 15, 2012 • Elevation: 2,408 feet • Prominence: 1,268 feet • Distance: 5 miles • Time: 3 hours • Gain: 1,800 feet • Conditions: Extremely overcast but dry


The Coyote Mountains are a small range in western Imperial County, north of Interstate-8 near the town of Ocotillo. The range is extremely popular with dirt-bikers, jeeps and ATVs. The surrounding desert is a warren of random roads. Within the range, the main attraction is Painted Gorge, a canyon with walls about a hundred feet high, in tints and hues of green, red, orange, pink, ochre and yellow. A rough jeep trail meanders to near the summit, Carrizo Peak.

βð and I visited last December. We drove out Christmas Day, camping somewhere within the foothills. The next day, I drove to the road that leads into the canyon (and eventually to the top). The road is gated half the year to protect bighorn sheep and to keep out the vehicles. Hiking is not forbidden. The plan was that I would hike to the top, then we'd drive to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, our usual retreat during the December holidays.

We were at the gate early, and the only car there for now. I started walking and kind of hustled. I figured following a road shouldn't be that difficult and I hoped to hike the peak in a couple hours so we could get moving. The day was cool but sunny and clear.

The track after the gate was fine for walking. It alternated between being sandy and wide, to narrow and rocky. At times, the walls of the canyon would close in, to within thirty feet, then open up again. In about a mile and a half, I walked up the canyon into a beautiful amphitheater of cliffs and massive rock jumbles, way too rough for even the hardiest Jeep. I must have missed a turn back somewhere.

I hiked back a little bit and sure enough, missed a sharp turn where the road left the wash-bed and started up a ridge. The turn was almost 180-degrees and easy to walk past. Now back on the road, I walked up and up and up, doing just fine, making good time. All was well in my world for now.

The road achieves a rise to where views of the top are possible. I continued onward and upward and came to a junction. This was not expected and I did not know which way to turn. Both options looked equally good and neither "obviously" went to the top. So I tried one and walked a little ways, concluded it wasn't the one I wanted. So I walked back and walked the other one ... same thing. I was stumped.

My concern was that I did not want to waste time trying roads because I did not want to leave βð hanging back at the truck. I retried both roads, hoping for some hint --- a cairn, some recent tire prints or boot prints --- anything that would give me a clue. I had no map and did not figure this would be difficult. I decided to cut my losses and bail. It was not a hard decision to make. We come by here once a year anyway, so I knew there would be other opportunities.

Turns out I made the right decision. As I walked down, more people had entered into the canyon. Since the gate was shut, everyone was on foot. They weren't much of a problem. But back at the truck, it was a zoo, with dozens of vehicles, families having picnics, loud music, kids running around, dogs everywhere. She was about ready to jump out of her skin. We got moving quickly and headed off to Anza-Borrego.

The upshot was the day was beautiful, with clear skies and no humidity. My photos came out well:

December 2011 photos

The Coyote Mountains. The summit is at the far right.

The road leading into the gorge.

Painted Goarge as seen from the road after I have ascended a few hundred feet.

Centinela Peak (in Mexico) rises up to the south.

Another opportunity came when I had a conference in San Diego. Since I was driving, I built in time to hike Carrizo Peak. I studied the maps and satellite images better and knew now what to do at the road junction that stumped me earlier.

From Interstate-8 west of El Centro, I exited at the Dunaway Exit, went north and got onto the Evan Hewes Highway, which runs west with access to the range. The weather was not cooperating: a marine layer had moved in and the sky was a deep gray, with no variation. It wasn't cold or rainy, just a depressing gray. But the upside was that I would pass through Plaster City, one of those place-names I'd seen for years on a map that amused me.

Plaster City is a collection of factories and other super-industrial buildings. Gypsum is mined up in the Fish Creek Range about 30 miles away, then transported here on a train, where it is magically turned into wallboard. No one actually lives here although back in the olden days, apparently people did. It looks like one of those futuristic cities from hell, like you'd see in Mad Max.

I stayed on Hewes Highway a total of 8 miles from the Dunaway junction to Painted Gorge Road, then drove this road into the foothills, past where we camped, and into the gorge itself. The gate was open and I drove the road a little more to shave off some distance. I parked in a pullout, got my stuff in order, and started hiking at 7:55 a.m.. Despite the clouds, the temperature was mild and there did not seem to be any threat of rain.

Knowing exactly what to do (and not to do), I walked quickly and followed the road up the gorge and onto the higher plateau. I had google-maps which helped because there were other roads jutting off in all directions. I stayed on the proper road, now wise to the junctions, and in about an hour and fifteen minutes, had hiked to its end, a circular flat area below the summit. Here, I angled left and found a footpath, following that up to a saddle separating the summit from its lower eastern subsummit. The last hundred vertical feet was cross-country, up open slopes and rocks, topping out on the peak at a shade after 9:30 a.m.

I shot a few photos but the sky was so dingy gray, the colors were muted and my photos did not come out well. Looking east, I could see yellow-colored badlands, tan desert and the distant farms of the Imperial Valley. South, I had a nice view of Cerro Centinela in Mexico, and bigger peaks farther south. North was the Fish Creek Range, and west was the multitude of ranges that separate the low deserts from San Diego. I signed into the logbook, but didn't stay long, perhaps 10 minutes. I had not taken a break coming up, but here I stayed long enough to gulp down a Gatorade.

Panorama from the summit, viewing generally southeast to south.

The hike down went fast, too, and I was back to my truck a little before 11 a.m., a three-hour hike. No one had apparently come by while I was gone. I did a quick change of clothes and exited back to Hewes Highway, entering Interstate-8 at Ocotillo. I had about an hour of driving into San Diego, and since I was ahead of schedule, I hiked Cowles Mountain, the San Diego city highpoint and a favorite of San Diego hikers. I was happy to successfully hike this interesting little peak. While not difficult, its remoteness and stark beauty has an attraction of its own, and it was worth the trouble to come back, although I wish it hadn't been so gray.

Comments about Carrizo Mountain and the roads leading to it:

Even Hewes Highway is choppy, the asphalt breaking into large chunks in sections of the highway. However, Painted Gorge Road is generally good, but high clearance is advised due to ruts, rocks and erosion damage caused by the offroaders. It is graded sand for the first mile, passing through a small community apparently called Clarksville according to a hand-made sign. At key junctions, signs point which way to go, and after passing the last homestead and some power lines, the quality drops a notch, with more rocks, ruts and erosion. About 3 miles in from the Hewes Highway, the road comes to a Y-split. The right turn is correct, but it gets bumpy here as it threads a small notch in the hills.

Here, the main road comes into an open basin, completely bare of brush, with a single shot-up BLM kiosk sitting in the middle. Pass the kiosk on its left (your right) and find a road directly ahead. This road bends west and leads into the gorge, coming to the gate after about 4 miles. Past the gate, the road is a little softer. If dry, 4-wheel drive is not necessary. If wet, the whole area is probably a big muddy mess and not worth the trouble. Winter is ideal, as summer it way too hot. It is a popular hangout for off-roaders, campers and shooters. Although we had no issues on our first trip here, it does get crowded.

The road in the gorge is usually pretty good but narrow in spots and some rocky intrusions to get past. Here, 4-wheel drive will be mandatory after a certain point. Once out of the gorge, the road has sections of very bad rock (with other sections being nice and smooth). A strong 4-wheel drive vehicle will be required here. Higher up, the road is cut into the rock and is very rough, with some outwards leans to it. It looks like a scary road to drive, but it's easy to walk.

(c) 2012, 2019 Scott Surgent. For entertainment purposes only. This report is not meant to replace maps, compass, gps and other common sense hiking/navigation items. Neither I nor the webhost can be held responsible for unfortunate situations that may arise based on these trip reports. Conditions (physical and legal) change over time! Some of these hikes are major mountaineering or backpacking endeavors that require skill, proper gear, proper fitness and general experience. .