Arroyo Santa Isabel, Sierra Juarez


By: Louise Werner


What the Arroyo Santa Isabel Has To Offer: Two warm springs. Temperature in mid-winter is slightly warmer than Palm Springs, CA. More than a thousand palms in eight miles of hiking up an easy grade. Most of them are Washingtonia filiferas, the common fan palm on our city streets. In the upper reaches of the arroyo, however, are a few specimens of the blue palm, Erythea armata, not found on our side of the border. It is easily distinguishable by its shorter stature, the blue color of its fans, overlaid with a whitish cast, as if powdered, and by the marble-sized fruit which hangs from it in heavy cluster. Erythea armata was identified as a separate species by Dr. L.H. Bailey, palm expert of Cornell University.

Other plants found in the Arroyo Santa Isabel, but rare on our side of the border, are the Senita cactus (Cereus schottii), similar to Organ Pipe cactus but with the addition of a hairy covering, and the dropsical-looking elephant tree, whose tiny dainty-looking leaves contrast strangely with their swollen trunks.

We saw: flocks of birds, snakes, the mummified body of a lynx and cougar tracks on the sand beside the warm springs, and the skeleton of a bighorn sheep pinned under a boulder. High up, toward the end of the arroyo we surprised three living bighorns drinking from a warm pool.

The coarse weathered granite, much split into slabs and sheets, shows interesting geologic variations in the form of dykes of other minerals running through it, principally quartz and mica; the twistings and writhings of these veins give the walls a tortured look in places; in others, sand, wind and water has polished the design down to a smooth, marbled effect. A highly mineralized red wall contrasts with white granite boulders thrust from it to form a sort of natural gate across a narrow part of the arroyo.

Ancient Indians have left messages here and there on flat slabs of granite. They are dim with age, these petroglyphs, and you have to look sharply to find them, even though some are on conspicuously out-standing boulders. The most conspicuous symbol is the one the Indians used for the cradleboard.

A surprise awaits the person who hikes the eight miles to the end of the arroyo. The upper part of the arroyo twists and tums 'like an angle worm with the cramps', as one of our party expressed it. Around the last bend you come suddenly upon a grotto that stops further progress. More than a hundred feet high and wide, and some twenty feet deep. On a sort of dais to right of center, a single tall palm rises like a madonna out of a group of smaller palms. The ceiling to the left is dotted with baby palms. Water seeps through the back wall into a pool at the foot of the palm, where bighorn sheep come to drink, and desert willow and paloverde have sprung up. A few stalactites hang from the ceiling. Dark streaks above the grotto indicate that at times of heavy rainfall a curtain of water may have thrown a veil over the Palm Tree. Checking on the saint for whom the arroyo was named, Isabel, we find that she was a person who was willing to suffer much for the purification of her soul.

Drive through Mexicali, to the north end of the Laguna Salada, a dry lake stretching southward. Just as if you were going to Guadalupe Cyn & Pico Risco.

Turn south on dirt road. On your right the length of the Sierra Juarez may be seen extending southward for some fifty miles, its easier facade cut by numerous canyons, all of which look dry and uninteresting to the casual observer. Closer scrutiny reveals green areas at the mouths of the larger ones, some ten airline miles from the road, over sand dunes, sage, salt bush and cactus. These canyons have water, some of them both hot and cold.

After driving about 35 miles on it (avoiding turn - offs to the right), look for the remains of a shack and a pump just to the left of the road. This is Pozo Cenizo, the only water available on this road. The water is mineralized but drinkable. Early adventurers and trappers nearly perished from thirst on the Laguna Salada. Like in Death Valley in the early days, there was water, if they knew where to look for it.

From Pozo Cenizo you can pick out the mouth of Arroyo Santa Isabel. To the southwest, look for a rounded dome with a ridge of small spires to the right of it; the mouth of the arroyo is to the left of the rounded dome.

About 17 miles beyond Pozo Cenizo tum right on a wood-cutters' track that leads to the mouth of the arroyo. After we lost a couple of hours trying to locate the track that led where we wanted to go, we marked the place by putting a note in a tin can and wedging the can between the canes of an ocotillo growing in the angle of the intersection. After four miles the wood-cutters' track forks; the right fork leads to the floor of the arroyo; the left fork leads to the south rim, each after two more miles. Either place makes a pleasant campsite. Mexican wood-cutters truck loads of ironwood from here to feed the fires of Mexicali.

Primitive. Plenty of wood; bring your water supply, a minimum of one gallon per person, per day. A light sleeping bag is sufficient at night.

Hike the entire length of the eight mile arroyo in one day, or pack a knapsack and stay overnight at the first warm spring, five miles up-canyon, or the second warm spring, six miles up-canyon. The warm springs furnish the only water in the arroyo. Like that at Pozo Cenizo, it is mineralited, but drinkable.

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