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  • Writer's pictureDale Hill

Coach Dale: 0 Desert: 1

Updated: Jun 7, 2021

Date: May 31, 2021

Distance: 7.56 miles

Total Elapsed Time: 6h 09m *

Total Moving Time: 4h 47m *

Highest Elevation: 737 feet

Elevation Gain: 205 feet

Trailhead: Arroyo Salado Primitive Camp

Previous Ascent(s): N/A


  1. Total Elapsed Time and Moving Time include a 60-minute adjustment for lost time due to my iPhone overheating and shutting down on my return hike.

  2. At mile 4.6 I slipped, fell, and injured my left knee (symptomatic of torn ACL)

Memorial Day Scavenger Hunting in the Borrego Badlands

Max sun protection, hat, buff, LS Shirt, sun gloves

What better way to spend my day off than trekking around through the desert in near triple digit temperatures searching for survey marks? Wait, don't answer that...🤣

In MY little world, this was the perfect way to spend a day off. We had the kids and grandkids visiting over the weekend so I set my hiking plans aside in favor of some quality Grandpa time. However, once they went home yesterday and the house was quiet, I began planning my hike.

Since it was a holiday, I really didn't feel the need for an epic hike with tons of mileage or elevation gain, I really just wanted to chill out and have a relaxing day. For me, that means building an outing around hunting for survey marks. I have a list of hikes that I did last year where I missed survey marks and I need to go back to recover the ones I didn't find the first time around, but I really wanted to hike somewhere "new". Calling up my various maps, I was searching for clusters of survey marks that would become the basis for my trip. I spotted a survey mark named COACH and thought that would really be cool to recover, my mind was already working on how I'd use the image of the station disc as my new profile picture on social media. 😂

COACH is located in the Borrego Badlands, which on the South side of the Borrego-Salton Seaway, about parallel with the eastern terminus of the Santa Rosa Mountain Range. For reference, the Santa Rosa Range includes a bunch of peaks that I hiked last year while working on my 100 Peak Challenges: Villager Peak, Mile High, Rosa Point, Pyramid, and Travelers, I was planning to be almost directly across from the start of the Travelers Peak hike.

Arroyo Salado also passes right through this area, the nifty significance of that is Arroyo Salado is the first leg of the San Diego Trans-County Trail that goes from the Salton Sea to Torrey Pines (I believe at one time it was called the Sea-to-Sea Trail, but it may have gotten confused with the C2C Trail, or Cactus-to-Clouds trail, two VERY different trails!) The SDTC is on my list to Section Hike sometime, but I digress.

I'm may be getting ahead of myself by adding this graphic here (spoiler alert: it shows why I didn't finish my full route), but it gives a good visual of the various survey marks that I was hoping to recover on the day's outing.

My original plan was to recover the marks in this order: SUGAR, MUD, BANK, SHARP, COACH, TEEN, and then return on Arroyo Salado road back through the wash. While I was on top of Sugar, I decided to skip MUD and BANK, go West working my way over to Sharp and the nearby Boundary Mark, then make a big loop around on the Ella Wash Jeep Road, then hike back through the primitive camp to the truck.

Memorial Day Survey Mark Scavenger Hunt - Planned Recoveries & Actual GPX Track

The Desert, Naysayers, Planning, and Preparation

In respect to desert hiking, we are pretty much in the "Shoulder Season", that is the transitional phase between "prime desert hiking" and "not on your life, it's too damn hot". The best time to visit the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park (ABDSP) really depends on a lot of different factors, as California's largest State Park, you have lots of options of what to see and do. Factors to consider when picking the best time to visit include (but are not limited to) the section of the Park you will be in (lowlands vs. highlands), your objective (viewing flowers, hiking slot canyons, off-roading, peak bagging etc.), and your tolerance for weather (both heat and cold).

The Park may be busiest from December to February with people coming to see all the wildflowers in bloom, but generally speaking October to early May is considered the peak season, largely because the temperatures are less restrictive.

In my experience, everyone seems to have their own definition of when you should or should not hike in the desert, so don't be surprised to see lots of different recommendations, some more "strenuous" than others. I have actually had people admonish me for hiking in the desert during the "off season" because I am putting SAR resources as risk and preventing them from helping people that are experiencing a "real" emergency. 🙄 Intellectually, I understand their position stems from the all too frequent situation where unprepared, ill-equipped people are attempting routes outside their personal skills and abilities, then end up succumbing to heat related illnesses resulting in a necessary rescue. However, proper training, gear, planning, and expectations can flip that narrative.

Temperature at the start of my hike 95.8º

Desert recreation presents its own set of challenges and very real safety concerns, just as backcountry winter mountaineering, canyoneering, traditional rock climbing and other activities do. Participating in these types of activities can be incredibly rewarding when done intelligently with proper planning, preparation, and training. DO. YOUR. HOMEWORK. This includes checking with the Rangers for any weather related Park closures or restrictions.

If the term "10 Essentials" is foreign to you, that's the first thing you should learn about. In my humble opinion, the 10 Essentials are non-negotiable, you should have them everytime you go out on trail.

At an absolute minimum, research water sources, if there are none where you're going (usually the case in the desert) carry more water than you need, know your route, bring a printed map and compass in addition to electronic technology, have sun protection...again, these are all items on the list of 10 Essentials, but these three are going to be critical to your safety in the desert.

I enjoy desert hiking year round and I look forward to the shoulder season to start training my body to acclimate to the conditions. Just as I would spend time at altitude when I'm training for high-elevation hikes, I spend time in the desert during the warmer months to get used to the temperatures. Today's adventure was one of my first "training hikes", I intentionally selected an easy objective (survey mark hunting) with no real elevation gain, easy navigation (never too far from established jeep roads), and in an area that would provide temperatures in the upper '90s. Based on my personal experience, I packed 6L of water and extra food, more than enough for my anticipated time on trail.

A Desert Oasis - Seventeen Palms

I decided to start my hike just past the Arroyo Salado Primitive Campground, I knew that my 2WD Dodge Dakota could easily handle the dirt road to the campground. After hiking to SUGAR, my first survey mark target, I realized I could have driven all the way there, I never encountered sand that was too deep or obstructions that were too high for my truck to handle, but this was a training HIKE 🤣.

It felt good to be out, there was a slight breeze and it was extremely peaceful. The primitive camp was empty and I didn't encounter anyone as I hiked through the wash (as it turned out, I only saw one off-road vehicle all day). I noticed a Benchmark symbol on my Topo as I approached Seventeen Palms, so I followed the road around to a parking area and informational sign, just beyond was this cool stand of Palm trees.

According to my map, the benchmark was located directly under the big pile of dead palm fronds (last picture above) 😳 There was no way I was going to expend the energy to clear away all those fronds on the outside chance I'd actually find the mark! I wandered around the area with the hopes that MAYBE it was not exactly at that spot, I checked out all the individual groups of palm trees, these were immense! When I walked around one particular grouping I was totally surprised to see a wooden keg wedged between two trees with a cable securing it in place. It had water bottles (unopened) sitting on top of it and a hinged door, inside was the register! Later, when I got home, I learned that this was nicknamed the Pioneer Mailbox, and it was customary for people to leave notes and water for future travellers. Very cool.


It wasn't too further down the road from Seventeen Palms to my first survey mark target: SUGAR. I headed back out to Arroyo Salado Road and continued ESE, once I passed Tule Wash, I could see that it really wasn't much more than a large dirt pile. From my approach it looked pretty steep and didn't appear to have a path leading up to the top, however, as I walked around the back of it, there was a trail that snaked along the ridge made by increasingly bigger piles of dirt.

There were some old wooden stakes and wire sticking out of the dirt at the top, probably old fence materials, but there was no evidence of any concrete monuments on any of the dirt bumps. The entire surface looked like a dried and cracked mud flat and the dirt was powdery, it really didn't seem like a good surface to mount concrete monuments. 🤷🏻‍♂️

This one was certainly a bust, I took a few minutes to look around from my vantage point, checking out my route over to TEEN when I noticed an obvious concrete monument at the base of the hill. When I got back down, I found a good chunk of a concrete monument used to mount the survey marks, the top had clearly been broken off and there was no evidence of the top portion nearby. The monument was sitting on top of the sand, so it was easy to pick it up and examine the other side, it too had been broken off.

I started looking around the immediate area for other pieces of concrete and about 10 feet away found another piece of a concrete monument buried in the sand. The top had been broken off of it as well, even though this was embedded in the sand, it was a smaller piece and I was able to easily pull it out. I tried fitting the pieces together to see if they came from the same monument. Based on the geometry and nature of the broken edges, these two pieces were definitely from separate monuments. The datasheet listed the primary station and two reference marks, all USACE discs. It's impossible to say which block held what disc, but my guess is that the bigger chunk held the station disc and was easier to dislodge from the top of the dirt mound. Over time, the wind, rain, and natural erosion would have erased any trace of a hole at the top of the hill.

Moving On...or the Beginning of the End

On most of my hikes, I have a defined trail to follow and a GPX track for reference. I always study the route and check the surrounding terrain so I'm aware of where I am at on the route. The beauty of today's trip was that I could look across the desert floor and see my next high point, take a compass bearing, mentally fix my course then head out in the general direction. Overland navigation was really pretty simple. This particular area has tons of little washes that go every which way, I would stick to the washes provided they tracked well with my course, if not, I'd scramble up on the little berms and plateaus, check my direction and press on.

I was coming down off of one such berm, head back to the wash when I slipped, tried to catch myself, then unceremoniously ended up on my butt in the rocks. I was literally about a foot away from being on totally level ground in the wash so this wasn't like a sketchy, technical descent. My front yard has a steeper pitch to the street than the spot where I fell. 🙄 The hazard was simple, and it's the same thing that causes me pause on steep descents - loose sand and small rocks. In this case it was rocks mostly, it was like I stepped into a pile of marbles.

It happened in a flash, my natural reaction was to try to catch myself using some fast footwork and my poles for stability, but that didn't work, and I heard the 💥POP as I went down. 😳

I caught my breath and shifted my weight to get up, realizing very quickly that I couldn't put any weight on my left leg, I could also sense the lack of stability in my knee as I tried to move. Damn.

I slipped my pack off and took out my Thermarest Sit Pad for protection from the pointy and hot rocks. I pulled off my gaiter and rolled up my pant leg for a quick visual inspection, then I gently palpated from ankle to knee, making sure everything felt as it should. I had pain on inside and outside of my knee but I didn't think anything was broken. I looked across to the summit at TEEN less than a football field away and just shook my head, there was no way I was going to climb that in my current condition. It really only took me a couple seconds to decide my trip was over and that I needed to get back to my truck.

Having made up my mind, I decided this was as good of place as any to have lunch. The normality of my lunch break gave me a chance to process what had happened and rest a little, in addition to the obvious need to refuel my body. One of the aforementioned 10 Essentials is a First Aid Kit and the knowledge of how to use it. I'm not a big fan of pills and potions, but I did take 800mg of Ibuprofen just because I knew I was going to have to deal with swelling and it was going to be a long time before I'd be able to ice it. In addition to my standard kit, I also carry a neoprene/velcro hinged knee brace, (when I have known steep descents, I'll bring both of my braces). The brace gives me stability and peace of mind on technical descents. Two years ago I had a similar injury to my right knee and I'm very careful about putting myself in a bad spot with it. Who'd have thought that I'd fall on a non-technical section AND jack up my GOOD knee?

I put the brace on, lowered my trekking poles so they were about the same height as an Ice Axe (basically, the tops of my handles sat in my palms when my arms were by my side and my wrists were extended, it was like using two canes. I switched from my thin sun gloves, to my leather rock climbing gloves for added protection to my palms (I still got gnarly blisters). I kept the left trekking pole along side my injured leg and shifted most of my weight to the poles. Based on my location, I figured that I had 3 miles back to the truck, all of it through the wash and Arroyo Salado Road. The good thing was that it was flat, the downside was that ANY soft sand was brutal, so I did my best to walk along the wall of the wash where the sand was more firm.

Honestly, all the way back to my truck I felt like I was crawling. I had to stop often because it just hurt. At one point, I thought I was right around the corner from the truck so I checked my phone only to find that it had overheated and had shut down.🥵 (this is why my Relive 3D track stopped before I reached my truck). Analyzing my route after I got home, my phone shut down when I was about 0.8 miles from the truck. Piecing together the stats for the trip I figure it took me just under 3 hours to cover the 3 miles.

Lessons Learned

Expect the unexpected. I know, that sounds ridiculous, but planning and preparation are important. I always leave an itinerary of my trips with my wife and I carry my iPhone with an Anker mega battery (it's lasted me days while backpacking) but even the best battery is worthless when your phone overheats. I did have a protective pouch specifically for extreme hot/cold situations, but I didn't think it was that hot out until it was too late. Since I have a history of knee issues, I ALWAYS carry a brace, and I ALWAYS have my poles.

Emergency Beacons/Communicators. I have a SPOT X 2-Way Satellite Communicator for times when I don't have cell coverage and it has the SOS button for serious emergencies. However, you should always plan to self-rescue or be prepared to shelter in place until help arrives. Depending on circumstances, help may be hours or days away. This was NOT a life threatening situation and I had what I needed to deal with it. However, IF I had not had my brace and trekking poles, there is probably no way I would have walked out of there. My backup plan would have been to sit tight where I was and send a Sat Message to my wife to have her (or someone else) pick me up on the jeep road and transport me the 3 miles to my truck.

Take a breath, eat a snack. This applies equally to situations where you encounter a non-life threatening injury or are lost. Stop, take your pack off, sit down, have a snack, and collect your wits. Normal 'trail' behavior is calming. I can't say that I ever felt panicked, but I was mad at myself because I slipped, and those emotions can cloud good judgement as easily as anxiety and fear can.

Put your Ego in the bottom of your pack. I had a great plan for the day, I was REALLY close to getting to my next target peak, but I knew that I needed to stay on flat ground and that it was going to be enough of a challenge getting back to my truck. Scrapping my regular plan was the smart choice. The survey marks that may (or may not) be on that peak 🤣 will wait.

Relive® 3D Video (abbreviated) of Today's Trek.

If you pay attention to the track after I leave SUGAR you can see the point where I double back to the Arroyo Salado Road. You'll also be able to see where my iPhone shut down as the track just stops 0.8 miles from my truck.

What Next?

As I wrap up this trip report, I am waiting for my insurance company to approve an MRI, my orthopedic doctor feels it's not a matter of IF I have an ACL tear, it's more a matter of how bad it is. My current levels of mobility, stability, pain, swelling, etc. all indicate that it's probably not horrible, but we won't know for sure until after the MRI.

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