Mud Caves (Arroyo Tapiado)
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Difficulty:Cave 2A III R (v1a1 III)
Nov-Mar (avg for this region)
These caves are underground slot canyons in the Anza Borrego Desert. The caves / canyons are excavated by water flowing through the desert mudstone (which is softer than sandstone). The mud is dry, so you won't get muddy but you will get VERY dusty. Caves are especially dangerous after rain, as the mudstone can get soft and collapse, so is better to avoid them if it rained recently or rain is in the forecast.
In summer the desert is scorching hot, so these caves are better visited Fall, Winter or Spring. Especially good is February-March, as the desert gets covered in wildflowers (in good rain years). Status of the wildflower bloom is available here:
- Long pants & long sleeves: required to avoid scratches, old jeans and shirt should work but mechanic coveralls are preferred.
- Gloves and Kneepads: especially recommended for females and beginners, especially the gloves help a lot
- Helmet: although some people could do without a helmet, it will help keep the dust off your hair
- Headlamp: recommended 3 sources of lights, absolutely critical to have at least 2 + extra batteries
- Bandana or dust mask: it can be dusty in the caves, a bandana/mask is definitely recommended
- Backpack: bring a very small backpack to bring into the caves. Try to share. The smaller the better
The drive through Vallecito road is almost always passable with 2WD cars, but high clearance is recommended. Other roads will require 4WD.
One can do several loops hitting the most relevant caves along the way, you will find them labeled as "Route:" in the KML map. You can also download ready-to-print PDF maps based on aerial pictures for each of the routes.
- Footprint Loop: This has a bit of everything and nothing is too hard. Good for starting off the day especially with beginners. After exiting Footprint theres's "The Slide" that can be a bit intimidating but even 5yo have done it. Then crosses over to Mud Flow cave and once the cave opens up climbs up the ridge to drop into Rublle canyon and use that as return route.
- File:Mud Caves Map1.pdf]]
- ETicket Loop: This is the main course, if you can do only one do this. Chasm Cave and Carey Cave are the biggest caves in the area. A trip through E-Ticket is required to join them in one big loop route, but e-Ticket may not be for everyone. Some people may freak out at the tight squeezes and apparently mazy (it's not) passage.
- File:Mud Caves Map2.pdf]]
- Hidden Cave Loop: If you liked E-Tickets you will love Hidden! Hidden has a loop of its own. You will have to climb a rope, crawl through a bunnyhole and some tight passage. I recommend you avoid the slide exit and drop down Concretion Canyon to marvel at the rock garden at the canyon mouth.
- File:Mud Caves Map2.pdf]]
- DTicket Loop: This loop connects Start and Bat Canyons, but it's for experienced cavers only. The caves in this area are tighter than in the other routes, and mostly in-and-back out (a nuisance for bigger groups). The terrain between Bat cave and E-Ticket is especially mazy and treacherous, with GPS signal blocked by the high cliffs. If you miss the wrong turn you may find yourself doing acrobatics on hairy aerial crest trails or trapped in inescapable potholes created by recent roof collapses. Do not venture alone, bring rope for handlines, be ready to go back if terrain gets too challenging.
- File:Mud Caves Map3.pdf]]
For more information take a look at:
- Mud Caves information and maps CalCaver Vol39.
- Short descriptions on caves & canyons provided by Hidden San Diego.
Once done with the caves you may want to check out the nearby Agua Caliente Hot Springs. I think they charge $5 per vehicle for day use but some people park outside and walk in for free. They have hot and cool water pools and hot showers. Nice spot to unwind and clean up before the drive home. Pools close 5pm, reopen on Sat 6pm to 10pm but only for those that stay at the campground.
You may want to stay overnight and check out more caves the next day or go check out some of the amazing slot canyons at Palm Wash or the Domelands. You may camp at the Agua Caliente Campground for a fee or you can camp for FREE anywhere else in the Anza Borrego State Park. More information on free camping spots at http://www.hikespeak.com/campgrounds/anza-borrego-desert-state-park-camping/.
Trip reports and media
In 2012 Guillermo Pino got lost and died in an upper passage of Hidden Cave. The search was one of the biggest operations ever managed by the San Diego Sheriff and involved SAR teams from all over SoCal. His body was finally found at the bottom of a shaft a month later. The San Bernardino Cave Team and the LA Mine Team were instrumental for the recovery.