Not all caves are formed underneath just rock. The Arroyo Tapiado caves in the southern portion of the Anza-Borrego desert are a great example of this. Over the centuries, rain has carved out small and large caves through the dirt and mud hills. Some of the caves in the area are thousands of years old, and the regions formations are 10,000 to 15,000 years old. Flash floods rush over the mud causing small bore holes to appear. Eventually, the small bore holes grow larger and turn into a little cave. Those little caves turn into a tunnel after lots of rain.
Several of the caves are actually held up by rock underneath them, not just mud. If you go into Carey’s Big Mud Cave, about half way through you will be able to see about 100 feet up in a little roof area this is a large rock formation that is holding up much of the cave. This cave was named by and after Dwight Carey who did his UCLA thesis on the area in the 70′s called Forms and Processes in the Pseudokarst Topography of Arroyo Tapiado.
Not only are there many caves, there are also countless slot canyons that can be explored as well. There are also still unexplored caves because of the tightness of them, and caves that have still not been discovered. The area is truly great to explore for the current formations and the possibility of discovering new ones. The mud caves are approximately 100 miles east of San Diego in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park near Agua Caliente.
For you GPS folk, here is the coordinates for the turnoff to the mud caves:
Lat: 32.91530705 Lon: -116.24061996
Driving directions to the caves. Take the 8 east to Ocotillo. Turn left onto the S2 (Imperial Highway). Follow the road for about 21.5mi. Turn right onto Vallecito Creek which has a sign that says ‘Palm Spring’. After turning off of the Imperial Highway head down the dirt road .3 miles where the road curves to the right. Stay strait on this road heading south. At almost 2.5 miles you will see the Hollywood and Vine sign on your left. Keep going till you reach about 4.4 miles. There is a small sign that says Arroyo Tapiado to the left. Turn left up the drainage. Reset your odometer or GPS when you pass the sign. Here is a list of caves and canyon features mileage.
I have mapped out most of the caves and the locations of them. This is not perfect, as I did not record the exact GPS locations of the area, but should be used as a guide to the approximate locations of some of the caves. The red means that that part is underground and the blue is above ground.
There are almost too many caves to explore in one day, and camping is allowed in the area. If you have a night to spend in the area I would recommend it. Of the caves only a few you are able to walk from end to end without crawling, squeezing through or getting on your knees. Below are some of the caves that I recommend exploring because of the things they contain or how beautiful they are.
Carey’s big Mud Cave: This cave is one of the largest in the area. The ceilings are huge, up to 100 feet tall. There are no skylights in the cave until the exit at the very end. This would be the first cave I would explore to get a good idea of what the mud caves are like. Also keep a look out for the geocache near the end.
Chasm Cave: This is another easy to walk cave that is big, just around the corner from Carey’s Big Mud Cave. At over 1000 feet long it is slightly shorter than Carey’s Cave, but impressive none the less. There are also skylights in the cave. Near the exit at the end of the cave, check for bats up in the ceilings, several can be found in that area.
E-Ticket Cave: If you keep going at the end of Chasm Cave you can make it to E-Ticket Cave near the end of the canyon on the left hand side. I would only recommend this cave if you are willing to squeeze into extremely tight spaces and can navigate underground well.
Big Mud Cave: This is one of the most popular caves in the area. There are giant mud arches and the cave is fairly open and does not necessarily require lights.
I don’t want to explain too many caves because I believe it is more fun to explore them than just read all about them. This can be a great day trip or even an overnighter. There are more caves that have not been discovered yet in the area. This could also be a great family trip since some of the mud caves are so easy to walk through.
On my scale of 1-5 of place to explore, I give this a 5. Since you are in a desert environment there really isn’t that much to see, but there are some very cool mud forms in the area. I have been there several times and each time the other people and I have a great time exploring the caves and I always find something different or new.
If you do decide to go, several things that you would want to bring are: Several flashlights with extra batteries, PLENTY of water, hat, sunglasses, sunscreen, and a GPS (if you have one). You will get extremely dirty going though these caves, so dress appropriately. I would recommend going in the spring or fall time for the best weather, but if you are going during the summer just bring a large amount of water and wear lots of sunscreen and a hat to protect yourself from the sun as it can get over 115 degrees. In the winter it can get very cold very fast so bring warm clothing.
As always, please be careful exploring and ALWAYS tell someone where you are going. If you want any more information on this location, don’t hesitate to contact me. Patrick@abandonedsandiego.com