UPDATE: Plans to rebuild the railway are now imminent and repairs will begin summer 2016. Unfortunately, hikers can no longer walk along the tracks because of this. You can still take the legal route along Mortars Palms to catch a glimpse of the trestle.
What was once one of San Diego’s best kept secret hikes is now becoming a more sought-out destination, and for good reason. The Goat Canyon Trestle, hidden in the Carrizo Gorge Wilderness area of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is a spectacular, must-see sight for all hiking and adventure enthusiasts. Located essentially in the middle of nowhere, this secret trail is about to have its cover blown because it is truly that epic of a hike.
At the extreme south end of Anza-Borrego, Carrizo Gorge Wilderness is a narrow strip of land that is a watershed of a gorge, located adjacent to the Jacumba Mountains. Among this wilderness area is the Goat Canyon Trestle, completed in 1933 as part of a realignment of the original railroad route, after a tunnel collapse. It is noted as a San Diego County landmark, yet few have seen the glory of this 630 feet long, 186 feet tall trestle that spans across Goat Canyon. The railway runs all the way from San Diego to El Centro, with a significant part of the tracks landing in Mexico.
So how do you get to this hidden treasure? To get to the Goat Canyon Trestle, you will drive on Interstate 8 East until you reach the town of Ocotillo. Once you exit the freeway, you will turn left to head north and east on Imperial Highway, which is the only paved road out of town in that direction. As a reference point, you will pass a small bar on the right called the “Lazy Lizard”, soon after you exit the freeway and head in the right direction. About 3.2 miles from Interstate 8 you will turn left on a dirt road named Dos Cabezas Road. There was also a sign for San Diego Gas and Electric (SDGE) posted near the small Dos Cabezas Road sign.
Dos Cabezas Road is slightly paved but then becomes unpaved shortly after. I drove in a two wheel drive car with high clearance and my suspension hit a few times. I would highly recommend using a four wheel drive vehicle, truck, or SUV to ensure your vehicle does not get damaged.
Follow Dos Cabezas Road south and west for 10 miles, it will parallel with the railroad which is an indication you are going in the right direction. Bear right at each intersection (the road is signed EC119 at first, then EC158) until you reach the San Diego county line and the boundary of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Continue southwest and follow the train tracks.
After driving 10 miles, you will see a water tower to your left, and quite possibly some tracks other cars have left behind. This is where we parked and where your journey begins. Please note: this is considered the trespassing route. There are multiple signs posted along the track warning against people walking along the tracks. You may even come across other information online claiming that the railroad is currently in use to transport sand from the desert to Mexico, however this is clearly not true as evidenced by many places on the tracks where dirt has washed over – making it impossible for railroad cars to pass over.
Follow the tracks to the right of the water tower (the opposite direction of the dirt road you drove down) for 5 miles to reach the Goat Canyon Trestle. Rumor has it that there is a nudist colony 3.5 miles from the Goat Canyon Trestle (or 8.5 miles from where you will park) however we did not journey far enough to see it.
When walking along the tracks, you will first pass by a rock formation to your left after one mile that will remind you of something you might see in Arizona. Continue forward until you reach the first tunnel. After approximately 1.5 miles of walking along the tracks you will pass your first palm fan oasis to the right. Shortly after the first oasis you will encounter a second fan palm oasis.
You will need to pass through several tunnels, and cross several trestles until you finally catch a glimpse of the Goat Canyon Trestle. You will see it from at least two miles away, and will pass by two train cars that seem misplaced down the side of the canyon yet miraculously haven’t’ plummeted to the bottom. The San Diego Railroad Museum has said these cars were used in a couple of movie students according to Mountain Bike Bill. Exercise caution if you choose to explore the abandoned train cars lodged on the side of a cliff, the route down is very steep with loose gravel.
Continue forward until you reach another abandoned train car, an unaccessible tunnel on the side of a cliff, and the Goat Canyon Trestle. A wooden sign that reads “Welcome You Made It” will greet you. Take in all the glorious scenery that surrounds you, snap a few photographs to show you completed this stellar hike and then continue back the way you came to return to your car.
Goat Canyon Trestle Tips
Tip 1: For a more strenuous yet legal way to hike this trail, you will need to follow Mortero Palms to Goat Canyon Trestle. There is an excellent description of this hike in Jerry Schad’s book, Afoot and Afield in San Diego County.
Tip 2: Bring plenty of protein-packed food and water as this hike is long and can be strenuous due to its length.
Tip 3: Bring a strong flashlight or headlamp and extra batteries for the tunnels. There were several tunnels that were long and pitch black.
Tip 4: Do not attempt this hike solo. Due to how far removed this hike is from the general population, secrecy of this location, and other hiking hazards it is advised to complete this hike with a large group.
Tip 5: I strongly advise driving an SUV, truck, or car with four-wheel drive to get to this hike.
Tip 6: Be wary when crossing the trestles. There are several spots where the wiring covering the tracks has uplifted and could potentially be dangerous.
Tip 7: If you are afraid of heights, this hike is NOT for you. You will cross over several trestles where the nearest ground will be hundreds of feet below you.
Tip 8: While this is a truly amazing hike, the railroad tracks are owned by SD MTS and it is illegal and posted that you run the risk of arrest or fine if caught. I am unsure what this fine is and what the consequences would be if you were to be caught.
Alternate Route: 8 East, Exit Jacumba (exit 73), turn South of Freeway (near two gas stations). Take Carrizo Gorge Road (turns into graded dirt just West of the gas stations). You’ll end up at De Anza Springs Nudist Resort. Take a left before the entrance and you will see the train tracks. Park here and proceed forward.
I have not taken this route, however several other hikers/bikers have and you can read more about it in detail by clicking here.
Trail Difficulty: Strenuous
Total Distance: 11 miles
Trailhead Address: Dos Cabezas Road, Ocotillo, CA
Lat/Lon: 32.68605°N / 116.19587°W