Canyoneering Cougar Canyon in Anza Borrego State Park

Deep in the heart of the Anza Borrego State Park, about 2 hours Northeast of San Diego, there is a gem of a canyon filled with palm trees, tons of shade, pools of water, and waterfall after waterfall. This oasis in the middle of the desert is know as Cougar Canyon.

Before you start packing your gear for a quick road trip, there are a few hurdles you must overcome to get to such an incredible place.

First is the drive out
Just a couple miles outside of Borrego Springs is where the paved road ends, and hopefully this is where you decide the Civic is not going to be enough vehicle to go any further. Because, soon after you will come across a few creek crossings that are a couple feet deep and not just perpendicular, but parallel for up to a hundred feet. After the creek crossings eventually you will encounter the section known as Boulder Alley, and this is where I really, really hope you decide that the Civic is not enough vehicle, because I have taken my Ford Expedition (4WD but not lifted) up this and I will not do it again. Actually, going up isn’t so bad, it’s coming back down that is the real issue.

Having said that, Jess took us through this in her Ford Explorer and she and the Explorer did an incredible job.

After Boulder Alley, the rest is a piece of cake.

Once you get out there, all you need to do is make yourself at home. We camped at a little spot known as Sheep Canyon, which is pretty nice, but be aware that there are no facilities what-so-ever. No water, no toilets (not even the vaulted ones), and the campsites are not designated. The cool thing is that you really don't have to deal with all those rules and stuff.

Sunrise from Sheep Canyon
The next morning we headed out on what I always forget is a pretty brutal strenuous approach. The elevation gain is roughly 1600 feet with a distance from the canyon entrance of about 2 miles (depending on how straight you attack the ascent).

After a pretty sharp descent down to the creek, we took a quick break, then suited up (wetsuits are highly recommended no matter what time of year - that water gets cold), and got down to business the fun.

Now, at this point I need to make a couple of confessions. Well, probably more than a couple, but for brevity sake, I will mention the one’s related to this adventure. First, I tend to describe this canyon as being a beginner canyon, and although there are no massive rappels (like 100 feet or more), but some can be a little tricky and most are in waterfalls. Which brings me to our first rappel, which is both tricky and in a waterfall. It can be a rude awakening to the sport for beginners.

The start can be a little tricky

Oh yeah, I know that is only one confession, but I forgot the other. I’m sure it will come back to me. So, once past that first rappel, we are reminded how much fun this is and we continued on for another 8 hours.

A view from the bottom

As well as some really fun rappels of varying degree of difficulty, there are quite a few scrambling down climbs (some of which are in water as well). Ya know, when people ask me what is canyoneering, I struggle to come up with a great description, but it usually goes something like - “well, it’s basically rappelling down a canyon…. and that’s pretty much it.” But sadly, I am not much of a storyteller and certainly not a great canyoneering describer, because canyoneering is so much more. It’s the rappelling and the down climbing and…. well... that’s pretty much it. But it’s really awesome! Oh yeah, and in the right places, it’s lots of water. Oh yeah, and in the more of the right places it’s cliff jumps into the water.

Water jumps at The Seven Tea Cups

I have to admit (this is not one of the confessions), I am not a serious canyoneer-er. I only canyoneer a few times a year, and I would like to do more. But when I do canyoneer, I do it strictly for the fun of it. Well, and the challenge, but mostly the fun. So, the canyons I descend usually have a flow of water, some waterfalls, some pools of water, and some cliffs to jump into them from.

Eric, rapping down one of the funner rappels

One last note - unless you are in an advanced group, Cougar Canyon always ends up being a pretty long day. So mentally prepare yourself for that, bring plenty of snacks and water, and always bring a headlamp.

Last but certainly not least, I would like to say a special thank you to Nathan for leading this adventure, and to Jess for her expertise as well (and the ride out there), we wouldn't have made it without you!