Valley of the Moon is a remote, high-desert wilderness adventure destination about an hour and fifteen-minute drive east of San Deigo that offers stunning views, numerous rock climbing crags, and gnarly off-road trials.
The area’s surreal granite cliff and boulder formations are ancient remnants of a massive layer of granite created by the San Andreas fault that has eroded over millions of years. The semi-arid wilderness is home to mule deer, bighorn sheep, golden eagles, and kangaroo rats, among other creatures. While elevation varies in this mountainous country, the average elevation of Valley of the Moon is around 4000 feet.
Popular among rock climbers and off-roading enthusiasts, Valley of the Moon is otherwise relatively unknown. The “roads” into the area get increasingly rugged as you progress, which presents a serious barrier to entry for anyone who doesn’t have a solid off-road vehicle or isn’t willing to hike in. For those who put in the effort, a rich payoff awaits. If you don’t have a sturdy vehicle or the desire to hike in, nearby McCain Valley is another option for hiking, camping and backcountry adventure.
In addition to the recreational opportunities and the natural beauty of the area, visitors can explore Elliot Mine and Smuggler’s Cave (or Den), two remnants of human activity from the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Getting Oriented in Valley of the Moon
Part of the Valley of the Moon area lies within the 31,357-acre Jacumba Wilderness, a rugged wilderness area on the eastern fank of southern California’s coastal Peninsular Ranges, managed by the Bureau of Land Management that abuts the U.S.-Mexico border. It’s not uncommon to see U.S. Border Patrol Agents patrolling the area in trucks and ATVs.
Motorized vehicles are not allowed within the Jacumba Wilderness, but there are plenty of places to explore in 4-wheel-drives just outside the official wilderness area and visitors can hike to the parts that are off-limits to vehicles.
The trailhead for the area (GPS: 32.639876, -116.106808), located about 5 miles east of Jacumba Hot Springs, in the southwest corner of Imperial County, is about an hour and fifteen-minute drive east of downtown San Diego and about 50-miles west of El Centro.
The trailhead is just south of I-8 exit 77 (In Ko Pah Road exit) on Old Highway 80, which parallels I-8. It is marked by a small kiosk that has a map of the area. There is parking here for people who want to leave a vehicle behind and “truck-pool” into Valley of the Moon or hike in.
The primary route into Valley of the Moon is to head east from the trailhead along the gravel road (Route 155), which will soon bend south and start to climb a mountain. This road is paved in places, but it’s full of potholes, bumps, and rocky areas that won’t want to attempt in anything less capable than an all-wheel-drive SUV.
At about 1.6 miles from the trailhead, the road splits (GPS: 32.632092, -116.096626). Take the left fork to head to Valley of the Moon proper (the area within the Jacumba Wilderness) and Elliot Mine. This is where the trail gets much gnarlier and only high-clearance 4-wheel-drive vehicles should continue (most all-wheel-drive SUVs find places to park prior to getting to this split).
Smuggler’s Cave is formed by the overhanging edge of a huge granite boulder that sits atop While apocryphal, various writers have tied the cave to Tirzo de la Toba, a Mexican bandit who, among other things, was reportedly tied to smuggling Chinese people into the country after the xenophobic Chinese Immigration Exclusion Act severely limited immigration from China in 1882. Toba supposedly stored supplies in the cave.
More certain is that Native American Kumeyaay people lived in the area at some time in the past. On rocks near the cave, you can find morteros, divots in rocks where the Kumeyaay ground food and other substances.
To get to the trailhead for the cave, drive or hike 1.43 miles from the trailhead kiosk mentioned above. The trail heads east from the road, dropping down a steep slope into the valley. Follow the trail for about a quarter-mile to the cave.
Elliot Mine Trail
Elliot Mine (GPS: 32.623187, -116.080622) is located on the top of Tehe’ Peak and is a popular destination for people exploring the area by foot or 4-wheel-drive vehicle. The summit of Tehe’ offers a terrific 360-degrees vies of the Valley of the Moon and into Mexico.
Jim Elliot, a local prospector, established the claim to search for gold and later sold the claim to Pete and Primus Clark who mined it for tungsten, according to a 1954 article in the San Diego Evening Tribune.
A word of caution: there are multiple shafts dug into the peak, and a hole into one of the chambers at the very top of the mountain that would be pretty easy to fall into if you’re not paying attention.
Elliot Mine is deep into the Valley of the Moon area, though still just outside of the Jacumba Wilderness area. It’s about a 3-mile drive or hike from the trailhead just off 1-8. The trail up the hill (Trailhead GPS: 32.624096, -116.081107) from the valley to the mine is a narrow, rough, and precipitous off-road trail for capable 4-wheel drive vehicles only.
Halfway up the hill to the mine, where the trail bends sharply to the right, there is room to turn around or to park and walk the rest of the trail to the top of the mountain. It’s possible to drive all the way to the top, but we’d recommend scouting the trail first to make sure you’re up for it.
Valley of the Moon Rock Climbing
It’s hard not to mention Joshua Tree National Park, Southern California’s more famous rock climbing destination, when talking about Valley of the Moon, as the granite crags of the area are so similar in look and feel. Valley of the Moon offers 64 named sport and trad rock climbing routes, ranging from 5.7 to 5.11c in difficulty.
The area is chock full of granite boulders for those not inclined to rope up. Bring your crash pad.
For detailed information on climbing in the area, check out the Mountain Project guide.
Also, check out the video we made on a recent camping and off-roading trip to valley of the moon, which features lots of stunning drone footage of the area: