SAN DIEGO – Southern California is home to many natural wonders, from the vast desert landscape to coastal bluffs. Among those destinations is a one-of-a-kind spot in Anza-Borrego State Park that has scientists still scratching their heads.

Called the “Wind Caves,” the extraordinary formations in the Anza-Borrego badlands have brought out many visitors to the park looking to catch a glimpse of the unique tunnels and holes that have been carved out over thousands of years.

“(They) are an Interesting and fun geologic outcropping,” Dan McCamish, a senior environmental scientist with the California State Parks Colorado Desert District, told “(It’s) certainly unique to the area given that we don’t see a lot of other wind caves surrounding it.”

According to McCamish, there are a couple of things about the Wind Caves that make them particularly distinctive formations in Anza-Borrego.

For one, the soil and stone is much harder where the caves are compared to other cave formations and rocky parts of the park, which are mostly mudstone or sandstone areas. 

That is because the Wind Caves were formed in a “contact zone” along a fault, where harder igneous or metamorphic rock meet with a softer sandstone that erodes easier.

“Generally, where you see these contacts anywhere in nature, you’re going to see some type of geologic deformity or an oddity, because there has been some type of interactions along that fault line,” McCamish said. “Then the erosion that takes place along it can be unique because… one type of rock will erode at a greater rate than the other.”

As McCamish explained, the area where the Wind Caves – like other parts of the Fish Creek area in the park – used to exist under a shallow marine environment, with shells and other high calcium micro invertebrates that could have collected in a nearby shore basin to create the seafloor. That seafloor hardened over time, solidifying further through geological uplift and volcanism under the seabed. 

When the water receded around a million years ago, the rock formation became dry with the sun exposure and began to erode malleable parts of the geological layers with wind and rain.

That created a “hard rock basement” that the softer stone – where the odd geologic formations are – is beneath.

The rarity of these kinds of formations is linked to these conditions that created the rock, according to McCamish, which is part of the reason why scientists still have questions about this cave system.

“There are not a ton of places that would have the soil structure and the erodibility to both be softly eroded with your hand, but also hold together through driving wind and rain,” McCamish said. 

“We understand a little bit of the process by which they were formed and we understand a little bit of their composition, but the (area) is a geologic puzzle we’re still researching,” he continued. “The Wind Caves are one of those unique things that we don’t have a lot of answers as to why they’re there.”

For those that want to visit the Wind Caves, it’s one of the easier and shorter hikes in the Anza-Borrego State Park. The trail is less than a mile out and back and is considered moderately challenging by AllTrails, given the first part of the trail is uphill.

Once you get to the end of the trail, there are spectacular views of the Fish Creek badlands in the park, as well as access to the Wind Caves themselves. McCamish said that people are free to roam around in this area, but urges people to make sure that they do so responsibly.

Getting to the trailhead is a bit more of a challenge, as there is not a paved road. Four-wheel or all-wheel drive vehicles are strongly encouraged for anyone looking to take a trip to the Wind Caves. 

The area is also a dry wash, according to McCamish, so when it rains, the area can become a muddy creek or river. Because of that, he said to be sure to check the weather before leaving the house to make sure that conditions allow access.

Here are some other tips McCamish shared with about heading to check out the Wind Caves:

  • Plan ahead and prepare accordingly before you leave your house. Know where you’re going and how you’re getting there. Tell people where you’re going and when you expect to be back.
  • Be ready for both hot and cold temperatures. McCamish said that weather can swing to either end of the spectrum throughout the day, so it’s best to be ready for both.
  • Plan on visiting the Wind Caves during a time outside of the Sun’s peak – either early in the morning or later in the afternoon. While the trail is short, there’s no cover or shade, so it’s best to avoid the sun during the hours when it’s most intense.
  • Don’t count on cell service – it can get quite spotty throughout the park. Whether you use it for navigation or communication, bring more analog back-ups, like a physical map or a GPS-capable device that doesn’t rely on a cell connection.
  • Bring food and water. McCamish recommends at least a gallon of water per person for a full day trip in the park.