Posted by: Brad Nixon | April 25, 2017

Anza-Borrego: Through the Canyon to an Oasis

Exploring southern California’s Anza-Borrego Desert — as I’ve been doing in recent posts — is a big undertaking. At 600,000 acres, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park would rank as the 18th largest U.S. National Park. The area includes rugged mountains, innumerable trails through rocky chaparral and along dry washes, and remnants of both historic and prehistoric settlements, like these morteros — grinding holes — at the site of a Native American village:

Those mortero holes were pecked into solid granite for grinding seeds and grain by the native Kumeyaay culture. The site is in Mine Wash, which I described in a previous post HERE.

Although there are a couple of days’ worth of spectacular scenery on tap by just driving around, the desert only reveals its nature to those who get out and explore it first-hand.

A large number of the popular trails follow washes and canyons. Probably the most popular canyon hike, both because of its accessibility and attractiveness, is Borrego Palm Canyon, situated near the park’s visitor center.

Anza-Borrego Brad Nixon 6797 (640x480)

There’s a parking area, camping, water and restrooms immediately adjacent to the trailhead. The trail requires only moderate effort, no special equipment (see “Safety,” below) and is always rewarding. For some visitors, it’s a first-ever experience of desert hiking, and it’s an excellent introduction to the dramatic extremes of the severe world of the desert Southwest.

Anza-Borrego Brad Nixon 6882 (640x480)

As I described in a previous post, there’s a pool of spring water at the trailhead. It supports a population of the rare and endangered Desert Pupfish, and you’ll see them, less than 3″ long, darting in the water. Depending on your luck, the pool is also your single best opportunity of spotting the park’s namesake, the Peninsular Desert Bighorn Sheep: Borregos.

Borregos Marcy Vincent 7453 (640x480)

Especially in hot weather, as the water in the canyon dries up, the Borregos come to the pond to drink. Not every day, so there’s luck involved. They’re enormously difficult to spot up in their typical habitat, the rocky slopes of the canyon.

You’ll start walking north, following Borrego Wash upstream for 1.5 miles. On either side, the steep slopes of the San Ysidro Mountains flank the canyon.

Anza Borrego Marcy Vincent 7480 (640x480)

Water runs through the lower wash only in times of excessive rainfall, but evidence of how powerful the flow can be is all around, like this tree trunk wedged between massive boulders.

Anza Borrego Brad Nixon 6873 (640x480)

Over the mile and a half, you climb gradually from about 835 feet above sea level to just over 1,310 feet, not a difficult gradient. Along the way, you see the stark contrast between the vegetation in the watercourse — including willow, aspen and tamarisk trees — and the cactus, mesquite and Ocotillo scattered on the rocky slopes.

Anza Borrego Marcy Vincent7505 (640x480)

Life abounds among those crags and boulders, although you’ll almost never see anything but the vegetation. Not only Borregos, but mountain lions, bobcats, lizards, snakes and a host of other desert residents are up there. The lizards and snakes sometimes keep you company along the trail, so keep an eye out.

We were there at the tail end of the April bloom, and caught some last vestiges of flowers (click photos to enlarge).

Not every hike has a specific goal. Often, the experience is the only objective, whether one covers a specific distance or ever reaches “end” of the trail, and only the journey matters. This one, though, does have a “there,” which comes in sight after you’ve covered about 1.3 miles and made several turns around shoulders of the surrounding slopes.

It’s called “Palm Canyon” because it’s one of the limited number of places in which California’s only native palm tree, the California Fan Palm (Washingtonia filifera) grows in its natural setting.

Anza Borrego Brad Nixon 6831 (480x640)

Yes, that’s flowing water, and most of the year you walk from this point accompanied by the sound of water gurgling over the rocks (stop to listen!).

When you enter the grove, you’re in another world from the harsh light of the open canyon.

This, if ever there was one, is the desert oasis at which you break out the water bottles and snacks, and simply abide. It’s one of the reasons you hiked there.

The trail does continue from this point, far up the canyon, over a crest and on into remote and rugged territory. There are more palm groves, but the going is not easy, and involves a good deal of clambering over boulders and following a less-evident trail. Most of us turn back at this point, satisfied for now. We’ll be back.

Safety and Prepareness

Hiking Borrego Palm Canyon, you are on the edge of near-wilderness. There are no services once you leave the trailhead, and although there is a staff of rangers in the park, they can’t be everywhere to rescue you.

From any time between April and October, temperatures can reach well over 100 degrees (it was 102 when we were there in mid-April this year. I’ve been there in July, and that was hot). There is little shade until you reach the palm grove. Yes, there are rattlesnakes, although they aren’t fond of the brutal heat of midday. Take a gallon of water per person. Cover up your sensitive skin, wear a hat and shoes suitable for walking on rock and gravel.


Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is 75 miles inland from Carlsbad, California, and northeast of San Diego. Borrego Palm Canyon is at the west end of the town of Borrego Springs, where there are shops, restaurants and some accommodations. The state park visitor center is within a few hundred yards of the road leading to the campground and trailhead. Paved road S-22 passes West-East through Borrego Springs, and is a winding, rural 1-1/2 hours from Interstate 15 to the west and about the same travel time from the east end of the Coachella Valley to the north, where Palm Springs is the most recognizable city name.

I recommend the Anza-Borrego Desert Region map from Wilderness Press as a solid, basic guide to navigating around the desert. Most of the significant trails and attractions are clearly indicated, although if you’re hiking backcountry, you’ll need a more detailed map.

There are a lot of hiking guides for the park. A useful one is Hiking in Anza-Borrego Desert, Robin Halford, from Anza-Borrego Desert Natural History Association. They have a shop in Borrego Springs.

Next: another Anza-Borrego canyon hike of a different nature.

© Brad Nixon 2017. Some photos © Marcy Vincent 2017, used by kind permission.

Some of Brad’s photographs are available on CLICK HERE to view the Underawesternsky image portfolio.



  1. Interesting post. Cheers 👍


  2. Now I want to go there, we haven’t been out to the park.


  3. Beautiful country!


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