Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
Borrego Palm Canyon Trail
To Falls is 3 miles round trip with 600-foot elevation gain;
to South Fork is 6.5 miles round trip with 1,400-foot gain;
Borrego Palm Canyon is the third-largest palm oasis in California, and was the first site sought for a desert state park back in the 1920s. It’s a beautiful, well-watered oasis, tucked away in a rocky V-shaped gorge. The trail visits the first palm grove and a waterfall. A longer option takes you exploring farther up-canyon. In winter, the trail to the falls is one of the most popular in the park. In summer, you’ll have the oasis all to yourself. Watch for bighorn sheep, which frequently visit the canyon.
Directions to trailhead: The trail begins at Borrego Palm Canyon Campground, located one mile north of park headquarters. Trailhead parking is available at the west end of the campground near the campfire circle.
The hike: Beginning at the pupfish pond, you walk up-canyon past many desert plants used by the Indians for food and shelter. Willow was used for home-building and bow-making; brittlebush and creosote were used for their healing qualities; honey, along with mesquite and beavertail cactus, was a food staple. You might also notice Indian grinding holes in the granite.
The broad alluvial fan at the mouth of the canyon narrows and the sheer rock walls of the canyon soon enclose you as the trail continues along the healthy, but seasonal stream. Already surprised to learn how an apparently lifeless canyon could provide all the Indians’ necessary survival ingredients, you’re surprised once more when Borrego Palm Oasis comes into view. Just beyond the first group of palms is a damp grotto, where a waterfall cascades over huge boulders. The grotto is a popular picnic area and rest stop.
From the falls, you may take an alternate trail back to the campground. This trail takes you along the south side of the creek, past some magnificent ocotillo, and gives you a different perspective on this unique desert environment. By following the optional route, you can continue hiking up the canyon. Hiking is more difficult up-canyon after the falls, with lots of dense undergrowth and boulders to navigate around.
To South Fork: From the “tourist turnaround” continue up the canyon. The creek is a fairly dependable water supply and is usually running late in the fall. The canyon is wet, so watch your footing on the slippery, fallen palm fronds. The canyon narrows even further and the trail dwindles to nothing. Parallel the streambed and boulder-hop back and forth across the water. The canyon zigs and zags quite a bit, so you can never see much more than a few hundred yards ahead. The hike is well-worth the effort though, because most of the 800 or so palms in the canyon are found in its upper reaches. Sometimes you’ll spot rock-climbers practicing their holds on the steep red-rock cliffs above.
The canyon splits 1.75 miles from the falls. Straight ahead, to the southwest, is South Fork. The rocky gorge of South Fork, smothered with bamboo, is in possession of all the canyon’s water. It’s quite difficult to negotiate. South Fork ascends to the upper slopes of San Ysidro Mountain (6,417 feet). The Middle Fork (the way you came) of Borrego Palm Canyon is dry and more passable. It’s possible to hike quite a distance first up Middle Fork, then North Fork of Borrego Palm Canyon, but check with park rangers first. It’s extremely rugged terrain.
© 2012 The Trailmaster, Inc.
From John McKinney’s
Day Hiker’s Guide to California’s State Parks
Trail descriptions and maps have been reproduced with the permission of the author. To learn more about The Trailmaster and other related publications please visit their website at www.thetrailmaster.com.