Have you ever wanted to experience an oasis? To come along through the heat of the desert and to suddenly see palm trees ahead of you and experience the cool of sitting there next to a spring of cold water? This usually happens in the Sahara Desert, but there is a place in the Mojave Desert of Southern California where you can get about as close to that experience as you’ll get in the US. Located in Anza Borrego Desert State Park, the trail that will take you there is a 3-mile RT hike called the Borrego Palm Canyon Nature Trail.
To get there, from the south: from I-8 take road S2 into the park. S2 will take you northwest into the park past the Bow Willow Campground, Mountain Palm Springs Campground, Agua Caliente County Park, and Blair Valley Campground, as well as some trailheads.
To come in from the east: from highway 86 come in on S22 past Truckhaven Rocks, Arroyo Salado Campground, and to the town of Borrego Springs.
To come in from the north, come in on either highway 86 or Highway 79 and come in from the east or west. There is no way to drive in from the north of the park and get to the rest of the park.
To come in from the west: from highway 79 come in on either S2 and S22 past Culp Valley Campground and up to Borrego springs and the Visitor Center. Or you can come in on Highway 78 to Borrego Springs Road to S3 and into Borrego Springs.
From the town of Borrego Springs, take Palm Canyon Drive east toward the visitor center. You can either park in the visitor center parking lot and hike the 0.6-mile trail to the campground (wheelchair accessible), or you can take the road into the campground ($6 per vehicle for day-users) and park at the Borrego Palm Canyon Nature Trail Trailhead.
The first time we went to Anza Borrego, this was the first trail we took. We decided that my father would drive us to the campground entrance and then we would walk to the trail head through the campground (the fee is per vehicle; walk-ins are free) while he drove back to the visitor center and walked the trail to the campground. This was probably not very time efficient because the walk from the entrance of the campground is so long that we could probably have done the trail in the same amount of time and less trouble. The second time we did this trail, we all walked from the visitor center.
The trail is mostly well maintained, although the bridges all got washed out in a flash flood and have never been replaced. You have to cross the stream several times, but helpful visitors have put stepping stones and/or logs across in the places that you have to cross. All of us crossed in sneakers and didn’t get wet feet. We did loose the trail a few times, but never for long—mostly going to the wrong side of a boulder or something like that. (They obviously don’t care if you stay on the trail!) The trail was somewhat crowded, but the first time we somehow managed to get there during school break and there were a lot of collage kids and families, and the second time was in between Christmas and New Year’s, so the entire park was a bit overrun. If you came at a less popular time, you’d probably have the hike more to yourself.
Along the trail we had a very rare desert experience: we saw an egret! Egrets live in wet places like Florida, so it was surprising to us to see one in a place like this. We also saw some very nice flowers. The trail also has a pamphlet that makes it a nature trail, but we couldn’t find half the numbers that told us what to read. They’d probably also gotten washed out by the flash flood.
The trail follows the rocky canyon up, mostly following the stream. Then suddenly you can see the palm grove ahead of you, in the middle of the rocky, bare, desert canyon. The palm grove was crowded in some places, but, thankfully, almost everyone cleared out about the time we arrived because it was lunch time. We ate lunch under the palm trees the first time, but the second time it looked as though the trees had seen a fire, and underneath them was sooty, so we walked a little farther up the canyon to eat lunch. Later, we dammed up the stream and waded in the water. It’s really not that cold, and it feels good in the desert heat (Anza is warm in the winter, and warm in the spring, and I think it’s warm the rest of the year too!). There is also a trail that leads farther up the canyon. We explored it slightly and it is a very nice little hike, but the rest of our group didn’t think so because it was getting very hot. If you are looking for privacy, try up here; most people stop at the palm grove, turn around, and go back.
Return by the way you came. This is a nice little hike that can be done in a morning, or you can spend a lot of time at/beyond the palm grove and make a day of it. I don’t recommend doing it in the afternoon (unless it’s really hot) because then the palm grove is out of the sun, and isn’t half as impressive. In the sun, it can really make for some impressive pictures.
Fees: None to enter the park. $6 to park in the campground
For more information, see my Wind Caves post