5 Best Hikes in Anza Borrego Desert State Park

Enjoying the desert oasis in Borrego Palm Canyon in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California

Enjoying the desert oasis in Borrego Palm Canyon

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park always has fond memories for me.  From swimming in a palm tree oases to exploring a desert slot canyon, there is a variety of hiking opportunities and natural attractions to see.  In this post, I’ll talk about the 5 best hikes in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and the 5 worst (most over-rated) hikes in the park.



First, the 5 Best Hikes in Anza-Borrego:

Maidenhair Falls, Hellhole Canyon, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California

Maidenhair Falls

#5: Maidenhair Falls.  If you’re looking for a longish hike in the park, this is the one to take.  It’s 6 miles (9.6 km) long (RT), but it seems longer because the trail is really only a “trail”: you’re mostly just following social trails along the stream while hiking up a canyon.  About 3 miles (4.8 km) from the trailhead is a 20-foot cascade, set back into the rocks studded with ferns and moss.  It’s seasonal, so you might want to check at the visitor center before visiting.  Click here for more about Maidenhair Falls.






The Slot, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California

The Slot

#4: The Slot.  Simply titled “The Slot”, this is really more of an exploration than a trail.  From the parking area, you can scramble down into the badlands.  Turn left, and you’ll soon find yourself in a narrow (less than 3-foot-wide (1-meter-wide) in some places) canyon.  It’s cool, and especially fun for children who enjoy finding new places.  For other tight squeezes, there are several side canyons.  The entre hike can be less than 1 mile (1.6 km), but it’s well worth the drive to it.  I haven’t written about this hike yet, but this link has good directions to The Slot parking area and trail information.





The palms in Borrego Palm Canyon, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California

The palms in Borrego Palm Canyon

#3: Borrego Palm Canyon.  For a totally desert-to-oasis experience, you can’t beat Borrego Palm Canyon.  (The reason this is #3 instead of #2 is because of the crowds – be ready to see many, many, many people on this trail!)  The 3-mile (4.8 km) (RT) trail wonders up a rocky desert canyon, occasionally crossing a stream, then ascends a pile of boulders to a stand of palm trees beside the stream.  Many people swim here, or at least go wading.  I’ve also walked upcanyon from the oasis, and it’s just a nice (and much quieter) walk/rock scramble.  There is a fee to park at the trailhead, but this can be easily avoided by parking at the visitor center and walking the 0.6-mile (0.9 km) (each way) nature trail to the campground.  More information can be found at this link.


Above the Palm Bowl, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California

Above the Palm Bowl

#2: Palm Bowl.  This trail combines the excitement of a palm oasis with the beauty of nice views.  The trail goes to the Palm Bowl (which really is a more impressive oasis than Borrego Palm Canyon, even if it does lack the water of the later), then ascends the hillside for very nice views of the Palm Bowl from above, as well as outstanding views across the surrounding desert.  It’s always a favorite when we visit the park, even if it’s only about 2 miles (3.2 km) RT.  Click here for more information about the Palm Bowl.

Looking through an arch at Wind Caves, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California

Looking through an arch at Wind Caves

#1: Wind Caves.  And now for my all-time favorite hike in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park: Wind Caves.  The trail is only 2 miles (3.2 km) RT, but there are outstanding views of badlands, mountains, and desert and incredible rock holes and arches to look at and play in, not to mention a very impressive canyon to drive through to get to the trailhead (4×4 may be required).  It is a favorite with families (for good reasons – my family loves it, too!) as well as day-hikers.  More information on Wind Caves can be found here.


And now, for the 5 Most Overrated Hikes in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park:

Views from near the Bill Kenyon Overlook, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California

Views from near the Bill Kenyon Overlook

#5: Bill Kenyon Overlook.  This really isn’t that bad a trail, it’s just difficult to follow and a bit of a disappointment after the hype we’d heard about it.  It was also a disappointment because the dust (kicked up by HOVers over the New Years holiday) obscured most of the view.  1 mile (1.6 km) loop.

#4: Pictograph Trail / Smuggler’s Canyon Trail.  Again, this trail could be worse, although the name suggests something much more exciting than we found.  The rock with the pictographs, 1 mile (1.6 km) from the trailhead, weren’t easy to find, but they were nice enough (I’m guessing they were restored, although I could be wrong).  The trail ends 1.5 miles (2.4 km) from the trailhead at a 100-ft. (30 m) dry fall.  The views were fairly good, although the HOVers’ dust did obscure the view a bit.

#3: Visitor Center / Campground Trail.  There are two good things about this trail.  First, it’s paved, so it’s accessible to most people.  Second, it connects the visitor center (free parking) to the Borrego Palm Canyon Campground ($6 day-use parking), so it’s easy to park in the visitor center if you’d like to hike the Borrego Palm Canyon Nature Trail.  On the cons side, well, let’s just say it’s not very interesting, though there are small signs explaining the desert environment.  1.2 miles (1.9 km) RT.

A rock overhangs The Slot, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California

A rock overhangs The Slot

#2: Elephant Tree Discovery Trail.  At one time, this trail took visitors past many elephant trees.  Now, per the signs, these elephant trees are disappearing.  And it’s true that there is only one elephant tree left on the trail.  However, elephant trees are by no means gone from the Southwest in general, so my question on this 1-mile (1.6 km) loop is, “So? Why go?”

#1: Yaqui Well Nature Trail.  This is probably the most disappointing trail I’ve hiked in Anza- Borrego.  We thought, from the description, that we’d find a waterhole at the end of the 1.6 mile (2.5 km) RT hike, as well as wildlife and birds.  Well, this is what we found: a few reeds, a dry wash, and no life otherwise (not even other hikers!)  Perhaps as an Easterner I simply can’t enjoy reeds-in-the-place-of-a-waterhole like desert-dwellers can, but I still wonder how such a “waterhole” can be historic!


Do you have a favorite or overrated hike in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park?  Please comment – I’d love to hear about it!



Sunset in the Palm Bowl, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California

Sunset in the Palm Bowl

Free-range camping is generally allowed within Anza-Borrego Desert State Park; there are also campgrounds.  For campground information, visit the link below.


More information about all of the above trails, as well as a (somewhat useless) map of the park can be found at http://www.parks.ca.gov/pages/638/files/anza-borrego%20desert%20state%20park%20magazine.pdf

Signs ★★★☆☆

Scenery ★★★★★

Would I go 100 miles out of my way for this? ★★★★★

Overall Rating: ★★★★½


This Week’s Featured Product!

Looking for more hiking trails in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park?  This book has over 25 hikes within the park, including maps and mile-by-mile directional cues.



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