Maidenhair Falls in a Desert Canyon

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

Maidenhair Falls

Have you ever dreamed of walking through a desert canyon, discovering a stream, and then palm groves, and finally ending at a lovely waterfall?  Well, maybe not that exactly, but have you ever dreamed of a hike somewhat similar to this?  I can’t say I ever have, but I was able to discover a hike just like that on a trip to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.  To me, this park is best known for its groves of palm trees in an otherwise desert environment (I don’t think even Death Valley looks quite as desolate as some areas of Anza-Borrego!).  However, where there are palms, there is often water, and the trail to Maidenhair Falls has more water than many hikes in Anza-Borrego, at least when we were there in December.  The trail (route) to the falls is only 6 miles round trip and will introduce you to the environment of canyons in the state park.



To get to the parking area, from the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park Visitor Center, drive towards the town of Borrego Springs.  In other words, drive out of the parking area of the visitor center.  After about 0.5 miles, before you reach the town, you will come to a crossroads.  Turn right on County Hwy S22 (County Road S22) and drive 0.8 miles to the parking area, on your right.  The parking area is just before the road begins to climb a large hill.  Alternatively, from the town of Borrego Springs, drive 1.3 miles towards the visitor center on Palm Canyon Road (mileage from the traffic circle in the middle of the town).  If you’re coming from the west, the trailhead is about 12 miles along S22 from the town of Ranchita; parking area will be on the left.  There is a primitive restroom in the parking area as well as a sign showing you where the trail starts.


Cacti Flower in Hellhole Canyon, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California

Cacti Flower in the canyon

Before I begin to tell you about the trail, let me warn you that the trail is pretty vague in places.  It begins as an easily-followed track, but then becomes more and more faint until there are just a lot of cow trails, and you can follow almost any of them.  It would be difficult to get lost, though, because you’re hiking up Hellhole Canyon, so there’s nowhere to go but “further up and further in”!  Keep following the stream or streambed and you should be fine.  Depending on the time of year and the amount of rain recently, there will be more or less water in the streambed.  In fact, the waterfall is seasonal and may not be there at some times of the year; check with the visitor center before you do the hike.  At some point along the trail—if there is water going over the falls—the stream will suddenly appear in the streambed.  As you must cross the stream numerous times along the trail, the farther up you can go before you meet up with the stream the better (but probably the less water will be going over the falls).  When we hiked the trail in December, we found that there was more water in the afternoon than in the morning, likely due to snowmelt higher in the mountains.  There is also some scrambling over rocks required farther up the canyon.


Hiking up Hellhole Canyon, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California

Hiking up the lower reaches of the canyon

The beginning of the trail isn’t very impressive.  It looks like you are heading up a desolate canyon between two hills.  Don’t let this fool you; the canyon is desolate, but you’ll find life along the way.  After about ¼ mile, you will come to a trail junction with the California Desert Hiking and Riding Trail; go straight.  Going left will take you up a mountain, going right would take you to the visitor center (starting from the visitor center makes for a longer hike, though).  For the first mile or two, the trail is fairly easy to follow.  It’s somewhat sandy, but not too bad.  Once you get into the canyon itself, you will begin to see social trails/cow trails (they aren’t made by cows, I think :-)), especially on both sides of the streambed.  Keep following the more obvious trail as it follows the stream and crosses it several times.


Stream in Hellhole Canyon, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California

The stream in the canyon

After two miles there will be a couple of palm groves.  Many people stop here instead of going on to the falls, so the trail, which has been becoming fainter, almost disappears.  I don’t blame them for not wanting to hike any further: during this last mile to the falls, you will be forced to scramble over rocks and through some underbrush.  It’s perfectly doable, but not a stroll in the park.  Keep walking up the canyon, following whatever trails you can find that will take you parallel to the stream.  Not long after the two palm groves, you will come to a 10-foot waterfall cascading over a boulder-lined ledge.  Don’t be fooled!  This is not Maidenhair Falls!  Scramble up around these falls (which had a lot more water in the afternoon than in the morning).  This smaller waterfall is in or around some palm trees.  If you simply can’t go any further, this would be a good stopping place, but I highly recommend that you scramble on for another hundred feet or so to Maidenhair Falls.


Hellhole Canyon, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California

Looking back down the canyon from near the falls

Keep walking/scrambling/ducking brush for another few hundred feet to Maidenhair Falls itself.  This waterfall is set back in the rocks and is surrounded by maidenhair ferns (thus its name, although the falls itself look a bit like a maiden’s hair!).  There are no palm trees in this area, although there are a few cottonwoods and other brush.  We had a lovely time dunking under the waterfall, even though the water was icy cold (it got colder as the day got hotter, which made us think that it was snowmelt higher in the mountains).  We had the falls basically to ourselves on a weekday in December, but met some other hikers going up the canyon on our way back to the parking lot.  The falls is a very nice place to eat lunch, since you can sit in the shade of the cottonwoods/brush.  Except for the brush in this area and the palm groves, the trail is not shaded.


A palm grove in Hellhole Canyon, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California

One of the palm groves

Return by the way you came.  This can be a hot hike, but the reward at the end is both worth the hike and refreshing if you decide to wade out into the pool at the bottom of the falls and let the waterfall cascade over you.  I liked to back up to it and then lean back into the falls, but it was so cold that I never stayed there very long.  At any rate, the falls are lovely and the hike is interesting: you are walking through ocotillo and sage brush one minute, only to come out into a grove of palm trees the next minute.  Cool?


Round Trip Trail Length: About 6 miles; depends on what trail you take up the canyon

Facilities: Primitive toilet in parking area

Fees: None


Trail ★★☆☆☆

Road ★★★★★

Signs ★★★☆☆

Scenery ★★★★☆

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

Overall Rating: ★★★½☆


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For even more great hikes in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, check out this guide. It has 25 hikes, from short strolls to overnight trips.



5 thoughts on “Maidenhair Falls in a Desert Canyon

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  2. Pingback: Anne's Travels » 5 Best Hikes in Anza Borrego Desert State Park

  3. Pingback: 12 Trails that Require Hands & Knees, River Crossings, and Other Adventures

  4. Pingback: 15 Must Do Waterfall Hikes Across the US - Anne's Travels

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