Anza Borrego Desert State Park: Lower and Upper Palm Canyon Trail
Date Hiked: April 30, 2011 and April 11, 2009
Best Season: Spring Winter
Check Trail Conditions: Anza Borrego Desert State Park (760) 767-5311
Notes: The 1st leg to Lower Palm Canyon is a moderate kid-friendly hike. The 2nd is more strenuous, and only suitable for kids who are experienced at bouldering.
- Distance: 2 to 5-1/2 miles round-trip
- Elevation Gain: 470 to 830 feet
- Route Type: Out-and-Back
- Trail Type: Dirt and boulder-hopping
- Difficulty: Moderate
The first camping trip we took together was to the Anza Borrego State Park Palm Canyon Campground, in 2009. And the adjacent Palm Canyon Trail was one of the first “real” trails we did as active hikers. It was listed as the most popular hike in the park, and looked quite manageable for a couple of hiking newbies. We liked it so much then, that we just re-visited the place, bringing another newbie hiker (and her more experienced hiking husband) along to share the experience. The pictures in this post are mostly from this year, but I’ve noted the ones we took in 2009 in the captions.
The main hike is written up in many different places, and goes up a desert canyon that has a variety of wildflowers (in season), rocks, and visuals as you head up the fairly easy 1.5 mile path that goes from a bone dry, desert path to an amazingly unexpected palm tree and fern oasis, surrounded by miniature waterfalls and swimming holes. We had read that this stretch could be very busy, but once folks hit the “tourist turnaround” at the palm oasis, you could continue another half mile or so on a more strenuous stretch up the canyon to some more palm trees and waterfalls that were much more less crowded. That sounded like a nifty add-on to our hike to get us a bit more than the pedestrian 3 mile round trip hike and away from the maddening crowds, so we planned on going up as far as we could before we turned around.
The trailhead is less than a mile from the campground, but as good Americans, we drove anyways. There in the parking lot was a trailer/kiosk with a helpful docent handing out interpretive guides, selling hats, maps, and sunscreen, and warning people to carry “one gallon of water per person” up the trail. He also told us to watch for rattlesnakes, which are apparently seen pretty much daily along the trail (though we didn’t seen them on this trail either time). To reinforce the message, right at the beginning of the trail was a sign warning us of rattlesnakes and mountain lions.
There was also the tri-fold interpretive guide that corresponded to 15 numbered trail signposts, telling you what plant or rock formation you were looking at, or explaining what kind of wildlife was in the area (still haven’t seen any bighorn sheep!). We like knowing that sort of stuff, but it does take away from the wilderness feel. Of course, what really took away from the wilderness feel were the crowds of obnoxious and loud tourists! It was far worse on our 2009 trip than it was this past year, but if you’re looking for solitude and peaceful communing with nature, you won’t find it in the first 1.5 miles up this trail.
One of the features of the lower part of the trail is the evidence of many powerful flash floods that have raged through the canyon. You are largely walking up a wide dry wash, but you can see tree trunks and wood that has been carried down from far up the canyon wedged against–and even under giant boulders that truly show the power of the flash floods.
About halfway up the path, the dry wash become a creek, and you’ll start to see and hear some of the water in the creek, which will immediately make you feel a little cooler just knowing it is there. Eventually, there is enough water to make everything green and actually cool the air around you, but it is a nice psychological boost from the beginning, and if you are really feeling the heat, you can dip your hat or shirt in it for a bit of evaporative cooling action.
The trail along the bottom stretch really is pretty hard to miss, and even if you take a slightly alternative path, it will always lead you right back to the main path. It is virtually impossible to get lost as long as you just keep heading upstream. Just over a mile up the trail, you’ll hit a very well-marked log crossing that brings you to the south side of the canyon.
From there, the path gets much more green and lush, and brings you past more (and higher) mini-waterfalls and little swimming holes. You’ll also be able to see the palm trees from here, not too far in the distance. You cross back across the creek again (when you can no longer continue forward), and after a little bit of scrambling (we may or may not have been on the “right” track at this point), you’ll come to a final log crossing into the palm oasis. This can be a bit of a chokepoint, as families and kids back up trying to figure out how to cross without getting wet, but it is really easy if you have any sense of balance or ability to hop at all.
Once across, you are in the oasis. There are many shaded spots among the trees and on the rocks surrounding the creek where you can sit and have lunch, or lie out in the sun on other exposed boulders, or play in the water. You are extremely likely (especially on a spring weekend) to be surrounded by many other people doing exactly this. If your tolerance is higher than ours, you can still really enjoy this place, where the people watching is almost as interesting as the scenery itself.
But we had greater ideas in mind, so as soon as we caught our breath and cooled off a bit in the shade, we headed on upstream away from the “tourist turnaround” and the vast majority of the people.
This, however, is where it starts to get really tricky, trail-wise. In 2009, we caught a little trail spur right on the southwest side of the trees, which quickly turned into a scramble over rocks, and some serious searching for the actual trail to make our way on up. Only some cairns placed along the way and occasional wider stretches of trail cut through the brush convinced us that we hadn’t messed up completely and missed the trail entirely. We remembered the path closer to the water had been an easier return hike last time, so on this more recent adventure, we looked for the trail right on the northwest end of the oasis, and took it on up the south side of the creek.
Unfortunately, we very quickly found ourselves in the exact same tough spots we’d been in two years before! And once again, every time we started to think we’d wandered totally off the trail, we’d come across another cairn or piece of more defined path that would keep us journeying onward. The trail rose up above the creek level quite a bit, but after a long period of false starts and boulder hopping and prickly brush busting, we finally found a path back down to the creekside.
Once again, the mere presence of the water beside us felt cooler and also relaxed us. Our hike also became easier, though the trail really was no better defined, just because there was a lot less brush down there, and a lot more sandy ground to walk on. It was mostly a choose-your-own-adventure scramble up the creek, with no one “right way”, and easy stretches were interrupted by more head scratching as we tried to determine the best way around the bigger boulders and rock walls and waterfalls along the way.
But having read that there was a second oasis just a half mile past the first one, we forged on!
We found a very nice picnic area in the shade of the cliff right next to another set of waterfalls, where we rested a bit and discussed how much further we should continue. At this point, our gps indicated we’d traveled more than a half mile above the palms, but I had done a lot of advanced scouting up wrong paths looking for right paths, and then running back to report to the group (that’s the kind of gentleman I am!), so I knew the mileage wasn’t precise.
After our break, we fairly quickly came to a single burnt, dead, tall palm tree stump, and then a set of two scorched, but still live palm trees, and a flat area that looked like a great place to camp if you were backpacking (indeed, one couple was setting up camp as we arrived). This is where we turned around in 2009, but we’d been fighting the end of the day and were worried about sunset last time, and we were still feeling relatively fresh and had plenty of daylight left this time, so we continued a bit further.
Unfortunately, we almost immediately came to yet another set of falls with big boulders and a sheer cliff wall that did not provide a very clear path through. I scrambled up the slick rock surface on the other side of the creek to see if I could see the next palm stand and/or a way over the rocks, but it was pretty clear that the group was either going to have to all come up the slick cliff-side where I was and make a pretty good drop down on the other side, or we were going to have to team climb (lots of boosting and pulling up each other) up the boulders on the other side to get through this set of falls.
But while the other side of the falls looked lush and green and I saw a few more palms, there was still nothing approaching the oasis down below, and I couldn’t see anything on up the creek from my vantage point, either. So we decided that risking our safety and our already tired and battered and bloodied (from various bushes and rocks along the way) bodies without any guarantee that we wouldn’t just hit another semi-dead end without ever seeing the mythical 2nd oasis just wasn’t worth it.
A younger, fitter group could probably manage these rocks pretty easily, and have a good time doing it, but I confess that we’ve gotten a bit too old to enjoy much more climbing and stretching and jumping than we’d already done on this particular day at our current level of fitness. We later read that a big flash flood in 2004 had wiped out 70% of the palms in the canyon, including many in the remaining big stand, but we suspect that the upper oasis was wiped out nearly entirely. Post-hike analysis on Google Earth seems to confirm this, as no large groves are apparent on the satellite/aerial photos until significantly further up the trail. We’d still like to get further up someday, though, as there are still groups of palms all the way up, and supposedly some great falls up there as well.
Having convinced ourselves that the oasis no longer existed, and that we’d found the remnant already (I do think we were right), we turned around and headed back downstream. We stayed along the water’s edge all the way down this time, and found the progress much easier than our bush-whacking expedition upstream, though there was still a great deal of boulder hopping and several more false starts, where the “best” trail downward was far from clear and we tried a couple different possibilities before choosing the “least bad” option.
We enjoyed the sounds and sights of the creek all the way down to the palm grove, where we had our last couple of head scratching trail dead ends before hooking back up with the main trail again. From there, it was a piece of cake to head back the last mile and a half to the truck and the short drive back to camp, where we were well stocked with a variety of ice cold adult beverages and knew we had a great dinner (and dessert!) ahead of us!
The winds that night kept us inside the RV–and destroyed my tent–but we were very happy to have enjoyed this Spring day hike up into the canyon before the hot Summer weather made it too uncomfortable to do. Wildflowers were already beyond their peak on this late April day, but there was still plenty of greenery and a smattering of flowers to see, making it a great day for us and our newbie hiker friend (though we all felt it a bit the next day…).
View Palm Canyon Trail, Extended Hike in a larger map
Other area hikes: First time we did this hike, we also did the Yaqui Wells Nature Hike, the super-short Morteros Hike, and the Pictographs Hike (write-up coming soon) the next day. This year (2011), we did the Wilson Peak Hike (write-up coming soon) the day before, but were too wiped out for a real hike the day after.