One of the things we love about California is the diversity of the natural environment. Having beaches, mountains, forests and desert within a couple hours of each other is something few other regions of the world can claim. Many people dismiss the desert as dry and barren and ugly, but that is only if you are not paying attention, or only know it by driving through it at 80 miles per hour in the middle of the summer. But if you take your time, visit during the cooler months, and look a little closer, the desert is very beautiful.
One of our favorite places to enjoy the desert is Anza Borrego Desert State Park. It was our first camping trip together, and we recently visited again with some friends who hadn’t been there before. We planned to re-hike Palm Canyon (the most popular hike in the park) with our friends that Saturday, but we left early enough on Friday to get in a good hike that first day. Having done a series of shorter hikes on our previous visit (Pictographs to Smuggler’s Canyon, Morteros, and Yaqui Well), and having already mastered Palm Canyon, we were looking for something with a little more mileage and challenge this time around.
We had settled on the Wilson Peak Trail, just inside the park off Montezuma Valley Road (S3). From Hwy 79 and Warner Springs, it is about 15 miles to the Culp Valley Road turnoff. It can also be found in reverse about 8 miles from the park headquarters. The road is fairly easy to miss if you’re not looking for it, with just a small signpost on the south side of a downward (from the west) curve. The road itself isn’t particularly visible, either, immediately descending off to the right from the paved Montezuma Valley Road.
Some of the guides we read ahead of time claimed a four wheel drive was necessary to get to the Wilson trailhead, but at least this year, any vehicle with good tires and decent clearance could make it–though you may not want to if your vehicle is any wider than an XTerra or Jeep and you value its paint job, as there were several stretches where having dry thorny plants scrape one or both sides was pretty much unavoidable. I clocked the trailhead at about 3 miles from the main road, and while I definitely made it in my XTerra, it did remind us why we’d like to make our next truck a four wheel drive, just so we don’t have to sweat roads like this in the future.
The trailhead “parking area” was little more than a loop around a juniper tree with a little trailhead marker that is hard to see from the main road. If you miss it, you should see the marker for “the Slab” just 1/10 of a mile past the Wilson Trail, and know you went too far.
Once you find the ring-around-the-juniper parking loop, the trailhead is impossible to miss. The path goes almost due south from the trailhead, but at about 2/3 of a mile begins heading more east than south. Don’t be fooled by the ridge you see to the east, by the way. We almost immediately picked out what we thought was the peak we were heading for, but that first ridge you see is blocking the view of the ridge you are actually climbing, and as you can see from the elevation profile, there is a bit of a descent and another climb before you get there, but it isn’t too bad.
This year was a wet year, but by mid-April, the Anza Borrego Desert State Park website was already warning that the wildflower bloom was mostly over already on the valley floor, so we were pessimistic that we would see many flowers on our hike, but we were happily surprised to be wrong. The 4,000 foot elevation trailhead probably had something to do with it (not quite as hot as the valley floor), but the variety and quantity of flowers we saw on our hike was awesome. We also saw a mess of big ol’ horny toads (officially flat tailed horned lizards, I believe…) along the trail, which was very cool for an amateur herpetologist like myself.
The trail follows an old truck trail, and it was interesting to see how in some areas you could clearly see the full width of the original trail, in some areas you could still see two distinct tire tracks, and in other areas, it looked like a narrow single-track trail that could never have supported a motor vehicle. But it was very easy to follow, and up until the end, it was nearly impossible to get lost.
Like most trails in Anza Borrego, the trail also takes you past some great rock formations, some natural, some not so much…
At about the 4 mile mark, we came to a large wooden pole propped up by some rocks and concrete. Apparently it falls down regularly, but even laying down, it should be pretty obvious. From there, the trail narrows to a single track and goes fairly steeply through some heavy brush and manzanita trees before leveling out on a saddle right below Wilson Peak.
In this level section, Wilson Peak looks like little more than a low hill to the right, which we didn’t even bother trying to summit, though we regretted not doing it later, just so we could have “bagged the peak.” But the guide we were using suggested trying to get to some rocks on the northeast ridge, which apparently give a much better view of the Anza Borrego Park valley and the Salton Sea. The trail essentially disappears here, leaving you to find your own path to your own rock viewpoints. If you look at the map below, you can see we walked past the peak before coming back to look for the perfect rock to chill on and enjoy the view, picking our way amongst the low brush and then boulder hopping on the edge of the ridge before finding one that suited us.
After enjoying the view that included the Salton Sea, Whale Peak, Palm Canyon Campground (where we were staying) and even Mt. San Jacinto in the distance, we picked a path back through the brush to the main trail and headed back to the truck. It was Spring Break week and Good Friday, but even though we saw some reasonably fresh footprints, we never saw a single other person on the trail, which we both appreciated greatly.
Later in the season, after the flowers are gone, this might be a boring and extremely hot hike, with a viewpoint payoff at the end that probably really wouldn’t be worth it, but on a day that never got above the 70’s, with a great variety of wildflowers, it was a hike we will always remember fondly.