Deep within California’s Colorado Desert, hidden between two mountains, there’s a cool, refreshing oasis. It’s not a mirage — it’s the centerpiece of Borrego Palm Canyon: a cluster of shaggy palm trees rising up from a soggy spot on the otherwise dry desert floor.
It takes a mile and a half of hiking to reach this secluded grotto, but plenty of people choose to make the hike — it’s so popular, that the only day-use fee in Anza Borrego State Park is charged at the trailhead parking area. The rest of the 600,000 acre park is free, but the hike into Borrego Palm Canyon will cost you $8.
Before beginning the hike out to Borrego Palm Canyon, stop for a moment at the visitor center. You won’t be able to see it from the road: it’s almost entirely underground.
A paved trail crosses the visitor center’s roof, where you’ll find a nice view of the San Ysidro mountains. In the middle is Borrego Palm Canyon, and on the right is Indianhead (3,960 feet/1,207 meters).
After exploring the visitor center, and getting some advice from the very friendly folks who work there, I drove out to the Borrego Palm Canyon Trailhead, and started on the hike.
The trail to the palm trees is an easy one, at least until you’re near the end. Pick up a trail guide at the trailhead, then watch for numbered landmarks along the way. Somewhere along the way, I lost my pamphlet, but until that point it hadn’t told me anything critical — so if you can’t find one at the trailhead, don’t worry.
A short distance into the trail, the path enters the mouth of the canyon. If you turn around, you’ll see a panoramic view of the basin that’s home to the town of Borrego Springs.
Heading forward, the trail becomes more interesting with every step. The surrounding mountains start to close in on you, with colorful piles of rocks mixed in with the vegetation that covers the valley floor.
I didn’t take many pictures for the first mile of the trail, because it was raining. I was certain my hike would yield only a few lousy pictures of drizzle and grey skies, until suddenly, the clouds were gone.
The oasis of palms comes into view at this creek crossing point. A couple of logs (not the ones you see) serve as a bridge across the water. Up until this point, the creek has been nearby, but from here on in, the water is much closer to the trail, and there are plenty of places to access it.
A bit further, I hopped onto a small island in the middle of the creek for this picture of the big boulder that splits the stream. The palm oasis is now clearly visible in the distance (even though it’s tough to see in this picture). The trail is a bit more challenging from here on in, and there are a few places where youcould lose track of the path if you’re not careful. You’ll also need to climb a bit more, and squeeze in between a few boulders.
From here on, until well beyond the palm trees, there are numerous waterfalls and tiny cascades.
There are the palms! The trail effectively ends as it drops out of the boulders near the palm trees. From here on, you’re free to wander wherever you can…
… which will, no doubt, include a stop beneath the trees.
This is a very neat place. I felt like I had entered a hut built on a deserted tropical island.
Of course, there’s no roof.
The palms grew here, because at this spot, the creek widens out, covering the ground with moisture. This means you must watch your step as you explore beneath the palms. There are plenty of muddy spots, but you should have no trouble finding a dry rock or log on which to sit, relax, and stare up at the fronds.
A few palms survive outside the cluster, as well.
Beyond the trees, there is no official trail. You can go wherever you please, provided you can find a way to scramble over the rocks. As you climb…
… you’re still following the creek, and you’ll continue to run into one tiny waterfall after another, as well as some cool, refreshing pools (large enough for kids to splash around in).
After climbing a few different directions and reaching road-blocks, I decided there wasn’t much else to see further up the canyon…
… but I do recommend climbing high enough to find a good photo spot, with the oasis in the foreground, and the valley behind it.
I returned to the palms, found a secluded spot (even though the trail is popular, it’s a big desert, so it wasn’t difficult to find some solitude), and unpacked a snack.
On the way back…
… at the point where the trail crosses the creek, there’s an alternative. A rougher, less-used trail begins here, and leads back to the parking area. This trail stays on the south side of the creek, instead of crossing over to the north side. It is narrower, requires more climbing, and it’s a bit rougher than the main trail.
But, it does bring you closer to some huge ocotillo plants…
… and gives you some different views, as you make the return hike.