Overview : Borrego Palm Canyon is the most popular trail in California's largest state park. It leads to the third-largest palm oasis in... more »
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Overview : Borrego Palm Canyon is the most popular trail in California's largest state park. It leads to the third-largest palm oasis in... more » California, which was the first site sought for a desert state park back in the 1920s. It’s a beautiful, well-watered oasis, tucked away in a rocky V-shaped gorge. If you're lucky, you may glimpse a bighorn sheep, in a canyon vegetated by California's only native species of palm. The park receives many visitors due to its proximity to the metropolises of Southern California, and the trail is relatively easy to access and hike (three miles round trip with 600' elevation gain). The trail visits the first palm grove and a waterfall. A longer option takes you exploring farther up-canyon. During the spring wildflower season, this trail is not the place to "get away from it all." However, the hike is rewarding in may ways: child-friendly, a multitude of waypoints through which to explore the natural history, and minimal effort for outstanding natural values. less «
Do not hike the trail without water adequate for several hours. Although the climate may be mild in winter and spring, you are hiking ... more »through an unshaded, sunny, and very dry environment. In summer, you’ll have the oasis all to yourself; in fact, the State Park designates it as an October-May hike.
Directions: The trail begins at Borrego Palm Canyon Campground, located one mile north of park headquarters. Trailhead parking is available at the west end of the campground near the campfire circle. less «
A State Parks staff person sells water and merchandise at the parking lot on winter weekends. Maps and various handouts are available at the trailhead, including the nature trail booklet upon which much of the Palm Canyon guide is based. You may wish to visit the open-air bathrooms, built by the Conservation Corps in rustic style in the 1930s. The... More pond at the trailhead provides habitat for desert pupfish, uniquely adapted to surviving in the desert's scarce pockets of water. Allow at least two hours for the hike and do your best to stay on the established trail.Less
Trail marker 2. This tall, spindly ocotillo plant's life revolves around rainstorms. After a rainfall, leaves will burst out within 24 hours. They'll be full grown in only five days.
The leaves photosynthesize sunlight to make food for the ocotillo, but they also shed precious moisture. After a month of dry weather, the leaves wither, dry, and... More fall. After the next rainfall, the whole cycle repeats.Less
Trail marker 3. The peaceful streambed is a desert wash. Clouds form over the Gulf of California and move north, creating a monsoon climate. If a cloudburst formed overhead, the rain would drain from the ridges and sweep over the sands. Flash floods are common here, especially in July and August. The broad alluvial fan at the mouth of the canyon... More narrows and the sheer rock walls of the canyon will soon enclose you.Less
Trail marker 4. Can you smell the desert lavender flowers? Gently rub the leaves to release even more of the fragrance. Blooming from October to May, the rich floral scent attracts hundreds of bees that will pollinate its flowers.
When the soil is moist, the plant grows larger, thinner leaves that maximize photosynthesis. When the soil is very... More dry, the plant's leaves will be smaller, thicker, and hairy, to prevent moisture loss.Less
Trail marker 5. Mighty flash floods carried these boulders down from the mountain. Now, the nooks and crannies form wildlife habitat: pack rats build nests, snakes find shelter in the crevices, and iguanas and side-splotched lizards perform defensive displays ("push-ups") on the stones' surface.
Trail marker 6. The rocks gain their reddish tones from a bacterial coating. By absorbing manganese and iron from the atmosphere the bacteria colonies grow blackish or reddish. To keep from drying out, they cement tiny particles of clay onto themselves. The desert varnish on these rocks probably took 10,000 years to form.
Trail marker 7. These desert willows create a home for birds like the California quail and Costa's hummingbird. The Native Americans also used the supple limbs for bow-making and home-building.
Not a true wilow, this desert shrub thrives where its roots can reach water. Sometimes the roots extend as much as sixty feet below the surface. In late... More spring or summer watch for delicate, two-lipped pink or white flowers.Less
Trail marker 8. The Cahuilla Indians chose Palm Canyon for a village site because of the flowing stream. The canyon walls brought shade from the late afternoon sun, and shelter from winds. While their village left little obvious trace upon the land, their habitation is marked by round, smooth-bottomed holes in the rocks. Women ground seeds in the ... Moresame place for centuries to create these morteros. Near the holes, look for the smooth depressions of grinding slicks, also called metates.Less
Trail marker 9. Not all desert life may be viewed on the surface. Tarantulas, scorpions, lizards, and mice hide from the relentless desert sun in holes in the ground. When you see a crater with a hole in the middle, you've probably found the home of a harvester ant.
On warm, sunny days, the ants march out to collect seeds from nearby flowers and ... Morebushes. They're brought to the nest and hulled. Then the chaff is brought up and discarded, building the crater. The ants are critical to spreading seed across the desert.Less
Trail marker 10. Look up the craggy hills and you may see Peninsular bighorn sheep. These grazers are an endangered species because humans have destroyed much of their habitat. Supremely camouflaged, only the movement of white rumps gives them away. Remarkable animals, the sheep are sure-footed and have keen hearing and eyesight. Humans on this... More trail don't seem to bother them, but the sight or scent of dogs (wild or domestic) stresses them greatly.Less
Trail marker 11. Here is your first glimpse of the Borrego Palm Canyon oasis, only a half-mile ahead. Where there are California fan palms, there is water.
Many groves of these palms grow along earthquake faults, where geological forces have created conditions that allow water to seep toward the surface. Coyotes help plant the groves. They eat... More the seeds at one oasis, then later when they go to drink, often leave the fertilized seeds behind at another spot.Less
Trail marker 12. Mesquite may be identified by its marrow, pinnately compound leaves. It is an extremely hardy plant because it can draw water from the water table or the soil surface, depending upon availability. Its long taproot has been recorded at up to 190 ft depth. The tree can easily and rapidly switch from using one water source to the... More other. New growth of mesquite has needle-sharp thorns up to three inches long. They are tough enough to penetrate the soft soles of sneakers or similar footwear. Older branches lose their spine as they grow. The Cahuilla used mesquite seed pods as a food source.
Like mesquite, catclaw is a spiny desert plant; the two plants may be differentiated by the curvature of the sharp "cat's claw."Less
In winter or spring, the stream forms a cascade between the boulders at this point.
Trail marker 13. These stones were placed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. The skilled stoneworkers helped develop the park we enjoy today.
Trail markers 14 & 15. Just a few minutes ahead, a view of the oasis awaits. As you pass the stream bed and palm grove, remember to stick to the trail; be careful not to trample palm seedlings or fragile stream banks.
It is rare to find a California fan palm in the wild, given the scarcity of wet sites in the desert. The frond "skirt" of... More dried palm fronds helps protect the palm bark from water loss and insect predatorsLess
Just beyond the first group of palms is a damp grotto, where a waterfall cascades over huge boulders. The grotto is a popular picnic area and rest stop.
Hiking is more difficult up-canyon after the falls, with lots of dense undergrowth and boulders to navigate around. From the “tourist turnaround” one can continue up the canyon. The creek is a... More fairly dependable water supply and is usually running late in the fall. The canyon is wet, so watch your footing on the slippery, fallen palm fronds. The canyon narrows even further and the trail dwindles to nothing. Parallel the streambed and boulder-hop back and forth across the water. The canyon zigs and zags quite a bit, so you can never see much more than a few hundred yards ahead. The hike is well-worth the effort though, because most of the 800 or so palms in the canyon are found in its upper reaches. Sometimes you’ll spot rock-climbers practicing their holds on the steep red-rock cliffs above.
The canyon splits 1.75 miles from the falls. Straight ahead, to the southwest, is South Fork. The rocky gorge of South Fork, smothered with bamboo, is in possession of all the canyon’s water. It’s quite difficult to negotiate. South Fork ascends to the upper slopes of San Ysidro Mountain (6,417 feet). The Middle Fork (the way you came) of Borrego Palm Canyon is dry and more passable. It’s possible to hike quite a distance first up Middle Fork, then North Fork of Borrego Palm Canyon, but check with park rangers first. It’s extremely rugged terrain.Less
From the falls, you may take an alternate trail back to the campground. This trail takes you along the south side of the creek, past some magnificent ocotillo, and gives you a different perspective on this unique desert environment.