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Borrego Palm Canyon

See a real desert oasis as you clamber through a slot canyon in Anza-Borrego Desert State Wilderness

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Rating: 5 out of 5 by EveryTrail members
Difficulty: Easy
Length: 3.1 miles
Duration: 1-3 hours
Family Friendly

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 »

Tips:  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 »

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Points of Interest

1. Trailhead to Palm Canyon

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

2. Ocotillo

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

3. Desert wash

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

4. Desert lavender

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

5. Boulder habitat

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.

6. Desert varnish

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.

7. Desert willows

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

8. Grinding stones

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 ... More

9. Harvester ant

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 ... More

10. Bighorn sheep

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

11. Desert oases

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

12. Mesquite

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

13. Waterfall in the desert

In winter or spring, the stream forms a cascade between the boulders at this point.

14. Depression public works

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.

15. California fan palm

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

16. Return to the trailhead or continue hiking?

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

17. Alternate trail back

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.

18. End of alternate trail

Back at the parking lot!