Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Borrego Palm Canyon: To South Fork

Borrego Palm Canyon is located inside Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. As the crow flies, it is 31 miles west of the Salton Sea, 47 miles north of Mexico, 33 miles south of Rancho Mirage, 12 miles east of Warner Springs and just a couple of miles west of Borrego Springs, a small town in the middle of the State Park. However, to get there involves a torturous, circuitous route of windy two lane roads clogged with gigantic motor homes towing huge trailers and dune buggies.

March is the perfect time to visit, but this is known by everyone in Southern California. Several small earthquakes occured while I was there, I'm sure due to weight on the fault from all of the people who were visiting. The initial part of the canyon, up to the first grove of palm trees, is 1.5 miles (3 miles roundtrip) and I felt, particularly on the way back later in the day, like I was at Disneyland. At the grove, it was hard to find a place among all the bodies to sit (so I didn't), and people swarmed up the trail in intermittent caravans toting babes in arms and dragging nursing home patients with walkers.
However, don't let that scare you away. 100 yards above the grove you will find solitude and a magnificent, beautiful, rugged wilderness that is worth all of the effort to get there.
The trail starts out in a very dull way with a view of treeless and not particularly beautiful mountains. But there are some gems along the way that make even the lower stretch of the trail worthwhile.

We spotted a swarm of what looked like gigantic exotic ants. An internet search later revealed these creatures to be master blister beetles.

The ocotillo were very leafy due to recent rains and the red flowers at the ends of the spines were beginning to bloom.

The brittlesbush were blooming.

And the beavertail cactus, although not numerous, were just beginning to bloom.

There was a blooming mesquite tree, just as we encountered water below the first palm tree grove. The first grove of palm trees, the destination of the masses, came into view as I turned a corner in the canyon.

A close look to the right of the main strand of trees reveals some people and provides perspective on the size of these beautiful California fan palms. Later in the day, on my way back down the canyon, this picture would have looked like a crowded water park.

The photo below shows the main grove looking back down the canyon. The crowds are now behind and sweet solitude is before you. Why do the crowds miraculously cease? Because of difficult hiking involving stream crossings, boulder hopping, climbing up and over and down rocks and areas where no trail is visible. In short, it is wonderfully fun hiking.

What sets this oasis apart from any other oasis I've been to in Southern California is the water. I've been to palm tree oases in Corn Springs and Mecca Hills and there the water is mostly, if not all, underground. Even the beautiful palm tree oasis in Palm Canyon, outside of Palm Springs, does not have the amount of water that this area does. The water sits in stark contrast to the relatively barren hillsides just feet from where it is flowing.

The water is often a small stream, but its nature changes quite dramatically with the terrain. In spots it is in one channel flowing evenly through a scerene landscape with relatively lush vegetation.

There is an occasional small waterfall.

There are varied and fun rock formations over which the water flows.

Sometimes the stream breaks into multiple channels.

There are times when small pools are formed, large enough to provide a nice dip on a hot day.

Sometimes the stream is not a stream at all, but rather a wet glaze over a rocky landscape,

Or a marsh fit for nothing but frogs.

And frogs there are. Hundreds of them. The tiny California tree frog, very small in size, but large in voice.

There were times I took steps on rocks near the stream when three or four frogs would leap away at the same time.

After the water, the most intriguing aspect of the canyon is the trees. The California fan palms are scattered, sometimes as lonely sentinels

In the winding and rugged canyon,

Sometimes in small groups,

And sometimes in significant groves.

The palms are in various sizes, shapes and colors. Some have black trunks, scars from previous fires. Some remain as headless skeletons.

Some, Amish-like, retain puffy skirts of dead palm fronds from the neck all the way to the ankles.
Some, less modest, have mini skirts exposing long spinidly legs.

Some, like the patriarch's of the deserty Sinai, have dead fronds resembling beards and skinny trunks reflecting their austere lifestyle.

It is an amazingly, rugged, beautiful canyon.

More views of the beautiful trees.

I read that the Indians used to burn the trunks of the palms in order to kill the insects.

The canyon I was hiking, until South Fork, is the Middle Fork of the canyon. South Fork, about 1.75 miles beyond the first grove, is a canyon going off to the southwest. The literature said that the water comes solely out of South Fork. However, I found water coming down the ongoing Middle Fork as well, perhaps evidence of the recent rains. I did find, as indicated in the literature, that the vegetation virtually chokes off the canyon around the stream up the South Fork and makes hiking even more difficult.

On this very hot day, I decided at the end to finish off the last of my 64 ounces of water and to drink untreated water out of the stream. I drank about 32 ounces at the source and filled my water bottle with another 32 ounces for the hike out. The water tasted good and I hope that I avoid any sickness for this indiscretion. A water filter definately needs to be part of my hiking gear the next time around.
Below is a picture of South Fork, in the middle, while the Middle Fork is more to the right. I've decided the next outing with the boys will be to do Palm Canyon again. This time we'll go to the 30 foot waterfall that is found .4 or .7 tenths of a mile a mile up the South Fork.
Perhaps we may see some bighorn sheep. That would be fun!


  1. Love your palm tree analogies. I've never thought of a palm tree as being like a Sinai patriarch before, much less an Amish woman! Fun images.

  2. Great write-up. I hope you are well.