The most popular hike in Anza-Borrego is the Borrego Palm Canyon trail to the Borrego Palm Oasis. This hike is right by the Anza-Borrego park headquarters, which is off the main strip in Borrego Springs. The visitor’s center is also worth a quick visit to get a grasp of the region’s history and terrain.
You can walk to the Borrego Palm Canyon Trail from the headquarters, which adds some distance (about a mile) to the trip, or you can pay the entrance fee to park directly at the campground close by and save yourself a fairly boring walk each way. In total, the trip to Borrego Palm Canyon and back can be as short as 2.7 miles, depending on where you park, or can be extended to 4+ miles. (More on extensions later.)
You do get quite a lot of sun and wind on this trip, so you’ll want to make sure to have a hat and some long sleeves, not to mention loads of water.
When you get to the main trailhead, keep right. The hike to the first palm grove starts out upward sloping over sandy terrain with views of the cactus plain and the mountains closing in on either side as you move up the valley. The rock, mostly sandstone, has some color to it, a soft shade somewhat pinkish. Although the hills are covered in flaky rock and almost entirely barren, the color gives it a netherwordly feel that is at least more inviting than the completely brown hills of the deserts in Nevada.
While walking, remember to keep your eyes open for any Bighorn Sheep. (Borrego actually means Bighorn Sheep in Spanish.) I unfortunately did not catch sight of any while I was out. Apparently the earlier you go the better. Arriving after 11, I was evidently too late.
You’ll have no trouble finding to the first palm grove. The oasis is a peaceful place that provides some moisture and water. You can bathe under the waterfall if you’d like and have a picnic. One thing worthy of catching sight of were the wonderful little frogs that make their homes in the river. They are tiny creatures, and must barely manage to survive as tadpoles throughout the summer.
After the oasis, you can begin the journey back or, if you want to extend the journey, you can hike further up the ravine through treacherous, unforgiving terrain. There are, ostensibly, two more oases upriver, but the hiking is very strenuous and requires the agility and gear to hike over wet, slippery rocks. Keep in mind that this extension is for adults only and it’s best not to go on your own as I did.*
On the return, it’s recommended to take the opposite route back. You can find the alternate route by continuing straight back from the oasis. A sign points you in the direction to the right not far past the oasis, right before a river crossing over a plank that has been laid across.
The alternate route affords you a view of the unique desert forest that blooms in this area. The Ocotillo cactus blooms in spring, its short flower shooting out like the painted fingernail on a made up lady. Desert plants here remind you of life under the sea; if you were floating you would not feel out of place, and the thought of water is refreshing.
*Extension (SPOILER ALERT): Since there was recently a flood, there’s really not much to see when you go through all this. But just so you know, the possibility is there to stretch your hike out to 5 miles or more if you really want to do so.
Not being aware of what awaited me, I went for it. Not far in, having surmounted many slipper rocks and other obstacles, I saw a group of people and asked them if the “next grove” wasn’t far off. The guy paused for a moment and said it was pretty close, about half a mile. I asked him if the terrain got easier, and he said it did. There was a strange look in his eye. I powered on, now hiking straight through the river and having to work my way through a lot of weeds and brush at times.
At last I made it to the palm grove, but there was nothing but a single palm which was partially burned. I was exhausted and stopped for a snack. There was a nice cool shade against the side of the ravine. I searched the hillside for Bighorn Sheep but the hillsides were barren and lifeless, no animals and hardly any plants there to speak of.
I continued on a ways, thinking that I might not have met the grove yet. After another half an hour of ragged, rocky terrain, I came in view of a bend and decided I didn’t want to continue on further to round it. I figured that the third grove was not far off, but I had been debating ever since if I even wanted to get to it, given how rough the walk was and how sharp the rocks were. At times, I had to make my way over dangerous rock faces just to continue further and I was worried I might slip and fall and not be heard due to the rushing water.
More reading about this hike: