Palm Canyon (Anza-Borrego Desert State Park)

A desert oasis lies tucked away in the depths of Borrego Palm CanyonPalm Canyon is one of the most popular trails in Anza-Borrego. With a trailhead located at the Park’s largest campground, this easy 3 mile trail is readily accessible to hikers of all skill levels. It is also regularly visited by Peninsular bighorn sheep, who venture down into the canyon for water and to graze on the various plant life that depend on the oasis’s comparatively abundant supply of water. At one point, the endangered Bighorn sheep were so rare that even long-time residents of Borrego Springs could go decades without seeing one of the elusive creatures, however conservation efforts have paid off and the sheep’s numbers are growing. Knowing that Palm Canyon was a frequent destination for Bighorns, we were optimistic about our chances of seeing one on our hike.

We began at the trailhead located at the back of the Borrego Palm Canyon campground. The trail was a clearly defined path of sand edged by large rocks, ever present creosote bushes, and white clumps of brittlebush. Like the Cactus Loop and Yaqui Well nature trails we had done previously, this hike came with an informative pamphlet and numbered interpretive signs pointing out some of the interesting natural and archaeological sights along the trail.Beginning of the Palm Canyon Trail

The trail was flat and easily traversed. We were surrounded on either side by brown and red mountains. The valley floor was littered with colorful rocks, carried by flash floods from the mountain slopes surrounding us.BorregoPalmCanyon4079

Being the middle of fall, we were a long way off from wildflower season, however the different colors and textures of the rocky hillsides provided the canyon with ample decoration.

We kept our eyes peeled, searching the hillsides for any sign of movement, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Bighorn Sheep that inhabit the area. We’d never seen one of these creatures before and were eager for our first sighting.BorregoPalmCanyon4124

At .9 mile, we found a lovely resting spot with a log bench under a tree, which would offer a nice cool resting spot for the more casual hiker who might need a break halfway to the oasis.A shady resting spot along the Palm Canyon trail

Not far beyond, we noticed some interesting sedimentary layers of dirt and rock along the canyon wall.BorregoPalmCanyon4130

At 1 mile, the trail crossed the canyon floor.BorregoPalmCanyon4131

On the other side of the wash, the trail split in two directions. To the left was an alternate route back to the campground, and to the right was the trail continuing to the oasis. We turned right, but made note of the alternate path back to the campground for our return trip.BorregoPalmCanyon4134

This side of the canyon was shaded by the mountain to our left, and the temperature was significantly cooler. The canyon was narrowing noticeably by this point, and we encountered more and more green plants along the trail.BorregoPalmCanyon4137

The trail became a bit more rocky, and in a couple of places traveled over carefully placed stone steps.BorregoPalmCanyon4140

By now we could see the distinctive forms of several groups of California fan palms ahead, marking the oasis.Looking up the canyon to the oasis

A few more minutes of walking brought us to a muddy patch full of reed-like plants. We carefully stepped across the rocks, trying to keep from getting sucked into mud. The sound of buzzing insects could be heard among the muck.BorregoPalmCanyon4159

We emerged from the reeds and at 1.5 miles, had reached the cool damp of the oasis.In the cool shade of the oasis

There were several log benches in the clearing beneath the palms, however being that it was the middle of the afternoon on one of the most popular trails in the park, they were covered in park visitors eating their lunches. So we quickly snapped a few pictures and found a nice quiet rock just outside the ring of palm trees on which to lounge.BorregoPalmCanyon4164

After having a snack and cooling off on our large slab of shaded granite, we retraced our route back to the alternate route junction we had noted earlier.BorregoPalmCanyon4170

Instead of turning left, the way we had come, we continued straight. We quickly found ourselves hiking up the rocky hillside on the west side of the canyon. While this alternate route was a bit hillier than the journey out, it was still an easy hike.BorregoPalmCanyon4174

The rocky trail wound circuitously along the contour of the mountain above us. We could see the canyon mouth opening towards Borrego Valley to the southeast as we hiked.BorregoPalmCanyon4179

As we wrapped around yet another turn, we found ourselves hiking towards a large, reddish black boulder. Something poking out from behind the boulder caught my eye, but it took my brain a moment to realize what it was.BorregoPalmCanyon4187

I paused, and after my neurons had an opportunity to process this most recent input, I realized I was looking at my first Bighorn sheep! A beautiful ruddy brown ram stood along the edge of the trail ahead of me, casually munching on some dried blades of grass. He paused to examine us briefly, and apparently decided we were uninteresting and not threatening, and continued grazing. His brown fur blended in perfectly with the surrounding hillside, the camouflage made even more effective by the shade.Peninsular bighorn sheep along the Palm Canyon trail at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

We stood quietly for 5 or 6 minutes, snapping pictures of our ram while he enjoyed his afternoon repast. We probably could have spent the rest of the afternoon just hanging out with our new friend, but a family with several young children eventually came along the trail behind us. The ram apparently decided it was getting too crowded in here, and sauntered up the hillside. We bade him farewell and continued on our way.

The rest of the hike was comparatively uneventful. At 2.9 miles, the trail made a short descent down the rocky hillside back to the soft sandy bottom of the canyon.BorregoPalmCanyon4226

From there it was just a short stroll back to the parking lot. Here we discovered a man-made pond created to house a population of endangered Desert pupfish. The pupfish are highly adaptable, able to live in shallow waters of desert springs, small streams, and marshes with higher saline levels, temperatures, and less oxygen than most other fish. Despite these adaptations, the pupfish, like so many other species, is threatened due to habitat destruction.A man-made pond houses endangered Desert pupfish near the Palm Canyon trailhead

Having encountered not one, but two endangered species on our short hike, we headed back to our car with an even deeper appreciation of the desert and all of its inhabitants.

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From Borrego Springs, go west on Palm Canyon Drive. Turn right at the entrance to Borrego Palm Canyon Campground. Pay the day use fee at the campground kiosk, then proceed to the far west (back) side of the campground to the trailhead parking area. map

Total Distance: 3.25 miles
Difficulty: Easy
Total Ascent: 655 feet
Dog Friendly?: Dogs not allowed
Bike Friendly?: Bikes not allowed
Facilities: Bathroom and drinking fountain at trailhead
Fees/Permits: Day use fee – $10 per vehicle

For more information, visit:
California State parks: Anza-Borrego State Park

2 thoughts on “Palm Canyon (Anza-Borrego Desert State Park)

  1. I haven’t been to Palm Canyon since I was in Jr High, I need to get back. Congrats on the ram sighting! Such a memorable moment. I’ve only seen them when I was in Jackson Hole, WY, none in California. So jealous.

    • You should definitely head back Derek! The sheep population has been making a significant comeback so your chances of seeing one now are much better now. They are really cool, plus it makes me all warm and fuzzy to know how much their population is recovering 🙂