About Borrego Palm Canyon Falls
Borrego Palm Canyon Falls was our main waterfalling excuse to explore the most popular trail in the Anza Borrego State Park.
The Borrego Palm Canyon Trail earned its notoriety because the roughly three-mile round-trip hike reached one of the largest native Peninsular California Fan Palm Oases in the state. The trail to access the natural grove was also reasonably wide and flat, which made it very accessible.
As for the waterfall itself, the reportedly year-round creek that gave rise to the desert oasis also gave rise to a series of cascades. From what we could tell, there wasn’t really a signature waterfall though the first (or lowermost) of the waterfalls that we encountered probably came closest to having that distinction.
In addition to the miracle of a year-round creek with an oasis of fan palms, Julie even managed to spot a bighorn sheep during the hike! Indeed, after doing this hike, we could totally understand this trail’s popularity.
Julie and I managed to reach a couple more waterfalls further upstream from the oasis. Then, we split off on the return hike, where she returned the same way we came in while I did the slightly longer Alternate Trail for a little more varied scenery.
That latter method is how we’ll do the trail description below.
The Main Trail
The hike began from a well-established day use parking lot that was just beyond a pretty big campground (see directions below). Right at the trailhead, we saw picnic tables as well as some signage, a little pond, an open-air restroom facility, and some interpretive trail brochures.
We picked up one of the brochures so we could follow along some of the numerical markers along the trail.
The trail started off in very open terrain flanked by hardy and prickly desert vegetation like beavertail cactus, cholla cactus, catclaw, and honey mesquite among others.
Julie also noted the presence of the eccentric ocotillo plant. These strange-looking plants apparently have very fast growth and blooming cycles, which occurs immediately after rain.
We also got a healthy dose of the aroma of desert lavender. Plus, we spotted plenty of other blooming desert flowers as we happened to be there at the start of the bloom.
Most of the main trail traversed an alluvial fan, which was a typical desert geological feature where canyons carrying water (whether by spring or flash flood or both) would fan out at its mouth. Typically such fans can have rich soil (deposited by the water), and we noticed evidence of settlement and use by the Cahuilla Tribe who had a village here.
The further up the trail we went, the more the canyon walls closed in. We also noticed larger boulders flanking the trail as well.
During our visit, the trail briefly went alongside the main stream before crossing it in a couple of spots. After about a half-mile or so, the trail pretty much followed along the base of the south-facing cliffs.
After the second stream crossing (roughly a mile from the trailhead), we noticed closure signs discouraging access further up along the stream. A ranger that I encountered during our hike explained that the primary reason for it was to allow the desert bighorn sheep clear access to drink from the stream.
I would learn later that reaching the base of the first of the Borrego Canyon Palm Falls was not sanctioned as a result of this closure.
On the other side of the stream, the main trail joined up with the Alternate Trail, which I wound up taking on the return hike. I’ll describe that stretch later.
Approaching the Oasis
One thing that I noticed along the trail was the presence of downed fan palm trees. Apparently, they were victims of flash flooding that occurred over the years. Now, most of these trees became re-purposed as trail markers or trail barricades to keep people on the path.
Continuing along the main trail, it now hugged the north-facing cliffs. The trail gained a little more elevation quickly in this stretch, and roughly 0.2 miles later, we spotted the first of the Borrego Palm Canyon Falls.
This particular waterfall was nestled amongst some giant boulders. Since signs continued to discourage access to the creek to get to this waterfall from the bottom, I had to do an unsanctioned scramble atop the jumble of boulders for a more top-down look at it. I took the photo that gave rise to the hero image on this page from this very spot.
Back on the main trail, I could already start to see the fan palm oasis further up the canyon. After crossing the stream a couple more times, the trail was flanked by more giant boulders while starting to become one with the stream itself.
The part of the trail that pretty much coincided with the stream started at a arrow sign (roughly 0.1-mile beyond the first waterfall). This sign was an important landmark on the return hike, which I’ll explain later.
In any case, after another 0.1-mile the trail veered left away from another tiny waterfall fronted by a deep pool. Right after this turn, the trail ended up in the oasis surrounded by the wookie-like Peninsular California Fan Palm Trees.
Signs and barricades were set up to prevent any further scrambling beyond this point. So that kind of made the experience a bit on the anticlimactic side (especially from a waterfalling standpoint). Yet as far as the sanctioned trail went, this was the turnaround point.
Searching for more waterfalls
According to our Ann Marie Brown book, she said there was another waterfall after another quarter-hour of hiking. While we ultimately decided against hopping the barricades at the oasis, we did backtrack to the arrowed sign before the last stream crossing.
That was when we noticed some people who took what appeared to be a trail that the arrow was pointing away from. And after exploring this path for a few minutes (even going in between some wedged boulders that might have been put there by flash flood or rockfall), we saw an interpretive sign with a more satisfying view of the oasis from a higher and more distant vantage point.
Encouraged that we had stumbled upon a once-sanctioned trail, we followed it past a few more boulder jumbles and small cascades further upstream before the terrain opened up again a short distance beyond the oasis. That was when we encountered another pretty satisfying waterfall tumbling over some boulders.
We weren’t sure if this was the waterfall pictured in Ann Marie Brown’s book (because there didn’t seem to be any more fan palms upstream from the main part of the oasis). And after a few minutes more of scrambling and bouldering to see if there were any more waterfalls, the bouldering got to a point where we were questioning whether the risk versus reward justified going any further.
So this was our turnaround point, and we ultimately made our way back to the trail junction with the Alternate Trail.
The Alternate Trail
At this point, Julie went back via the main trail. Meanwhile, I took the Alternate Trail.
Right off the bat, the Alternate Trail actually had brief stretches of climbing while also turning quite a bit more.
While the Main Trail was definitely flatter and more well-used, this Alternate Trail had far fewer people. It kind of made me wonder if a bighorn sighting might be more likely along this route (though it turned out to not be the case on our visit as Julie spotted one from the main trail).
In addition to passing by more ocotillo plants and the variety of cacti, the trail eventually undulated then descended briefly into a wash before veering away from it. For the final stretch, I was once again flanked by low-lying brush and cacti (similar to what we encountered along the main trail).
At the end, the trail went past an amphitheater (where I’d imagine night time talks or programs were held) before the trail ended at the southern end of the day use parking lot.
All told, this Alternate Trail extended the hike by another quarter-mile or so. So the out-and-back distance on the main trail was roughly three miles round trip. It’s probably more like 3.25 miles round trip returning via the Alternate Trail.
We spent a little over three hours on this excursion though we spent quite a bit of time route-finding for more waterfalls. Knowing what we know now, it would probably take more like 2- to 2.5 hours for the whole excursion.
Borrego Palm Canyon Falls was along the Borrego Palm Canyon Trail. The trailhead was at Borrego Palm Canyon Campground just west of the town of Borrego Springs. We had to pay a day use fee of $10 per vehicle during our visit in 2019.
Since we did the drive from Julian, we’ll describe the driving directions from there.
From the main drag in Julian, we drove east on Hwy 78 for over 18 miles to the Yaqui Pass Road (S3).
Turning left onto Yaqui Pass Road, we then took this road for about 7 miles to the Borrego Springs Road. Turning left onto Borrego Springs Road, we then followed it for over 5 miles to the roundabout called Christmas Circle.
Taking the west exit (5th exit, I believe), we then passed through the main drag of Borrego Springs before turning right onto a road leading to the Borrego Palm Canyon Campground (it’s the turnoff just before reaching the Anza Borrego Visitor Center).
Follow this road to the kiosk at the campground. After paying the fee, then follow the signs and drive to the end at the day use parking area.
Overall, this drive took us a little under an hour.
For some geographical context, Borrego Springs was about 87 miles (over 90 minutes drive) south of Palm Springs, 81 miles (under 2 hours drive) east of Oceanside, 67 miles (under 90 minutes drive) east of Temecula, 88 miles (under 2 hours drive) northeast of San Diego, and 151 miles (over 2.5 hours drive) southeast of Los Angeles.
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