Borrego Palm Canyon to Sheep Canyon 12/29/08 - 1/02/09

Trailhead: Borrego Palm Canyon Min El. : 600 ft Max El. : 4,400 ft
Duration: 4 Days El. Gain: 5,100 ft El. Loss: 5,100 ft
Distance: 32 Miles Difficulty: Strenuous Off Trail %: 25

Overview: You know what's crazy? Anza Borrego is the biggest state park in California, yet 75-90% of the native Californians I talk to have never heard of it. This is kind of awesome in a way, since it means that it's not mobbed by people, even during the optimal times of years. And when it comes to late fall/winter hiking, this place is a gold mine. The temperatures stay right in a sweet spot and there's plenty of water to be found even though you're in the middle of a desert!

The route I describe here starts off from one of the most popular day hikes in the park : Borrego Palm Canyon. This short, 4 hour hike in itself is very cool. But if you have the time to ascend further up the canyon, you'll find some incredibly diverse terrain and plant-life. The ascent up Borrego Palm Canyon involves finding your way through a labyrinth of narrow, sandy canyons that follow a chain of seasonal creeks. There isn't much brush to hold you back, but from time to time you'll have to climb up and over some steep waterfalls (nothing technical). The descent down, on the other hand, brings you through the overgrown clutches of Indian Canyon. Here you'll be battling against dense bushes and thorns and dogwoods that seem to be growing right on top of each other. Expect to come out with some scrapes or at least some shredded clothing.


Elevation Profile (slightly incomplete)

Day 1 : Borrego Palm Canyon Min El.  : 800 ft Max El. : 2270 ft
Night 1 : Borrego Palm Canyon El. Gain : 1570 ft El. Loss : 100 ft

This would be my second time visiting Anza Borrego in a three month time span. I had come here two months earlier for Thanksgiving with my family and fell in love with the place within hours. The park is so large that you can find a whole bunch of tiny, unique ecosystems all within its borders. There are expansive sand fields dotted with cacti and shrubs, canyons lined with streams and groves of fan palms, and barren badlands composed of nothing but dirt and rock. In the badlands near the east border of the park, a strange atv/dune-buggy subculture has taken hold in a way that reminded me of a sort of post-apocalyptic, Mad-Max type world. This in itself is a sight to see.

During our Thanksgiving visit we had hiked up Borrego Palm Canyon to the first grove of palm trees. I could tell just from looking at the park brochure that there was plenty more to explore beyond even though there was no official trail. So I decided I'd come back over the New Year holiday to check it out. My trip started out with a post-Christmas flight from Chicago to San Francisco, a taxi ride to my apartment, and then the drive down south. A little exhausted from all the traveling during that day, I decided I'd hold up at a hotel in Temecula, which I found to be a beautiful little town. On the "real" first day of the trip, I drove about two and a half hours from Temecula and wound up at the trailhead a little before noon.

I can't deny that I was a little impatient to get past the fan palm oasis this time around. It was fresh enough in my mind that my real craving was to get off the trail and explore the canyons above it. So with an invigorated spirit I kept climbing up the canyon, taking note of the excessive amount of water flowing through this arid desert.

The canyon in this earlygoing stage is very pleasant, with a couple of large boulders and impressive bends, but nothing that requires too much exertion. I was pretty amused by the isolated sets of fan palms that I encountered, and also content to see so much water flowing along my path. In fact, the water became sufficiently deep at times to force me to boulder hop or cling to the walls of the canyon. As you can tell from pictures like this, the ascent early on is extremely gradual.

I didn't keep an accurate count, but I think there were three or four sizeable groves of fan palms that I passed on the first day. When I got to the last one, at an elevation of 2270 feet, I decided to call it a day; not because of fatigue, but because the daylight was running out fast. I had a fun time experimenting with new types of kindling while I built a fire out of whatever wood I could find, and retired shortly after I had finished dinner. I was surprised that the wind was so weak in the canyon. Lucky for me: I slept like a baby.


Day 2 : Borrego Palm Canyon cont. Min El.  : 2270 ft Max El. : 4000 ft
Night 2 : High up Indian Canyon El. Gain : 1800 ft El. Loss : 1100 ft

When I stepped out of my tent this morning, I took an extra long time to appreciate the low sunlight glistening off the shrubs and miniature cottonwoods in front of my tent. I then made haste to eat breakfast and get on my way, eager to enjoy the remaining climb to the pass above me. The canyon quickly took on a very different character from what I had seen yesterday. Within an hour of walking I encountered some very steep sections of rock-some of which were waterfalls-that required some climbing and good use of foot and hand holds. None of them were sufficiently challening to put me in a panic or anything, but I wasn't expecting this type of terrain.

These steep regions were broken up by extremely long, flat canyons with floors so smooth I swore they had to have been paved by a steamroller. Even though the temperature was warm enough to keep me cozy in a t-shirt, patches of snow still managed to survive because of the lack of sunlight reaching the canyon floor.

Around 3700 feet, the canyons open up into thick slopes that give an expansive view of the surrounding mountains and the valley below. I took my time climbing to the "pass" that would take me down to Indian Canyon. I put that in quotation marks because it's almost a plateau at the top, rather than a mountain pass. When I stopped for lunch, I was in a really good mood. The hike had been nothing short of delightful so far, and I had no reason to expect that the remaining miles would be any different. Alas, I was wrong about this.

As I started down the helm of Indian Canyon, I could tell that this was going to be a different animal than the gentle terrain I was leaving. Thick brush choked the narrow stretch ahead, and it consisted of very sharp and stingy pins and needles that prompted me to put on long sleeves depsite the nice temperature about. I wouldn't say it was the worst bushwhacking I've ever done (maybe a close second), but I do remember being annoyed to the point that I was cursing at the top of my lungs from time to time. I'd scramble over a series of boulders, dig and duck my way through thick branches and thorns, and then repeat.

This process went on for about two hours. The sunlight was dying and so was my enthusiasm to keep moving, but I continued nonetheless. My spirit was rejuvenated as the brush opened up a bit, but in the blink of an eye it was shattered to a much lower state than it had been. I had just passed a trickling stream of water around 3000 feet elevation when I came to a ledge in the canyon that dropped about 40 feet to the canyon floor below. I put down my pack and examined all my options. I had 50 feet of rope in my pack that I could double up so that I had effectively 25 feet of rope to work with if I wanted to retrieve it after I lowered myself over the ledge. But 25 feet would still leave me hanging with a sizeable drop to the bottom, so I decided that wasn't a good idea.

With very little daylight left, I decided I'd hold up for the night just above the ledge where there was some flowing water. I'm glad I did. As is so often the case, as soon as I got a few spoonfuls of dinner in my stomach I realized that I wasn't hosed at all. Looking at the topo map I could tell that if I just backtracked a few hundred yards (about 250 feet in elevation), I'd be able to climb up the west side of the canyon wall and follow it to bypass the ledge entirely. I didn't sleep easy that night with that tiny, lingering uncertainty of whether or not I'd be able to make it down in my mind. But I knew that I'd sure as hell give it a try.


Day 3 : Indian Canyon Min El.  : 1600 ft Max El. : 3000 ft
Night 3 : Base of Indian Canyon El. Gain : 400 ft El. Loss : 1800 ft

Backtracking the quarter mile or so wasn't fun, but once it was over, I was glad I did it. The west slope of Indian Canyon provided a way to bypass the ledge. It was steep at times, but very manageable. If you're planning on doing this trip, you should be prepared to encounter the drop-off. Unfortunately, it's not readily apparent even on a 1:24,000 topo map. The best I can do is say that it's right around 3000 feet elevation.

Once I had passed the ledge, I still had the pleasure of getting back to the bottom of the canyon. This involved some serious crawling to get under an elaborate network of tree branches (picture those trees that come to life in Lord of the Rings and ensnare and choke their victims). So, yeah, the bushwhacking was far from over. It did shift gears, however. Now I was working my way through a field of tall Cottonwoods and palms, on top of the low lying bushes and cacti. It's not all bad, though. There's an amazing diversity of colors to be seen when you poke your head up for air.

Throughout my descent-all the way from the pass to about 2400 feet elevation-I hadn't been able to find any sort of trail. So I was ecstatic when I finally managed to pick up a dirt path and stay out of the mess at the canyon floor. From this point on, I was able to avoid all the scrapes and tears and enjoy the groves of palms from a lofty distance. At around 2200 feet, right near the intersection with Deering Canyon to the west, things start to level out nicely. And with a few more hundred feet, the trail brings you into rolling swaths of sand and cacti that make you feel like you're really in the desert.

Now, it was late in the afternoon, somewhere around 3 pm. My original plan was to be hiking up Sheep Canyon early this morning. But that didn't really work out because of the backtracking and anguishing slow pace I had taken up to get through the tangles of Indian Canyon. I figured if Sheep Canyon was wide open like Borrego Palm Canyon was then I could make up for lost time and still be back to my car in time to call my parents and tell them I was safe. But if it was like Indian Canyon, I'd be hard pressed to do so. So I hiked up the start of the Sheep Canyon trail to see what the deal was. It didn't take me long to figure out that it was just as strangled by cottonwoods and cactic and the like to slow me to about a 0.5 mile per hour pace, so I turned back. That's not to say that I wouldn't have loved to see what it was like. I just didn't have the time to pull it off.

I ended up camping at a nice little spot at the Sheep Canyon Campground with a picnic table and a firepit. Seeing the Moon and Venus setting in the western sky lifted my spirits a good deal as I feasted on some tuna and rice. I decided I'd get some rest and explore the desert to the east tomorrow instead of getting swallowed by Sheep Canyon. Someday I will make it back and do the original trip I intended. And instead of planning on making it up Borrego Palm Canyon and down Indian Canyon in 1.5 days, I'll give it 3.


Day 4 : Up to Alcoholic Pass Min El.  : 600 ft Max El. : 1600 ft
Night 4 : Borrego Palm Canyon El. Gain : 1200 ft El. Loss : 1200 ft

With a long night to think about my change of plans, I was actually pretty excited when I woke up this morning. Instead of sludging through walls of thicket that opposed my every move, I'd be coasting along on perfectly smooth beds of sand. My goal was to make it up to Alcoholic Pass and see if I could find some beer or whiskey to wet my whistle. I know, pretty lame joke. But another not so funny thing was the water situation I was going to have to deal with. There wasn't a hint on my map of any seasonal streams where I was headed, so I loaded up with 5 liters of water, which I thought should be plenty for a winter day in the desert. Turns out it was just enough to keep my pee from being dark green (granted I was sweating a good bit as I was covering a lot of ground).

So with my water supply on my back, I started hiking down the sand road headed southeast. For a while I was thinking it would be nice to be driving in my car, but then the road turned from smooth sand into a barrage of multi-sized rocks. My Nissan Altima wouldn't have been too happy about that. It took me about an hour and a half to cross over the flat stretch of sand between Sheep Canyon and the mountain range to the east, and then I was on my way up a wide canyon towards Alcoholic Pass.

My mind must have been drifting or focusing too hard on the lyrics of a Paul Simon song or something (whether I like it or not, half the time I'm hiking on a solo trip I'm singing one of five or six tunes trapped in my head, and this time one of them was Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes) because I took a wrong turn up the canyon to the northwest of the one that leads to Alcoholic Pass. I was only about 200 feet below a saddle that looked like it had a good view and hungry enough that I decided I'd keep going and have lunch on the saddle. And once I got up and beheld the excellent view to the north, I was very happy I had made the mistake I did.

After getting juiced up on some instant coffee, I was ready to do some more climbing. So I quickly hopped on my way up the canyon I was aiming for in the first place. Alcoholic Pass wasn't that impressive. It's more like a potato chip shaped plateau than a pass. Still, it was cool to see the region to the northeast.

When I had had enough of the view, I started descending westward and quickly made it down some switchbacks to the flat valley floor. The rest of the day I'd spend moseying across the expansive desert and enjoying every sip of water I took. Not only because I was thirsty; each liter made my pack 2.2 lbs lighter, and that's a noticeable difference.

At around 3 pm, I could see my destination off in the distance, somewhere behind the third ridge in this picture. It's true what they say about clear desert air having a telescoping effect on distances, because it seemed so damned close. But it was probably about 7 miles and it took me every last speck of daylight to make it back to Borrego Palm Canyon. Exhausted from the long day, I set up my tent, ate dinner, and laid on the soft sand floor as I peered into the crystal clear sky above me. I knew then, and I still know now, that I'll be back to Anza Borrego in the future. It's too good to stay away.