Palm Canyon Backpacking Trip
Charlie was coming into town so you know what that means, a camping trip needed to be planned! We decided we wanted to do a combination backpacking and car camping trip. Being late December we knew this is one of the best times of years to be camping in the desert. We ended up deciding on going to two different desert spots that we had ventured to before but it had been at least 3 years since we had last visited either of them.
Our trip would start with a one-night backpacking trip into Palm Canyon just outside of Borrego Springs. This had been our usual backpacking spot in previous years that we had taken on new years so we felt this was very fitting.
We arrived at the trailhead; roughly 9 o'clock AM. The parking lot was just about empty. We did some last-minute packing, got our packs situated, and made sure we had plenty of water. One of our favorite parts of this hike is the stream that flows through the canyon. We have in the past and would end up filtering water from the stream this time but it is always important especially in the desert to carry too much water.
Final check of packs before hitting the trail
The hike we were about to embark on should not be too bad 1.5 miles to the oasis, our plan after that was to follow the canyon up a bit more till we found a good spot to camp. We were each carrying roughly 35 pounds on our backs so we were not expecting too much difficulty. Following a defined trail through a wash and eventually into the canyon, we set off on our adventure. Along the trail, you will find posted markers with numbers on them. These numbers correlate with descriptions found in the trail guide. They provide insights into what you are looking at and describe some of the history of the canyon and the Indians that lived in the area in the past.
Following a defined trail through a wash and eventually into the canyon. Along the trail, you will find posted markers with numbers on them. These numbers correlate with descriptions found in the trail guide. They provide insights into what you are looking at and describe some of the history of the canyon and the Indians that lived in the area in the past.
You will also find many cacti and loose rocks on the trail. Make sure to keep a sure footing and keep an eye out for the cholla cactus. Chollas are also known as "teddy bear" cactus. If you rub up against them the different limbs like to break off and hug your legs. So make sure to give them plenty of space.
Cholla (Teddy Bear) Cactus
Continuing up the trail we got to see big horned sheep. These animals can be quite elusive. This was my third time on this trail but the first time seeing sheep. The sheep are near impossible to see when they are not moving. Luckily one caught the corner of my eye as it was coming down the mountain. The only part that really stands out from the rest of the desert rocks is the white rumps of the big horned sheep. They do not seem to be scared of us at all. For good reason too their horns are huge. They were coming down from the steep mountains to graze.
After watching the sheep for 15 minutes we decided to continue our way up the trail. It was also about here that we had our first stream crossing. We were amazed at the amount of water flowing through the stream. This was definitely more than in previous years. We had received a substantial amount of rain the previous week, this definitely contributed to the higher water levels.
The water never gets too deep but the rocks can be very slippery or even move under your feet when you step on them. It is best to wear waterproof boots when doing this hike because walking across the stream is required. Due to the higher water levels, we also found ourselves at times walking through the stream itself. After the first stream crossing is also when the trail starts to become less defined. Immediately after the stream crossing is fine but about another 250 meters ahead and you may be scratching your head as to where to go.
The first creek crossing
Luckily the palm oasis should be in your sights now so all you need is some determination to get to the palms and you will find your own way there. It is worth it to make it into the palm tree grove. Make sure to look up and get a spectacular view. It is amazing to think that a desert could support a palm tree grove and that you would find so much freshwater.
It is here that we stopped for lunch. This is where a majority of the day hikers turn around. There are miles of canyon left but this first big palm oasis and the main attraction. It is also where the main trail stops. If you want to continue you are essentially blazing your own trail. You will be on your own trying to figure out which way is easiest and will get you over all the boulders. This increases the difficulty of the hike 10 fold over the previous section.
Looking up at the palm trees
Make sure the stop and enjoy the many waterfalls around the oasis. They are fun to dunk your head in or just listen to the rush of water. Enjoy the views too, looking east will give you a great view of Borrego Springs. I also thought it was fun to see how unkempt palm trees look. The palm trees are kept natural and none of the old brown fronds are sawed off. It gives them a very interesting bushy like feel. It helps to support many different forms of wildlife such as birds and insects to keep the fronds on the tree.
Charlie enjoying the views
We hiked further probably only about a 1/4 of a mile from the oasis but we found a nice spot close to the stream where we could pitch our two tents relatively close to one another. We figured why hike too much further with our heavy packs on. Let's set up camp and explore the area while we still have some sun. Note: Being in a canyon means the sun goes behind the mountains early. A little after 2 o'clock and the canyon is now in permanent shade. Nice on a desert day but also means it starts to get cold earlier than you expect. Make sure to dry any wet shoes or clothing while you can.
After getting camp set up we began to explore a bit. Jumping from rock to rock and getting up high for some good views. Now it is tons of fun jumping around the rocks and trying to get up high on the canyon. Just be very careful. It is steep and all the rocks are loose. Plenty of cacti to get in the way as well.
Above our campsite looking down on oasis
It got dark and cold quick in the canyon. Luckily for us, the low was only mid 40's previous years it has gotten into the 30s and damn that is difficult to deal with when you have no fire. I believe fires are allowed but they must be above ground in some sort of container. Also no wood gathering. All these things combined do not work well with backpacking. One of our past years we actually carried dura flame logs and had a fire in a big coffee tin but lots of extra weight for not a huge reward. We figured if we got too cold we would just huddle in our sleeping bags and call it a night.
Once it began to get dark we sat around camping talking and sharing stories. We essentially had the canyon to ourselves. The sky began to fill with stars. Looking up provided an incredible amount of stars. Living in a city I never get to see the true magnitude of the night sky. We saw shooting stars, satellites, the milky way, and a few unidentified objects. Still wondering what those were...
Hanging out at camp enjoying the canyon
Before heading to bed we decided we wanted to go on a night exploration up the canyon. We strapped on our headlamps and set off up the canyon. We tried to follow the stream as much as possible on our way up, crawling over boulders and getting our feet wet again in the stream. The night brought out some new critters that we would have never seen during the day. Our first encounter was a frog. I thought Charlie had just kicked a rocked and that why it moved away from his feet. Then it started to jump and jump. This could not be a rock but a frog!
Soon after the frog encounter, we crossed the stream and I saw something dart around in the corner of my eye. It darted under a rock, so we began to investigate. It was a desert mouse. We had spooked the poor guy, he scurried away and was never to be seen again. Our night hike was a success. We saw some critters and got to explore more parts of the canyon. One of the most notable things we saw in the canyon was the narrowing walls. As we went further up the canyon the walls became steeper and steeper.
Frog found in Palm Canyon
We woke up early, before the sunrise the next morning. We wanted to catch the sunrise and see the canyon light up. It was a spectacular sightseeing the red rocks burst with an orange light from the early morning sun.
After our early wake-up, we made breakfast and started to take down camp. We knew we did not have too far of a hike back to our cars but we wanted to get an early start so we could start part 2 of our camping trip. The Arroyo Tapiado mud caves in Anza Borrego State Park.
On our hike down to our surprise, we saw even more big horned sheep. This time we saw a herd of four. I am not sure but it seems they like to travel in groups. The day before we say two together and now we saw a group of four. The group of four was in almost the same spot as the two we had seen the previous day. It must be a popular spot for the sheep. If you are crossing the stream for the first time about a quarter-mile from the oasis and you turn to face north. This is where we saw sheep both days. Our palm canyon trip was truly great getting to see sheep both days. I could not have asked for a better trip or a better group of people to go on it with me.
The oasis is a spectacular spot. It provides an amazing look at the southern California desert. Wildlife, cacti, rocks, palm tree, water all tucked away in a beautiful canyon. If you find yourself in the area or are looking for an easy day hike or entry-level backpacking trip this is a great choice.