At more than 600,000 acres, San Diego County's Anza-Borrego Desert State Park (www.http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=638) is chock full of opportunities to amaze one's senses and challenge one's stamina. Among the hundreds of hiking options is the popular Palm Canyon Trail (http://parks.ca.gov/?page_id=25225), a hike through rocky hills and desert washes to a surprisingly sudden trickling stream and, at the very end, a lush, shady oasis of rushing water and palms.
Be sure to wear light clothing in layers (absolutely no black, navy or brown), sunglasses, a wide-brimmed hat, sturdy hiking books and high socks. Make sure to bring sunscreen and reapply regularly, as the entire trail receives direct sun. Hikers should carry at least one gallon of water per person, more if possible.
Parents be warned: Children may tire easily far before the Palm Oasis can be reached. Make a plan for who will take the tired ones back to the parking lot in the event some of you need to turn back. Single hikers should register the time of their departure and expected return with rangers at the Anza-Borrego Visitor's Center, in case assistance must be rendered in the event of an emergency.
Visitors who elect not to hike can enjoy the exhibits on park vegetation and wildlife, including an excellent 15-minute film, A Year in the Desert. Small children will enjoy both the pupfish pond, which provides habitat for tiny fish that originally evolved during the Ice Age, and the Desert Garden, which has countless plant species and overflows with gecko lizards and hummingbirds.
Hikers, fill your water bottles and download this article to your smart phone or wireless device and refer to it as you cross the trail marker postings along the way.
As the sun often hides behind mountains and clouds in Borrego Springs until late morning, I started the hike at 7a.m. and returned shortly before noon; I only had harsh sun for forty-five minutes on the return. Pick up a printed guide at the trail head, which narrate the fourteen trail markers along the way. you are to the oasis. Here are some of my favorite sites on the hike.
Trail Marker #2: Leaves or No Leaves?
This tall, spindly ocotillo plant's life revolves around rainstorms. After a rainfall, green leaves cover the trunks within twenty-four hours. They'll be full grown in just five days! The leaves photosynthesize sunlight to make food for the ocotillo, which produces bright red flowers. (This is the namesake plant of FIND the Red Ocotillo at The Palms at Indian Head (www.thepalmsatindianhead.com).
Trail Marker #5: Rolling Rocks and Trail Marker #6: It's Alive
Mighty flash floods (the result of cloud systems that form over the Sea of Cortez and move north), carried these boulders down from the mountain and left them here. Now, the nooks and crannies make splendid habitat for desert wildlife. Pack rats, iguanas and snakes both find shelter in these rocks and play an important part in the desert ecosystem.
If the dry terrain, sun and heat make you skeptical of the power of flash floods here, look at the following photo of my foot against one of these boulders. Can you imagine the amount and force of the water that pushed this stone down the mountain? Still think you're bigger and badder than a desert flood? (While you're thinking about that, drink some water. Drink some more before you continue.)
Mother Nature paints her rocks with thin coats of microscopic bacterial colonies. These colonial life forms absorb manganese and iron from the atmosphere, which colors the bacteria blackish red, gold and russet. To keep from dying out, they cement tiny particles of clay onto themselves, creating the brownish, russet color. The resulting desert varnish took perhaps 10,000 years to form.
Trail Marker #11: Sure Signs of Water
The palm planks over this creek bed make a good place to rest and meditate to the trickling waters, your first sign of the Borrego Palm Canyon oasis, which is only a half mile ahead. Shrubs and palms often grow along earthquake faults, where shifting geological formations allow water to bubble to the surface from springs deep below.
Trail Marker #14: Almost There…The oasis is only a few minutes ahead. Please remember, the future of this desert and other wild places lies in your hands, so please respect the ecosystem you are about to enter.
Enjoy your visit but please show respect for the plants, birds, insects, other wildlife and water you will see here. Damage to any one of them will lead to damage for the entire desert ecosystem, which is more frail and fragile than it appears.
Now step lively! Water and cool shade await!