Hellhole Canyon

Spring in the desert is a magical time. When the rains are good (it takes an inch of rain to start the germination process), an eagerness begins to build in my hiking plans. I know I have to get to Borrego and watch the show unfold.

If that first inch of rain comes early, sometime in October or early November, my attention is definitely piqued. I look almost daily at weather forecasts for follow-up storms. A good spring show in the desert is conditional. The first condition is that early 1 inch, but there needs to be follow-up rain or the plants never get big and do not last long.

So, this is a story of a good year. There are 2 favorite spots in Borrego that are easy to get to, Palm Canyon and Hellhole Canyon. This year there had been so much rain that Palm Canyon was closed due to wash out conditions in several areas. I would arrive at the Ranger check in booth, after the 1 ½ hour drive, only to be told multiple times that the trail was still closed. So, each time I headed over to Hellhole Canyon.

Now let me say right off that I do not consider either trail to be superior to the other. It’s just that in my early hiking and plant hunting days I started at Palm Canyon and so as a creature of habit that’s where I usually start my spring desert hikes.

Hellhole Canyon is only about 10 minutes away by car from Palm Canyon. It is just off of Hwy S22, Montezuma Valley Rd. Parking is on the right just before the road begins to climb out of the valley.

My first hikes into the desert begin in late February. By this time the annuals have just started to bloom. You will not see everything this early, but I like to watch the season unfold. Hellhole Canyon and Palm Canyon are low in elevation near the bottom of Borrego Valley. The lower elevations warm up first so that’s where to start.

Surrounding the parking area are islands of shrubs separated by gravelly open spaces.  In these islands we find Catclaw Acacia, Cheesebush, Creosote Bush a few Ocotillo, Ganders Cholla Cactus, Indigo Bush, Burrobush and some Brittlebush.  The Indigo Bush is the last to leaf out so they are leafless in February while the others are in various stages of leafing out.  There is a use trail located near a sign (No Dogs, No Horses, No Bikes) that leads to the main trail which heads up a very wide wash.  The larger shrubs dotting the gravelly plain act as nurseries for the spring annuals.  You will find Common Phacelia, Fiddlenecks and Popcorn Flowers rising up through the branches of these mostly summer deciduous plants.

In this very wet year the gravelly ground between the desert shrubs is clothed in green.  This is not grass but rather an annual called Slender Pectocarya.  It’s a really unusual site to see the desert floor and hillsides so green.  In dryer years there is much less of the Slender Pectocarya and large numbers of the white flowered Fremont’s Pincushion fill the area.

Once on the wider main trail Creosote Bush with its small dark green leaves and yellow flowers dominate the island shrub areas.  There are some interesting views as we head up the wash.  On the right is Indian Head which overlooks the entrance to Palm Canyon.  You can really see the facial features from this vantage point.  On the left desert hillsides are today clothed in green.  And straight ahead, far into the canyon I can see the snow topped peak of San Ysidro Mountain (of course only in a wet year).  At 6147’ it is the 7th highest peak in San Diego County.

Soon you reach a trail junction with the California Hiking and Riding Trail.  This trail cuts across the County.  It has come down the ridge on the left and heads towards Palm Canyon campground. Just past the junction, on the left, is red flowered Chuparosa a 3’ shrub with succulent stems and small green leaves.  Continuing the trail heads towards the low hillsides on the left.  The beautiful Desert Lavender appears on the right with clouds of pale lavender and white flowers.  Just as the trail touches the low hillside it veers to the right.  Soon Desert Agave with its blue-grey leaves and towering spikes of yellow flowers joins us.

I begin to see more annuals under and around the shrubs and covering the ground between them. Many are forming buds and a few more show a few flowers. The lovely Brown-eyed Evening Primrose has started. There will be a lot of this in a few weeks. A few yellow Desert Dandelions dot the area and these also will be in profusion soon. Along the hillside where a little shade helps, White Fiesta Flower climbs through the shrubs.

The trail reaches a wide open, very sandy area, veer a little to the right. There is a sign here advising hikers to carry lots of water. Indeed, that’s a really good idea.

A second variety of Cholla Cactus, Bigelow’s Cholla is on the right.  These begin to outnumber Ganders Cholla up ahead.  The spiky stems are bright with white spines.  Lower on the ground look for Engelmann’s Hedgehog Cactus and the flat pads of Beavertail Cactus both with purple flowers.

As the season progresses the open areas between the larger shrubs also begin to color up with a dizzying area of carpet forming wild flowers. The diminutive and bright yellow Wallace’s Woolydaisy, deep pink Bigelow’s Monkeyflower, white Mojave Desert Star and the purple-pink Desert Purple Mat color the ground.

Like the diminutive flowers on the ground the larger shrubs are beginning to leaf out, form flower buds and start their spring time show.  They are sparse as they come out of summer dormancy.  The narrow red flowers of Chuparosa are the first to show color.  Next Desert Lavender, one of the taller shrubs (to 6’ or more) brings airy clouds of small lavender colored flowers and gray scented leaves.  Brittlebush, one of the most prolific and showy plants in the desert sends up myriads of buds on narrow stems that will burst out into large, bright yellow daisies.  When the Brittlebush is in full flower the desert trails are magical.

The trail swings back left, continuing to follow the edge of the hillside.  Here the plants are more on display, one higher on the bank than the other.  Look for yellow flowered Mojave Ragwort, blue purple Parish’s Desert Larkspur and if you are lucky some lighter blue Desert Woolly Star.  Also, the shrubby rich green mounds of yellow flowered California Trixis and White Sage with glistening grey white leaves.  Just as the trail veers left from the hillside a fine specimen of Jojoba greets us on the left with mid green evergreen leaves and yellow flowers.  A valuable oil is produced from the nuts which form on female plants.

Slowly the wide wash begins to narrow and boulders appear lining the trail.  The dramatic upright and pole like, thorny branches of Ocotillo frame the trail view.  The thick cane like branches are leafless most of the year but winter rains quickly brings on a cloak of small green leaves.  Mixed with the Ocotillo is Bigelow’s Cholla (now outnumbering Ganders Cholla).

The wash continues to narrow while the trail slowly gains elevation.  Soon a low rock ridge appears on the right.  This is a very colorful area with great displays of wild flowers on the rocky slope of the low ridge.  Drifts of blue-purple California Bluebells, yellow Parish’s Poppy, more, deep pink Bigelow’s Monkeyflower and patches of mid-yellow Whispering Bells clothe the brief hillside.  I take a lot of pictures here.

On the left side of the trail more bright green mounds of California Trixis highlight the dry rocky path.  Also, on the left is Desert Trumpet a perennial whose upright flower stems have inflated sections just before branching.

Now we head straight into the Canyon with the trail winding through the boulder field.  On the ground there are many deep red patches of Red Gland Spurge.  More Barrel Cactus rise up between the rocks.  The white flowers of Desert Four O’clock are beginning to open (like all Four O’clock the flowers open in early morning and late in the afternoon).  There is Parish’s Goldeneye, a rounded shrub with triangular green leaves and large yellow daisy flowers.

A 5-6’ high rocky point comes in on the right and it is filled with Newberry’s Velvet Mallow, a narrowly upright shrub with light yellowish-green hairy leaves and pale pink flowers.  It’s unusual to see so many plants in one area.

Chuparosa and Brittlebush take charge of the main display here.

We arrive at the first major crossing of the sandy stream bed that comes out of the canyon.  Dropping right the wide sandy trail continues on the other side along the edge of the wash.  Look for Coulter’s Lupine in the deep sandy soil.

There are 3 more crossings of this deep gravelly dry stream bed. Ahead you can see the first California Fan Palms.

Just after the 4th crossing look for Thick Leaved Ground Cherry on the left.  This small-scale perennial, to 2’, has thick fleshy leaves and mid-yellow flowers.  Then while climbing between boulders Apricot Mallow with its bright orange flowers and hairy, velvety leaves appears.  Quickly San Felipe Dogweed is on the right.  A rounded shrub that is often sparse in leaf (small narrow lobed leaves) and narrow flowers colored yellow to orange.  And also, our first Desert Willow is just leafing out on the right.  This medium shrub to small tree has narrow willow-like leaves and large pinkish white fragrant flowers.  The first California Sycamore is on the left with the large, shrubby, deep green leafed Desert Baccharis and purple flowered Parish’s Nightshade at its feet.

Continuing up the left side of the stream there are more San Felipe Dogweed and Desert Willow.  There is a stretch of Smooth Leaf Yerba Santa and more Apricot Mallow.  The Yerba Santa has glossy deep olive-green leaves on an open spreading shrub.  On the left hillside is Sugar Bush, a large shrub with clusters of small white flowers with red sepals.

We have come about 1 ¾ miles.  The trail across the desert wash has brought us to a narrowing canyon.  Back on the right side of the stream bottom we come to the first young California Fan Palm.  From here the trail weaves back and forth across the stream bed.  Next a cluster of 3 mature Palms arrives with a Sycamore between the 2nd and 3rd .  Right here, right on the trail is a low rock with a single mortero, a grinding hole, evidence of the ancient people who called this home.  As we cross the stream again there is flowing water and the gurgling sound delights and refreshes.

I try to stay close to the water, marveling at the life force it carries.  Look for an old iron water pipe running by the stream.  There are more Palms ahead and a series of cascades.  Many hikers confuse these cascades for the famed waterfall, but that is a little further ahead.  At the first cascade go to the right up through a narrow rock opening.  At the climax of the short climb turn sharply left and cross the stream  to the right of the center Palm.  Climb the left side hill (don’t go too high) and look to the right for a round boulder.  Go back towards the stream and skirt the right edge of the 10’ boulder.  Head for the next Palm grove staying close to the stream.

There is a large flat boulder with several morteros cut into it.  There is a sort of trail marker directly ahead with a Hedgehog Cactus perched on top of a boulder.  Just past this climb through a thicket of Desert Apricot.  We come back to the sound of the stream and more Sycamores.  There is a young Palm and several 6’ plus Desert Lavenders.  These tall shrubs have Climbing Milkweed twining through their stems.

There are many braids to the trail here as we close in on the waterfall.  I often cross over to the right side and go up around and then back left and climb up the left hillside (again not too high).  You can hear the waterfall from here.  Cross over to the right (the left side leads there also) push through some Desert Willows and the see the stream on the left.  Cross down into the water over a few stone steps to arrive at Maiden Hair Falls.

I have been so lucky to be here by myself many times.  The cascading stream, the Maiden Hair Ferns, a large scrambling Virgin’s Bower on the right, Stream Orchids in the water just behind; it’s a very special place.