The best place to visit accessible desert palm groves in the southern Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is Mountain Palm Springs, found at the foot of the Tierra Blanca Mountains. Six oases with well-established trees provide shade for hikers and a nice respite for wildlife with intermittent streams of water. The palms are remnants from a time before there was a desert, when the climate could accommodate more tropical plants.
With a large leaf surface exposed to the sun and a short root system, the native Washington fan palm is an unlikely desert plant with its rapid rate of water evaporation and its dependence on water. However, an underground water source close to the surface allows the roots to sit in water while the thick palm frond shag coat provides insulation to keep the tree cool in the hot sun. The shag is also perfect for nesting verdin and owls. The groves provided a sheltered home for the early Kumeyaay Indians who collected palm fruit and used palm leaves for construction material and fiber to make baskets. Several grinding areas are near the groves.
The approach to the trailhead from S-2 is up a well-drained alluvial fan with a rich desert scrub community consisting of several varieties of cactus, ocotillo, creosote, burro bush, and desert holly. Honey mesquite is in the canyon drainage.
The most popular hike is a loop of almost 2.5 miles that visits four groves, starting from an interpretive panel at the trailhead. Shortly after starting the hike is Pygmy Grove, on the north side of the trail with almost 40 trees, many with burned skirts and trunks from a fire but very much alive with new seedlings in the grove. The surrounding hillsides are covered with tall barrel cactus and occasional milkweed. Encelia and krameria are found along the trail.
The trail curves to the left and then back to the right, following a ridge west that leads to Southwest Grove with well over 100 trees. This grove is about half-a-mile from the beginning trailhead. If hikers want to extend this loop hike by a mile, they can follow the well-marked trail up the steep ridge to the south another half-mile to Torote Bowl, where several elephant trees are found.
Across from the Torote Bowl trail sign is a narrow and rather obscure trail that climbs a ridge on the north side next to a tagged elephant tree. This is the Surprise Grove trail, which drops into the next canyon after a little more than a half-mile hike. Surprise Grove has over 30 trees. Up-canyon less than a half-mile from Surprise Grove is Palm Bowl, tucked into a large mesquite-filled bowl with well over 50 trees. Retrace your way back to Surprise Grove and follow the canyon down another half-mile to the junction with a canyon leading north to North Grove and Mary’s Grove. The 2.5-mile loop hike turns right and heads back to the parking area and trailhead that is clearly visible.
By turning to the left or north at the junction of Surprise Canyon, another mile is added to the hike. North Grove is visible from the junction and from the trailhead. The wind has knocked down many of the palm fronds that can be slick to walk on, so use caution. There are about 20 trees strewn in this narrow canyon. The climb becomes steep and rocky as one continues on to Mary’s Grove, where there are over 30 trees in scattered groupings. Hike back down-canyon to return to your vehicle.
Distance from downtown San Diego: Allow 2 hours’ driving time. (Anza-Borrego Desert State Park) From I-8, exit on S2 at Ocotillo. Go northwest on S2 for about 15 miles to the signed Mountain Palm Springs Campground entrance and follow a short dirt road to the campground. From North County, drive to Julian and follow S78 west about 12 miles to the junction with S2. Turn south and drive 30 miles to the entrance of Mountain Palm Springs. Facilities available at the campground.
Hiking length: 2.5 miles loop. Add a mile to include a hike to Torote Bowl and/or a mile to include North Grove and Mary’s Grove.
Difficulty: Easy to moderate; Elevation change up to 500 feet.
Canyoneers are San Diego Natural History Museum volunteers trained to lead interpretive nature walks that teach appreciation for the great outdoors. For a schedule of free public hikes: