At an elevation of 3400 feet, Culp Valley not only provides relief from scorching desert temperatures in the months when it is too hot to hike at lower elevations in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, but it also provides outstanding views of Borrego Valley and the Santa Rosa Mountains beyond. What you initially see may appear to be wilderness, only sporadically visited by tourists.
However, it is an area with a rich history of human habitation. This includes the pioneers who settled and lived here, most recently roughly for 150 years, as well as Native Americans who made homes here during the preceding 9000 years. This hike leads to areas where artifacts left by these previous residents can still be found.
Culp Valley is a designated Cultural Heritage Preserve from which nothing is to be taken. Observe and photograph the historical artifacts found here, but do not remove anything.
One of the features that made Culp Valley attractive to cattle ranchers is its many water sources.Cattle need both water and forage grass. Pioneers settled here because they found both. In addition to Pena Spring, which you will reach on this hike, there are seven other springs within a half-mile radius and another four within a mile. Some of these are intermittent, but Pena Spring is a perennial source of water. Pena Spring, Bubbling Spring, and Cottonwood Spring are three perennial springs that ranchers developed to provide water for their cattle.
Culp Valley is in the transition zone between desert and montane chaparral. Early visitors reported it had lush pastures of perennial grasses, such as deergrass and desert needlegrass. Cattlemen realized its potential for grazing. By the late 19th Century large cattle ranches had been established in Culp Valley, Ranchita, and neighboring Warner Springs. Cattlemen grazed their animals here during the spring and summer, then used an old Kumeyaay trail to move their cattle down to the Borrego Valley for the winter.
Parts of that trail still exist and became an official California Riding and Hiking Trail in the 1940s. As the state no longer maintains the riding trail, some sections have been obscured. However, the segment of this trail from Pena Spring to the Lookout is intact and easy.
Start your exploration from the Pena Spring trailhead by hiking one of the use trails that heads down a sandy tributary of the South Fork of Hellhole Canyon. In 0.4 mile, you will find a lush thicket of shrubs and trees surrounding the spring. These include western cottonwoods, several species of willow, Parish’s goldeneye, desert baccharis, mule-fat, Gander’s cholla, and many others. Narrow use paths extend into the thicket. Exploring these paths will lead you to small surface pools, where you can find a tiny floating aquatic fern, the Pacific mosquito fern (Azolla filiculoides). When present in large numbers, it turns the surface of the pool green. The good herb, yerba mansa, often surrounds these small pools.
You also should look for a pipe that Charlie Paroli drove into the spring to direct a flow of water into a wooden trough for his cattle. The Parolis named the spring for their daughter, Pena. Also look at the boulders surrounding the spring where you will find round depressions ground into the stone. These are morteros, grinding holes used by the Kumeyaay to prepare acorns, grass, and mesquite seeds for their meals.
Although you can explore the spring, don’t drink the water without treating it.
When you are ready to move on, hike back up the way you came until you reach a trail crossing the path to the spring, marked with a yellow CRHT sign marking the California Riding and Hiking Trail. Go left (east) on the trail. It leads uphill for about a quarter of a mile before leveling off on top of a ridge covered with California juniper, desert apricot, sugar bush, Gander’s cholla, and other chaparral species. In about another half mile you come to a signed junction with a trail going down to the Culp Valley Campground while another short trail leads northeast a few hundred yards to Lookout Point. The views from the point are spectacular, looking down nearly 3000 feet to Borrego Springs and across the Borrego Valley to the Santa Rosa Mountains.
When ready, head down the trail to the Culp Valley Primitive Campground. As its name informs you, it is a primitive camp. There are no designated campsites, no facilities other than vault toilets, and no water. However, if you come prepared, it is easy to find a quiet, relatively private spot tucked into the scattered large boulders for your tent or small RV.
The campground trail is a flat gravel path suitable for wheelchair use. Follow it down to the campground and then meet the road leading to the highway. Follow it back to your vehicle.
While you are in Culp Valley, you will want to visit the Paroli Homesite. Upon reaching your vehicle, drive back to the highway and continue toward Borrego Springs for 1.1 miles where you will find the Old Culp Valley Road branching off to the right. Drive west on this relatively smooth dirt road for 0.5 mile to the designated Paroli Homesite parking area on your right. Previously, camping was permitted at the homesite. Although several websites still refer to this area as the Paroli Homesite Campground, camping is no longer allowed. Also, you can no longer drive to the actual site, so park and begin the short (0.2 mile) hike south on a dirt road to the old homestead. Many artifacts were taken from the site before it was designated a cultural preserve, but a few remain, including a spring and cement troughs used for watering cattle. In the 1980s, a Boy Scout Troup added a picnic table and an interpretative sign to the site.
Driving Directions: From the junction of highways S-2 and S-22 — the Montezuma highway/grade, drive east 9.3 miles past the small community of Ranchita to a dirt road going left. The dirt road forks within a few hundred yards of the highway, with the road to the right leading to the Culp Valley Primitive Campground. Take the branch to the left, which ends in 0.5 mile at the Pena Springs Trailhead. Directions for the other two trails are in the text above. Hiking length: 2.5 miles out and back, following three short trails. Allow 2 hours.
Difficulty: Easy to moderate. Elevation gain/loss: 500 feet.
Other notes: Leashed dogs and bicycles only allowed on vehicle roads — not on hiking trails. One of the three trails is designated an All-Access Trail with handicapped parking at the Culp Valley Primitive Campground.