Distance (round-trip)

5 mi

Time

2.5 hrs

Elevation Gain

900 ft

Season

Spring
Fall
Winter

Weather

A short hike from the hot, dry desert flat into a narrow canyon and to a hidden waterfall oasis, full of mosses, vines, and trees. A surreal arid experience that is not to be missed if you’re in Anza-Borrego.

I picked up my hiking / camping compatriots around 6:30AM on Saturday and started the drive down in the pre-vacactioner open freeways. The journey was uneventful, but man – no matter how many times I drive through California, I’m always surprised with just how incredibly rural it gets when you start leaving the cities. Not even 90 minutes outside of Los Angeles, you start hitting towns under 10,000 people. Closer to the park, even less – we passed through a few towns and unincorporated villages with less than 200 people … one such town’s city limit sign read “population: 197 friendly people, 2 or 3 grouches.”

We eventually arrived at the park’s entrance and descended from the lush coastal ranges down into the desert, taking some time to check out the visitor center to bug some of the rangers with questions … like “what trails are the least crowded on holidays?” and “which of the dirt roads won’t destroy my Honda Accord?”

We discovered Anza-Borrego has what is probably the most liberal set of park rules anywhere — at least, of the places we’d seen in California. Hiking off-trail is permitted, there are no entrance fees, camping at primitive campgrounds is also free, and if that doesn’t work, you’re allowed to camp anywhere in the park as long as your car is a full length off the road. All they want you to do is keep your fires in metal containers, and that’s pretty much it.

So we got information on the invitingly-named Hellhole Canyon, went outside, and promptly took off in the wrong direction. Hey, the desert is confusing sometimes. We made the best of it and scrambled up a short “warm-up trail” to a low peak before heading back to the car to get to the trailhead.

Although some maps may show a cross-country trail leading from the visitor’s center to Hellhole Canyon, I don’t recommend this route unless you have orienteering experience – specifically experience in desert terrain. The ground is flat and stretches out for miles, and there are no standout landmarks to clue you in on your target canyon. Instead, hop back in your car and drive back out on the Montezuma Highway. You’ll see a marked trailhead on your right for the California Riding and Hiking Trail. Get out here, and keep straight when the CRHT takes a left-fork into the mountains. This will take you toward Hellhole Canyon and Maidenhair Falls.

The first section of the trail winds its way through your standard low desert scrubland. Not necessarily much to look at, although we were treated to a few scattered blooming yucca plants and ocotillo cacti. That’s one of the things I really like most about the desert – there is actually a lot of color and diversity going on, you just have to keep your eyes open for it.

As the canyon walls closed in on us from either side, the trail started following a shallow, broad wash imprinted in the sand. The boulders that washed down from previous rainstorms let us break up the monotony with some light scrambling, and we eventually reached the first oasis. Basically a small group of two or three short palm trees and some brush, it merely encouraged us to keep hiking further into the canyon.

We started seeing a small trickle of water in the wash before the second oasis, and the plant and wildlife increased dramatically. Thicker palms, ferns and vines huddled around both sides of the stream, just a few feet away from the crackling desert. I spotted a kingsnake under some rocks we were hiking across, and we let it pass undisturbed.

Further in the second oasis, we found a small trickle of water slipping through a crack in a boulder. The water was cool and the shade was a nice relief, so we took a few minutes to stand beneath the stream. I accidentally stepped in the pool, but my soaked boot dried out in less than a minute. That dry air sucks the moisture out of anything.

As we climbed up onto a larger boulder to continue the trail, we ran into a middle-aged man sitting next to a sizable radio/GPS unit. He asked if we’d seen the bighorn sheep on the ridge but, unfortunately, we did not. He gave us a few tips for the trail, and seemed to know every step by heart. When Will asked how many times he’d done the trail, he casually replied “oh, probably a few hundred times.”

Turns out he was a wandering naturalist studying the bighorn sheep in the canyons nearby, but as soon as I heard the phrase “wandering naturalist,” I was sold. We sat and talked for a little while, talking about the park’s sheep and the hidden waterfall in Hellhole Canyon. As you know, I’m a sucker for history on my hikes, but it turns out a biology/geology combo works just fine, too.

So we got our learn on and continued a short hike up the trail to the waterfall and third oasis. The tree cover here was lush, and provided lots of cool shade. The water sprinkled in a steady stream into a shallow pool, and the canyon walls were covered with moss and vines.

While we were only a few hundred yards from the desert, this tiny oasis felt like a world away. It definitely reminded me more of hikes in the Oregon forests than any of the other desert trails I’ve done. We took advantage of the scene, removed off our shoes and relaxed, listening to the gentle sounds of the falling water, gently puncturing the desert silence.

Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Modern Hiker, Author of "Day Hiking Los Angeles," Walking Meditator, Native Plant Enthusiast.





Camping

Water Features

Trail Map

10 Comments

Mike N. Mar 12, 2017 10:03In reply to: Cristin

From the Anza-Borrego SP website: "Dogs are not allowed cross-country or on hiking trails."
http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=638

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Cristin Jul 8, 2015 01:07

Is this one pup friendly? Looks amazing!

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Chelsea Apr 1, 2015 14:04

I've been to Anza-Borrego State Park numerous times yet have not heard of this hike so thanks so much for providing me with a hike to add to the bucket list! you're also right in that this is reminiscent of an Oregon hike rather a hike in the middle of the desert.

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Stig Mar 26, 2013 11:03In reply to: Casey Schreiner

Excellent, thanks!

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Casey Schreiner Mar 25, 2013 20:03In reply to: Stig

They're both pretty great but Hellhole will probably be less crowded.

You should check at the visitor center to see if any areas have good wildflower blooms - the low desert is starting to show around now!

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Stig Mar 25, 2013 20:03In reply to: Angela

Heading out to the park in a week and most likely want to check out either this or the borrego palm canyon. which do you prefer?

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Angela Jun 10, 2011 16:06

Update on my 10-mile hike to Bridge to Nowhere and bungee jump last April. Hike was a bit challenging due to river's almost armpit-high water level (I'm 5'2"). Overall, SOO MUCH FUN! :)

Anza-Borrego State Park is next. We'll be going there tomorrow. I called the visitor center to ask if heat is still safe for hikers. At 94F, they said it's still doable. ;) Exciting!

Again, thanks for posting another informative review.

Have a memorable summer!

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Hellhole Canyon Trail to Maindenhair Falls | Anza-Borrego Desert State Park | Hikespeak.com Apr 6, 2011 21:04

[...] Hellhole Canyon Trail to Maindenhair Falls on mho.dev [...]

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Tom Mar 11, 2011 10:03

I'm headed out Anza-Borrego State park to camp in about an hour! This was a great write up. Most of what I have been reading about hiking in the park was about the Borrego Palm Canyon Trail (its the only trail even listed on on their website!). I'll be up there a couple of days and will check out this trail too! Sounds like a good variety for the desert!

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Hiking Borrego Palm Canyon | Modern Hiker Nov 29, 2009 12:11

[...] in Anza-Borrego State Park. But, even if you’ve already been down the similar oasis trail in Hellhole Canyon, Borrego Palm Canyon is definitely worth a stop on your [...]

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