Anza Borrego Desert California Riding and Hiking Trail

t_desertstoneNote: See this trail along with many others and their GPS maps in Sheri McGregor’s book:
Day & Overnight Hikes in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park (Day & Overnight Hikes – Menasha Ridge)

Length: Approximately 11 miles roundtrip
Configuration: Out and back
Difficulty: Strenuous
Scenery: Spring wildflowers, desert vegetation, breathtaking views of the desert valley, wildlife
Exposure: Sun
Traffic: Light to moderate
Trail surface: Sandy, rocky soil
Hiking time: 6.5 hours
Access: Free
Maps: At the Visitor Center, approximately 1 mile north of the trailhead; also on trailhead kiosk
Facilities: Public restrooms at trailhead
Special comments: Desert temperatures can be extreme-suggest fall, winter and early spring hikes. Dress in layers and bring lots of water. Not recommended for children.

In Brief
Springtime wildflowers, interesting year-round cacti and boulder formations, plentiful wildlife, and an isolated atmosphere nurturing to pleasant thoughts make this strenuous hike a
paradise for those in good physical condition.

Take Interstate 15 North to the Pala/76 exit and drive east for 33.6 miles to Highway 79. Turn left, traveling 4.1 miles to S2, where you’ll turn right and drive another 4.6 miles to Montezuma Valley Road (commonly called the "Montezuma Highway"). Turn left. Drive approximately 14 miles to the trailhead on the left, which sits about a mile above the Visitor Center.

From the trailhead staging area, move generally southwest toward the mountains, starting on a flat wash of sandy soil through desert chaparral spotted with cholla cactus. Also
present, <b>Ocotillo</b> reaches heavenward with its spiny arms bedecked with lipstick red blooms. Less than a mile in, you’ ll come to a split in the trail. Head left (the right-hand route will take you to Maidenhair Falls), and the trail narrows, beginning its zigzagging ascent.

Steady climbing becomes a constant, up through boulder outcroppings baked brown by the desert sun and heat. In the early mornings, and later on cold winter days, the fog-filled valleys open in the distance, giving an otherworldly feel to the hike.

HedgehogAs the trail’s elevation rises, the ocotillo plants thin, leaving <b>Hedgehog</b> and cholla cacti as surrounding mainstays. Some cactus varieties are short and stout. Others are taller and lined in protective spines the size of toothpicks (be careful). With your mind free of citified clutter and stress, let your imagination go, finding animals and <b>other shapes</b> within the cactus and rock formations – – -nature likes to have fun, and so should you!

amusing formationsAround 3 miles up, you’ll descend a little on rocky trail, continue uphill for awhile, and reach a flat wash area – – – welcome after climbing. Watch for big horn sheep on the mountainsides. Well-camouflaged, they aren’t easily spotted. You’re more likely to see their tracks near the trail, which prove the elusive creatures share this desolate space. You might
also see bobcat tracks (or perhaps get a glimpse of one of the cats, more likely in early morning or evening hours). Low-flying quail skitter by in large groups startled by your presence. On a recent hike, a kangaroo rat hopped off, its furry hind feet and bushy tail a flashing glimpse among the rockscape.

Past the wash, continue climbing. Wide steps of flat ground and trail offer restful meanderings between gains in elevation as you hike along. Towering boulder groupings on either side of the route all begin to look alike as you head continually upward. Don’t search for trail markers, which become virtually non-existent past about two miles. The trail, however, isn’t
difficult to follow from the valley up; although people starting near Pena Springs to head downward often report difficulty in locating the descending route. Roadrunners hop among the rocks, their long tail feathers flicking up and down, balance ballasts for their quick movement up the rocks.

The short viewpoint trail to the Culp Valley Overlook comes as a surprise when you finally reach it. Marked by a sign on the left and with a yellow-topped California Riding &amp; Hiking Trail pole on the right, you can’t miss it. There is no denying that the view is spectacular, but having enjoyed the approximate six-mile journey through desolate landscape that allows one to escape civilization, the overlook can be anti-climactic. The Pena Springs pullout, which leads just half a mile from Montezuma Highway up to the overlook, is often busy, urging hikers who’ve spent the last three or four hours with quiet, nature-nurtured thoughts to head back down the mountain and its solitude. Be sure to enjoy views of the valley as you descend.

The hike up might have logically seemed the more difficult trek – – – but your body may tell you otherwise at the end of the day. Descending on the sometimes steep narrow trail lined with cacti means putting on the brakes, and in gusty desert winds, requires attention to every step. Your lower legs, tendons, and toes may backtalk later. The concentration needed to navigate the downward trail also tires the mind. Once at home, a hot soak and a fluffy pillow pave the way to a good night’s sleep – – – dreaming of your next visit to the Anza Borrego Desert State Park.