Spring here in Southern California means it’s a season to enjoy wildflowers although it also means that it starts getting warm. And for me, it was time for an Anza-Borrego Ocotillo hike. Since last time when I hiked Villager, Ocotillo had been one of the reasons why I wanted to go back to Santa Rosa Mountains/Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. And I went, and I got what I wanted to capture! Ocotillos were blossoming like fireworks!
HOW TO GET TO HELLHOLE CANYON TRAILHEAD
If you’re coming from the Greater Los Angeles area, or the west side of Riverside for this Anza-Borrego Ocotillo hike, it is very likely that you will take I-15 to CA-79 S/Temecular Pkwy. You want to continue on CA-79 S till you meet S-2 and make sure to get on S-22/Montezuma Valley Rd.
You will drive through a small town called Ranchita. Once you’re through, you will drive the windy road down to exit the mountain range and then find the unpaved parking lot on your left for the trail right before you enter the town of Borrego Springs.
If you are coming from the east side of Riverside, it’d be logical to take I-10 E or W, depending on which direction you’re coming from, and then take CA-86 S to Borrego Salton Sea Way in Salton City, following signs for Brawley/El Centro/865 Expy. Once you hit Borrego Salton Seaway (Palm Canypon Rd/S-22), turn right to take that to Montezuma Valley Rd. The parking lot will be on your right after 31 or so miles.
Although we were coming from Lake Elsinore area where we carpooled, we drove past the trail parking lot and through Borrego Springs because our plan was to spend a night at Arroyo Salado Campground. It is one of the best spots to enjoy a starry night.
Note: The temperature was just perfect at night. However, the clouds were hanging over the desert as it continued to be partially overcast. It didn’t give me the clearest night sky that I wanted.
The following is the map showing where Arroyo Salado Campground is. You may want to check out the Villager hike to see how I spent a short night at the campground.
Of course, you can camp at one of many other campgrounds nearby, and Culp Valley Campground is also a good option, which I also considered. In fact, one of the trails that starts from Hellhole Canyon trailhead goes up to this campground with 2,675 ft elevation gain. You may want to bring two vehicles and shuttle between the two while hiking up or down.
Note: Both campgrounds that I mentioned above do not require permit to camp. Although they are primitive campgrounds, there’s a restroom facility. They may be good options to consider if you do not wish to pay a fee.
WHEN TO DO ANZA-BORREGO OCOTILLO HIKE
Late fall through early Spring. Especially, early spring hikes are popular because of wildflowers, including Ocotillo, which was my main subject on this photography hike. However, it is desert and gets really hot during day, make sure to check the temperatures before heading out.
We were expecting showers and rain over the weekend while planning this Anza-Borrego Ocotillo hike and knew there was either a period of no rain or of light showers, so we specifically went for the window frame of Friday night/Saturday morning.
Also, another option is to head out there in the late afternoon, spend a night and leave early before it gets hot. In fact, there was a camper doing just that while we were there. We saw a camper already settled at a site when we arrived at the campground, and the camper was gone by 8 am.
ITEMS YOU MUST BRING
- Plenty of water (2L or more) – Definitely more if it is a hot day. There’s no shade
OUR ANZA-BORREGO OCOTILLO HIKE
Our Anza-Borrego Ocotillo hike started at Hellhole Canyon Trailhead after taking it easy early in the morning. Although it was partially sunny and was a bit warm at first, as we started hiking up the trail, the sun eventually hid behind the rain clouds and didn’t come out often, which made our Anza-Borrego Ocotillo hike a very pleasant experience.
This rather large, unpaved parking lot is a starting point for two major trails – Hellhole Canyon Trail and Riding & Hiking Trail. The latter goes up to Culp Valley Campground.
The first is a round trip hike of about 5.6 miles. And with the latter hike, you can turn it into a round-trip 11 mile hike or can shuttle back to where you plan to start from. Especially with the elevation gain of 2,685 ft in the heat, maybe it is not a bad idea to do it as just a one-way hike. Of course, it all depends on what time you start.
If you’d like to check out the stats and interactive track of this hike, you can take a look at the published track of my Hellhole Canyon Trail Hike on Gaia GPS. You can also download .gpx file from there.
We decided to hike Hellhole Canyon Trail and to see how the weather holds up.
Because we spent the night at Arroyo Salado Campground, we were already seeing some Ocotillos. However, they were rather scarce and it seemed like we missed their blossom season. Fallen petals were scattered on the ground below the plants. We were hopeful but also didn’t like what we saw.
Then, we got encouraged at the visitor center in Borrego Springs when we were told that wildflowers were pretty much gone but Ocotillo and cactus flowers blossoming.
This Anza-Borrego Ocotillo hike was a short hike with landscape (and Ocotillo) photography in mind. I’ve done a slow paced Spring wildflower hike in Wind Wolves Preserve but this time I literally took time, minutes and minutes, taking photos at any given spot. Especially when the weather was cooperating like it did and the trail was quite short (2.8 miles one way), I wanted to take as much time as I wanted while capturing Ocotillos blossoming in this amazing landscape setting.
Along with Engelmann’s Hedgehog Cactus, Cholla Cactus, aka jumping cholla, or the hanging chain cholla, was everywhere, which reminded me of Cholla Cactus Garden in Joshua Tree National Park. You can take a peek at the photos here.
If you’d like to want to know where Cholla Cactus Garden in Joshua Tree National Park is, check out the following map.
Our Anza-Borrego Ocotillo hike consisted of short walks at various and yet slow pace and a lot of stops on Hellhole Canyon Trail.
We tarted seeing the Ocotillos blossomed quite nicely pretty earlier on. Especially in the beginning part of the trail we noticed that their stems were covered with a certain amount of green leaves, which was an indication that these plants were growing a lot closer to the water source than the ones that we saw near Arroyo Salado Campground.
The color of the flowers was vivid red, like I had seen them in Google search. It is very strange and yet fascinating to see such a bright, vibrant and live color in the dry land of nothing but dirt, rocks and bushes.
Besides Ocotillo flowers, the thing that caught our attention was Buckhorn Cholla Cactus’s flowers. These bright yellowish green flowers were blossoming in full swing! Little insects were busy collecting nectar inside them!
Of course, some Ocotillo flowers were barely hanging in there. The leaves were pretty much gone, leaving its skeletal stems naked in pale brown.
With the backdrop of the barren land of bushes and mostly short cacti in the company of desert hills, it was quite impressive to witness they were still alive. Of course, the water source may be near, but little did I know that these Ocotillos can survive on almost little water.
Another plant that drew our attention was these short, and some tall, red Barrel Cactus.
Some had not blossomed yet while we were there. But the one that we saw here already had its moment. It was rather disappointing that we didn’t see any Barrel Cactus flowers blossoming.
Then, we came across this rock pile.
It was quite amusing to see a sign reading,
They didn’t bring enough water.
However, it is true that it gets really hot when the sun is out. We were really glad that we picked this day to do a casual, slow paced photography hike. It is a good reminder though that one should bring enough water if is a hot day.
If you look at the track recorded with Gaia GPS, you will see that the stopped time on this Anza-Borrego Ocotillo hike was more than 2 1/2 hours. Of course, we stopped to take short breaks here and there, but also we spent a lot of time taking photos. In some cases I was simply standing idle while taking long exposure photos.
As going deeper into the canyon, we were quite pleasantly surprised by how healthy these Ocotillos were. The stems were completely covered with green leaves, and they stood tall. They were full of life.
And with such an overloaded green backdrop, the bright and vibrant red flowers simply popped.
If you don’t know much about Ocotillo, it is a plant that has many names, such as coachwhip, candlewood, slimwood, desert coral, Jacob’s staff, Jacob cactus, and vine cactus. After rain in Spring, its stems get covered with ovate leaves and the flowers remain blossomed for weeks, and sometimes for months.
As tall as we saw them, these plants can grow up to 33 ft high and each stem can grow almost 2 inches in diameter. Because the stems are hard, some use these plants as fence poles, as in a live fence.
And fresh flowers can be collected for salads. That is something that I was wondering about. Are they edible? And apparently they are when they are freshly blossomed.
Here in the deeper side of the canyon, these Ocotillo stems were fully covered with green leaves and were decorated with popping red flowers. I couldn’t be more happier seeing them like that and taking photos of them!
One should be very careful with these Cholla Cacti when he/she walks in this land. This minefield of Cholla Cactus can easily explode in any given moment if he/she doesn’t pay attention! Not only does it stick to any surface, like Velcro, but also it never lets go once its needles get stuck, such as skin. These sharp needles really sting and don’t let go of anything that they’re stuck on. It’s not easy to pull them off!
I remember this cactus bomb went off at my ankle while hiking Goat Canyon to Trestle. Take a look. I can’t imagine how bad it would have been if I wasn’t wearing a gaiter that day.
Engelmann’s hedgehog cactus, aka the strawberry hedgehog cactus, was blossomed with its bright magenta flowers. These were so bright that they caught my eye even 20 feet away.
On this Anza-Borrego Ocotillo hike we saw many tiny insects and even humming birds, but this California Patch (Chlosyne Californica) butterfly stood out with its bright orange wings and black stripes.
These were a lot smaller than the most common Tiger Swallowtail butterfly in San Gabriel mountains or Monarch butterfly spotted in Wind Wolves Preserve, but they certainly add a character to this barren land of nothing but desert plants and dirt and rocks. I bet the importance of this butterfly is quite high in this part of the ecological world.
As we were getting close to the end of the trail, we took a path that turned out to be a not so frequently travelled part of the trail and ended up gaining elevation and at a place where we looked down farther into the canyon.
And there were palm trees! We read earlier at the trailhead that there would be a palm grove and that some may find 20 ft hidden waterfalls, but we didn’t realize how lush this area actually was.
We didn’t get to find the hidden waterfalls because we decided to turn around there. It looked like more rain clouds were rolling in.
However, what got me excited about at that moment was the view of Santa Rosa Mountains in the far distance. And I could see Villager Peak. Of course, it wasn’t like we didn’t see it from the trailhead, but looking at the peak from there gave it a different perspective.
We were not high enough to see Rabbit Peak, but Villager Peak rose over the canyon hill on the left side and was clearly visible.
After enjoying the view and a bit of break, we started heading back before rain would arrive. Besides, I couldn’t take any more photos due to the fact that all three of my camera batteries (one Canon battery and two STK Canon batteries) were completely dead, so our walk back to the trailhead was quite swift.
The rain finally caught up with us when we were driving through Ranchita as if it were on cue. It was a short but heavy downpour. And it was quite refreshing. California needs a lot more of that.
Have you hiked Hellhole Canyon Trail? Have you hiked any other trails in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park? How was your experience? Are you planning to go out there this coming weekend? It’s getting warm for sure, but you may get to enjoy the sights of all the blossoming Ocotillo flowers because they are blossoming quite nicely right now! Share your experience if you go.
Thanks for reading.