Hellhole Oasis in Anza Borrego

Sometimes when it’s 45 degrees and sprinkling, and you’re wearing shorts, it’s the universe trying to tell you that you should be somewhere else.  Sometimes you’re rewarded for listening.

Today’s hike was going to be up the Noble Canyon Trail.  It’s a comfortable trail for me — I know what to expect, well, at least until I arrive and it’s cold, there are a few sprinkles around, and some ominous clouds (I know…I’m from the Northwest.  Drizzly and 45 is supposed to be my prime hiking weather, but man I really want some sun today!).  It’s time to formulate a plan B — I decide to head down to the desert, maybe hike a section of the PCT, or go see what I can find in Anza Borrego State Park.  I find myself an hour later at the Anza Borrego Visitor center and decide to take on the Hellhole Canyon Trail.

It seems like when a place is named something descriptive, it’s either super accurate, or the total opposite.  I’ve been to several mosquito meadows/lake/creek/etc.. which totally lived up to the name.  In the case of Hellhole Canyon, it would seem like it’s the opposite.  Sure, it’s in the dessert where daytime temps in the summer can reach to 125 degrees, but it’s a big desert where it’s also 125 degrees everywhere else.  But those places don’t have the cool shade of palm trees, a trickling creek, and a small grotto where ferns hang from the walls (yes ferns, in the desert).

This place is pretty amazing.  The trail, which looks like it’s the remnants of an old road at the beginning, starts out pretty wide, pretty level, and other than the loose, sandy surface, the walking is pretty nice.  It’s the desert, so carry lots of water and sunscreen up — until reaching the palms, there is no shade.  The trail eventually narrows down as it winds across and back and forth over the stream channel.  It rises a bit, but the overall grade seems to be pretty gentle.  As the canyon narrows, the trail becomes less and less defined and further progress requires some bouldering (nothing technical, but you will be using your hands at times).  If you’re good like me, you’ll also probably get a little torn up from some random plant with spines and which won’t let go.  I was good enough at least to avoid the cactus.

Soon, the palms come into view.  First a few, then some pretty good groves.  Not only are the palms nice, but the sound of running water, coursing over rocks and trickling into small pools in this desert environment is almost surreal.  There are green, lush plants, birds singing, and the sounds of palm fronds in the wind.  The natural turn-around point is a lush green grotto, where the stream drops 20 feet into a pool.  Who knows what lies further up the canyon.  That, perhaps, is worth another trip.