Cool Climb Through a Desert Oasis

Add Hellhole Canyon to the list of great geographical misnomers.

Just as Greenland is anything but green, Hellhole Canyon in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is far from, well . . . hellish.

Cottonwood, California fan palms, ferns and mosses thrive in the canyon, which hosts a blissful waterfall.

Certainly this hike's destination--Maidenhair Falls--is no misnomer. Maidenhair ferns enshroud the 30-foot-high falls.

The presence of a lush, fern-filled grotto in the midst of one of the West's most parched landscapes is a small miracle, an example of nature's mysterious ways.

Not only is Hellhole Canyon attractive, it's convenient--and it's just a few miles as the cactus wren flies from the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park visitors center.

An intermittent trail travels through the long and deep canyon. Caution: While the canyon's riparian growth is easy on the eye, it's difficult to penetrate; expect slow-going through the thick vegetation.

You may begin your trek to Hellhole Canyon from the park visitors center or from a trail head located just off California S22.

I recommend the latter trail head, which shaves a mile from the hike and avoids the sometimes congested visitors center parking lot.

Directions to trail head: From its intersection with Palm Canyon Drive, proceed seven-tenths mile southwest on Montezuma Valley Road to the parking area on the right (west) side of the road.

A shady stand is located there that features nature information you can read about the trail.

The hike: Follow signed California Riding and Hiking Trail about 200 yards to a junction; the CRHT splits left, while you bear right, heading southwest over the broad alluvial fan.

The well-defined, sandy trail crosses a desert garden of cholla, creosote bush, desert lavender and ocotillo.

A bit more than a mile out, the path angles toward the mouth of Hellhole Canyon, distinguished by riparian trees and palms (and altogether different-looking than the smaller, drier tributary canyon to its right).

The trail stays to the left, as should the hiker until entering the mouth of the canyon.

Once in the canyon you might find yourself walking next to a wet or dry (depending on the season) watercourse.

Try to steer clear of the very bottom of the canyon, an obstacle course of brush, boulders and fallen trees.

The thickest of the canyon's scattered palm groves, and the narrowing of the canyon's walls, signal that you're nearing Maidenhair Falls.

Ultra-ambitious hikers can continue bushwhacking up Hellhole Canyon, but most travelers will be content to enjoy the soft light and tranquillity around the falls before returning to the trail head.


Hellhole Canyon Trail

WHERE: Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

DISTANCE: To Maidenhair Falls is 5 miles round trip with 900-foot elevation gain.

TERRAIN: Lush canyon amid arid desert.

HIGHLIGHTS: Fern-filled grotto, waterfall.


PRECAUTIONS: Mountain lion sightings in the area.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, P.O. Box 299, Borrego Springs, Calif. 92004; tel. (619) 767-5311.

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