Thursday, August 27, 2020

Five Palms (Anza Borrego)

Five Palms Oasis
0.3 miles round trip, 50 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Sandy, rocky 4WD road to trailhead, no entrance fee

The remote Arroyo Salado is in one of the hottest and driest parts of southern California's Anza Borrego Desert State Park, so it's a surprise to see a small cluster of fan palms growing atop a hot, barren ridge here. The drive to Five Palms is far more work than the hike, but exploring this oasis and nearby Seventeen Palms in Arroyo Salado is an interesting way to appreciate the badlands and desert at the heart of California's largest state park. After heavy winter rains, wildflower blooms along the drive in- including blooms of the rare desert lily- can make this an even more rewarding spot to visit.

I visited Five Palms in Arroyo Salado during a February visit to Anza Borrego with my mom to see the superbloom. Arroyo Salaodo is not too far from Borrego Springs, the town at the heart of the park, but a 4WD vehicle is absolutely necessary to reach the trailhead. From Christmas Circle in Borrego Springs, we headed east on Palm Canyon Drive, which then became Peg Leg Road and then the Borrego-Salton Seaway. Sixteen miles from Christmas Circle, the Borrego-Salton Seaway passed through Ella Wash; the turnoff for Arroyo Salado, marked by a small roadside sign indicating "Arroyo Salado Camp," came right after.

This sandy 4WD road cut through some hills and quickly dropped to the wash of Arroyo Salado, following the sandy base of this canyon down into the Borrego Badlands. While driving this road, we spotted some nice patches of wildflowers that were part of that February's superbloom; most special were the rare blooming desert lilies that we spotted amongst the purple sand verbena on the side of the wash.

Desert Lily in Arroyo Salado
We drove 3.6 miles down Arroyo Salado before arriving at the turnoff for Seventeen Palms, an initial stop on this drive. The turn for Seventeen Palms was not marked, but there was a clearly well-traveled fork to the right here, which we followed for 300 meters up a small canyon to a parking area marked with stones. From here, we walked a hundred meters over to Seventeen Palms Oasis, a collection of fan palms (now numbering greater than 17) growing in the middle of the Sonoran Desert. We found a little bit of water and greenery near the palms, quite a rare sight in the desert; we also found an old barrel that served as an informal desert post office, where passerbys in the past would leave messages.

Seventeen Palms Oasis
Returning to the main wash of Arroyo Salado, we drove south another 200 meters before coming to the turnoff on the right for Five Palms in a distributary wash. We followed this sandy road into the badlands and soon arrived at the unmarked trailhead for Five Palms, obvious because a small collection of palms rose to the right of the road from the badlands. 

We parked on the side of the wash and then walked up a short ravine and up a small ridge to the palms. Although called Five Palms, there are just four California fan palms growing at this spot now. There is no surface water here, but groundwater must approach the surface here to support this small grove of palms in the middle of an otherwise barren desert: it is so inhospitable in this part of the Borrego Badlands that even creosote and ocotillo are far and few. The spot is remarkable in how these plants survive in such dry and hot terrain.

Five Palms
Walking to the crest of the ridge just beyond the palms, we found an excellent view of the heart of the Borrego Badlands. These colorful, sun-baked, eroded hills stretched on for miles to the west, with high desert mountains rising behind them. To the east, we could see over Arroyo Salado to the outer limits of the Borrego Badlands; the Orocopia Mountains, which rose in the distance, were actually on the far side of the Salton Sea.

Borrego Badlands
Borrego Badlands
Although this isn't too much of a hike, visiting Seventeen Palms and Five Palms in Arroyo Salado was a nice way to see oases in one of the harshest environments of Anza Borrego Desert State Park. The views of the badlands here were enjoyable as well; while this isn't a must for visitors to the park, those who have time to check out Five Palms will find it to be an enjoyable and detour.

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