The Slot Canyons of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

 Date: 01-May-2016 Category:

Slot Canyon Arch at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

Slot Canyon Arch at Anza-Borrego Desert

California's largest State Park, the Anza-Borrego Desert, is famous for its wonderful wildflower displays in late February/early March. Usually large carpets of sand verbenas and desert primroses cover the fields north of Henderson Canyon Road, especially in an El Niño year. But despite the good outlook, it didn't happen this year due the (very) hot and dry weather during the whole month of February. Conditions seemed only favorable for the otherwise rare Desert Lilies, they were the only flowers we found in abundance on the way to Coyote Canyon and at Arroyo Salado Wash.

And so it comes that we had plenty of time for all the other attractions of the Anza-Borrego Desert. We did some sunrise/sunset shootings at fabulous overlooks such as Font's Point, visited lovely Desert Oases like 17 Palm Oasis, and we explored some really nice Slot Canyons (still Steffen's big passion). Anza-Borrego is probably not the first place that comes to your mind when talking about Slot Canyons. But deep within the Colorado Desert (that's how this part of the Sonoran Desert is called) there are quite a lot of hidden jewels. And as you can see on this month's image, one of the Anza Slots even features an arch.

The canyon walls are not nearly as softly polished as the ones in Antelope Canyon on Navajo Indian Nation or in the Slots along Hole-in-the-Rock Road at Grand Staircase-Escalante NM. In addition to that, the sandstone at Anza is also definitely way less colorful on a dull day. The vertical walls usually appear all gray, but when the sun hits them in the right angle (especially during the late morning hours or at midday) they might glow just as fabulously as in any other sandstone canyon on the Colorado Plateau. Real magic can happen as you can see on these two other Anza images here and here.

And there are some other advantages at Anza-Borrego SP: No entrance fee is charged, no guided tours are needed and you will not be pulled through the narrows by the crowds. You'll run into some people eventually, but you'll definitely still be able to enjoy the silence and all the magic!

Here is a list of our favorite "narrow places" near the town of Borrego Springs:

  • The Slot is the most popular of all Anza Borrego Slots. The walls are made out of siltstone and since the narrows are fairly easy to reach, things can get busy there on weekends, especially during wintertime. But nevertheless it's well-worth a visit. Besides the arch (see image above), there are plenty of more photo opportunities.
    Directions: When coming from Christmas Circle at Borrego Springs, use Borrego Springs Road to the south and at the intersection with Hwy 78 (11,5 mi) turn east towards Ocotillo Wells. After only 1,5 mi make another left and follow an improved gravel road to the north signposted "Buttes Pass" (33°09'33"N, 116°13'08"W). The sand is usually hard-packed, so you might be able to get to the trailhead in a passenger car with a good clearance, but a 4WD would be the safer choice. After 1 mile stay left at the Y-intersection, heading towards "Borrego Mt Wash" for another 0,8 mi. The canyon is located just below the trailhead (33°10'56"N, 116°12'51"W) and all you need to do is to follow the footprints from the parking area, heading first to your right and then straight down to the wash. Then as soon as you reached the bottom, turn left and enter "The Slot". Light conditions are best during the early afternoon hours.

  • There are a couple of nice, less-traveled narrows just north of Borrego Salton Seaway (S22) in the Santa Rosa Mountains near the eastern park's boundary. Leave your car at the parking lot (33°16'52"N, 116°05'47"W) near the "call box" at mile marker 38 about 21 mi east of Christmas Circle at Borrego Springs (past Font's Point road and Arroyo Salado Campground but before the microwave tower!). If you are driving a 4WD-vehicle, you might also turn north on a small dirt track that leads down to the first wash, the South Fork of Palm Wash. By following this wash to your left to the 4WD parking and then further west, you'll find the narrows after passing a natural bridge (33°17'9.52"N, 116°06'25"W), which spans the canyon about 0,8 miles (1,3 km) from the S22. There are small pieces of calcite scattered about and you will see them also embedded in the canyon walls. The slot section is rather short, but it features some beautiful and gently winding sandstone walls. Soon after some large fallen rocks blocking your way, the canyon ends at a 20-ft-dryfall. The entire hike from S22 (in and out) is about 3 miles.

  • Calcite Mine Slots: These remote and more adventurous canyons are accessible on foot from the same parking lot on S22 as the South Fork Slot, but it is a quite a hike (especially when it is hot). The 4WD trail beyond South Fork Wash gets rougher the further north you go. Approximately 0,7 mi from S22 a side track leaves to the right. That is far as you can get by car, unless you own a very good 4x4 (33°17'16"N, 116°06'14"W). Both trails from there are (very!) challenging, truly rocky and not suitable for regular rental SUVs. Continue straight on the "Calcite Mine Road" on foot and about 1,3 miles from the paved road you'll be reaching the bottom of Middle Fork of Palm Wash. The West Slot of the Middle Fork southwest of Calcite Mine is accessed from here by following the wash to the northwest (33°17'40"N, 116°06'40"W; 1,8 mi/2,9 km from S22; ~500 foot/150m elevation gain). This is the most scenic one and offers the best photo ops! The East Slot (Main Branch) lies just east of the mine. Check out Google Maps, where all these canyons are clearly marked.

    Further to the east there are more narrows at Joshua Canyon, but this is a very long hike even when starting from the second 4WD parking at 33°17'16"N, 116°06'14"W. Instead of continuing straight on Calicite Mine Road from there, walk down the spur trail to your right. As soon as you reach the wash make another right and follow the Middle Fork to the east for about 1,4 mi/2,2 km, then bear left at North Fork of Palm Wash (33°17'20"N, 116°05'06"W) and continue north for about 220 yards/200 m before making another left at the mouth of Joshua Canyon (33°17'24"N, 116°05'13"W). It's more or less 2,6 mi/4,5 km one-way from the 2nd 4WD parking to the narrows and the beautiful palm tree growing amongst the towering walls (33°17'54"N, 116°05'41"W). And an additional 0,7 mi/1,1 km if you started your hike at the S22.

  • Besides that, there are more canyons in the southern part of the State Park close to the Carrizo Badlands: the "mud caves" at Arroyo Tapiado Canyon, Canyon Sin Nombre and a slot at the Domelands.

Please take care and follow the weather forecast and always watch the skies before you venture out there. Flash floods can be life-threatening in the desert. And make sure to bring along a lot of water, a GPS-device and a good map. Besides the official map (Brochues > Park Map) there are topographic maps available for sale at the Visitor Center west of town.

Image data:
1/13 s at f/16, ISO 100; Canon EF 16-35mm 1:2.8 L II USM at 24 mm, Canon EOS 5D Mark III

Related Links: More images from Anza-Borrego