Middle Fork Borrego Palm Canyon Uphill Traverse


By: John Strauch


I had hiked down the Middle Fork of Borrego Palm Canyon while doing the hikes in Jerry Schad’s first and second editions of Afoot & Afield in San Diego County. For the third edition I decided to do the traverses in the uphill direction. In theory Borrego Palm Canyon was one of the tougher traverses since the upper end of the canyon was steep and very brushy. The downhill hikes had taken 10 and 12 hours, so I felt it would be pushing it to try to do the 4,100’ gain, 10-mile, trip as a dayhike, but now I think that would have worked fine, too.

I was able to talk friend Jim de la Pena into joining me. Saturday morning we set up the shuttle, dropping one car at elevation 4900’ by the gate (now missing) southeast of San Ignatio on the Los Coyotes Reservation ($12 per car). We started hiking from the Borrego Palm Canyon parking lot beyond the campground, elevation 840, at 9:30, amid the usual tourists and groups of kids. It felt like it would be a warm day by the time we got to the first palm grove, but once we headed up canyon it was quite pleasant. We spotted three bighorn and a lone hiker a half-mile beyond the first grove. At the second grove the devastation from the recent Ranchita fire began. The palms all had black burned trunks, but appeared green and healthy on top. From this point on the canyon was pretty well burned. This made for easy hiking. The heat from the fire must have been intense. Lots of the boulders had a black mottled look, having lost large flakes (1 to 6”) which were lying thick on the ground around them. Water flowed constantly from the top of the canyon to below the first grove.

We passed the South Fork (2200’) and then the North Fork (2700’). The trees (willows, cottonwoods and alders) were all pretty well burned and dead. The burned bark often peeled off in rectangular strips revealing a red-brown trunk. Much green leafy ground cover had started growing and many of the trees had lots of green shoots around their bases. In burnt tree areas we were hiking on a layer of ash and occasionally our feet would sink disconcertingly into ash-filled holes. After hiking for over 7 hours we stopped at 4:45 to camp at elevation 3400’.

For the final 1500’ the canyon became narrower and steeper. We found our way around a few waterfalls by climbing up on the canyon walls. A lone set of footprints coming down the canyon helped with the route finding. Things were still burned, so brush was not a problem. The meadow and old road below San Ignatio (and a few deer) were a welcome sight. This is also where the burn zone ended. We got back to the car before 10:00, having hiked another 3-plus hours. Total hiking time was 10-1/2 hours and could have been done with daypacks more easily. A good trip.

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