Exploring the Anza-Borrego Desert
This long, deep canyon curves southwest-west-northwest in a large arc to Hellhole Flat, and features superb stands of palms, sycamores, and cottonwoods. There is no vehicular access into Hellhole Canyon. Hikers may enter Hellhole Canyon from either the visitor center or from the Hellhole Canyon/CRHT trailhead off Highway S-22.
0.0 Hellhole Canyon/CRHT Trailhead (elev. 880')
This parking area for hikers and equestrians is mile 16.5 on Hwy. S-22, right at the base of Montezuma Grade. This is the trailhead for both the CRHT and Hellhole Canyon. A bulletin board offers trail and nature information. This area has had several mountain-lion sightings and it is recommended that you not hike alone. This is a popular introductory backpack trip for many youth groups. Hike west up the alluvial fan.
Several hundred yards up the sandy trail is the CHRT turnoff south (left) up the ridge, which climbs 3,000' in six miles to Culp Valley. A trail to the north (right) leads across the alluvial fan to the visitor center parking lot. For Hellhole Canyon, continue following the trail west to the mouth of the canyon. Canyon walls close in where prominent bands of ancient metamorphosed sea beds are seen on the north wall. The vegetation in the lower canyon includes catclaw acacia ("wait-a-minute" bush), willow, mulefat, desert lavender, sugarbush, yerba santa, and ocotillo. Trees include palm, sycamore, and cottonwood.
2.2 Hellhole Canyon Grove (1,500')
This California Fan Palm grove offers a dozen or more of the Colorado Desert's signature tall tree. As the mouth of the canyon narrows, three palms will come in to view. About 150 yards ahead of this view is a large palm grove of about twenty trees. Some mortero holes are found near some mesquite. The trail is difficult to follow with many boulders and thorny vegetation. Keep generally to the south side of the creek. Pass a row of single palms in the creekbed and listen for the waterfall, which is hidden in shrubbery beneath huge boulders. It is easy to miss. The waterfall is to the right of a very large boulder, above which are two palm trees.
2.4 Maidenhair Falls (elev. 1760')
Seasonal water flow permitting, the 18-foot waterfall cascades into a pool. The face of the fall and its neighboring grotto are covered by a lacy curtain of maidenhair fern (Adiantum capillus-veneris), a rare sight in a desert canyon. Thick moisture-rich moss covers the grotto walls wherever fern is not attached. The falling water, the rich luxurious growth, and the sunlight dappling through the treetops create a very soothing setting, well worth the hike. From this point you will need to work along the canyon walls to the north, above the creekbed, to avoid the thick, thorny underbrush.
3.3 South Fork (elev. 2,250')
Hellhole Canyon forks above a sycamore grove. The South Fork climbs a very rugged, brush-choked mile southwest toward Pena Spring (elev. 3,440') and Culp Valley.
Main route continues west up-canyon, likewise in brushy rough stuff.
4.1 North Fork (elev. 2,730')
Hellhole forks again. The North Fork branches right, climbing steeply northwest up the flank of San Ysidro Mountain. Work up the northeast (right) side of the canyon about one-half mile and then more northeast (right) at the 3400' level over a saddle onto Hellhole Flat and eventually Flat Cat Flat. Once again, these are very, very rugged miles, where progress is measured in hours per mile, sometimes yards per hour. Be well prepared, well watered, and in no hurry.
The main Hellhole Canyon continues west a couple more miles toward the Thimble, a symmetrical peak (elev. 5,779') at the head of Hellhole Canyon.
Flat Cat Canyon
The canyon immediately north of Hellhole Canyon is known as Flat Cat Canyon, thanks to ranger Frank Fairchild, who discovered the carcass of a bobcat in a sizable natural cave on the north side of the canyon at about the 2,100 foot level. Fairchild called the cave Flat Cat, and the canyon name followed.
Flat Cat Canyon, or"Surprise Canyon," is a very steep, boulder-strewn, vegetation-choked canyon that can be approached by following the trail toward Hellhole Canyon but diverting to the first canyon to the northwest at the mouth of Hellhole. It also can be reached by walking directly west southwest from the visitor center. The canyon contains both water and palm groves and eventually climbs to Flat Cat Flat.
Flat Cat Flat, centering on survey point "Tuck" (elev. 3,828') is northeast of Hellhole Flat, the flats being separated by a low divide at the 3980' level. Thanks go to Ranger Mark Vaught who fine-tuned the colorful nomenclature of these fine flats.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication