Exploring the Anza-Borrego Desert

Borrego Palm Canyon Trailhead

The trail begins near the pupfish pond at the parking area of the upper campground. The narrative below uses the numbers and"labels" of the self guiding markers as reference points.

Numbered Self-Guiding Trail Markers

1. "Alluvial fan." To the right of the sign is a large lavender with a slick (metate) to the right of it. Staghorn cholla is common along the trail. The fruit was gathered in the spring and eaten fresh or dried for storage. Ashes from the stems were applied to heal wounds of cuts and burns.

2. "Ocotillo." Directly across from the sign is a staghorn cholla, and beavertail (Opuntia basilaris). The flower tips of the chuparosa were sucked for their nectar. It was also soaked in water for a sweet drink. The spines of both the fruit and joints of the beavertail were carefully brushed or burned off, and the fruit was eaten raw. The young and tender joints were boiled in water and eaten separately or with other food. It was a very desirable food, gathered March through June.

3. "Dry Wash." The wash has creosote, brittlebush, desert lavender, and indigo bush (Psorothamnus schottii). Creosote was called atukul by the Cahuilla. It was the "'drugstore of the desert," used for treating colds, chest infections, stomach cramps, and runny noses, for inducing vomiting, healing wounds, drawing out poisons, preventing infections, aiding circulation, eradicating dandruff, eliminating body odor, and remedying constipation. Desert lavender seeds and leaves are edible. Boiled leaves and blossoms were given to patients as an infusion for stopping hemorrhages. The branches of the indigo bush were used as a foundation element in basket making. Indigo produces a brownish-yellow-to-orange dye when steeped in water. It also had an unspecified medicinal use.

4. "Ephemeral stream." Just to the right of the sign is an acacia, or catclaw, with mistletoe. The beanlike pods were collected May through August but were not a preferred food source because of their alkaloid nature. The wood was used for construction and fire. The blossoms were parboiled before eating if they were bitter. The mistletoe was toxic if not properly prepared. The Sticky berries were mixed with ashes, then ground and boiled. Basket fibers were dyed black by boiling in a mixture made from mistletoe leaves. Behind the acacia is a dry willow, and to the left on the trail at the curve is another slick.

5. "Cheesebush". Although a common plant in the canyon, its use is not known. Ahead 25 paces as the trail curves is another slick and behind it small morteros. More morteros are found another 20 feet ahead, just before signpost #6, next to the trail by a large boulder. Before crossing the bridge, note the slick to the left on a boulder hidden behind the cheesebush.

6. "Animal Homes in the Rocks on the Right." Brittlebush (Encelia farinosa) is found along the trail. Resin from the plant was used as a healing salve — heated and applied to the chest for pain. The resin was also used as a glue for arrowheads. Blossoms, leaves, and stems were boiled to make a decoction held in the mouth to relieve toothache.

7. "Morteros and Metates." Found on top of the large boulder.

8. "Brittlebush." Mormon or Indian tea is found to the right. Two large ocotillo are on the right and left. Indian tea seeds were ground into meal and eaten as mush. Chewing stems relieved thirst. Dried and ground up stems were placed on open wounds to aid healing. A tea made from fresh or dried twigs was used for stomach and kidney ailments, to cure canker sores in the mouth, and to "cleanse the blood." Indian tea also may have been used as a remedy for syphilis and gonorrhea. Edible ocotillo blossoms were collected from March through summer. Blossoms could be soaked for a flavored, bitter tasting drink. Seeds were ground into a flour for mush. Resinous ocotillo wood splinters were used for torches and later for fences. The ocotillo was also important as a firewood.

9. "Desert Varnish." After the sign, the trail swings around a rock ledge into the canyon. The first white sage is on the right as well as a small rock shelter, and a slick at the point of the ledge. White sage seeds were gathered in July through September, parched and ground into a flour. Sage was used as a food flavoring and as a body deodorant, and was used to cure colds. The leaves were crushed and mixed with water to wash, dye, and straighten hair. It was used in sweat houses to eliminate body odor and to purify hunting equipment that had been touched by a menstruating woman.

10. "Flash Floods and Huge Boulders." The trail turns right and the first mesquite and willow are visible in the creek. Saltbush is also to the right. The seeds of the saltbush were harvested in July through September, parched and ground into a flour, and mixed with water to form a mush. The leaves contain saponin, which was used as a soap. The leaves, flowers, and stems were crushed, steamed, and inhaled for nasal congestion. Fresh leaves were chewed to relieve head colds.

11. "Midden and mesquite." Note the dark soil to the right of the trail. There are slicks on the boulders. This was a Cahuilla campsite. In spring, the mesquite blossoms were roasted in a pit and squeezed into balls and eaten. In summer, the green pods were pounded in wooden morteros into a -pulpy juice and water was added. According to Cahuilla elder Katherine Siva Saubel, in her authoritative book Temalpakh, the beverage was kept available in a clay jar, or olla, and drunk whenever anyone was thirsty. As it sat, a light fermentation occurred, which enhanced its flavor. In fall, dried pods were eaten directly or were ground into a flour meal, pounded into cakes, and eaten dry or mixed with water to make a mush or beverage. Every part of the tree was used. The limbs were used for bows and arrows, corner posts for houses, and firewood; the trunk was used to make wooden mortars; the bark was used to make skirts for women, diapers for babies, and kindling for cooking; the leaves were boiled and made into a tea that was used to inhibit diarrhea; the sap was used as a glue, and when diluted with water, it was used as a wash for sores and wounds and an eyewash; and the thorns were used as needles for tattooing. Mesquite groves were also used as an indicator of the groundwater supply and as a locale to collect favored insects, such as cicadas.

12. "Layered Rocks." Behind the sign is another slick.

13. "Creosote." Across the creek is the first agave to be noted. By the boulders to the right is a rock shelter and to the left a slick.

14. "Acacia." The creek has willows.

15. "Chuparosa."

16. "Bighorn Sheep." Note the first palm in the creek. Sheep sightings have substantially increased in this area.

17. "Phainopeplas and Hummingbirds." Across the creek toward the canyon is a clump of agave. In the creek note mulefat, which looks similar to willow. Agave is called "amul" by the Cahuillas. It is the number 1 cultivated plant in the world and was a basic staple for desert Indians. It was especially important because agave could always be counted upon even during periods of drought when other plants might not be available to harvest. Every part of the agave was used, although its primary use was as a food. The blossoms were eaten as well as the leaves, and the stalk was roasted. Stored agave meal could be preserved for up to 60 years. Agave was used for making cordage, fiber sandals, skirts, and bowstring, for cleaning brushes and mats, and as a needle and thread. The stalks were used for firewood. A dye made from agave was used for tattooing. Mulefat was used as a preventative for baldness at the onset of baldness. The hair was washed in a solution made from the leaves. The leaves could be steeped and used as an eyewash. The limbs and branches were used in home construction.

Leaves and stems were boiled into a concoction for use as a female hygienic agent.

18. "First Clear View of the Palm Oasis." After the sign and to the right is the old trail and old #18, which marks an ironwood tree. Two other ironwood trees are nearby. Ironwood seeds were roasted and ground into flour. Throwing sticks and clubs were made from the dense hardwood. Ironwood was also used for firewood. Pods and seeds were gathered from May through June. Just past this last stop is an interpretive panel:

After stop #18, the trail leads to a bridge that crosses the creek to the south side. From here the alternate trail heads back east to the trailhead. This alternate trail parallels the creek trail but is higher on the dry south side of the canyon, so that one obtains a different perspective of the desert biotic community. Barrel cactus is common on the return trail. Barrel-cactus buds were a source of food that could be eaten raw, but they were usually eaten roasted and steamed or after parboiling several times.

As the trail continues up-canyon on the south side of the creek, the mesquite becomes thick, as the canyon walls begin to narrow and large boulders begin to dominate the floor of the canyon. Note the rock shelters with slicks on the boulders alongside the trail, across from the water gauge that sits visibly in the creek. The stair-step cuts in the granitic rock make it easy to negotiate the trail up-canyon to the beginning of the palm grove, where sycamores and alders are also found. Agave becomes visible on the steep hillsides with the increase in elevation. Note desert willow growing beside the creek. Desert willow, although very pliable, was a source of structural wood. It was also used for bowmaking and to make granaries. Occasionally the blossoms and seed pods were eaten. The bark was shredded to make fiber for nets and clothing, and the long limbs were used to reach palm dates. Cross the creek to the north side, above the small waterfall, working your way around the palm fronds and boulders, and continue up-trail to the main palm grove. Arrow weed is found along the canyon hillside trail. The roots of these young plants were gathered for roasting and eaten. Long slender stems and leaves were used in house construction and were excellent as roofing material. Arrow weed could also be used for ramadas, windbreaks, fences, and granaries. It was also used to make arrows. The trail drops down to the creek and the main grove, and the sound of falling water becomes very audible.


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