Anza-Borrego's Cougar Canyon is a place where new worlds open up at every turn. There are more gorgeous sights to see along a half-mile of this canyon than in a full day's hiking in most other parts of our local desert. November is the first and April is the last decent month of the year for avoiding the area's furnace-like heat.
For about 15 years now, the approach by road to Cougar Canyon and neighboring Sheep Canyon has been getting increasingly difficult. A rough, steep section of the Coyote Canyon road leading in has become ever more eroded and rocky, so that even the toughest of high-clearance, 4-wheel-drive vehicles have trouble negotiating it. Most Cougar-bound hikers choose to park their cars in Coyote Canyon, below Lower Willows. This adds several miles of round-trip walking just to reach Cougar's mouth, and it argues for the benefit of turning the hike into a weekend backpack trip, overnighting at either Sheep Canyon Primitive Camp or at the mouth of Cougar Canyon. Whatever your plans, bring along all the water you'll need. Or carry a liter or two for the trip in and filter (or otherwise purify) the stream water in the canyon, which is abundant from the first autumn rains until at least April. Anza-Borrego Desert State Park rangers (760-767-5311) can help with planning.
To get to the trailhead, drive north from the end of the paved DiGiorgio Road in Borrego Springs onto the unpaved, 4-wheel-drive road up along the east side of Coyote Canyon. After 5.6 miles and two or three wet (after winter rains at least) crossings of Coyote Creek, you reach a point, below Lower Willows, where the road turns sharply left to climb a steep ravine. Limited parking space can be found just below the steep grade.
On foot, follow the boulder-strewn road west over a pass and across the spacious Collins Valley. Out on the valley floor, a parallel horse/hiker's trail on the left provides a slight short-cut, though it runs through soft sand. After 3.6 miles, Sheep Canyon Primitive Camp lies ahead and a spur road for parking lies on the left (south). Follow a well-traveled trail for 0.7 mile past the end of the spur road to the wide mouth of Cougar Canyon. Less distinct paths lead you into and up the narrowing canyon, mostly to the right of the stream, for the next several hundred yards. Ahead (as far as your scrambling skills will carry you) you'll discover limpid pools, silvery waterfalls, feathery cascades of spray, a pocket palm grove, and on one rock a fading psychedelic "eye" -- circa 1970 rock art. Motivated climbers working their way up the canyon can bypass a waterfall at 2300-feet elevation by climbing high on the ridge to the left (south) side of the canyon.
This article contains information about a publicly owned recreation or wilderness area. Trails and pathways are not necessarily marked. Conditions can change rapidly. Hikers should be properly equipped and have safety and navigational skills. The Reader and Jerry Schad assume no responsibility for any adverse experience.