A long and leisurely ramble up the sinuous course of Harper Canyon in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park leads hikers to Harper Flat, a four-square-mile valley hidden from casual view by rock-strewn ridges and peaks. The reward for the trek, which takes about three hours for each direction, is the sense of splendid isolation you get all along the way and at the destination itself. Note that there’s no water available on the route, and navigational skills may be required (using map and compass, and/or GPS equipment).
To get to the starting point, first drive out to the central part of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, east of Julian on Highway 78. At mile 87.1 on Highway 78 (about 28 miles east of Julian), turn south onto the dirt road leading to Harper Canyon and the “Cactus Garden.” Proceed 1.6 miles, turn right on Kane Springs Road, and drive 0.1 mile west to the Harper Canyon access road that leads south toward Harper Canyon’s mouth. Unless you have a sturdy off-road vehicle, Kane Spring Road is the spot to park your car and start hiking on that road.
In the first mile south of Kane Springs Road, you skirt the Cactus Garden, an area where most common species of cactus in the Anza-Borrego Desert area are represented — especially the barrel cactus. Some barrel specimens near the road are seven feet tall.
Beyond the road end, about two miles in, the walls of Harper Canyon narrow, then widen again as tributary canyons split off on both sides. A more descriptive name for Harper Canyon would be “Ironwood Canyon.” Hundreds of slow-growing ironwood trees line the sandy canyon floor for three miles, providing welcome, if somewhat thin, shade during the middle of the day. Want to confirm that these trees have an iron-like aspect? Just try knocking on their wood.
Desert lavender also grows abundantly in Harper Canyon. Starting after the first rains in December or January, the shrub’s tiny purple blossoms exude an ineffable, perfumelike aroma.
At about 3.5 miles, the canyon narrows, and you climb over the bases of some sharply eroded fins of granitic rock that soar along the canyon wall. Smoke trees and desert-willow shrubs begin to appear. At 4.5 miles (and after nearly 1500 feet of elevation gain) you reach the upper end of Harper Canyon, and discover the broad expanse of Harper Flat. Curiously, Harper Canyon drains most, but not all of Harper Flat, a clear indication of ongoing tectonic activity in the region.
If you are backpacking and plan to make camp in Harper Flat, there are several options for further exploration or travel at your leisure. Peak 2628 lies directly to the north (scramble up 400 vertical feet), offering superb views of both Harper Flat and landmarks to the north, including the Santa Rosa Mountains and the Salton Sea. The whole of Harper Flat is rich in archaeological evidence of Indian use, and can be easily investigated on foot.
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.
After a long canyon trek, discover one of Anza-Borrego’s most spacious valleys.
Distance from downtown San Diego: 90 miles
Hiking length: 9.0 miles round trip
Difficulty: Moderately strenuous