Indianhead, a 3990-foot promontory perched along the north wall of Borrego Palm Canyon, juts dramatically from the desert floor near Borrego Springs and the Anza-Borrego Desert visitor center. There are several true mountain-climbing routes to Indianhead’s summit, but probably only one route is decently accessible to mere hikers. Those hikers, though, must possess a good sense of balance and have a fair share of enduring leg strength.
This no-nonsense hike — seven miles out and back for the round trip, perhaps seven hours worth of walking and scrambling, and involving an elevation gain and loss of 3200 feet — starts with an easy walk on a nature trail but then becomes progressively tougher the farther and higher you go. You’ll need lots of drinking water, even in winter, and sturdy hiking boots. Allowing for the early sunset this time of year (4:40 p.m.), an early-morning start is absolutely mandatory if you hope to reach the summit and return on the same day. You should also have (and know how to use) a topographic map of the area that will indicate critical turns in the route as detailed below.
First, find your way to the day-use parking lot at the west end of Borrego Palm Canyon Campground (west of Borrego Springs) that doubles as the trailhead for Borrego Palm Canyon Nature Trail. From there, head up the canyon bottom via the well-traveled nature trail. At 1.5 miles, where a grove of native California fan palms thrives, the nature trail ends at a fenced enclosure overlooking the palms and a seasonal stream. Go beyond this, and cross over to the south side of the canyon stream, where you can pick up a fair trail through open terrain dotted with granitic boulders and prickly forms of vegetation. Scattered palms are seen again here and there as the canyon narrows and after you round a sharp bend (1.8 miles). Fewer palms are seen here today than before September 2004, when a massive flash flood roared down this canyon, ripped out most of the palms, and floated their trunks toward the campground and beyond. In the intervening years, the regrowth of riparian vegetation alongside the stream has been vigorous, and you might spend considerable time dodging a tangle of shrubs and vines.
You reach the unmarked turnoff point for Indianhead at 2.5 miles into the hike (1800 feet elevation), where a tributary canyon joins in from the north. Climb northeast straight up the ridge just east of this tributary. Scrambling begins in earnest now, on the barest semblance of a path or on no path at all. After about 0.7 mile, you reach a 3220-foot saddle northwest of Indianhead. From that saddle, make your way southeast around huge boulders and over slab rock to reach the highest point on Indianhead’s flattish summit.
The entire sweep of the San Ysidro mountain range, with peaks exceeding 6000 feet, lies southwest and west. In the north, beyond lesser ranges, the often snow-capped San Jacinto Mountains in Riverside County float like a mirage. To get a superb view of Borrego Palm Canyon, scramble about 0.1 mile south of Indianhead’s high point and work your way out to a jagged outcrop. There you sit, legs dangling, looking almost straight down on the palms dotting the bottom of the canyon.
Hopefully you’ve allotted plenty of time to return to the trailhead, as that process could take as much time as you used in getting to the summit.
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.
Anza-Borrego’s Indianhead peak, jutting skyward over Borrego Springs, offers a singular mountain-climbing challenge.
Distance from downtown San Diego: 92 miles
Hiking length: 7.0 miles round trip