Winding fjordlike through the boulder heaps of the arid In-Ko-Pah Mountains, Bow Willow Canyon promises -- and delivers -- solitude. During a weekday-morning's exploratory venture into Bow Willow's moist upper recesses, no one disturbed my silent reverie of warm late-autumn sunlight, cirrus-flecked sky, and soft puffs of air playing on bare skin.
The intriguing name "Bow Willow" seems to be associated with the supple wood of the desert willow, once used by the Indians to fashion hunting bows. Hundreds of these fragrant, bushy trees are scattered along the canyon's lower end. At the canyon's mouth lies the modest Bow Willow Campground, the only semi-developed campground in the southern reaches of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.
To reach Bow Willow Campground, take Interstate 8 to the Ocotillo turnoff (75 miles east of San Diego), exit there, cruise through the dusty desert hamlet of Ocotillo, and head west and northwest on Highway S-2 toward and finally into Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Look for the entrance road to the campground on the left at mile marker 48.5 along Highway S-2.
The hike up Bow Willow Canyon from the campground is a no-brainer. You simply go uphill on a broad ribbon of sand, and uphill farther into the ever-narrowing canyon for perhaps four miles; then turn around and do the reverse.
While you're strolling up the lower canyon, look for several elephant trees clinging inconspicuously to the barren, bouldered hillsides on both sides. These curious succulent shrubs, common in central Baja California, are rare north of the border.
After about 2.5 miles of gently uphill travel, the canyon floor becomes increasingly choked with obstacles -- brush, rocks, and the lower end of a stream that has dug itself into a deep trench. Willows and a few scraggly palms appear at about 3.0 miles; better specimens are seen farther on. Staying left of the stream, for the most part, speeds your way. That "stream" is likely to be dry at the moment but will likely revive during the coming winter season's rains.
At 3.7 miles (1680' elevation), a tributary canyon joins from the northwest. If you're well equipped and inclined toward strenuous boulder hopping, this sharp crease points the way to an enigmatic, solitary cluster of palms high on the flank of Sombrero Peak.
Higher up in the main canyon, water cascades or trickles over and under mazes of giant boulders haphazardly fallen from the slopes. A major fork in the canyon lies a little farther up-canyon (4.0 miles, 1880' elevation), with branches going west and southwest. Should you wish to press on, the left fork is the narrower and more interesting of the two.