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Spectacular exposures of colorfully banded and folded metamorphic rock gave “Rainbow Canyon” its so-far unofficial title. The canyon’s colorful nature is enhanced even further during a peak wildflower season, when the place looks like a flower shop and smells like a honey-garden. That won’t happen for another three or four months, though. But at least this season’s rapidly falling temperatures are making pleasant the rugged little excursion into the canyon.

To navigate to the hike’s unmarked starting point, turn southeast from Scissors Crossing (12 miles east of Julian via Highway 78) onto Highway S-2, which is the only paved road going through the south half of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Drive about 11 miles and park off the pavement at mile 27.7, as reckoned by the green mile signs posted at half-mile intervals. There’s space for a few cars on the east shoulder.

From that parking spot, head northeast across a sloping alluvial fan toward the nearby mouth of a rocky canyon. Agaves and tall specimens of a spindly hybrid variety of cholla cactus (common around nearby Mason Valley) fringe the canyon entrance.

Starting at just 0.3 mile, you’re inside the canyon proper, where you clamber over several dry falls in its constricted bottom — a slight challenge and an enjoyable exercise for kids and adults alike. The colorfully banded rock, which is best exhibited in these steep stretches, is shot though with quartz pegmatite dikes. Note also, the live-forever (Dudleya) plants clinging to the canyon walls, having taken root in the smallest niches of rock.

At 0.7 mile you arrive at a major canyon fork — stay right. At 1.1 miles, the canyon bends left, widens, and becomes less interesting. A couple of gnarled junipers cling to the rock slopes here, heralding your approach into the pinyon-juniper plant community that lies ahead. This spot, however, is a good turnaround place for a casual hike.

If you do press onward up the canyon, you eventually reach, about two miles east, the far-south end of Blair Valley, a popular Anza-Borrego camping area.

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.

Rainbow Canyon
Discover variegated metamorphic rocks in Anza-Borrego’s Rainbow Canyon.
Distance from downtown San Diego: 80 miles
Hiking length: 2.2 miles round trip
Difficulty: Moderate

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