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Soggy Lower Willows, along with its primary source of water — Santa Catarina Spring — together comprise Anza-Borrego’s richest riparian habitat. An easy-going hike through here is all that’s needed to acquaint you with this surprisingly lush piece of territory.

Don’t forget your binoculars — the birding is excellent. You’ll likely tramp through some muddy areas and wade in the stream, so wear old shoes or boots and bring extra footwear to leave in the car. Since March is expected to be the peak time for desert wildflowers this year, don’t forget to take along your camera, too.

Perhaps the biggest challenge may be getting there by vehicle (hint: the more off-road-capable the vehicle, the better). From Borrego Springs, drive east to DiGiorgio Road, then go north to where DiGiorgio Road ends. Set your trip odometer to 0.0 here and continue north on the unpaved road into Coyote Canyon. After a first creek crossing at 3.6 miles and a second crossing at 4.4 miles (both of which could be impassable, depending on how much recent rain has fallen), the road veers left across the creek for a third time at 5.3 miles, and then commences a steep, rough ascent (“boulder alley”) through the ravine to the west. Park where space is available near the third crossing.

Your route on foot is simply up the bottom of Coyote Canyon, on traces of the disused former Coyote Canyon jeep route — now a trail for hikers and equestrians. Where trucks and 4-wheel drives once waddled, wheezed, and snorted through the stream, there are now only the sounds of bubbling water, birds, and insects. The rampant growth of vegetation, largely willows, mesquite, tamarisk, and arrowweed, has obliterated most parts of the old road. Even the contemporary trail can be obscured by overgrowth after one wet season. Listen for the monosyllabic hoot of the phainopepla, a winter-resident bird that flits about with white wing patches flashing in the bright sunlight.

After about one mile, Santa Catarina Spring, comprising several oozing acres, lies on the left. The air is heavy with humid odors, and colorful insects — grasshoppers, beetles, katydids, praying mantises — seem to be everywhere. Cottonwoods and palms thrive, and tangles of wild grape vines twine upward into the taller trees.

After almost two miles, you come to the end of the dense willows. The open desert floor of Collins Valley lies ahead. A trail branching left (southwest), skirts the marshy Santa Catarina Spring and then heads toward the nearest dirt road in the valley. You may turn back when you reach that trail, for a round trip of four miles.

If you care to try a longer, sunnier, and drier looping return route, you can use the left-branching trail and the valley road ahead in order to swing south and east onto a bluff overlooking Santa Catarina Spring. There you’ll find a monument with a historical plaque commemorating the passage of the Juan Bautista de Anza party in 1774.

Lower Willows
Explore a jungle-like oasis tucked inside Anza-Borrego’s Coyote Canyon.
Distance from downtown San Diego: 102 miles
Hiking/biking length: 4 miles round-trip
Difficulty: Moderate

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.

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