While most of the Anza-Borrego Desert swelters, the temperature hovers as much as 10 degrees Fahrenheit cooler at the “high desert” locale of Culp Valley, 3400 feet above sea level. Culp Valley is the only designated camping area in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park where the late spring heat is bearable, and even pleasant, at times other than midday.
Great masses of granitic bedrock seem to erupt from the sloping, sandy floor of the valley, forming stark structures composed of tilted slabs and rounded boulders. At times, the wind blows capriciously, whistling through apertures in the rock piles. Nearby, out of sight from the valley and sheltered from the wind, water trickles from a hillside spring and nourishes a mini-oasis of green grass and tall shrubs. It’s this kind of contrast that makes hiking around here especially rewarding.
Culp Valley is located between mile markers 9.0 and 9.5 on Montezuma Highway (County S-22), about three miles east of Ranchita and nine miles west of Borrego Springs. A small sign indicates the turnoff for the campground — easily missed if you are traveling fast. The campground itself is a no-frills venue: merely nooks and crannies where you can park your car overnight (and for free) amid the rocks and scrub vegetation.
The small hike described here starts back near the campground’s entrance, where a spur road forks west, signed “Pena Spring.” On foot, follow that road uphill to a crest. Then continue walking on a signed footpath leading downhill and north toward Pena Spring. After 0.3 mile of steady descent down a sandy ravine, you reach remnants of scrub oak and sugarbush shrubs (they were burned in the Pines Fire of 2002). Look for an obscure path or paths striking left, up a slope, and through shrubby vegetation. This marginal route leads 50 yards to the hard-to-locate main Pena Spring, where crystal-clear water gushes from a raised pipe. The spring is a regional oasis for local wildlife, and doubles as a verdant resting spot for appreciative humans.
After visiting Pena Spring, reverse your steps 0.2 mile to the intersection of the California Riding and Hiking Trail, marked by a small sign. Go east, uphill at first, then more-or-less level along a broad ridge dotted with chaparral shrubs, juniper, and a smattering of yucca and cholla cactus. Watch out for the latter, as its exceedingly prickly branches sometimes encroach upon the trail.
After 0.5 mile on the ridge, you’ll come to the intersection of a trail going down to the campground, 0.3 mile south. Only a stone’s throw north of this point are some large boulder outcrops offering an airy view of the Hellhole Canyon gorge to the north, the shimmering Borrego Valley in the northeast, and the long crest of the Santa Rosa Mountains on the far horizon. Just east from this vantage point, other fascinating boulder structures and a marked “lookout” point beckon. But if you’ve had enough already, simply descend south into the Culp Valley Campground, and return to your car.
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.
Culp Valley and Pena Spring
Explore a patch of high desert overlooking Borrego Springs.
Distance from downtown San Diego: 82 miles
Hiking length: 1.7 miles