Kumeyaay Indians once camped and harvested palm fruit and mesquite pods at Palm Grove in the Anza-Borrego Desert.
Palm Bowl is the most remote of the six palm groves of Mountain Palm Springs. A direct route to this hidden grove is through Anza-Borrego’s Indian Gorge. A ridge route drops into a small mesquite-filled valley leading to this large grove where Kumeyaay Indians once camped and harvested mesquite pods and palm fruit. The shady grove makes a nice rest stop. An added treat of going into Indian Gorge is visiting a side canyon called Torote, where elephant trees grow. The elephant tree, or torote (Bursera microphylla), one of the rare plants found in the park, is more commonly found at lower latitudes south of the border.
Begin at the signed entrance to Indian Gorge, walking through typical desert plants that include chuparosa, staghorn cholla, ocotillo, lavender, acacia, and brittle bush. Smoke trees become thin as the gorge opens up into Indian Canyon, where agave and barrel cacti are visible on the hillsides. Take a short side trip into Torote Canyon on the north to discover some specimens of the rare, aromatic small tree that is in the same family as frankincense and myrrh. The elephant tree has a smell that is a cross between a tangerine and turpentine. It has a swollen trunk that can hold water, low-spreading branches, small dark-green leaves, yellowish paper-like shedding bark, inconspicuous white flowers, purplish fruit, and pinkish resin that was prized by local Indians for its medicinal value and “power.” It may seem a long stretch, but it is known as an elephant tree because the trunk can swell with water.
Returning to Indian Canyon, continue hiking up the canyon toward a large desert willow tree, about 0.2 mile past the entrance to Torote Canyon. A state-park boundary sign marks the beginning of state wilderness lands. Just beyond this sign to the south is the beginning of the trail that leads over the ridge to Palm Bowl. Follow this trail into the next canyon where Palm Bowl will be clearly visible to the west. A short walk through the mesquite grove will lead to the palm trees. Look for grinding areas once used by the Indians. The palm trees are California fan palms (Washingtonia filifera), the only native palm trees in the western United States. The name “fan” refers to the shape of the leaves as opposed to the spear-like leaves that are characteristic of the Mediterranean date palms. Indians harvested the dates and used the leaf fibers to make sandals, thatch roofs and walls, and baskets. Palm oases were favorite living areas for the Kumeyaay bands of this area and also for the Cahuilla bands that lived further north.
From the palm grove, it is about 2 miles to return to the entrance of Indian Gorge. An option is to follow the canyon to the next grove (Surprise Grove) and then to either continue following the canyon down to the Mountain Palm Springs trailhead or to take another trail over the ridge at Surprise Grove and follow it to Southwest Grove and then out to the Mountain Palm Springs trailhead via Pygmy Grove. If no car is positioned at this trailhead, it will be a long hike back. Mountain Palm Springs has a vault toilet but no water.
Distance from downtown San Diego: 107 miles. Allow 2 hours driving time. Take I-8 east to the Imperial Hwy exit 89 and turn north on SR-2 at Ocotillo. Drive north on SR-2, 18 miles from Ocotillo, to the dirt road entrance of Indian Gorge on the west side of the road, midway between mile posts 46 and 47. Drive up the road about 0.5 mile and park. No facilities or water.
Hiking length: 4 or 5 miles — depending on where the vehicle is parked — out and back. If a second vehicle is in play and is parked at the trailhead of Mountain Palm Springs, a one-way hike of less than 4 miles may be made to the Mountain Palm Springs trailhead.
Difficulty: Moderate because of the trail climb over a ridge separating canyon drainages. Trekking poles recommended. Elevation gain/loss 300 feet. Dogs allowed on the dirt road with a leash but not on the trails.