With an elevation gain/loss of over 1000 feet, the trail can be strenuous.
"Torote” is the Spanish name for a large shrub or small tree common in the Sonoran Desert, but relatively rare here in California. The Spanish name means “twisted,” and indeed the short, stubby branches of this hardy tree are contorted. Also, the light tan lower branches are thick, suggesting the legs of an elephant and giving rise to their English name, “elephant trees.” Torote Canyon is one of only a few places in the Anza-Borrego Desert where torote are found. However, don’t come here expecting a torote forest. Although there are at least several hundred in the canyon, the individual trees are quite scattered and are commonly found higher up on the canyon slopes. A pair of binoculars would come in handy here.
Although there is no official or maintained trail, begin by following the footsteps of numerous hikers who have preceded you into this well-trod canyon. After covering about a quarter of a mile, there will be a pile of boulders and small dry falls that appear to block this narrow canyon. However, these are easily surmounted and the canyon begins to widen as the boulders give way to a broad sandy wash.
The west-facing canyon wall is cloaked with a forest of teddybear cholla, with scattered ocotillo and torote. In February the air will be scented with desert lavender. Also to be noted are California copperleaf, matchweed, wishbone bush, giant milkweed, and chuparosa in bloom, as well as annual wildflowers. Later in the spring, expect blooming catclaw and many cacti, but by April most of the annuals are gone.
The canyon forks about 1.20 miles from the trailhead at the entrance to the canyon with Torote Canyon going northwest, off to the left. The first significant dry falls are encountered at mile 1.54. It is about 20 feet high, but it can be relatively easily, and safely, overcome. Thereafter there are a few smaller dry falls, followed by a long stretch of easy walking up the sandy canyon bottom. After 2.22 miles the canyon widens significantly as tributaries join the main canyon. Torote Canyon continues as the middle branch, which takes you in a southwesterly direction.
The easy stroll along the sandy canyon floor ends with a pile of boulders that must be climbed, 2.65 miles from your vehicle. After this hurdle, the easy walking resumes until, after hiking 3.35 miles, you arrive at the Indian Valley Overlook. This is a major decision point: you can return to your vehicle the way you came or you can make this a loop hike. The total distance is the same either way, but for the loop hike, there is a steep descent, 0.4-mile long, boulder-and-cholla-cactus-choked canyon leading down to the North Fork of Indian Valley. Once you reach the dry creek bed on the canyon floor, follow it east until it joins the North Fork 4WD road, which you will follow back to your vehicle.
- Distance from downtown San Diego: about 108 miles. Allow 2 hours (Anza-Borrego Desert State Park). From CA-163N take I-8E, exiting on the Imperial Hwy at Ocotillo, after 88 miles. Turn north on SR-2 (Imperial Hwy) and drive 18.8 miles to milepost 46.1, where you will find a dirt road heading west, signed “Indian Gorge.” The well-marked Torote Canyon trailhead and parking area is 1.8 miles ahead on your right.
- Hiking length: 6.7 miles either out-and-back or a loop of the same distance.
- Difficulty: The out-and-back is moderately strenuous while the loop is strenuous. Elevation gain/loss over 1000 feet. Trekking poles are recommended for the short descent from the end of Torote Canyon to Indian Valley on the loop hike. Boulder-hopping is occasionally necessary, but there are long stretches of easy walking on soft sand. There are no facilities and no source of drinking water. Do not attempt this hike without at least two liters of water per person. The best time to go is winter or early spring, when wildflowers are blooming. No mountain bikes or dogs are allowed.