According to former State Park Superintendent Mark Jorgensen, this canyon “is a surprise during good wildflower seasons and holds many species of blooming plants in its shady confines.” It is the canyon commonly recommended for a short stroll by the Visitor Center volunteers during the wildflower season. Who actually named this little canyon is a bit of a mystery. It being relatively short, at least part of the name seems clear. And, indeed, it is surprising that such a small canyon has such a rich habitat. If you have ever hiked from this parking area to Maidenhair Falls via Hellhole Canyon, you may be surprised to learn that you have missed the beginning of this diminutive yet fascinating little canyon.
This hike can be done either as an easy out-and-back, which is well suited for children or adults with some mobility issues, or as a more challenging loop hike with a bit of boulder scrambling over a few dry waterfalls. No matter your route, it is well worth spending an hour or two investigating Little Surprise Canyon as either an addition to a trip up to Maidenhair Falls or as a stand-alone exploration. Few places in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park will give you a better feeling for the beauty of the desert than this. The best time of year to see wildflowers is between February and May, with March and April often being the peak flower season. However, the timing and quantity of the bloom is highly dependent on rain and other environmental factors. Daytime temperatures from June through October may make desert hiking unwise except for the early morning or evening hours.
To start your hike, simply step behind the vault toilets and head in a southerly direction into the canyon. Even with such a short hike, the desert is not a particularly forgiving place, so be sure to bring plenty of water and don’t forget a hat to shade you from the intense desert sun. While hiking boots are not required for this hike, at a minimum be sure to wear a good pair of closed-toed tennis shoes.
In wildflower season, you will almost immediately begin to discover an amazing variety of desert foliage in bloom. Common plants here are the red tubular flowered chuparosa (Justicia californica), a favorite of hummingbirds, and the pale purple bristly langloisia (Langloisia setosissima). While most flowers have yellow pollen, the pollen of langloisia is a startling blue. A less common inhabitant here is the pale yellow sand blazing star (Mentzelia involucrata). This plant has a floral mimic, the ghost flower (Mohavea confertiflora), often found in the same area. The mimic saves energy by not producing any nectar to attract pollinators. Rather, it relies on its resemblance to the sand blazing star to fool insects into visiting its flower, where they receive no reward for their pollinating efforts.
Continuing on for about 300 feet will bring you to a fork in the canyon. Follow the right (west) fork for a longer and more interesting path. It begins with a mostly flat sandy wash, but soon the canyon walls grow higher and the trail becomes increasingly rocky. Take a moment to consider the dual forces of wind and rain runoff from the San Ysidro Mountains in the shaping of this area. If you come to a section that is more challenging than you wish to tackle, simply turn around and retrace your steps.
If you do continue over these rocky sections, you will eventually come out of the canyon and find yourself close to S-22. The vegetation on this more exposed section, such as indigo bush (Psorothamnus schottii) with its deep purple flowers, attest to the drier environment outside of the more protected and shady canyon. You may now choose to either retrace your path back down into the canyon, or look for one of the trails that will take you on a more exposed ridgeline route just to the east of the canyon. Looking over the edge of the ridge and down into the canyon gives a birds-eye view of your earlier trek.
When you reach the canyon floor, continue north and back to the parking area and your car.
(Canyoneers are San Diego Natural History Museum volunteers trained to lead interpretive nature walks that teach appreciation for the great outdoors. For a schedule of free public hikes, refer to the San Diego Natural History Museum website. Hike descriptions are also found in Coast to Cactus: The Canyoneer Trail Guide to San Diego Outdoors.)