One person’s hellhole is another’s heavenly desert oasis. Hellhole Canyon in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is definitely the latter. Its name comes from cattleman Wid Helm, who said it was “one hell of a hole to get cattle out of.” For you, it’s a moderate 5.5-mile (round-trip) out-and-back hike, with a bonus waterfall as the finale. It’s also far less crowded than the park’s famous Borrego Palm Canyon.
From the free parking area just southwest of the visitor center, head into the wide canyon on the signed trail, passing by an ominous faux grave of those who failed to bring enough water. Don’t be one of them! The trail is mostly flat for the first 2 miles, winding around barrel cacti, creosote, ocotillo, and yucca.
The path begins to narrow at the first palm grove. Here and beyond you will have to do some rock scrambling. Cottonwoods and sycamores start to complement the palms, all indicating the presence of water. Listen for the chirping of yellow-faced verdins in the brush or try to spot the striking black-throated sparrows dancing along the desert floor.
Another half-mile leads you to a thicker palm oasis and the perfect spot for a lunch break on a shaded boulder. Take time to climb out of the oasis and scan the canyon cliffs for the park’s star mammal, the stately peninsular bighorn sheep. This is a good ending point, but if you’ve made a New Year’s resolution to challenge yourself, continue up the creek and into the canyon. Rock-scramble another quarter-mile to reach the trickling Maidenhair Falls. Although they could use some serious rain (couldn’t we all?), this is still a peaceful finishing point before you head back out of this not-so-hellish hole.
TIP: Time your hike to finish just before sunset to avoid the desert sun and to catch the gorgeous dusk palette of the canyon. This will also increase your chances of a bighorn sheep sighting.
From I-15, take CA-76 east for 35 miles and turn left onto CA-79 north. After 4.3 miles, turn right onto San Felipe Rd. and continue 4.7 miles, keeping left onto Montezuma Valley Rd. After 15 miles, the parking area will be on your left. No dogs.