Anza-Borrego’s best hikes for kids

by Shelly Rivoli
Borrego Palm Canyon hiking trailhead at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

Are you ready to explore California’s largest state park with your kids? With more than 600,000 acres of Colorado Desert in its safe keeping, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park has incredibly diverse terrain to explore and stories to tell. And these recommended hiking trails will get your family up close to some of the best examples of its:

  1. Geology – including radically different canyon types and badlands.
  2. Human history and cultures – dating back 5 thousand years (and more), including the Cahuilla and Kumeyaay people and their ancestors.
  3. Desert flora – including the only palm trees native to the western United States, a variety of cacti, agave and yucca, and spring wildflowers so famous they’ve earned their own hotline (no joke!).
Anza-Borrego's best hikes for kids
Anza-Borrego’s best hikes for kids

Before heading off to any of these hikes, I recommend a stop at the Visitor Center, where you can pick up maps and information guides for the park and three of these trails.

The friendly rangers can also advise you about the latest trail conditions and any current advisories for the areas you plan to visit — including current conditions of the dirt roads you may need to take to reach some trailheads.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park Visitor Center, 200 Palm Canyon Dr, Borrego Springs, CA 92004; 1 (760) 767-4205

I’ve included some overall tips for your family’s hiking trip(s) to Anza-Borrego at the end of this post. And if you’d like to see more photos from our time in the park, check out my Anza-Borrego Desert State Park photo gallery.

As promised, here they are–the best hikes for kids in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. And best of all, everything I want you to know BEFORE you go to have your best hikes possible. 🥾 Happy hiking! -Shelly

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1. Borrego Palm Canyon

Ocotillo with red flowering tips and blossoming yellow brittlebush at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. ©SHELLY RIVOLI.
  • Distance: 3.0 miles out-and-back
  • Elevation gain: 344 feet
  • Difficulty: Moderate (see notes)
  • Avg. time: 2 hours+
  • Dogs: No dogs on trail
  • Trailhead coordinates: 33.27, -116.42

It’s the most popular hiking trail in Anza-Borrego and with good reason. The most obvious being proximity. The trailhead is close to the town of Borrego Springs, the visitor center, and the Palm Canyon campground making it a convenient stop for the majority of visitors to the park.

But the 3.0-mile hike also starts smack-dab in the middle of a stunning landscape, then leads you into a craggy canyon, dotted with ragged rocks, spiky ocotillo, multiple species of cacti, and eventually palm trees–and occasionally bighorn sheep!

And in spring? It’s one of the best places to see the wide variety of Anza Borrego’s famed wildflowers on display, including mounds of yellow brittlebush, apricot mallow, beaver tail cactus, desert lavender, and towering ocotillo.

Add to that the delicious contrast of small waterfalls cascading over boulders in the middle of the desert (with the excitement of possible creek crossings) and a native California fan palm tree oasis as your outbound destination? And Borrego Palm Canyon is destined to be a memorable hike for your family.

Be sure to grab the tri-fold numbered brochure at the trailhead or save it to your phone and learn more about what you see (and might otherwise miss) along the way.

Things to know before you hike the Borrego Palm Canyon Trail

🥾 The round trip out-and-back hike to the oasis is 3 miles, and is often described as “easy.” However you’ll do a fair amount of steps and scrambling up and down uneven rocky surfaces with 344 feet elevation gain overall (700 ft. if you return on the alternate trail–see note below). Plan for at least 2 hours.

🥾 If there’s much water flow during your visit, expect creek crossings either over slippery (and possibly rolling) rocks or directly in the water.

Just the first of FOUR creek crossings we made on our recent spring hike at Borrego Palm Canyon. ©SHELLY RIVOLI.

🥾 This is a $10 day use fee area. You can pay by phone using a credit card and the Yodel app (instructions in parking lot) or display either of the annual California state parks passes (California Poppy or Explorer both work here). Fourth graders with the California Adventure Pass can visit this park FREE.

🥾 Door-less (and roofless!) toilets are at the trailhead, so your family will either want to stand guard for each other or use the restrooms at the adjacent Borrego Palm Canyon Campground (yay, doors!) or nearby visitor center.

🥾 This hike can get HOT — even hotter than surrounding parts of the park as the canyon narrows and its walls amplify the heat like an oven. Bring plenty of water per person and be sure to drink it throughout your hike. And leave extra water in your car for when you return. (There is a drinking fountain near the trailhead, but don’t depend on it working.)

🥾 The “alternate trail,” which forms a lollipop of about the same distance but with an additional 350 feet of elevation gain is not nearly as interesting to most kids as following along (and over or through) the creek and boulders route.

Overlooking Borrego Palm Canyon oasis and the palm grove recovering from a 2020 human-caused fire. ©SHELLY RIVOLI

🥾 The palm oasis suffered a horrible human-caused fire in 2020, but is making a fabulous comeback. For now, hikers need to appreciate the native California fan palm grove from the overlook as the resilient trees continue their recovery and the fragile topsoil stabilizes. (Please respect the signs!)

🥾 You can rest and enjoy a picnic on boulders at the oasis overlook or at picnic sites with tables near the trailhead.

2. Ehmuu-Morteros Trail

The scenic Ehmuu-Mortares trail in the Blair Valley Cultural Preserve within Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. ©SHELLY RIVOLI
  • Distance: 1.1 mile out-and-back
  • Elevation gain: 105 feet
  • Difficulty: Easy to Moderate (see notes below)
  • Avg. time: 1 hour
  • Dogs: No dogs on trail
  • Trailhead coordinates: 33.00, -116.38

When you’re ready for one of Anza-Borrego’s off-the-beaten paths, head for the Ehmuu-Morteros Trail in the Little Blair Valley Cultural Preserve (be sure to read driving notes below).

Be sure to pick up the numbered trail brochure beforehand or save it to your phone (get the PDF here). This location was a seasonal home to the Kumeyaay people and their ancestors before them.

As you explore the main trail and the numbered (and unmarked) offshoots, you’ll see archaeological evidence of the many generations that stayed, gathered and prepared its foods here–including the agave, yucca, and berries from juniper you’ll see still growing along the way.

A “kitchen rock” with several worn morteros or ehmuu grinding holes used by the Kumeyaay and their ancestors. ©SHELLY RIVOLI.

Look for the many ground-out holes in the large rocks which give the trail its name. “Morteros” is actually the Spanish word assigned to these, but the Kumeyaay word is “ehmuu.”

You’ll also see a “kitchen rock,” with many of these in different sizes as well as grinding slicks where the rock was worn smooth from other methods of grinding seeds and preparing flour.

The star attraction of the trail is a large, painted pictograph on the side of a massive boulder. Its exact age and meaning is unknown, but the Kumeyaay created the black weather-proof paint for their artwork from charcoal and the oil from roasted wild cucumber seeds.

The Kumeyaay pictograph. Who will be the first in your family to spot it??!! ©SHELLY RIVOLI

On your return, don’t miss the side trail to what looks like a pile of boulders, but was in fact a small shelter for the Kumeyaay when staying in this valley. Look closely and you’ll see yet another ehmuu worn in its floor.

Pssst! For more photos from our time in the park, check out my Anza-Borrego Desert State Park photo gallery.

Things to know before you hike the Ehmuu-Morteros Trail

🥾 You will need to drive about 3.5 miles of dirt road to reach this trailhead — either Little Blair Valley Road or Blair Valley Road to get to the trailhead. Both are usually passable in a 2WD car (30 miles/1 hour from the visitor center). You might want to check with the park rangers first about the road’s current condition. Continuing beyond this trailhead to Pictographs Trail DOES require 4WD and a higher clearance than the average SUV.

🥾 Expect to lose signal during the drive and hike. Keep your map and compass handy, and look extra closely for road signs.

🥾 There is no day use or parking fee at this trailhead, so it is possible to do this hike for free (or just the cost of gas), though you’ll need to pay the day use fee to park at the visitor center or Borrego Palm Canyon Trailhead.

🥾 The nearest toilets (vault) are by the Blair Valley Campground, toward the north end of Blair Valley Road (not “Little” Blair Valley Road), near S2/Great Southern Overland Stage Route. If you’d like to make a pit stop before or after the hike, take Blair Valley Road.

🥾 My version of this hike goes beyond the pictograph, making it slightly longer than the official trail described by the park. You’ll see an established trail continuing past the pictograph boulder, following through the scenic wash until it finally dead ends at boulders (your cue to start back).

Three kids hiking in desert with guidebook promotion for Hiking with Kids Southern California by Shelly Rivoli
Hiking with Kids Southern California: 45 Great Hikes for Families by Shelly Rivoli, includes hikes in 5 national parks as well as several state parks, regional parks, nature preserves, and national forests. (And guess what? That’s NOT “The Slot” on the cover!)

3. The Slot

The Slot is not for the claustrophobic! ©SHELLY RIVOLI
  • Distance: 2.3-mile loop
  • Elevation gain: 300 feet
  • Difficulty: Strenuous (see notes)
  • Avg. time: 1 hour 15 minutes
  • Dogs: No dogs on trail
  • Trailhead coordinates: 33.18, -116.21

The Slot is another of Anza-Borrego’s most popular hiking trails — and again, with good reason! The adventure through the slot canyon and views of Anza-Borrego’s weirdly wonderful badlands are incredibly fun for kids and adults alike.

Plus, the contrast between this canyon and other parts of the park you’re likely to see — especially on these recommended hikes — will give you an even better appreciation of the park’s diverse landscapes and ecosystems.

This trail has rough, uneven surfaces — and things like this. ?! (Like my shoes? See this post.) ©SHELLY RIVOLI

This is a trail you will want to hit EARLY, and on a weekday morning if possible, to avoid the crowds and un-pleasantries of vying for parking spaces (not to mention mid-day or afternoon heat).

Most hikers start at the signed trailhead at the northeast end of the parking area, which starts with a short and steep uphill climb. But that quickly turns into a descent into the canyon, and so the adventure begins!

Hiking in this counter-clockwise direction, however, means the most exciting portion for kids comes first. And a steep uphill climb in soft sand to the tune of a 20% grade(!) comes nearly at the end–though with fantastic, sweeping views over the park to the north.

That moment your family stops and asks, “Are you sure you want us to do this?” ©SHELLY RIVOLI

For that reason some families might want to do this hiking route in reverse, starting with the dirt/service road leading from the west end of the parking lot. If you’re not confident where to start if going clockwise, look for hikers completing the route and returning to the parking lot.

For this direction, you’ll follow the dirt road along the top of the canyon to the sign warning 4WD ONLY with an arrow to Borrego Mountain Wash Road (my stomach flips imagining someone actually driving down that?!).

At the bottom, you’ll follow the road and turn right into the wash, where rocks block entrance to any possible vehicles.

The section of Borrego Wash Road affectionately called “The Dropoff.” ©SHELLY RIVOLI

However, if you’ve arrived at a very busy time, you might not want to play salmon-fighting-upstream through the many hikers in the narrow parts of the canyon. Again, more reason to arrive early and on a weekday morning if possible.

Alternatively, I’m not aware of any rule that says you can’t do your own out-and-back version, hiking the slot portion in each direction. If you do, you might also want to take a leisurely stroll afterward along the portion of Borrego Mountain Wash Road that heads west from the parking area to see some fabulous ocotillo and take in the views over the canyon.

Things to know before you hike The Slot Trail

🥾 You will need to drive on a dirt road to reach this trailhead. Again, the road is usually manageable in a 2WD car, but check the latest conditions with a ranger before heading out if there’s any question.

🥾 This is a $10 day use fee area. You can pay by phone using a credit card and the Yodel app (instructions in parking lot) or you may find envelopes for cash with tear-off tabs to display on your dash. Or display either of the annual California state parks passes (California Poppy or Explorer both work here). Fourth graders with the California Adventure Pass can visit this park FREE.

🥾 Toilets are at the trailhead.

🥾The park brochure claims this trail is 1.5 miles round trip. However, I and other hikers confirmed a distance of 2.3 miles when hiking the full loop.

🥾 My difficulty rating for this trail is “strenuous” because some good scrambling and squeezing are necessary, and a 20% grade climb in loose sand (if going the most common, counter-clockwise direction) is intense for most hikers.

🥾 Bulky baby or toddler backpack carriers may need to be removed to get through some parts of the slot.

A side-blotched lizard suns himself beside a see of bright yellow brittlebush wildflowers in Anza-Borrego. ©SHELLY RIVOLI

Helpful tips for family day hikes in Anza Borrego:

🥾 In the desert, timing can be everything. So remember that summer months (with temps up to 125° F) are no time for a hike in Anza-Borrego. And any significant rainfall has the potential to lead to flash flooding. Check the forecast and call the rangers if there’s any question about weather or conditions.

🥾 When hiking in Anza-Borrego, even on short trails, bring more water than you expect you’ll need on the trail. And ALWAYS leave extra water in the car for afterward.

🥾 Babies and small children become dehydrated much more quickly than older kids and adults. That’s why you’ll need to be sure they’re hydrating even more than you.

🥾 Even in cooler temperatures, desert UV is intense! Sun hats and quality UV-protective sun glasses are a good idea for everyone in the family (even the wee hikers).

🥾 Dogs are not allowed on hiking trails in Anza-Borrego State Park. Be sure to make other arrangements for Fifi! TIP: Use my link to save $20 on a pet sitting or boarding at home or near your vacation destination.

Three kids hiking in desert with guidebook promotion for Hiking with Kids Southern California by Shelly Rivoli
Hiking with Kids Southern California: 45 Great Hikes for Families by Shelly Rivoli includes hikes in 5 national parks as well as several state and city parks, nature preserves, and national forests.

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