Many trails radiate out from the Bow Willow Campground area—which was the site of a large seasonal home for Kumeyaay ancestors. The trail described here leads to the beautiful palm oases at Mountain Palm Springs. En route, there is an opportunity to visit the elephant tree “forest” at Torote Bowl with its dramatic views east to the Carrizo Badlands and marsh.
Start walking northwest from the campground trailhead, crossing the wide sandy Bow Willow Creek wash. Look for weathered 4x4 posts with yellow tops that mark the trail. An unpainted sign identifies this as the Mountain Palm Springs Trail, and a sign about 0.3 mile from the trailhead marks the direction for the Southwest Grove and Torote Bowl. The trail continues up the hillside on the north side of the wash, opening up some grand vistas as you gain elevation. At a fork in the trail, take the left branch to proceed to Torote Bowl, about half a mile ahead.
The Torote Bowl is the upper end of an unnamed canyon and is home to at least 15 large small-leaf elephant trees or, in Spanish, torote. Also, the view from Torote Bowl out to the Carrizo Badlands and marsh. Admire the trees, tae in that view, and return to the trail junction to take the signed trail to the Southwest Grove of Palms in Mountain Palm Springs, 1.9 miles from Bow Willow. This large, well-watered grove offers shade and a cool respite from the desert sun.
At this point, there are two return options. Either head back the same way for a slightly less than 4 miles out-and-back hike, or take the well-worn trail east from the Southwest Grove toward the Mountain Palm Springs primitive campground for an alternate return hike. There's an assumption here that your exploration of the six major palm groves in the Mountain Palm Springs area will be left for another day.
If you’re ready and equipped for something different, here’s the alternate route back: Find a well-used but unsigned trail leading south up a small gully shortly before arriving at the Mountain Palm Springs trailhead parking area. Following this trail requires close attention, but it is marked with frequent trail ducks (a type of trail marker, usually a small pile three stones high) and it is easy walking through the Sonoran scrub. If the trail is lost, just keep walking west-southwest until Bow Willow Campground comes into view.
Know before you go:
We’ve rated the difficulty for this hike easy, with elevation gain/loss of about 400 feet. At this time, there is a $10 Day Use Parking Fee per vehicle. No bicycles or dogs are allowed on trails. Before you go, check to ensure the trail is open. More detailed information about the area can be found at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.
If there were a plant that defined California deserts, the creosote shrub (Larrea tridentata) would definitely be a contender. Easily found along the trail, it is waist to head high and is characterized by tiny deep green leaves, open branching structure, and tiny yellow flowers in spring. Creosote is one of the oldest and most widespread plants of the California deserts. It has the ability to clone itself out from the original seedling, making a circle of plants that are genetically the same as the original seed that may be thousands of years old.
The oldest and largest ring of creosote known is in the Coachella Valley and is estimated to be over 11,000 years old. It’s the desert’s most drought-tolerant plant capable of surviving up to 70% loss of water, despite the fact that it is an evergreen. It does this by using many strategies to protect its leaf moisture from the hot desert sun. The taco shape, shine, and texture of the leaves all maximize its ability to conserve water.
The desert hosts several species of walking sticks. While you are looking at the creosote bush, look for the creosote bush walkingstick (Diapheromera covilleae) that might be on the plant. This insect does not have wings but is a master of disguise and hard to find as it walks along branches. It sways from side-to-side with a breeze, and each leg movement can slow to an almost imperceptible crawl. Its graceful, stick-like body matches the greens and browns of the creosote that it feeds upon.
And about those elephant trees (Bursera microphylla). The short, stubby branches of this hardy tree are contorted. The Spanish name torote comes from either the word “twisted” or is related to “a bull.” Whichever you call it, take a moment to enjoy their unique look.
From S-2 go west on the dirt road to Bow Willow Campground, 15.9 miles north of I-8 and 31.5 miles south of CA-78. Go 1.5 miles to trailhead parking. Trailhead GPS: N32.84319, W116.22667
Looking for more great hikes? Check out our Canyoneers page or purchase the book, Coast to Cactus: The Canyoneer Trail Guide to San Diego Outdoors.
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