Full disclosure: there are no plum trees in Plum Canyon. It’s possibly a misnomer caused by incorrectly identifying a desert apricot tree (Prunus fremontii) as a desert plum. But there are no desert plums in the Anza-Borrego area, either. Another possibility for the name is attributed to cattleman John McCain who, with his brother, constructed a wagon road through the area sometime before 1913—in fact, an earlier name for this canyon was Wagon Wash. McCain grew plums on his ranch in Julian in the 1890s.
Rockslides have made the old wagon road impassable. However, as a hiking route it is well worth exploring. The California Riding and Hiking Trail (CRHT) follows upper Plum Canyon and continues on to the Pinyon Mountain Road in Shelter Valley and then on into Blair Valley. Beginning the hike at the entrance to Plum Canyon makes for a longer but more interesting hike, allowing hikers to experience the transition from lower elevation desert vegetation to that found in the higher elevations.
The road forks 1.4 miles from the entrance to Plum Canyon. Go right. The dirt road ends at mile 1.8. The shorter hike begins here. At 2.11 miles the trail goes to the right and over a dry waterfall. Follow signage and at 2.4 miles look for a large and interesting pegmatite dike with quartz and black tourmaline and wind caves on the right. About 0.25 mile further is a side canyon where the old Plum Canyon Road came into the wash from Shelter/Earthquake Valley. If exploring this side canyon, look for traces of the old wagon road. Continuing up the main wash, there is another CRHT sign before a steep climb that leads to the overview of Shelter/Earthquake Valley at elevation 2720 feet at mile 3.17. Enjoy the view of Granite Mountain to the west. Retrace steps back to your vehicle.
We’ve rated the difficulty for this hike moderate, with elevation gain/loss from 550 to 1,000 feet. Dogs are not allowed. 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.
Anza-Borrego State Park offers plenty to see. Plants seen in the lower elevation area include desert agave, desert-lavender, creosote bush, chuparosa, brittlebush, ocotillo, and a variety of cacti. Many smoke trees are found in the wash—wash is a shallow, contoured channel that allows water to flow.
The canyon has a wide diversity of plants because of its location in the Desert Transition Zone with 175 taxa identified. Soon after leaving the upper parking area is the first encounter with desert apricot trees, California juniper, Mojave yucca, desert-willow, and barrel cactus. This mixed transition area also has catclaw acacia and ephedra (Ephedra spp.). Ephedra is a broom-like shrub with joint stems and scale-like leaves that is a gymnosperm or cone-bearing plant, like the cypress family and the pine family. Common names associated with it include joint fir, Mormon tea, and Indian tea. Ephedra stems, branches, and roots contain ephedrine, which stimulates the central nervous system, much like an amphetamine.
From CA-78 turn south into the entrance to Plum Canyon, 4 miles east of S-2, after a sharp turn to the east. There is an option to either park here and begin the hike or drive 1.4 miles on a dirt road to a fork in the road, and take the right fork, driving an additional 0.4 miles to the end of the road and park.
Trailhead GPS: N33.12865, W116.42526
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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