Friday, January 11, 2013

A most elegant rock garden - the Cactus Loop Trail

Date: December 25, 2012
Place: Anza Borrego State Park, Borrego Springs, California
Coordinates: 33.13867, -116.37523
Length: about 1 mile
Difficulty: moderate

On Christmas morning we made and early start in the direction of Borrego Springs, coming from the Julian. Just past the left turn onto Yaqui Pass road, across from the Tamarisk campground, we made a stop. On the map we got a day before at the visitor center there was a little loop trail there, marked: Cactus Loop Trail. We thought it would be a good hike to begin the day with.
A field of cacti
And it was. The Cactus Loop Trail is an interpretive trail, with labeled stops along the way. I picked up a pamphlet at the trailhead and stopped to read the description at every number post.
The pamphlet had names and some information about the plants there. Mostly cacti, but not just.

The pale brittlebush provides the perfect background for the red Barrel Cactus. The grey color of the leaves come from their thick 'fur' coating of fine trichome hairs. These protect the plant from excess radiation and from water loss.
Barrel cactus
When people think 'cactus' they often imagine something that looks either like the giant saguaro (non of them there) or like the Beavertail Cactus - with the flat pads extending from one-another. These pads are stems, not leaves. The leaves of this and other cacti have evolved to be the thorns - the cactus protection against herbivores.  
Beavertail cactus
When it comes to thorns, the title goes to the Cholla cactus, which is very common in Anza Borrego. Its thorn cover is so thick one can barely see the stem underneath. It also tends to break upon contact, thus leaving its nasty thorns inside the flesh. A tackle with one of these isn't a nice experience, to say the least.
Golden Cholla
Nasty thorns alright, but when it comes to blossom, cacti flowers are amongst the most delicate and colorful in the plant kingdom. We were there in December so we didn't get to see any cacti in bloom. These yellow buttresses are the leftover pedicels of the Cholla blossom.

Another iconic plant of the southwestern deserts is the Agave. The green, succulent rosettes were all over the hillside.
Agave inflorescence
The Agave can grow for decades long, sprouting new plants from its root crowns. When reaching a certain age and size it blooms. Once. Then dies.

Another non-cactus typical to that region is the Ocotillo bush. Its bare branches extend upward, giving the entire plant the appearance of 'The burning bush'. At spring time, these Ocotillo will bear flame-red flowers at the tips of their branches.
No December flowers for us, though.


The trail goes up quite a bit - on the side of a little desert wash. Being the part where most of the rare rain water collects, the wash bed is also the area most dense with vegetation.

Without their blossoms, desert plants blend in with their rocky environment. From far, many of them appear to be rocks to the scanning eye. It takes a close look to see the richness of plant life in the area that seemed to be barren at first glance.

In spring time, following a good wet winter, these brown hills would be aflame with bloom.

Buckhorn Cholla
Many people turn their yards into rock gardens for the sheer beauty of this landscape. Hiking the hills in Anza Borrego is taking a tour in Nature's great yard's rock garden. I was duly impressed.

We completed the loop and right next to our car a bird was standing on top of a bush. We all got excited - it was our first good sighting of this bird - a male Phainopepla. It sat there patiently, allowing Papa Quail to photograph him from every possible direction.
It is, in fact, a very common bird in those parts, but that was our first meeting with it.
Phainopepla, male

On post # 6 of the interpretive trail, there is a blurb about Bighorn sheep and their adaptation to the desert environment. The pamphlet suggested to look around for possible sightings. After missing them the day before, you can bet I did look for them all along the trail. The sheep, however, didn't show up. 


  1. Christmas without snow, trees or presents?
    at least you head a lot of plants :-)

    1. What do you mean? The desert is the perfect place to meet with God. Any prophet can tell you that!

      (And you must admit the Ocotillo looks very much like the burning bush :-)

  2. Looks like a very interesting place to visit.
    Hopefully, sometimes soon :-)

    1. Yes it is! Highly recommended! But don't wait too long - it'll soon be too hot there.