Broadly speaking, the desert is where you go to find cacti. Speaking specifically, Cactus Loop Trail is where you go in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park to see lots of cacti. True you can spot these prickly plants throughout the park, but this self-guided nature trail explores a rocky ridge that is utterly blanketed with a variety of cacti. A state park provided trail guide pamphlet offers a crash course in the area’s unique plants on this 0.75-mile loop with 250 feet of elevation gain.
Pick up a nature trail guide at the well-marked trailhead just across from Tamarisk Grove Campgrounds on Yaqui Pass Road south of Borrego Springs. Start hiking up a rocky ravine, where you will quickly pass the first of fourteen numbered markers along the trail that correspond with short entries in the trail guide pamphlet. The first marker is next to chuparosa, a bush with red tubular flowers that are popular with humming birds. Along the trail you will also pass ocotillo, cholla cacti, beavertail cacti, and other desert plants described in the guide.
Looking up Cactus Loop Trail
After 0.2 miles, you will hike out of the ravine and up onto a rocky slope with clear views back down toward Tamarisk Grove Campgrounds. The trail goes further up the slope toward the mountainous wall of Pinyon Ridge. Before it gets too far up, the trail levels out, curves to the right, and passes a knoll at the high point of the loop. Take the short spur, a third of a mile from the start, and walk out to onto the bump on the slope with the hike’s broadest views, looking east down Mescal Bajada toward Sunset Mountain.
A blooming barrel cactus above Mescal Bajada
Continue around Cactus Loop Trail, which now runs downhill along the rim of a small trench that was cut into the slope by flashfloods. A couple of markers on the back half of the loop seem to be out of position. There was no hedgehog cactus at marker 12 and no fishhook cactus by marker 14 to correspond with the readings in the pamphlet (as of March, 2013). If you look around though, you should be able to spot these cacti in other places.
The guide gives examples of how each plant has adapted to survive in this difficult climate. Doing so, it is filled with interesting factoids about several cacti. For example, a barrel cactus can change its shape dramatically with water weight.
After a rain, this amazing cactus can hold up to 90% of its weight in water. Its accordion shape allows it to swell as it absorbs water after a rainstorm. By storing moisture when it can, the barrel cactus survives months without rain.
Agave is another common plant along the trail, most easily identified by the impressive flower stalks that rise high above some of the plants.
When the plant reaches a critical size and weight, it sends up a flower stalk. These stalks shoot up quickly and grow to ten or more feet tall. Each plant flowers only once, usually when it is fifty, sixty or more years old. After flowering, the agave dies.
Agave at marker 13
At the bottom of the descent, the loop ends on Yaqui Pass Road, about 150 feet from the trailhead at the start of the loop. The nature trail guide is available at the trailhead, Tamarisk Grove Campgrounds, and the park visitor center an no charger. You are encouraged to return the pamphlet when you finish the hike so that it can be reused. To explore one of the other self-guided nature trail in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, check out Yaqui Well Trail, Elephant Trees Trail, or Narrows Earth Trail. The start of Yaqui Well Trail is just a few hundred feet down the road from the trailhead for Cactus Loop Trail and the two hikes can be easily combined for a great lesson in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park plants and history. Dogs and mountain bikes are not allowed on this trail. No fee or permit is required to hike Cactus Loop Trail, so get out and enjoy!
To get to the trailhead: From Christmas Circle in Borrego Springs, drive 5 miles southwest on Borrego Springs Road. Turn right on Route S3 (Yaqui Pass Road) and drive 6.5 miles south on Yaqui Pass Road. The trailhead is located on the right (west) side of the road across from Tamarisk Grove Campgrounds (if you reach Route 78, you went about 0.4 of a mile too far). There is roadside parking available at the trailhead.
Trailhead address: Yaqui Pass Road, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, Julian, CA 92036
Trailhead coordinates: 33.138755, -116.37494 (33° 08′ 19.51″N 116° 22′ 29.78″W)
Use the map below to create your own directions:
Or view California Desert Hikes in a larger map
|Yaqui Well Trail|
This 1.6-mile out and back hike on a self-guided nature trail explores area botany and history, crossing a wash to reach a rare desert water source.
|Kenyon Overlook Trail|
This 1.15-mile loop sets out from Yaqui Pass to reach an incredible viewpoint across Mescal Bajada.
|Narrows Earth Trail|
This 0.5-mile self-guided hike explores the geology of the park.
This short hike descends through a narrow canyon beneath a natural rock span that is among the most photographed landmarks in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.
|Hellhole Canyon Trail to Maidenhair Falls|
This 5.5-mile hike visits a 20-foot waterfall in a canyon near Borrego Springs, making it the perfect place to cool off on a hot day in the California Desert.
|Panoramic Overlook Trail|
The 1-mile round trip hike ascends a ridge on the south side of Borrego Palm Canyon to sweeping views of the San Ysidro Mountains and Borrego Valley.
|Borrego Palm Canyon Trail|
This 3.25-mile loop visits a popular palm tree oasis in a canyon west of Borrego Springs.
|Hikes in the California Desert|
Explore more trails in Death Valley National Park, Joshua Tree National Park, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, and Mojave National Preserve.
|Tamarisk Grove Campgrounds|
This shaded 27-site campground is one of four developed campgrounds in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and the start of two self-guided nature trails.
|Anza-Borrego Desert Campgrounds|
There are four developed campgrounds, eight primitive campgrounds, and extensive roadside camping to accommodate your visit to California’s largest state park.
|Anza-Borrego Desert State Park Wildflowers|
The desert bloom brings bursts of color to barrel cactus, beavertail cactus, ocotillo, and more.