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Hiking: Anza-Borrego

Soaking Up a Little Desert Magic

March 05, 1995|JOHN McKINNEY

Nothing like a good soak after a hike. At Agua Caliente Springs in the middle of the Colorado Desert, you can have both--an inspiring walk and a soothing mineral bath.

A hot spring, along with a good-sized campground, a store and the natural beauty of the Tierra Blanca Mountains, combine to make Agua Caliente County Park a popular weekend retreat. The park, open from Labor Day to Memorial Day, is especially delightful in March and April when usually abundant desert wildflowers splash color on the mountains behind the campground.

Seismic activity (an offshoot of the Elsinore fault) that long ago shaped the surrounding mountains also boosted water to the surface to form the mineral springs. The natural springs in the area give life to mesquite, willows and palms and also attract many animals and birds.

Centuries ago the native Kumeyaay bathed in the springs. The Spanish who followed dubbed the springs Agua Caliente (hot water). Today's visitors can soak away their cares in a large shallow outdoor pool, geothermally heated to 96 degrees, and in an indoor pool, boosted to more than 100 degrees and equipped with spa jets.

The park has 140 campsites, hot showers, a picnic area, a children's play area and some spiffy shuffleboard courts. Surrounding the park is Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

Two trails explore the county park and visit undeveloped tiny springs (seeps) in the surrounding hills. Squaw Pond Trail visits mesquite-filled Squaw Canyon; Moonlight Canyon Trail fulfills the promise of its name.

Directions to the trail head: Agua Caliente County Park is on Highway S-2 (the main north-south artery through Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, 22 miles southeast of Highway 78. Day-use parking fee is $2 per vehicle. Parking for Squaw Pond Trail is right next to the park entry station in a picnic area. Moonlight Canyon Trail begins at Campsite 140 next to the shuffleboard courts.

Squaw Pond Trail ascends a mesquite-dotted slope above the park's campfire circle and soon comes to a junction. Desert Overlook Trail branches left and climbs a steep quarter-mile to a panorama of the surrounding mountains. Ocotillo Ridge Trail, an abandoned nature trail, weaves through abundant desert flora and returns to the park entry road.

Continue on signed Squaw Pond Trail, which descends a cholla-lined draw and soon arrives at Squaw Pond, a boggy, willow-lined area nurturing a single palm tree.

From the campground, Moonlight Canyon Trail ascends briefly but steeply to a rocky saddle, curves east, then descends into a narrow wash. After passing a willow-lined seep in the midst of the canyon, the trail circles back to the park campground.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Squaw Pond, Moonlight Canyon Trails

WHERE: Agua Caliente County Park, Anza-Borrego.

DISTANCE: 1 to 2 miles round trip.

TERRAIN: Slopes and canyons of Tierra Blanca Mountains.

HIGHLIGHTS: Soak in hot springs, abundant desert flora.

DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY: Easy to moderate.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Agua Caliente County Park, c/o San Diego County Department of Parks and Recreation, 5201 Ruffin Road, Suite P, San Diego, Calif. 92133; tel. (619) 694-3049.

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