The Elephant Tree Trail sits in a large wash wedged between two foothills.
Day hikers can get a good sense of what the Coachella Valley used to look like before urbanization on the Elephant Tree Trail at Anza-Borrego State Park.
Though distant by road, the celebrated park is actually quite close to the Coachella Valley, sitting on the Santa Rosa Mountains’ south side. As the crow flies, the state park is as near to La Quinta as Beaumont is to Palm Springs. Both regions are in the Colorado Desert, a subdivision of the Sonoran Desert. The 2.8-mile Elephant Tree Trail is at about the same elevation as much of Rancho Mirage and Palm Desert at 262-292 feet above sea level.
The mountains serve as an effective barrier to the Anza-Borrego, though, requiring a drive around them. The trip just from Interstate 10 in Indio is about an hour one-way.
To reach the trail, from Indio take Calif. Hwy. 86 south. Near the bottom tip of the Salton Sea, turn right/west onto Calif. Hwy. 78. In Ocotillo Wells, go left/south on Split Mountain Road. In about six miles, the trailhead is on the right/west. Leaveyour vehicle there – though if you have a high-clearance four-wheel drive you can take your vehicle about 0.9 miles to the where the trail loops.
The wide sand road crosses an alluvial fan not unlike those found at the base of the Coachella Valley’s foothills where streams bring meltwater off the surrounding foothills and mountains. You’ll want to wear hiking boots with good traction and a trekking pole to traverse the road.
At 0.9 miles, you’ll reach the trail proper, which is a loop. Go left/southwest on it so that you do the loop clockwise.
With the trail positioned in a narrow section between two foothills, a number of plants grow here. All but one of these plants can be found in the Coachella Valley, but today they mostly are part of landscaped yards and desert gardens.
One plant is the catclaw, which has tiny leaves. While leaves give plants energy through photosynthesis, they also give off moisture. One way for the catclaw to survive the desert heat is to retain moisture by minimizing its leaf size.
Creosote bushes also are common. Like catclaw, it also has small leaves but the added protection of oil covering them. This helps protect it from the sun’s intense rays. Creosote can go up to two years without rain.
The desert lavender takes a different approach to surviving the desert – the makeup of its leaves changes with the seasons. During dry times, its leaves are small, thick and hairy; the hairs prevent moisture loss by providing shade for the rest of the leaf. When the weather turns wet, the leaves grow larger, thinner and with fewer hairs.
Indigo bushes here use the same technique people do with their clothing and buildings in the desert – keep the colors light. Its almost white bark reflects the sunlight. Many indigo bushes appear dead, but they’re just waiting for the next rainfall before sprouting leaves.
The brittlebush gets most of its moisture from the ground and so has evolved a unique strategy to hoard its supply. During a rain, chemicals wash off its leaves and prevent other plants from growing in the soil near it.
Ocotillo takes a different approach to obtaining precious rainwater – its shallow roots stretch for long distances all around it. Like the indigo bush, it also drops its leaves during dry times.
The smoke tree has evolved to thrive in desert washes. Its leaves gain the most energy from photosynthesis when temperatures are at 102 degrees. The plant also depends on flashfloods for its seeds to germinate in the loose sand.
While all of these plants are common in the Coachella Valley, there is a one on the trail that you’ll only find in a lone spot in the desert resorts are – the elephant tree. Growing up to 10 feet tall, its thick branches – thick at least for the desert – usually are low to the ground. It retains water in its trunk. The tree boasts a pleasant scent, much like orange peelings. Most elephant trees grow south of the wash, so the one on the trail marks its northern edge in the park.
Elephant trees have been found in only one place in the Coachella Valley – on a slope above the Martinez Creek bed in Martinez Canyon, located south of Indio in the Santa Rosa Mountains. It’s the farthest north the tree ever has been identified.
As the loop closes on its stem, you’ll notice several cactus species. Among them are the barrel, fishhook, prickly pear, and two varieties of cholla. After a spring rainfall, this section of the trail is lit with color from the cacti’s wildflowers.
There’s another desert denizen along the way that easily escapes notice – living soil crusts. Those are the dark patches atop the sand. Algae, mosses, lichens and bacteria bind together the tiny rock and sand particles. This not only stabilizes the desert soil for them but also helps store water while creating nitrogen that other plants use. while often unseen, its impact is enormous.
Upon returning to the stem trail at 1.9 miles, head east to the trailhead and your vehicle.
There’s no shade at all on the trail, so be sure to don sunscreen, sunglasses and sunhat while drinking plenty of water. The trail is best done in late September through May; during the summer months, temperatures routinely top out in the 100’s.
- The Elephant Tree Trail in Anza-Borrego State Park looks much like the Coachella Valley did before urbanization.: Rob Bignell