Coyote Canyon Hike – Two Days Backpacking the Anza Borrego Desert

Coyote Canyon Hike

The Coyote Canyon Trail hike takes you along the same path that Juan Bautista de Anza followed during his 1775-6 colonizing expedition from Sonora, Mexico to the San Francisco bay. With water running year around in the creek, it’s easy to understand why de Anza chose to take this route through the desert.

After several requests, I have decided to add my GPS tracks from the trip in both .gpx and .kpz formats. This should give you the coordinates for both the beginning and end of our hike, as well as water sources and other points along the hike.

When You Start in the North, It’s all Downhill

We started our two day trip on the north end of the canyon on Coyote Canyon Road. We left a second vehicle on the south end where the pavement meets the dirt on Di Gorgio Road. The plan was to hike south through the canyon, pick up the second vehicle and shuttle back to pick up our first. Two days and 23 miles of easy hiking and fun in the sun.

The great thing about starting on the north end and hiking point-to-point is that the entire hike, all 23 miles of it, is downhill. Our total elevation gain for the hike was around 440 feet, while our loss was over 3100 feet. When you’re hiking in the desert, and it’s hot and dry, following a 23 mile path downhill doesn’t suck.

Coyote Canyon hike
Jason and John gearing up at the northern trailhead

Into the Willows

After a brief hike down into the canyon, you begin a long stretch hiking along the river wash. Before long, you’ll run into the first of three oasis, known as Upper Willows, Middle Willows and Lower Willows.

Coyote Canyon Hike
Navigating Middle Willows Oasis in Coyote Canyon

The Oasis are fed by natural springs that flow year-round. The willows are closed to the public between June 1 and September 30 each year to protect the water sources for the rare peninsular big horn sheep. The path is relatively clear through each of them, though you will get a little muddy and wet along the way. Not to worry, your shoes will dry out in the desert sun nearly as quickly as they got wet.

The Willows are the only reliable natural water sources along the hike, so we stopped at each in the shade to fill up.

Coyote Canyon Hike
Collecting water somewhere along Lower Willows

Finding Camp

Although the trail is relatively easy to follow, navigating the desert is pretty straight forward, so we spent a lot of time off trail. The only drawback to going off trail is that there are a lot more sharp and pointy things to work around. Jumping Cholla Cactus are everywhere, so we had to keep an eye out as we made our way towards Coyote Canyon to camp for the night.

Coyote Canyon Hike
Hiking into Coyote Canyon to camp for the night

We setup camp on an island in the wash at the base of Coyote Canyon. The sand was white and cool and the canyon provided shelter from the wind. There are established campsites available for car camping within the canyon as well. We passed several sites that were occupied by campers who had driven in using 4×4 vehicles.

camping under the desert sky
Camping under the desert sky in Coyote Canyon

A Leisurely Start to Day Two

We woke up early and enjoyed a leisurely morning before packing up and hitting the trail for our hike out of Coyote Canyon. Our first stop was at Middle Willows, where we once again made our way through the oasis and filled up on water for the hike to Lower Willows.

By the time we reached Lower Willows, the temperature had climbed to around 90 degrees and we were ready for the cool water and shade waiting in the oasis. We stopped once again to fill up on water and take a lunch break, then headed out for the last 6 or 7 miles of our hike.

refilling our water
Refilling at the last water stop on our way out of Coyote Canyon

The Long Walk Out

The final stretch of our hike was tough. It was excruciatingly hot under the midday desert sun, and the road was long and dusty. Our progress slowed as we made our way out of the canyon and shade was hard to come by. We stopped around 3pm one final time when we found a large Ocotillo tree that offered a shady reprieve. After a brief break and a chance to recoup and re-hydrate, we hit the trail and made our way to our cars, which were waiting at the southern trailhead.

hiking south along the dirt road
Hiking south along the dirt road leading out of Coyote Canyon

The Last Stop on Our Way Out of Town

On our way out of town, we stopped at Carlee’s for a cold beer and a burger. The food was great, and the air-conditioning was a welcome treat after a long hike in the desert.

carlee's restaurant
Carlee’s is the perfect place to stop for a cold beer and a tasty burger


Hiking the Coyote Canyon Trail in Anza Borrego along the historic de Anza route provides a fun adventure for those who are prepared for the desert environment. The trail has water year-round, stunning views, and plenty of space for remote camping. With a little planning and preparation, hikers can have a rewarding and memorable experience in this unique and beautiful landscape.


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6 thoughts on “Coyote Canyon Hike – Two Days Backpacking the Anza Borrego Desert

  • August 20, 2023 at 11:12 am

    I’m considering this trip for a group of Boy Scouts in mid-November. Do you have an idea for how long it is to shuttle from main state park campgroup up to the trailhead? We plan to get shuttled up, do a 2 day hike N to S, and then get picked up on the South end. Any other challenges or recommendations we should be aware of?

  • October 29, 2018 at 11:04 am

    This trip intrigues me. It looks like you had a reliable water source. Do you know if it’s still there or dried up? I’m interested to see your GPS track if you have it available. Thanks!

  • March 1, 2017 at 8:16 pm

    How difficult is it to reach the location where you started backpacking in Coyote Canyon? Is a 4WD vehicle required? We won’t have one, but I can handle a few extra miles of hiking.
    Using maps, I figured you must have taken roads out of Anza. Would you please give specific directions. I’d like to have my wife drop me off at the north end and retreive me at the south end.

    • March 2, 2017 at 3:32 pm

      Hey Jack,

      Thanks for stopping by!

      The trek on the north end is rough, but we managed to get two 2-wheel drive Tacomas down there, albeit just barely. The road was uneven enough that I had one wheel in the air during a slow crawl at least once, and traction was iffy in a couple spots on our way out. If it’s muddy or if you don’t have a high clearance vehicle, I wouldn’t attempt the drive in.

      I don’t have directions to the trailheads, but I do have a GPS ;track in both GPX and KMZ formats that I created during the hike. It has the north and south trailheads marked, along with some of the other waypoints along the trail. Email me directly if you’d like it. I’m happy to share, and it should guide you right to either end of the trail.


  • June 13, 2016 at 1:34 am

    Looks like a fun trip. I’ll have to try to get some friends together and do it sometime.

    • June 13, 2016 at 8:24 am

      It was a really fun trip. If you go, definitely make it a winter or early spring hike. When we went in late spring it was verging on too hot and the sun was brutal.


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