Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California
If you’re of the mindset that the desert is a boring, austere place with nothing to offer, chances are you’ve never seen it any closer than through a car window. Like much of the desert in the southwestern United States, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in Southern California is a place where, if you look closely, you’ll find a landscape brimming with life.
The park’s 600,000 acres offer a multitude of experiences, including camping, hiking, stargazing, wildlife observation and even a history lesson or two. While the summer season is blazingly hot (with daily high temperatures averaging 105 degrees Fahrenheit from June through September), Anza-Borrego’s climate is comfortable the rest of the year, making it a great weekend getaway or a short stop on a longer tour of the Southwest. However, its most dramatic season is early spring. After a wet winter, spring brings an abundance of wildflowers that often blanket the park’s valleys with color. The wildflower season is so popular that the park offers a special hotline with recorded updates.
As the largest state park in the United States, Anza-Borrego was named after a Spanish explorer and an animal inhabitant. Juan Bautisa de Anza, who traveled through the region in 1774, was one of the first non-Native Americans to visit the area. One of the park’s most elusive year-round residents are bighorn sheep. The word borrego is Spanish for sheep.
Anza-Borrego State Park’s historical roots run deep. Within the park’s boundaries are portions of the southern route to the California gold rush, the Butterfield Overland Mail Route and the Southern Emigrant Trail.
The Anza-Borrego Desert State Park Visitor Center is located in Borrego Springs, the largest town within the park’s boundaries. Start your visit there by picking up a park map and schedule of interpretive programs. It is worth spending some time at the Visitor Center, which offers several slide shows and naturalist talks. You can also join a park ranger on a guided hike or for a campfire program elsewhere in the park. The town of Borrego Springs is also your best resource for groceries, fuel and restaurants while in the park.
One of the most popular spots — both because of its location and beauty — is Borrego Palm Canyon. Located near the Visitor Center, the canyon campground offers the only RV hookups within the park. Fifty-two sites have hookups for RVs up to 35 feet, while there are 65 sites that will accommodate tents, or RVs up to 25 feet.
Adjacent to the campground are two hiking trails. The Panoramic Overlook Trail is a 1-mile loop that climbs steeply up the hillside with a view of Borrego Valley. The Borrego Palm Canyon Trail is a 3-mile, round-trip walk that climbs gently to a hidden oasis of greater than 1000 palm trees. As you walk, look up at the rocky slopes for the endangered Peninsular bighorn sheep. Their coloring blends in well with the rocks, but look carefully and bring binoculars to spot them; they are regularly seen on the rock ledges above the trail. Once at the palm grove, sit down, have your packed-in lunch and enjoy the shade and cooler temperatures. A 15-foot waterfall drops into a small pond, providing a nice spot for a midday picnic.
Primitive camping is allowed anywhere within park boundaries, and there are a number of recommended backcountry camping spots. Culp Valley is the highest-altitude backcountry spot (3400 feet) and can usually accommodate trailers and motorhomes, as well as tents. In addition to Borrego Palm Canyon, other campgrounds are located in Tamarisk Grove (27 sites), located in the center of the park, and in Bow Willow (16 sites), located in the southern section. There are also several RV parks located just outside the park’s perimeter.
HISTORY, OLD AND NEW
To see the historical sites, head toward the Blair Valley area, south of Borrego Springs. Drive along Route S2 and follow the path of the Butterfield Overland Stage and the Southern Emigrant Route. The Vallecito Stage Station County Park is nearby and worth a stop.
For hikes, check out the Pictograph Trail or Ghost Mountain Trail, both 2 miles long, round trip. The steep hike up Ghost Mountain leads to the ruins of the Marshall South family home. Marshall and Tanya South came to the region in 1931 and raised three children there until they moved in 1945 because of war maneuvers on nearby government land.
East of Borrego Springs is the region known as the Badlands, which offers a look at the geologic history of the area. The colorful rock sediments located there are what local naturalists refer to as the final home of the Grand Canyon. As the Colorado River carved out the Grand Canyon, the sediment it removed was churned down the river and eventually deposited in Anza-Borrego’s Badlands during a period lasting several million years. At one point, the Badlands were part of the Gulf of California and home to a variety of sea creatures. Today, colorful deposits of red, green and yellow rock form mountains as you drive on what was once the sea floor. It’s a geology lesson and a photographer’s delight all rolled into one, and just one of the many unique features of America’s largest state park.
When You Go To Anza-Borrego State Park
The heart of the Anza-Borrego Desert is Borrego Springs, located 90 miles northeast of San Diego and 90 miles south of Palm Springs. Roads between the park and both cities are secondary highways, so allow about three hours for a leisurely drive from either location. If traveling from San Diego, be sure to stop at the tiny mountain town of Julian, where quaint shops and homemade apple pie from local orchards will delight everyone in the family. Palm Springs offers plenty of activities ranging from museums and art galleries to glitzy boutiques, and an ice skating rink in the local mall.
For more information, contact: Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, 200 Palm Canyon Drive, Borrego Springs, CA 92004, 760/767-4205 (Visitor Center), 760/767-4684 (Wildflower Hotline); anzaborrego.statepark.org. Also check in with the Borrego Springs Chamber of Commerce, 800/559-5524; borregosprings.org.