Up The Road: Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

Dec 18, 2019

Palm oasis, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.
Credit Tom Hilton / Flickr

We continue visiting unique state parks this week, this time Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, north of Mexico, east of San Diego, and south of Palm Springs. Yep, that’s serious geography, some 600,000 acres. Just the place for a family timeout, to look up and take in the totality of that dark night sky.

Stargazing is a major reason to come. The community of Borrego Springs, a big donut hole of private land entirely surrounded by the park, is the first International Dark Sky Community in the U.S.—there are a few others now—official recognition of the town’s commitment to eliminate light pollution. Plan for stargazing and dark-sky events offered by the park and the natural history association.

Anza-Borrego and the rest of the immense Colorado Desert is desert as most people imagine it: a low-lying landscape of sand, undulating sand dunes, striking geology, and stark eroded mountains. Hot in summer—an average of 120°F during the day—the low desert is mild and frost free in winter. And  very dry, with just a few inches of rain in an average year. In years of above-average rainfall—and this year may be one of them—the desert’s typical modesty bursts into bloom. Anza-Borrego is popular for wildflower viewing in super-bloom years.

“Anza,” by the way, refers to Juan Bautista de Anza, the Spanish captain who explored the area in 1774, establishing a viable land route from Mexico to California coastal settlements; “borrego” is Spanish for bighorn sheep. And yes, with any luck, you might see some out on the trail.

Start at the excellent visitor center in Borrego Springs—under the desert garden, a building not visible from the road. Around town, note the abundance of mid-century modern architecture, rivaling Palm Springs. Like Palm Springs, this was once a movie star mecca. Also appreciate the 130-some metal sculptures by artist Ricardo Breceda, inspired by prehistoric Borrego Valley fossils.

Much of Anza-Borrego can be appreciated from the road—the Borrego Badlands, the Carrizo Badlands, and the Salton Sea off in the distance. Other wonders, including Borrego Palm Canyon, Hellhole Canyon, and other palm oases, require a hike.

Still others can be experienced only off the main roads, including badlands, slot canyons, wind caves, and mud caves. So, to really get out there, bring a tough 4WD and driving chops, or sign on for tours with California Overland Desert Excursions.  

Better yet, tour backroads and byways on fat-tired electric bikes, which do just fine on sand and rugged jeep trails. Bike Borrego rents bikes and offers E-bike tours in conjunction with the natural history association.

Because on clear nights you can look up and see the Milky Way—home—this is one place you’ll want to camp. There are two developed campgrounds, reservable, plus free backcountry camping. Fun for families, Agua Caliente County Park 45 minutes west of Borrego Springs has camping cabins, hookup options, and tent sites. Best of all, both indoor and outdoor hot springs-fed pools, open until 9 pm on Friday and Saturday nights.

Ahh. And just look at those stars. Home.