Located in the Colorado Desert portion of San Diego’s East County – between the Cleveland National Forest and the Salton Sea – you’ll find Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.
It’s quieter than Joshua Tree, and it’s more accessible than Death Valley.
But there’s so much more to explore in Anza-Borrego beyond your campsite.
Whether you’re a desert dweller or a backcountry newbie, here are five of the best ways to absorb all that this expansive desert park has to offer.
1. Botanical Wonders (Beyond the Superbloom)
Once every few years, when there’s a really good wildflower bloom, Anza-Borrego makes all the headlines. And visitation usually goes up annually in the spring during wildflower season – but c’mon. California’s largest state park has got more to offer in the world of plants than just pretty annuals and perennials.
Most visitors know about the palm trees in Borrego Palm Canyon, but Anza-Borrego has also got an entire forest of red ocotillo plants (Fouquieria splendens). And even if they’re not sprouting clusters of their red tips, these non-cactus Sonoran desert natives are striking in appearance when covered in small green leaves or in their dormant, skeletal state. You’ll find the Ocotillo Forest along Borrego Springs Road, just north of The Texas Dip.
For true cacti, explore the Cactus Loop Trail, off Yaqui Pass Road, just north of Highway 78 between Lizard Canyon and Stag Cove. There, you can follow a 14-stop interpretive trail – up a wash and down a trench – while surrounded by a variety of succulents. The flora here includes century plant (Agave americana), beavertail cactus (Opuntia basilaris), barrel cactus (Ferocactus cylindraceus), hedgehog cactus (Echinocereus engelmannii), jumping cholla (Cylindropuntia fulgida), and fishhook cactus (Mammillaria dioica). Needless to say, with all those spiny specimens, you’ll want to stay on the trail.
Across from the Cactus Loop Trail, head across the street for a grove of non-native tamarisk trees (imported from the Middle East) at the site of San Diego County’s former prison road camp at Tamarisk Grove Campground (which also features a native plant garden). And for a major arboreal rarity, visit the Elephant Tree Trail (off Split Mountain Road, south of Ocotillo Wells) – because Anza-Borrego is the only spot in California where the elephant tree (Bursera macrophylla) grows. There’s actually only one elephant tree on this interpretive trail, but you’re guaranteed to see it (along with brittlebush, smoke trees, indigo bush, catclaw and desert lavender).
2. Fauna and Megafauna (Some Extinct)
The most obvious wildlife viewing you can do in Anza-Borrego and Borrego Springs is of the namesake borrego – the peninsular bighorn sheep. There’s only one problem: they’re pretty elusive. You’ve got a good chance of seeing them – especially during spring lambing season – along the Montezuma Grade and even high up along the rocky terrain above Yaqui Pass and in Borrego Palm Canyon. Bighorn sheep can be witnessed drinking at watering holes (like those along Coyote Creek) in hotter temperatures – though you’ll have to hike in to see them. One of the most reliable ways to guarantee a spotting is by volunteering to count the sheep in the park over the July 4 weekend.
Other wild residents of Anza-Borrego can be recluses, too – like the bobcats and desert kit foxes (though the latter are crafty thieves and may rob your campsite blind while you sleep). Look for desert cottontail rabbits early in the morning and late in the afternoon before sunset, usually under the cover of brush. Cast your eyes upwards, and you might catch a glimpse of a nesting Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) in a palm tree or an Anna's hummingbird (Calypte anna) pollinating a red ocotillo.
Then, of course, there are the fauna of days gone by – the ancient and extinct saber-toothed cat, short-faced bear, large-headed llama, giant ground sloth, and the biggest tortoise you’ve ever seen (not to mention camels, mammoths, horses and more). They all once roamed in and around Anza-Borrego in the Colorado Desert! Their traces have been discovered and catalogued, whether an actual bone (or, say, tooth) or a preserved footprint in prehistoric mud. To learn more, join the Anza-Borrego Desert Paleontology Society for one of their public events – including an annual open house at The Stout Research Center Laboratory and Collection Hall at park headquarters. Park rangers also conduct tours of the paleontology lab from November to April, by advance reservation only. There, you may see reassembled skeletons, fossil casts, and current excavation work in progress – just a fraction of what comprises the longest continuous fossil record in North America.
3. Startling Public Art (And the Studio Where It’s Made)
When you first see a few rusted metal sculptures out in the middle of nowhere in Anza-Borrego, you may not take particular note of them. After all, they just seem like they belong out there, in the desert. But then you realize there are over 130 of them scattered throughout the Borrego Valley, and you realize they’re worth taking a closer look.
With most of them concentrated on a private estate known as Galleta Meadows right in the town of Borrego Springs, these larger-than-life sculptures are the work of local artist Ricardo Breceda. Inspired by the fossils of the great creatures that once called Anza-Borrego home, Breceda took on the enormous project of recreating them (as well as other figures that represent the desert park’s history).
The monumental public art pieces first started appearing in 2008 – rising up from some underworld beneath the sand – and since then, they’ve spread throughout the desert town, some just off the side of the road ad others dropped into the middle of a desert field. To view them, you can get a printed map from the Borrego Springs Library, The Anza-Borrego Foundation, or the Anza-Borrego Desert Natural History Association. Access is free and open to the public.
To see more of Breceda’s wild metal kingdom, you can visit his studio and outdoor showroom off Highway 79 in the town of Aguanga – which is actually closer to Temecula but totally worth the detour. You can’t miss it, with all those creatures perched up on the hillside. Breceda has created a whole menagerie of metal megafauna – both extant and extinct. And if you don't find something you like – from any particular era of the geologic time scale – Breceda takes special requests and custom orders. The Mexican-born welder can render feathers, hair, fur, shells, and scales in metal, down to the finest detail.
4. Midcentury Design (To Rival Palm Springs)
At one time, Borrego Springs was destined to become the next great Hollywood getaway – and likewise drew the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable, Bing Crosby, Orson Welles and other glitterati. As with Palm Springs, the timing coincided with the advent of modernist design and architecture. It’s a hidden gem of mid-century modernism, with architects having pioneered steel construction here at the same time as in Palm Springs. You can find a number of prefab residential designs still inhabited by locals – just by taking a cursory spin around town. At the center of town by Christmas Circle, the first thing that will jump out at you is the Borrego Art Institute in a 1949 design by architect William Kesling that was built as the Borrego Business Building. Have lunch at the adjacent restaurant, Kesling’s Kitchen, located in the former Woods’ Market and named after the modernist architect who designed it.
Across town at the foot of Borrego Palm Canyon, The Palms at Indian Head was originally built in 1947 and opened in 1948 as Hoberg’s Desert Resort. By 1958, it had already been rebuilt in a modernist style – after much of the resort burned down – renamed “Borrego Palms.” Eventually, even the new post-and-beam version fell into disrepair and was forgotten, with all eyes shifting to Palm Springs instead. In 1993, new owners started restoring the property to its original splendor, naming it "The Palms" and adding "at Indian Head" after the mountain that rises up behind it, which some say is shaped like the head of a Native American chief. The original architect of The Palms at Indian Head is unknown – but its design can hold its own among the creations of other desert modernists like Cliff May, William Cody, and Albert Frey. Stay the night and take a swim in the enormous tiled pool, or just visit to walk the Hoberg Trail and have a drink and dinner on the property at The Coyote Steakhouse. The outdoor patio is the perfect spot to watch the sun set.
The architecture of the former Borrego Springs Desert Club also came from one of those “unknown” designers – though we know that the site was developed, at least in part, by A.A. Burnand in 1949. (Interestingly, the Borrego Springs Chamber of Commerce attributes the design to William Kesling). When it opened in 1950 – to such celebrity attendees as Leo Carrillo – it was to be the first golf course resort development in Borrego Springs. The course, however, was never completed. From the late 1960s to the early 2000s, the modernist structure housed an art gallery and then remained vacant for years. It’s now occupied by the Steele/Burnand Anza-Borrego Desert Research Center of UC Irvine.
The architectural design of Borrego Springs circa the 1950s and 60s is largely characterized by the work of architect and builder Dick Zerbe, who helped transform the tiny community into an oasis of modernity while himself living in the nearby mountain resort community of Julian. Visit the de Anza Country Club to see his work manifested in the main clubhouse and several cottages (among the work of other modern architects as well). A more casual experience can be had at the desert motel now known as Stanlunds Inn & Suites, which Zerbe contributed an addition to (and the pool) in the 1950s when it was called the Guppy Motel. That same decade, Zerbe was also commissioned to design a new façade and additional rooms for the Hacienda del Sol, the first motel to open in “downtown” Borrego Springs, built in 1947. You can still stay there – if you call to make a reservation.
5. Off-Road Adventures (That Are Totally Legal)
There‘s any number of ways to get off the main, paved roads of Anza-Borrego and Borrego Springs and get a more intimate experience with the desert terrain. If you’ve got a really rugged 4WD vehicle of your own, you can brave San Felipe Wash, Coyote Canyon Road, or the nail-biter paths that lead to Sheep Canyon Campground. You can also explore the Badlands – including Font’s Point, which gives you the best view of the “Grand Canyon” of Anza-Borrego. The 21-mile Erosion Road Driving Tour Guide will take you through a hotbed of geological activity – both historic and present-day – including Coyote Mountain, Clark Dry Lake, Clark Fault, alluvial fans from the Ice Age, and the site of the former Calcite Mine from World War II.
Although technically a separate state park property, the Ocotillo Wells State Vehicular Recreation Area is Anza-Borrego’s friendly next-door neighbor that allows ATVs and high-clearance, 4WD vehicles to explore such intriguing areas as Devil’s Slide, the mesquite sand dunes of Barrel Springs, and the alien landscape of the Pumpkin Patch. Bring your own vehicle or rent one at one of the motorsports facilities along Highway 78 in the town of Ocotillo Wells. The park’s Discovery Center is staffed by a ranger and provides brochures and bottled water for sale. Restrooms and free showers can be found across the parking lot.
If you’d rather leave driving the back roads to an expert (with surely better insurance than yours), book a private or public tour with California Overland. The company has been leading tours of the Anza-Borrego desert since 2005 – and nobody knows the landscape better.
Another option is to see Anza-Borrego by bicycle. Bike Borrego provides bike rentals as well as guided bike tours (fat tire bikes and e-bikes) on its own and in conjunction with The Anza-Borrego Foundation (which offers a “Bikes and Brews” tour) and the ABDNHA.