Anza Borrego Desert State Park will blow your mind. It’s one of the most remarkable wilderness areas in the United States. A mix of natural beauty, vastness, relative obscurity, and a challenging, rugged landscape makes this an outdoor playground to intrigue the most jaded of park visitors.
This guide offers a general introduction to the park, as well as some suggestions for starting your adventures in Anza Borrego, including lodging, camping, offroad adventures, and more. For more detailed information on trails, camping, and other destinations, check out the list of the additional resources at the end of this intro guide.
As backup when you are off-the-grid, get our free printable version of the guide here.
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park Details
- Season: November – May
- Location: San Diego County
- General GPS Coordinates: 32.754033,-116.272079
- Management: U.S. Bureau of Land Management
- Directions: From Interstate 8, take the Boulevard exit. Proceed south to the first stop sign. Turn left/east on Old Highway 80. After approximately 2 miles, turn left on McCain Valley Road.
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in a big place. It’s 915 square miles in size and can be explored via 500 miles of dirt roads, rugged four-wheel-drive routes, and many miles of hiking, mountain biking, and equestrian trails. More than 200 species of wildflowers bloom in the desert, and wildlife is plentiful: bighorn sheep, coyotes, lizards, rattlesnakes, foxes, bobcats, cougars, and many species of birds, including roadrunners.
The park offers numerous possibilities for outdoor adventure and recreation, with popular activities including offroading, hiking, camping, and mountain biking. A portion of the Pacific Crest Trail, which runs from Mexico to Canada, passes through Anza Borrego. In the spring, tourists flock from all over Southern California to see the desert wildflowers blooms.
The park is mostly on the eastern side of San Diego County, with portions touching Imperial County to the East and Riverside County to the North. It typically takes a couple of hours to get to Anza Borrego from San Diego or the Inland Empire.
Due to its size and the ruggedness of the landscape, deciding where to start exploring in Anza-Borrego can be daunting. A good first base of operations is the town of Borrego Springs. I tend to think of Christmas Tree Circle, a large roundabout in the center of Borrego Springs as my central point of reference for the area.
The Anza-Borrego Desert State Park Visitor Center is located just on the outskirts of town and offers informative exhibits on the park’s natural history, brochures, and maps of the park, and knowledgeable rangers who can answer your questions.
It’s worth noting that adjacent to the visitor’s center are the Borrego Palm Canyon Campground and Borrego Palm Canyon Trail, both managed by the State Park Service. You could visit Anza Borrego and just hit the visitor’s center, Borrego Palm Canyon campground, and trail, and have a terrific trip (throw in some dining in town to keep it civilized.)
A quick note on dogs. They aren’t allowed on trails, wilderness areas, or flower fields. Also, be aware that desert cactuses drop some nasty spines on the ground that can wreak havoc on dogs’ paws. Seriously, it isn’t pretty. I’ve seen people and dogs get some nasty injuries from cholla in particular. And please DON’T leave dogs in cars alone. Cars can heat up rapidly in the desert, which can be deadly for animals trapped inside.
About the food, there are several good restaurants in Borrego Springs worth mentioning. I’ve eaten at Red Ocotillo, Carlee’s, and Kesling Kitchen, and can recommend them all. I haven’t eaten at Carmelita’s Mexican Grill or Coyote Steakhouse, but I hear they are solid eateries. There are tons of places to camp in Anza Borrego, but if you are looking for a hotel to serve as a basecamp, there are several in Borrego Springs.
My family and I have stayed at Palm Canyon Hotel and RV Resort several times and really enjoyed it. The name of the resort doesn’t do it justice. It’s well maintained and has a cool vibe — kitschy retro chic? The hotel is old-west themed and you can rent vintage RVs for a glamping experience.
I can’t vouch for it personally, but people say good things about the Borrego Valley Inn, an adults-only hotel managed by the same company as the Palm Canyon Hotel and RV Resort. If you’re looking to step it up a notch (maybe impress a romantic interest, for instance), La Casa del Zorro Resort and Spa is a posh oasis to return to after a day of desert adventuring.
Another major factor to consider when first planning a visit to Anza Borrego is the seasons. To sum it up, summer might kill you. Seriously. Anza Borrego is brutally hot in summer, with average daily high temperatures over 100 degrees between June and September. It’s not unheard of for summer daytime temperatures to soar past 120 degrees.
I consider October through April to be Anza Borrego season. That said, the Anza Borrego Foundation has put together a page offering guidance on visiting the park in summer. Even visiting in the cooler months, it’s important to keep some basic safety precautions top of mind. Bring LOTS of water and drink it. Make sure you have adequate sun protection, including things like hats, sunglasses, sunblock, and shade.
Also, note that cellular service in Anza Borrego is spotty at best. So bring a paper map or an electronic one that doesn’t require an Internet connection. To that end, see the end of this post for some helpful guidebooks and maps that will come in handy when you’re navigating off the grid. Bringing a compass isn’t a bad idea either.
While a visit to Anza Borrego can be a day trip from San Diego or the Inland Empire, the park is designated as an International Dark Sky Park and it’s well worth planning an overnight stay at a campground to admire Anza Borrego’s star-filled night sky.
California State Parks manages three campgrounds where sites can be reserved online: Borrego Palm Canyon Campground, Tamarisk Grove Campground, and Vern Whitaker Horse Camp. The park service charges day-use fees for Borrego Palm Canyon, Tamarisk Grove, Bow Willow, and Horse Camp campgrounds.
The park also maintains several primitive campgrounds that are first-come, first-served. These include Bow Willow, Mountain Springs, Blair Valley, Yaqui Well, Yaqui Pass, Culp Valley, Sheep Canyon, Arroyo Salado, Mt. Palm Springs, and Fish Creek primitive campgrounds. All of the campgrounds offer vaulted toilets, except Yaqui Pass. Only Fish Creek and Sheep Canyon sites have fire rings. Ground fires are prohibited, so you’ll need to bring a firepit with you if you’ll be staying in one of the campgrounds with no fire rings. Here are a few options for firepits.
Beyond the formally designated campgrounds mentioned above, you can camp pretty much anywhere in the park. There are two simple rules. You can only park one car length off the road, whether you camp right next to your car or hike further from the road. And you can’t camp within 100 yards of any water source, which typically means a stream. It goes without saying, but avoid trampling vegetation or otherwise damaging the landscape.
Visit the OSC complete guide to Anza-Borrego camping for more detailed information.
You’ve hit up Visitor’s Center and you know where you’ll be staying at night. Now what? There are so many options for things to do in Anza Borrego, how to choose? A low-key hike is a good way to get started.
Anza Borrego offers so many hiking trails that picking one can be tough. Here are a few trails that are relatively easy to locate, fairly short, and offer a taste of what makes Anza Borrego so special.
Borrego Palm Canyon Hike is located just west of the town of Borrego Springs. The mellow hike is a 3-mile out-and-back that brings hikers to a surprisingly lush grove of palm trees fed by a mountain stream. There’s plenty of parking (for a fee) and restrooms at the trailhead. The area is managed by the state park service.
See our Borrego Palm Canyon Trail Guide for maps and other information.
Anza-Borrego offers a number of slot canyon hikes, and one of the most popular is known simply as The Slot. The hike is about a mile long out-and-back, and winds through a deep and extremely narrow canyon (just wide enough at points for a single person to pass). Squeezing through the slot is an adventure and a fun way to experience the maze-like quality of Anza Borrego’s desert canyons.
For more information, visit our guide to the slot canyon trail.
The Wind Caves Trail, located in the eastern portion of Anza Borrego, south of the outpost of Ocotillo Wells, has a lot to offer. The 1.5-mile round-trip hike starts with a steep climb out of Fish Creek Wash and then climbs gradually for a total ascent of about 250 feet to the Wind Caves. The caves are bored into sandstone formations by the wind, hence the name. The views from the Wind Caves of the surrounding badlands are spectacular.
The road through the canyon is sandy and fairly rugged in places. A high clearance all-wheel drive vehicle is suggested at a minimum, though an actual four-wheel drive would be preferable.
Marshall South Home Trail
Marshall South Home Trail is a 1.3-mile round trip hike in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park that brings you the erstwhile outpost of Marshal South, who homesteaded in this remote desert location in the 1930s.
Anza-Borrego is covered in dirt roads and off-road trails through the park’s many desert canyons, mountains, badlands and valleys. There are some gnarly offroad trails in Anza Borrego, but there are also plenty of places to explore that don’t require a lifted Jeep.
We’ve put together a guide on Ordealist.com to some of our favorite off-road destinations and trails in the park.
The landscape around Borrego Springs is home to strange metal denizens. More than 150 metal sculptures by the California artist Ricardo Breceda roam Anza Borrego, including dinosaurs, wild ponies, scorpions, and a massive sea serpent. Not to keep you in town and out of the backcountry for too long, but these are worth a look — and a selfie. The most impressive of the sculptures are located in and around Galleta Meadows, just to the north of downtown Borrego Springs. To get there, head north on Borrego Springs Road from Christmas Tree Circle in town and go for two miles, where you’ll start seeing the sculptures. Check out our detailed guide to the Galleta Meadows Sculptures for more info.
If you live in Southern California for a while, you’ve heard the term “super bloom.” This refers to years when heavy winter rains result in an explosion of wildflowers in the desert. In fact, flowers bloom every spring to varying degrees, and Anza Borrego is a terrific place to see desert blooms.
The tricky part is navigating the crowds and figuring out precisely where in the park the flowers will be blooming. The crowds can be hard to avoid, but here are some tips: 1) Visit in late February or April, as March is typically the peak tourist season; 2) Get out early in the day before the mid-day/afternoon rush, and 3) stop by the state park visitor’s center or call this hotline to find out what part of the park is in bloom during your visit: 760-767-4684
Maybe you don’t feel like hiking or anything else strenuous for that matter. Hey, we’re not judging. Try the Erosion Road Tour, a 21-mile road tour of some of the geological wonders of Anza Borrego. The park service has put together a list of cool things to see in the badlands area of the park along Highway S-22 as it heads east out of Borrego Springs. Stops along the tour include Borrego Badlands Overlook, Coyote Mountain, Truckhaven Rocks, and the Calcite Mine Overlook, among other things. This PDF guide from the park service gives locations and background on the stops. For more information on off-roading and overlanding safely, visit our sister site, Ordealist.
The Anza-Borrego Mud Caves are an off-the-beaten-path geological feature that’s worth a visit – although not without it’s risks. For more information, check out our guide to the mud caves.
For more in-depth information, here are a few other great resources for exploring Anza Borrego:
Desert Gear Guide
Exploring the desert is safer and more comfortable with the right gear. Check out our Desert Gear Guide
Anza Borrego Desert State Park Website
Official California State Parks website for the park.
Great place to get up-to-date information on road conditions, campgrounds, closures, wildflowers, wildlife, and much more. Definitely worth a visit at 200 Palm Canyon Dr, Borrego Springs, CA 92004. Or call at 760-767-4205
Online reservations website for Anza-Borrego campgrounds that take reservations.
ABF.org the website of the Anza Borrego Foundation offers terrific resources on the park, including visitor guides, events information, and conservation activities.
Get the free printable version of this OutdoorSocal.com guide. We’ll email you the PDF.
For more information on backcountry areas, check out our guide to state parks in San Diego.