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 a 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 additional resources list at the end of this intro guide.
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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 knowledgable rangers who can answer your questions.
It's worth noting that adjacent to the visitor's center is 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.
Borrego Springs Restaurants and Hotels
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 dineries. 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 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 really 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.
Basically, 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, sun glasses, 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, here is are some helpful guide books and maps that will come in handy when you're navigating the 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 starfilled 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 services charges day use fees for Borrego Palm Canyon, Tamarisk Grove, Bow Willow, and Horse Camp campgrounds.
The park also maintains several primitive campgrounds which 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 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.
Things to Do in Anza Borrego
You've hit up Visitor's Center and you know where you'll being staying at night. Now what? There are so many options for things to do in Anza Borrego, how to choose? Here are a few ideas to get you started:
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
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 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. Map trailhead location
See our Borrego Palm Canyon Trail Guide for more information.
The Slot Hike
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 definitely an adventure and a fun way to experience the maze-like quality of Anza Borrego's desert canyons.
Getting to the trailhead doesn't require a four-wheel-drive vehicle, unless it has rained recently, in which case, check in at the visitor's center about road conditions. To get there from Christmas Tree Circle, head south on Borrego Springs Road for 12 miles to Highway 78. Turn left on 78, and go 1.4 miles and make a left on Buttes Pass Road. Drive 1.8 miles to the parking lot for the hike. Follow the signs to the slot trailhead at the northeast corner of the parking lot. Map trailhead location
The Wind Caves Trail
The Wind Caves Trail, located on 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 off with a steep climb out of Fish Creek Wash 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.
To get to the trailhead, get off Route 78 in Ocotillo Wells onto Split Mountain Road and travel about 8 miles south to where the road splits off on the right to Fish Creek Wash. Pass Fish Creek Campground on the left after 1.4 miles and continue another 2.8 miles through a deep and winding wash canyon to the hike trailhead on the left. 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. Map trailhead location
See our Anza Borrego Wind Caves Trail Guide for more information.
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. Here are several options for exploring off the pavement.
Fonts Point Trail
Fonts Point Trail brings you to just below Fonts Point (GPS: 33.257846, -116.233367), an outlook that offers sweeping views of the Borrego Badlands, the Vallencio Mountains and Borrego Valley. The trail starts from S22, where it crosses a wash about 12 miles east of down Borrego Springs, just after the 29-mile marker. Follow the wash 4 miles to where the road ends at a turn around (GPS: 33.257881, -116.2334150). Walk about 5 minutes up the hills near the parking area to Fonts Point.
It's possible to make this drive in a 2-wheel-drive car, but check with the rangers at the visitor's center about road conditions, as wind and rain could make it a harrowing journey. Four-wheel-drives should have no problems. It's also a nice mountain bike ride, if it's not too sandblown. Map trailhead location
Exploring Blair Valley and Little Blair Valley
The dirt roads of Blair Valley, where the primitive campground mentioned earlier is located, are fun to explore by car. There are actually two valleys here, Blair Valley and Little Blair Valley, with roads bisecting both. You can get into the area by exiting the S2 on either Blair Valley Road (at 33.045904, -116.413310) or Little Blair Valley Road(at 33.037342, -116.410510).
These quiet, undeveloped valleys, situated at an elevation of about 2,500 feet, offer interesting hiking and are great places to camp. If you decide to stretch your legs, one spur of the road takes you to the trailhead for a 1.8 mile out-and-back trail. The trail ends near rocks where ancient Kumeyaay Indians drew pictographs thousands of years ago. Little Blair Valley and Blair Valley roads form a loop, so you can enter on one and exit the area on the other if you don't feel like backtracking.
Other Things to Do In Anza Borrego
Anza Borrego is filled with strange, intriguing and beautiful things to see. Here are a few destinations and activities to get you started.
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 a 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 scultures 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 scupltures. Map it
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 a 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 strenous 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 in depth information, here are a few other great resources for exploring Anza Borrego:
Video Version of this Guide
Anza Borrego Desert State Park Website
Official California State Parks website for the park.
Anza Borrego Visitor’s Center
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.
TheABF.org Website of the Anza Borrego Foundation. Terrific resource on the park, including visitor guides, events information and conservation activities.
Free Printable Anza Borrego Quick Start Guide
Get the free printable version of this OutdoorSocal.com guide. We'll email you the PDF.
Anza Borrego Desert Region Map from Wilderness Press
This waterproof map of Anza Borrego from Wilderness Press is one of my favorites. It's durable, eady to read, and shows offroad trails, hiking rails, campgrounds and points of interest. Given the dodgy mobile phone reception in Anza Borrego, it's advisable to bring a map with you, and this is a solid choice.
Anza-Borrego Desert Region: Your Complete Guide to the State Park and Adjacent Areas of the Western Colorado Desert
Wilderness Press also makes a terrific guide book to Anza Borrego, authored by Lowel and Diana Lindsay. This the most popular guide to the park, and provides great information on destination, natural history, points of interest and possible itineraries for adventures in Anza Borrego. I have an earlier edition of the guide and swear by it. The version sold on Amazon as I write this, comes with the map mentioned above.