Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

As the daytime temperatures drop but the days stay relatively long, fall is an awesome time to visit the California desert. Last year, Vijay and his friend Colan explored the region in and around Palm Springs, including Joshua Tree National Park and Mount San Jacinto. This year, in late October, they stayed a little closer to Colan’s home of San Diego, exploring Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Anza-Borrego is California’s largest State Park, with lots of beautiful desert landscapes, awesome campgrounds, and interesting wildlife.

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Clockwise: dry rivers, flowering ocotillo, bighorn sheep, colorful badlands, and beautiful eroded mesas in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

Weekend Itinerary

Here is a two-day itinerary for the park that is doable in a weekend, but if you have the time and want some extra solitude, consider coming on a Sunday or weekday when the crowds are gone.

Day 1

  • Drive to Anza-Borrego and stop at Anza-Borrego Visitor Center to get oriented. [1hr 45 min drive from San Diego].
  • Drive down the road to the Borrego Palm Canyon Campground to check in anytime after 2PM and set up camp [5 minute drive].
  • Drive to Fonts Point (with a side trip to Clark Dry Lake) to arrive for moonrise and/or sunset [allow about 2-3 hours including an hour of driving, a little walking, and many stops for photos both before and after sunset].
  • Head back to camp and enjoy a delicious dinner over the fire.
  • When your fire’s out, head to Galleta Meadows in Borrego Springs to enjoy giant iron sculptures framed by the night sky.

Day 2

  • Get up about 30 minutes before sunrise and walk up the steep hill to the  Panoramic Overlook for a spectacular sunrise [1.5 miles of hiking, about 1 hour including time for pictures].
  • Freshen up at camp, and head into Borrego Palm Canyon for a potential bighorn sheep sighting [3 miles of hiking, about 2 hours including time for photos].
  • Enjoy breakfast under the shade of your pergola while you can, and then break down camp [checkout anytime before noon].
  • Drive to “The Slot” and enjoy a walk through a neat system of slot canyons [30 minutes of driving and 1 mile of hiking (allow 45 minutes including time to take photos)]
  • Head out of the park, stopping along the way for some delicious pie at California Mountain Bakery in Wynola [about 2 hours of driving total].

Resources and Logistics

The park is so big that it was a little bit overwhelming to decide what to do on our short trip! We consulted this book from our local library, as well as the website Desert USA, which has really good descriptions of various destinations in the park. A general rule of thumb from our experience is that panoramic viewpoints are best viewed at sunrise and sunset, open desert hikes are coolest in the morning, and slot canyons are most colorful closer to midday. You can check the timing of sunrise, sunset, and moon conditions here and get an idea of the temperature, wind, and general weather forecast here. We decided to stick to areas that could be accessed within a few miles of the main park roads and highways (namely Fonts Point, Galleta Meadows, Borrego Palm Canyon, and the Slot): driving in desert washes and on dirt roads can add on a lot of travel time even if the distances aren’t very large.

On that note, we can say that having a four-wheel drive or all-wheel drive vehicle is a huge plus. Even popular trails, like the way to Fonts Point, were sandy, rocky, and rough, and we were very glad that we weren’t in Colan’s Mazda sedan even if we probably could have made it… Many rental car agencies can’t guarantee a 4×4 or AWD vehicle, so you could either choose a ZipCar with a specific make and model (as we did) or else call the rental car agency in advance to make sure that you get the car you want. Park rangers also told us that recent rains made some of the terrain very rocky and rough, so it’s important to keep checking conditions as you go and turn around if any roads seem impassable (even if you have 4WD).

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Fonts Wash would be the perfect backdrop for an SUV car commercial (and a good example of why an AWD car is a good idea)

Anza-Borrego has many campgrounds and also allows roadside camping – HikesPeak offers a nice overview of the facilities and nearby attractions at the different campgrounds. To minimize driving in the dark and maximize what we could see in a weekend, we decided to stay the most developed campground, Borrego Palm Canyon, which requires no driving for the morning hikes to the Panoramic Overlook and the canyon itself and is only a half hour or so from Fonts Point, the premier sunset destination. The campground is also very close to the town of Borrego Springs, which has several dining options and at least two gas stations. The nightly fee at this campground is $25, which is quite reasonable given how nicely the campground is kept up. To make sure you get the spot you really want, you can reserve at this campground in advance online (which adds and extra $7.99 booking fee). We booked for a Sunday night stay about four weeks in advance and many of the best sites were already taken.

Here is a map of the campground. If you stay here, we’d recommend staying in the top loop, which has the most spacious and quietest campsites as long as you don’t need an RV hookup (sites 103-107 are particularly roomy). Each site comes with a parking spot, plenty of space for tents, a fire ring, and a pergola for shade, which comes in handy when you’re trying to eat breakfast without frying in the sun. There are no lockers for food, so we kept most things in the car. Be sure to stake down your tent because the winds can get gusty overnight.

Site-103
Lots of space and great views from site 103.

The best bathrooms and sink facilities for washing your dishes (as well as showers if you need them) in the top loop are between sites 119 and 120: the building is clearly lit, so it’s easy to find even at night. The bathrooms at the top of the loop, on the other hand, are strange flush toilets with no doors and roofs, and can be very hard to find in the dark as they are somewhat camouflaged. Be sure to bring your own soap, as none is provided in the park – not even at the visitor center. There is firewood for sale just past the entrance kiosk – it’s $6 per bundle, which was plenty of wood for making dinner and a small morning fire for making breakfast.

On the safety front, we found ourselves constantly thirsty in the dry desert. There is plenty of potable water at the main campground and the visitor center, so whenever you venture out, we’d recommend taking a few liters of water along with you. And of course, we had to slather on the sunscreen since much of the hiking in the park is exposed. Flying insects were not a big issue for us (there were only a few flies in Borrego Palm Canyon); however, there is some danger of coming across rattlesnakes, tarantulas, and scorpions. To avoid these critters, we stayed out of rock cracks, kept an eye on the ground as we walked, and kept your shoes with us inside our tent to avoid finding a surprise in them during the night :).

The Details

After a refreshing Sunday morning surfing on the beaches of San Diego, we grabbed a ZipCar, packed up our camping gear, and rolled out over the boulder-strewn Peninsular Mountain Range to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. The drive took about two hours, so we arrived at the visitor center around 3PM, where we got an update on recent road conditions and collected several maps. The most useful map was the main park map (which costs $2, or is available online), which shows the relative location of the different washes, some of which don’t show up on Google Maps.

Up the road from the visitor center is the entrance to Borrego Palm Canyon Campground; we showed the ranger our reservation, signed off on the campground rules, paid for firewood, and set up camp.

Then we hit the road again. Our first stop was Clark Dry Lake via Rockhouse Canyon Road (the entrance is just after the North-to-East bend on State Route 22, the Borrego-Salton Seaway). Depending on the most recent patterns of wind and rain, the sand and mud in this area can form super interesting patterns. We particularly enjoyed the weaving tracks of flowing water, the dune-like wrinkles in the sand, and the hard, peeling mud tiles. Driving in this area was also a nice gentle introduction to driving on the dirt roads in the park, where the lack of traction of the sand can be both exhilarating and unnerving.

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Scenes from the Clark Dry Lake area.

We returned to the main road and then headed east for the turnoff to Fonts Point (Fonts Point Trail Junction, as it is called on Google Maps). The dirt road (8 miles roundtrip) was considerably rougher and sandier than the road to Clark Dry Lake and jostled around the pots and pans in the car so much so that it broke one of them! Along the way, we had a stellar view of the moon rising above the eroded mesas.

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From the clearly marked parking area at the end of the road, it’s a short walk uphill to some truly incredible views. The promontory on the right gave us amazing views of the multicolored red and tan rocks that make up the central Borrego Bandlands all the way out to the Salton Sea.

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We had the best panoramic views in the small saddle to the left of the main promontory, where you can see the full breadth of the Badlands, the dry river flowing through them, the Salton Sea, and, if you’re lucky, the moon rising over the terrain. While in the hour before sunset the terrain is lit up with dramatic shades of orange, there were also long shadows cast by the mountains over the canyons below. I found the light to be much more pleasing and balanced in the few minutes right before sunset. Watch your footing here: the drop-off is very steep!

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We returned the same way we came, stopping again at the eroded mesas to enjoy the purple and pink colors of the sky against the red shades of the hills.

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We returned to a windy campsite to cook a dinner of jackfruit sandwiches and soup; once we got the kindling of our park newsletter to catch, it was easy to get the fire going. We finished up around 8:00PM and decided to enjoy the moonlight and starry night sky in Galleta Meadows, the home of artist Ricardo Breceda’s giant “Metal Sky” sculptures. While we saw sculptures of elephants, horses, and more during our travels on the roads (there are more than 100 sculptures in and around Borrego Springs), the giant 300-foot serpent that undulates under Borrego Springs Road really captured our attention. We pulled right up to the statue with our car, and with some clever lighting from a headlamp we got some very impressive pictures of the serpent framed by the constellations.

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We turned in early for the night, mainly because we were planning an early Monday morning. We woke up about 45 minutes before sunrise and took a steep but short hike up to the Panoramic Overlook. The trail is 0.75 miles long each way and departs from between sites 70 and 71 in the middle loop of the Borrego Palm Canyon Campground (we reparked the car at the trail head to avoid traipsing through other people’s campsites). It was very easy to see our way on the trail in the few minutes before dawn. The trail has a few steep and rocky switchbacks, so we were glad we didn’t have to navigate it in the dark.

From the top, we were treated to a beautiful sunrise over the Santa Rosa mountains and the flat terrain of Borrego Springs.

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Looking east from the Panoramic Overlook

As the sun rose higher, the intense orange color of the walls of Borrego Palm Canyon and the campground in front of it felt almost Martian.

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Looking down at the campground from the Panoramic Overlook

We could already feel the heat of the sun warming the air around us, so we quickly made our way back to camp and then took the 3 mile round-trip trail into Borrego Palm Canyon, which starts at the back end of the top loop where we were staying. The walls of the canyon were very rugged, covered with all kinds of colors of boulders.

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Although the flora in Anza-Borrego are most visible during the spring blooms and “super-blooms,” there were plenty of plants along the trail – even a little rain can cause the desert plants to come alive for a few days. Along the way, we were treated to desert lavender, which had a lovely botanical smell, ocotillo, flowering trees, and, of course, the fan palms after which the canyon is named.

Flora

At the end of the path, we had a very special experience: we saw a whole family of bighorn sheep gather at the watering hole, including a male with large horns and a younger sheep whose horns were just starting to grow. We took a break here at the end of the trail and quietly watched them for almost 15 minutes as they enjoyed the cool shade of the oasis.

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We made it back to camp by around 10AM, and it was super hot, but never too hot for a hearty breakfast of pancakes and coffee. [Side notes: you can make some pancakes without eggs, and you can boil coffee directly in a can or glass jar to reduce cleanup as long as you have good oven mitts]. We finished eating, packed up camp, and checked out of our site at 11AM (you need to vacate your site by noon).

Before we left the park, we took a drive to the Slot, an interesting slot canyon off of highway 78. We did the Slot as an out-and-back hike (1 mile roundtrip) instead of the longer loop to avoid walking in the sweltering sun. The Slot is perhaps one of the few hikes that is tolerable at midday and the overhead sun provides near ideal lighting and coloration against the canyon walls.

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Unlike Antelope canyon in Page, Arizona, which is smooth, flowy, and quite deep, the canyon here was rough, ragged, and noticeably shallower.

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However, it was just as spectacular. The colors in the afternoon were awesome, and the gravity-defying rock formations spanning the narrow gaps in the canyon were pretty amazing (we wouldn’t recommend standing directly under them, just in case).

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When we re-emerged from the slot, it was a little hard to remember the way back to the car; in retrospect, we should have remembered that the entry to the slot from the parking lot is pretty steep and short and is one of the first paths you hit as you exit. If you do find yourself a little lost, as we did, climb up to any ridge and it is very easy to spot the road you came in on.

We were done with the desert for this trip, but we were really craving a cold treat. Luckily, the mountains separating San Diego and Anza-Borrego are home to the area’s best apple orchards, which means plenty of options for pie a la mode. We stopped at the California Mountain Bakery on highway 78 in Wynola: both the apple and apple-mango pies were perfection, from the flaky crust to the sweet filling to the crunchy topping. The shop also features ultra-local ingredients and is deeply connected with the surrounding community.

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That is the scoop on our trip to Anza-Borrego State Park! We’d love to hear more about your experiences, particularly in other seasons. Feel free to leave your comments below!

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