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Little-Known Fact: Recent discoveries in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park include a previously unknown grove of 200 elephant trees in the Santa Rosa Mountains.
I was remembering my original apprehensions about traveling solo in the center of a 1,000-square-mile desert. A familiar voice snapped me out of my reverie. To my surprise, it turned out to be Lynn Emerick, a friend and ranger I’d met in Glacier National Park. Each delighted to see a face we recognized, we talked each other into a hike. I had been in Blair Valley in 1984 and had marveled at the trail cut by the Mormon Battalion during the Mexican-American War a century and a half before. But I hadn’t seen the pictographs Lynn described, or the amazing view of the Vallecito Mountains, which she promised at hike’s end. We set off.
A primitive road, quite sandy in places, wound for about 4 miles toward one of the area’s major pictographs ~ a large, colorful geometric pattern. Lynn pointed out the Indian grinding holes in the nearby granite boulders. These morteros were used to pound mesquite beans, pods, and seeds, which then were shaped into flat, round cakes and dried in the sun. Beyond the pictograph, the trail became a pure hiking trail veiled in shades of red and green flora, all glowing in the scarlet light of the setting winter sun.
On my first visit to Anza-Borrego, the “state park” designation had fooled me into thinking the place was small, but it’s huge. And don’t let the “desert” label fool you either; elevation variations of nearly a mile ensure cool spots even during hot summer months.
Located just east of San Ysidro and Laguna Mountains, Anza-Borrego receives dry Pacific air that leaves its moisture on the southern extension of the peninsular range west of the park. To the north lie the Santa Rosa Mountains; to the south rise a number of ranges ~ Vallecito, Fish Creek ~ that open at the east toward the 40-mile-long Salton Sea. In the middle of these ranges is Borrego Valley, a low, flat region housing the small resort town of Borrego Springs and, 1 mile west, the park visitor center.
Offering far horizons that can spell solitude, it’s hard to believe that more than 17 million people live within a few hours’ drive. Who knows, you may even decide to stay ~ like one park volunteer from the Midwest who visited on a whim 16 years ago, returning home only to sell his house and pick up his car.
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
200 Palm Canyon Dr.
Borrego Springs, CA 92004
Visitor Center: (760) 767-4205
California Parks & Recreation
Sacramento, CA 94296-0001
Anza-Borrego Desert Natural History Association
202 Palm Canyon Dr.
Borrego Springs, CA 92004
Fax: (619) 767-3099
Anza-Borrego is located at the southern tip of California, 40 miles east of San Diego. The park loops around the town of Borrego Springs, which provides gas stations, restaurants, markets, motels, RV parks, a medical clinic, and a performing arts theater.
Take I-8 east out of San Diego to CA 79 north. After about 15 miles at Julian, take CA 78 east, the Secondary State Highway 3 north to Borrego Springs and the park visitor center just west of town.
While the rest of the nation is shivering in January, where better to spend a weekend than a place with an average winter high of 70 degrees F? Fall, spring, and winter (November through May) are the best times to visit Anza-Borrego. Backcountry travel is not especially recommended during the summer months (May through September), when temperatures regularly rise into the 100s.
Visitors should be aware that Coyote Canyon is closed June 16 through September 15 to allow bighorn sheep to use the water undisturbed.
This life-filled land of sand and mountains supports more than 200 species of birds, deer, foxes, raccoons, mountain lions, even wild horses, and more kinds of reptiles than most people want to know about. Borregos (desert bighorn sheep) are the biggest draw, although they tend to be rather shy. Wildlife managers from as far away as Rwanda and the Peoples’ Republic of China have visited Anza-Borrego to learn how the park tracks, studies, and manages the bighorn sheep population.
You can hear the buzz of cicadas on a hot summer day.
Trails weave through agave, cholla, and tamarisk. Beautifully flowered barrel cacti rise on their accordian-like trunks above these, and tall, spidery armed ocotillos in shades of red and green dot the landscape. Cup-like blossoms vary in color from the yellow of barrel to the deep purple-red of hedgehog. Fishhook cactus, pencil cholla, desert willow, palo verde, desert lavender, bladderpod, and trixisapricot mallow are just a few of the wildflowers thriving in Anza-Borrego from February until April.
There is a Spring Wildflower Hotline (619-767-4684). You can request notification of the peak bloom by sending a stamped, self-addressed envelope to:
200 Palm Canyon Dr.
Borrego Springs, CA 92004
The card will be mailed back to you two weeks prior to the expected peak bloom. If you have to choose one week to arrive for the bloom, early March would be your best bet.
Recommended books on flora in the region include California Desert Wildflowers by Philip Munz, 100 Desert Wildflowers of the Southwest by Janice Bowers, Colorful Desert Wildflowers by Grace and Onas Ward, and 70 Common Cacti of the Southwest by Pierre Fischer.
Camping needs are met at sites that range from full-service campsites with a fee to free primitive sites. The park is unusual in its open camping policy; visitors can pull off any road to create a camping site.
Pre-existing primitive camp spots can be found at Yaqui Well and Yaqui Pass, near Tamarisk Grove. Blair Valley, cooler than the lower desert, attracts campers to its hidden coves near the rocky margins of Blair Valley. Primitive sites offer little more than a spot to park or put up a tent, and these sites are pack in, pack out.
Two developed campgrounds are available with restrooms with showers, shade ramadas, and campfire programs. Checkout time is noon.
Borrego Palm Canyon Campground, with 117 sites, is located 2.5 miles west of Borrego Springs. Full hookups are offered along with large tent sites, a campfire center, a nature trail, and public telephones. A sanitation station at BPC Campground is available to paid campers and day users.
Tamarisk Grove Campground, located at County Road S-3 and CA 78, has 27 sites for rigs up to 21 feet.
Five group campsites in BPC Campground offer space for groups of 9 to 24 people each. All five sites can be reserved at once for up to 120 people. Large shade ramadas, tables, firerings, and wood-burning cookstoves are provided. Youth groups must have one adult for every 12 minors in camp.
The park has a horse camp (the hub of many riding trails) with 10 campsites, 40 corrals, and solar-heated showers.
Vernon Whitaker Horse Camp sites hold up to eight people and four horses. The camp, located 8 miles north of Borrego Springs, is available by reservation or on a first come, first served basis.
Reservations (800-444-7275) are recommended for camping in the developed, group, and horse camps, especially from October to May. Group reservations may be made six months in advance. Family campsites may be reserved up to eight weeks in advance or as late as two days prior to arrival. Individual sites are assigned upon arrival and cannot be reserved. To cancel reservations, call (619) 452-5956.
A 7,000-square-foot underground visitor center lies at the east end of Palm Canyon Drive in Borrego Springs.
The visitor center is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. from October through May. During the summer months of June through September, it is open weekends and holidays only.
The center offers exhibits, nature presentations, maps, and natural history books. Volunteers can help plan your visit. There are slide shows and videos, including “The Other Desert” (orientation to Anza-Borrego) and “The Wildflowers of Anza-Borrego.” A 20-minute video about the desert’s bighorn sheep is shown periodically.
This is the place to find out current road and weather conditions.
The visitor center is where you can find out about park activities and programs such as naturalists’ talks, junior ranger programs (for kids 7-12), nature walks, guided hikes, campfire programs, stargazing programs, fossil programs, and garden walks.
Contact the park office for information.
No permits are required.
Day-use fees are $5 per vehicle, $1 per dog, $20 per bus with 10-24 passengers, and $40 per bus with 25 or more passengers. An annual day-use pass costs $75. Senior discounts are available.
During the season, camping fees are: $9 for Bow Willow (the only primitive site with a fee), $18 for BPC with hookup, $14 for BPC with no hookup, $36 for group at BPC, $14 for Tamarisk Grove, and $16 for the horse camp (two horses included in price). Some rates are lower in off-season. Culp Valley, Sheep Canyon, Arroyo Salado, Yaqui Pass, Yaqui Well, Fish Creek, Blair Valley, and Mt. Palm Springs all are free.
- All vehicles (including bicycles) must remain on the established roads.
- Fires on the ground are illegal. You may have a fire in a metal receptacle, but you must take the debris with you.
- Gathering vegetation (dead or alive) is prohibited.
- Firearms must be unloaded, inoperative, and in cases while in the park.
- The desert is a dangerous place for pets. It is recommended that you leave your pets at home.
- Dogs are allowed on roadways and in campgrounds. They are not allowed on any trails or in natural areas.
- Dogs must be kept on leashes no longer than 6 feet and under the immediate control of a person.
- At night, dogs must be kept in tents or vehicles.
- Occasional winter storms are rare and not of the force of summer thunderstorms.
- Park officials remind visitors that they are traveling through a desert and therefore should carry lots of water ~ even in mid-winter. One gallon minimum per person per day is recommended.
- Know your physical limitations in the heat and rugged terrain. Summer temperatures can reach 125 degrees F.
- Tell someone of your plans, and carry extra water, shovel, tools, flares, and blankets in your vehicle.
Leave No Trace:
- Keep your vehicle within one car length of the dirt road and in a place where no damage will occur to the native plant life.
- Do not camp near water holes since wildlife depends on these for water. Near the visitor center and developed campgrounds, open camping is not permitted.
All the information you need can be obtained from the well-stocked shelves of the Anza-Borrego Desert Natural History Association, including topo maps and a mountain bike guide.
Available materials include:
- Backcountry Roads and Trails: San Diego County by Jerry Schad
- The Anza-Borrego Desert Region by Lowell and Diana Lindsay
- Weekender’s Guide to Points of Interest on Paved Roads in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park by Paul Johnson
- The CD-ROM Afoot and Afield in San Diego County by Jerry Schad
- The ABD Natural History Association provides introductory desert packets for $6.95. They also have packets for family weekends ($8.40), four-wheel-drive trips ($24.10), and hikers and backpackers ($17.45).
Other Trip Options:
Although the park has much to offer on its own land, Palamar Mountain State Park and San Diego sites are also in the vicinity.