California’s Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

Wildflower Poppies in California Desert

Anza Borrego – Images by Lee Foster
by Lee Foster

As a wise desert mammal, the discerning traveler, while visiting California’s Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, should spend some daylight hours inside a burrow.

The agreeable desert burrow here is an award-winning, underground Visitor Center, which orients people to the park. With its roof of concrete, topped with six feet of sand, then landscaped with labeled local flora, this Visitor Center appears as a mound rather than a building, aesthetically unobtrusive and practically efficient for heating in winter or cooling in summer.

As he spreads out a map at the Visitor Center, a Supervising Ranger reminds a traveler, “We’re only two hours east of San Diego, but once you arrive here, you immerse yourself in the largest State Park in the country.”

The immense size of Anza-Borrego State Park, bigger than some states, vaster than many National Parks, covers 600,000 acres, most of eastern San Diego County. Anza-Borrego also remains the wildest, least discovered desert area in the Southwest. Only about a half million people encounter this huge territory each year.

“We measure everything here by driving time, in hours,” says the Ranger. “Remember that it will take you more than two hours, from the Visitor Center, just to drive to the southern edge of the park.”

Within the park there are 100 miles of paved roads, all usable by passenger vehicles. Another 500 miles of unpaved roads, many in stream washes, are open to four-wheel-drive vehicles.

Visitor Center

At the Visitor Center you can get information on how to explore this vast park. October to May is the cool season here. June through September presents a savage, though dry, heat. January through April is the wildflower time, a favorite with many travelers. Moisture levels and temperatures control the flowering, so check the website if you want to coordinate a visit with opulent flowering.

There is much to see right at the Visitor Center. All the labeled flora amount to a short course on desert botany. The pink blossoms of beavertail cactus, red of ocotillo, yellow of desert dandelion, and blue of phacelia are a small sample of the desert palette.

Especially intriguing at the Visitor Center is a live display of desert pupfish, the extremely adaptive small fish that survives in year-round seeps and springs of Anza-Borrego and of some other desert areas, such as Death Valley. The pupfish is known to flourish in both fresh and salt water at temperatures varying from 40-105 degrees.

At the Visitor Center a traveler also meets one of the major resources of Anza-Borrego Park, its spirited corps of local volunteers who assist the public so effectively in this time of tight state budgets. Volunteer private citizens with an appreciation for the Anza-Borrego Desert contributed most of the million dollars that built the Visitor Center.

Wildflower Poppies in California Desert
Wildflower Poppies in California Desert

“I’ve lived in and hiked this desert for over 30 years,” said one volunteer. “To know the desert you must get out and walk it. Only then will you experience the solitude, the beauty, and the serenity that the desert offers. The first place to walk here is at Palm Canyon.”

The Palm Canyon Walk, near the Visitor Center, amounted to a 1.5 mile hike along a stream with a vigorous flow rate. The stream bank, during an early March visit, exhibited the full kaleidoscope of the desert’s flowering plants. Without firm direction, a traveler would never assume that such a stream existed. The prize at the end of the walk, hidden in the canyon, is a large stand of native California palms (Washingtonia filifera), which require a constant water supply.

“Anza-Borrego’s canyons host a large portion of the remaining native California palms,” said the volunteer. “They are secure here. You could hike into 10 major palm canyons if you become interested.”

Four Wheel Drive Exploring

While an ordinary passenger vehicle can explore much of the park, some choice locations are accessible only to four-wheel-drive vehicles. The local lodgings’ staff and volunteers can assist you to see this back country. Make arrangements with your lodging or at the Visitor Center.

If you have the opportunity to make one four-wheel excursion, the site to visit is Font’s Point, preferably at sunset. Font’s Point, at the end of a sandy four-mile wash, overlooks the crumpled Anza-Borrego Badlands, a terrain of erosive masterpieces that approximates a miniature Bryce Canyon.

Back on the main roads, accessible to all, is the remarkable human story of the park. The Anza of Anza-Borrego is none other than Juan Bautista de Anza, the capable Spanish Captain who marched a party of immigrants from Tubac, Mexico to Los Angeles, passing through this forbidding area, without loss of life, in 1775. (Font’s Point honors the first chronicler of travel through Anza-Borrego, Pedro Font, recorder of the Anza expedition.) The “borrego”, incidentally, is the Spanish word for sheep, referring to the species of Desert Bighorn, now a small number of animals, that inhabits the region and is often seen. Originally, there were two parks, Anza and Borrego, which were joined in 1957.

Highway S2 through the park parallels Anza’s historic route. As the car zooms along, perhaps in climate-controlled comfort, an act of the imagination can estimate what skill and strength were required to pass through this uncharted desert wilderness, moving from one precarious water source to the next, braving the full punishment that the elements offered, during Anza’s passage in December 1775.

An interesting artifact does remain from the later and equally heroic stagecoach days, when this same route, officially called the Southern Emigrant Trail, saw passengers survive a bone-jarring 24-day ordeal on the Butterfield Overland Stage Coach from St. Louis to San Francisco. Stop by to see the Vallecito Stage Stop, at Vallecito County Park, in the southern part of the Park.

Today the Vallecito Stage Stop is a restored adobe structure whose bare rooms evoke the ghosts of an earlier era. Here the stage rested briefly while horses were changed.

These suggested outings only begin to enumerate the pleasures of Anza-Borrego. The layout of the park is unusual because the small town, Borrego Springs, is encompassed wholly by the park. The town of 3,000 will grow, but in a confined manner. Borrego Springs is often compared to Palm Springs of 25 years ago. The unique situation, with parklands on all sides, insures that this small town will never sprawl uncontrolled.

The night sky above Anza-Borrego shows an undetermined millions of stars, one of the distinct pleasures of the desert.

Anza-Borrego can be enjoyed by all styles of travelers, from rustic campers to luxury resorters. The park is unique for campers because, besides the designated campsites, at Palm Canyon and other locations, you can camp elsewhere in the park.

The resort seeker will find the comfortable La Casa del Zorro presents attractive rooms, suites, and furnished houses. Besides this luxury resort, the town of Borrego Springs offers budget motels.

A lodging, dining, and exploring adjunct to Anza-Borrego is the mountain town of Julian, located a half hour west of the park in the pine-and-oak clad mountains. Julian, which boasts an authentic gold-mining history, is now awash with local apple juice, plus apple pie, preserves, and nuts, as sold in The Cider Mill on the main street. The restored Julian Hotel is one of the bed-and-breakfast lodgings in town.

If you begin an exploration of California’s Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in a burrow, and then venture out into the crisp desert daylight, you will be enriched by the dramas of nature and human history in the area.


Anza-Borrego: If You Go

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park information can be seen at http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=638.

One dependable resort is La Casa del Zorro at http://www.lacasadelzorro.com/experience.php.

One Julian bed and breakfast lodging is the Julian Gold Rush Hotel at http://www.julianhotel.com/.

Driving to Borrego Springs from San Diego takes two hours, Los Angeles three hours.