This park’s combo name, pairing the name of famed Spanish explorer Juan Bautista de Anza, who crossed this desert in 1774, and the Spanish word for sheep (“borrego”)—referring to the region’s native bighorn sheep, this desert preserve—California’s largest state park—protects more than 600,000 acres/242,811 hectares of badlands, palm oases, slot canyons, and cactus-studded hills. A geology lesson in the making, still being altered by erosion and flash floods, it’s a wild and remote place, with much of it accessed via primitive roads, or on foot. (Consider renting a 4WD with high clearance for best access.) But the payoff is stunning stillness and unforgettable beauty.
Start your trip just northwest of Borrego Springs at the park’s visitor center, built underground for cooling efficiency, to learn more about this fascinating park, and to get tips on where to go. Anza-Borrego’s most famous hike leads to Borrego Palm Canyon, a watery haven fed by underground springs and shaded by California fan palms, the only palm that is native to California. It’s not a major hike round trip (3 miles/4.8 km total), but it feels like a trek from the desert to the tropics. Head off into a sandy wash twisting through a rocky canyon dotted with barrel cacti and ocotillo (look for hummingbirds flitting to the plant’s crimson flowers).
A little further along, you come upon lush willows and the sound of little waterfalls, until finally, rocks give way to deep pools of shade cast by the soaring, shaggy palms (their untrimmed fronds make them look a bit like Wookiee out of Star Wars). A series of severe rainstorms and flash floods in the last decade wiped out many of the oldest palms in this grove, but Palm Canyon is still the largest of the palm groves in Anza-Borrego. Over 80 species of migratory birds use Palm Canyon as a watering stop as they travel through the desert. Bighorn sheep like this spot, too. Scan the high ridges to catch a glimpse of them; if you’re lucky—and very still—they may come down for a drink.
When you leave Anza-Borrego, keep your eyes peeled for the remarkable metal sculptures of prehistoric beasts dotting the desert near the town of Borrego Springs; they’re the work of artist Ricardo Breceda. Now your route takes you east then north to the cities and lush resort communities collectively referred to as Palm Springs.