When most people visualize living off the land, the first thing they’d want handy is a good water supply. Not so with 1930s-40s artist and writer Marshal South, who decided to homestead on Anza-Borrego’s Ghost Mountain. South and his wife built an adobe home on top of the arid mountain and lived there with their three children for 17 years. The family tried to live simply by emulating the spartan style of early Native Americans, inventing systems for storing precious rainfall, tending a vegetable garden, and harvesting seeds and fruits from desert plants. To earn money, South wrote articles about his family’s back-to-nature lifestyle for Desert Magazine and Arizona Highways. An Australian who was an accomplished poet, South inspired a huge following of readers who eagerly awaited his next installment.
South’s wife eventually grew weary of the rugged desert life and her husband's odd idealism, and the family split up and left the mountain in 1947. The short Ghost Mountain Trail visits their old homestead, climbing gently through a series of switchbacks to the mountaintop. In spring, the ocotillos and yuccas put on a colorful show. At the summit, you’ll find a few partial walls, an old mattress frame, and some cisterns and barrels, all that remains of South’s utopian dream.
Although it’s only two hours east of San Diego’s beaches, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is a world apart from the city and coast. On the eastern side of the Peninsular Ranges, which block most storms coming in off the Pacific, California’s largest state park protects 600,000 acres/242,811 hectares of desert terrain, including dramatic badlands, cool palm oases, twisting slot canyons, and cactus-studded slopes. This desert preserve pairs the name of famed Spanish explorer Juan Bautista de Anza, who crossed the desert in 1774, and the Spanish word for sheep (“borrego”)—referring to the region’s native bighorn sheep.
A geology lesson in the making, the park’s striking landscape is in continual flux from flash floods, seismic action, and erosion. Much of Anza-Borrego is wild and remote, accessible only via primitive roads or on foot. Consider renting a 4WD with high clearance for best access, or sign up for a Jeep tour with California Overland. Your payoff will be stunning stillness and unforgettable beauty.
On your way into the park just outside the town of Borrego Springs, you can’t miss artist Ricardo Breceda’s 130 enormous metal sculptures. They depict prehistoric animals that once roamed this land, such as a saber-tooth cat, as well as an assortment of mythical creatures, including a 350-foot-long serpent.
Start your trip just northwest of Borrego Springs at the Anza Borrego visitor center, built underground for cooling efficiency, to get updates on roads, trails, and weather and tips on where to go. There’s much to see, from springtime wildflower gardens to the multi-colored sunset at Font’s Point. In years with sufficient and well-timed rains, Anza-Borrego blossoms with one of the country’s most dazzling wildflower blooms, as purple sand verbena, yellow desert sunflower, and golden poppies paint the normally tawny expanses with color. Call the park’s wildflower hotline for up-to-date information (760/767-4684).
From Borrego Palm Canyon Campground, a great beginner’s hike leads into Borrego Palm Canyon, a leafy oasis fed by underground springs and shaded by California fan palms, the only palm native to California. The 3-mile/4.8-km round-trip trek leads through a sandy wash dotted with barrel cacti and ocotillo (look for hummingbirds flitting to the plant’s crimson flowers) to a grove of dozens of soaring, shaggy palms. Scan the high ridges and you might catch a glimpse of a bighorn sheep, and note the noisy chattering of birds—more than 80 migratory species use Palm Canyon as a watering stop on their flight through the desert.
The same human need to create art embodied by Ricardo Breceda’s sculptures is on display elsewhere, in more ancient form. The Native American tribes that once lived in the Anza-Borrego Desert left a legacy of petroglyphs and pictographs on boulders and cliffs throughout the park. The easiest place to see some rock art is on the Pictograph Trail in Little Blair Valley. Passenger cars can manage the dirt road to the trailhead, and from there it’s an easy hike to views of a boulder embellished with drawings that are possibly as much as 2,000 years old.
No matter where you wander in the park, plan to stay out past sunset. When night falls, you’ll see why Anza-Borrego has been designated an International Dark Sky Park. Spread out a blanket or pull up a chaise lounge and let yourself be awed by the brilliance of the desert night sky.
At sunset and sunrise, the Borrego Badlands’ creased and wrinkled ridges cast bold shadows across a maze of golden hills and sand-colored arroyos. As you look across this parched landscape, wrap your mind around this: The whole view was shaped by water. Fossilized seashells found in the region prove that it was once submerged under a blend of salty tropical waters from the Gulf of California and fresh water from the Colorado River. Scientists surmise this brackish sea teemed with aquatic life—home to fish, sea turtles, and sharks.
One of the best places to get a look at the Badlands’ surreal scene is at Font’s Point, nicknamed California’s Grand Canyon. The point is a coveted spot for photographers, especially at sunset or on full-moon nights. If you’re trying to catch that magic light, allow time to stake out a prime spot, and keep in mind that it’s slow going—4WD only—on the sandy and rutted 4-mile/6.4-km-long road to the point. Or leave the driving to others and join a ½- or full-day guided Jeep tour with California Overland Desert Excursions or Borrego Jeep Photo Adventures.
For another perspective from a paved access point, travel to the park’s southernmost badlands at Carrizo Badlands Overlook (on the east side of County Route S-2). Pull off the road, unpack the binoculars, and survey the scene of uplift and erosion.
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
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.
Anza-Borrego bares its soul at The Slot. This is the geologic landscape dissected, the earth cut open by time and water. The easy walk through The Slot’s narrow siltstone canyon is a fun desert adventure, like a funhouse attraction created by Mother Nature. Plus it’s just a bit southeast of Borrego Springs, and regular cars can negotiate the dirt access road. The canyon’s entry point isn’t well marked, but it’s obvious. Just follow the plentiful footprints that descend more than 20 feet/6 meters into the crevice, then head left and slightly downhill. Almost instantly the canyon narrows, and you’ll squeeze through walls that occasionally constrict to less than shoulder-width. The Slot’s pink and tan siltstone, magnified by the blue sky above, makes for striking photographs. Not far from the start, you’ll pass under a gravity-defying natural bridge, a boulder precariously lodged in a narrow gap, before the canyon widens and meets up with a Jeep road. Here’s where you retrace your steps to your car, enjoying the magic of The Slot all over again.
Smack in the middle of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park lies the unpretentious town of Borrego Springs, population 3,429. It’s the only California town that is completely surrounded by a state park, and that’s just one bullet point in its list of bragging rights. It’s also an official International Dark Sky Community—the first and only one in California—dedicated to protecting the night sky from light pollution. Backyard stargazing parties happen almost every night. Then there’s the ruby red grapefruit season, which begins in late December and ends when all the grapefruit are eaten. Some local fruit stands are run on the honor system: pick up a bag and place your money in the box.
The downtown area has a passel of ice cream shops, restaurants, and lodgings, but the local art scene evokes the most community pride. First, there are the supersize prehistoric and fantastical beasts that both line area roads and are sometimes seemingly dropped randomly in the middle of nowhere, far from any road or foot traffic. Insider tip: A map with the GPS locations of all the sculptures is available at the Anza-Borrego Desert Natural History Association desert store, which is one block west of downtown’s Christmas Circle. The meticulously crafted metal creatures, rust-colored and featuring such details as curling eyelashes and “fur” of shaved iron, are the work of metal sculptor Ricardo Breceda. Then there are galleries with more works by local artists, the Plein Air Invitational painting event and the Circle of Art Show, both in spring. Get your own art on with a watercolor or pottery-making class offered by the nonprofit Borrego Art Institute.
Visitors to Borrego Springs who would like to camp have it especially good—you are allowed to camp for free anywhere in the surrounding Anza-Borrego State Park under the following conditions: 1) Your vehicle is not parked more than one length off the road (though you may walk further in to set up your site); 2) Your camp is set up at least 100 yards from any water source; 3) The prohibition of ground fires is observed (fires in metal containers ok); 4) Campers bring their own firewood; and 5) Leave No Trace principles are followed. There are also several campgrounds and RV parks in the area.
Among stargazers, creating light pollution is the equivalent of throwing trash out of a car window. That’s why the streetlights in Borrego Springs are subtle, not glaring, and the local airport has adjusted its aircraft beacon to angle downward. The town’s residents like to see their skies illuminated by millions of bright stars, and they plan to keep it that way. Borrego Springs is the first International Dark Sky Community in California, having earned that distinction by restricting and modifying lights on public streets, outside of businesses, and even on residents’ front porches. It doesn’t hurt to have a high mountain range between here and the big, bright cities and towns of Southern California, plus 600,000 acres/242,811 hectares of undeveloped Anza-Borrego Desert State Park all around.
If you’d like to school up on what you’re seeing, schedule an evening under the stars with astronomer Dennis Mammana of Borrego Night Sky Tours. The Springs at Borrego, an RV resort with a small observatory housing an 11-inch diameter telescope, holds public viewings and lectures several times a year. In April, take part in even more events during Dark Sky Week.
The Native American tribes that once lived in the Anza-Borrego Desert left a legacy of petroglyphs and pictographs on boulders and cliffs throughout the park. These early artists drew human and animal figures, sun circles, stars, and other more abstract designs. Many of the drawings mark sacred locations where they celebrated rites of passage and held ceremonies.
More than 50 major rock art sites have been found in Anza-Borrego, but to protect these ancient sites, the park doesn’t broadcast all their locations. The easiest place to see some rock art is on the Pictograph Trail in Little Blair Valley. Passenger cars can manage the dirt road to the trailhead, and the easy hike leads to views of a boulder embellished with red and yellow zigzag lines and diamond shapes, were painted by nomadic Kumeyaay Indians, possibly as much as 2,000 years ago.
The creatures pop up alongside Borrego Springs Road: Prehistoric elephants. A saber-tooth cat. An ancient camel. A T. rex and a giant bird of prey. Not the flesh-and-blood kind, but remarkable art pieces—sometimes whimsical, sometimes haunting—are the one of a kind works of sculptor Ricardo Breceda, whose creations delight and surprise drivers near the town of Borrego Springs.
While some creatures are ambitious fantasies, such as a 350-foot-long serpent arcing across the playa, but many of the sculptures represent real-life creatures that once roamed this land. In 2008, Breceda was originally commissioned by local philanthropist Dennis Avery to make sculptures for his extensive desert property known as Galleta Meadows, but the creatures seem to have multiplied around town. To find Breceda’s 130 or so rust-red, scrap-metal sculptures, pick up a detailed map at the Anza-Borrego Desert Natural History Association bookstore in Borrego Springs (also a great place for nature-themed gifts).
Wondering what to do today? With six tennis courts and five swimming pools (plus 19 more private pools), it’s a tough decision at this surprisingly posh desert retreat.
"Retire to the Fox Den Bar for cocktails, or watch a desert sunset over dinner on the terrace of the Butterfield Dining Room"
Originally opened in 1937, La Casa del Zorro had seen some wear and tear, but a complete overhaul of its poolside and garden rooms, and its deluxe one- to four-bedroom casitas with private pools or spas, now finds the resort in fabulous shape. Look for Southwestern desert-style furnishings, marble baths, wooden shutters, and wood-burning fireplaces for chilly desert nights.
Luckily, you don’t have to be a guest to enjoy this desert gem. After a hike in Anza-Borrego, retire to the Fox Den Bar for cocktails, or watch a desert sunset over dinner on the terrace of the Butterfield Dining Room. If you do book a stay, get up early at least one morning to walk around the resort’s 42-acre/17 hectare grounds. You’re sure to spot a few other early risers—a coyote, a roadrunner, or maybe even the resort’s namesake, the big-eared desert kit fox (“zorro” means fox in Spanish).
At first glance, the desert can seem like an inhospitable place, which makes Anza-Borrego’s wildflower bloom seem all the more miraculous. The park’s more than 200 flowering plant species put on a brilliant display each spring—if winter rains have worked their magic. Typically the bloom occurs between late February and April, with early March being the safest bet. Once the bloom starts, it lasts only for a few weeks. Call the park’s wildflower hotline for up-to-date information (760/767-4684).
Borrego Palm Canyon Trail usually has good displays of spiky ocotillo, saffron-yellow brittlebrush, and desert lavender. For a longer trek, hike about 3 miles/4.8 km into Hellhole Canyon and reap rewards of flowering barrel cactus and sweet-smelling lupine, plus cascading water at Maidenhair Falls. If you’ve got a 4WD, scope out the sand verbena and dune evening primrose along what’s commonly called Coyote Canyon Jeep Trail, a dirt road at the north end of DiGiorgio Road.