Anza what? Borrego who? That is usually most people’s reaction when you bring up California’s Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Just over two hours from Orange County, this little known secret gem is the state’s largest park with over 600,000 acres, 12 distinct and vastly different wilderness areas, miles of dirt roads to off road on and ample options for hiking trails.
The park was named for the 18th century Spanish explorer Juan Bautista de Anza and the word borrego, the Spanish word for sheep. Anza-Borrego Desert State Park was first commissioned for creation in 1927 and completed its first and only visitor center in 1979. This visitor center was built many years after the consolidation of the two separate parks of Borrego State Park and the Anza Desert State Park into the one massive land of many uses that it is now.
And that my friends is what Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is and yet it is so much more. Here is your must do guide to exploring California’s largest and very cherished desert adventure playground.
Prepare yourself for desert vibes in this state park. Much of the landscape is actually 8,000 feet below sea level! From slot canyons to oasis destinations with spring flowers. Here are some hikes to check out:
Borrego Palm Canyon: This short hike at just over 3 miles in length is the park’s absolute most popular trail. Why? The trail ends at California’s third largest palm oasis. The trail is relatively easy, kid friendly and even has a waterfall.
The Slot: Another, even shorter hike than Borrego Palm Canyon, into a narrow siltstone canyon. This trail is exciting as you squeeze into a smaller and smaller trail right below a gravity defying rock bright. This trail is unique and shaded which on hot desert days is delightful.
Whale Peak: Looking for a more challenging hike and tackle a mountain in the process? Whale Peak is an almost 6 mile hike up to the summit sitting at 5,335 feet in elevation.
Off-roading is arguably what brings most visitors to Anza-Borrego. The park boasts of more than 500 miles of rocky hills, deep sand, scenic streams and steep hilly roads to explore. Some things to note before you set off on your motor adventure; all vehicles must be highway legal. The park requires that every driver have a valid driver’s license. If you are underaged, or an unlicensed driver you may operate vehicles in Ocotillo Wells State Vehicular Recreation Area under the supervision of a licensed driver. Also please stay on established roadways at all times being careful around potential other hikers, bikers and wildlife.
Still sounds like fun? Here are some popular routes to check out:
Grapevine Canyon: Starting on the western boundary of the park at Jasper Trail near Ranchita you are in for a long downhill ride. This road among the canyon has lovely shaded trees to cool off under as well as multiple springs such as Yaqui Wells.
Borrego Badlands Font’s Point: This route is a very popular one up to the gorgeous Font Point. Along the way you can enjoy sediments of Pilocone and Pleistocene Epochs. The road is a sandy one so be prepared with a vehicle that can handle deep sand and 4-wheel drive capabilities.
Blair Valley: With its fairly flat terrain and firm road consistency, Blair Valley is a wonderful beginning point for off road driving. Plus you pass multiple trailheads where you can stop for an easy stroll to see morteros or pictographs.
Perhaps the most unique and interesting attraction at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park are the Galleta Metal Sculptures. Sprinkled across the state park are 130 full-size metal sculptures. Each creature is inspired by prehistoric beasts that would potentially have roamed this desert millions of years ago. How did they get here? Why are there mammoths, dinosaurs and a massive serpent nestled alongside underbrush and tortoises?
The late Dennis Avery was once the landowner of Galleta Meadows Estates in Borrego Springs. These Estates are privately owned desert estate land that consists of many separate plots that are open to the public for hiking, bike riding, horseback riding and really any outdoor activities. Dennis Avery had an idea of adding art to his property for everyone to enjoy. He was inspired by the original steel welded sculptures created by Perris Jurassic Park owner Ricardo Breceda who is based in Perris, California. Ricardo Breceda happily began using his artistic talents to sculpt the 130 statutes sprinkled across the Galleta Meadows Estates.
Want to see them for yourself? From Orange County drive State Road 22 directly into the Anza Borrego valley. The sculptures are easy to see from the road all over the next 10 square miles among the desert landscape.
Where to stay
When visiting Anza-Borrego Desert State Park camping is the accommodation of choice. The allure of sleeping under vast night starscape is just too strong to ignore. And much like other unique aspects of this park, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park offers dispersed camping. I see more scratching of heads and ‘what are you talking about now’. Let me explain.
Most State and National Parks require months of planning in order to scout out and reserve the limited in-park camping sites. Where Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is different is that instead of official campgrounds it offers free dispersed camping. Which in layman’s terms means you can camp practically anywhere! Of course there are some rules of thumb to consider before popping up your canvas home.
Dispersed camping is not allowed within a one mile radius of developed recreational areas such as picnic areas or trailheads. A good rule is to stick to established Forest Service roads to find a clearing or a spot near a stream or with a view of the mountains or in this case – cacti. When you drive on existing roads to camp areas you prevent resource damage to the very area you wish to enjoy.
Similar to the one mile radius of developed areas, keep 100 feet from any stream.
Lastly keep your campsite within 150 feet from a roadway. And pack in and pack out all your supplies and trash!
Not feeling the tent vibes? Here are some less “roughing it” accommodations.
Pacific Yurts: Located in the Borrego Palm Canyon Campground these super cute desert yurts are used for overnight learning adventures focused on activities like desert photography, astronomy, and more. Each yurt has a complete kitchen and is pet friendly!
La Casa del Zorro Resort and Spa: This luxury resort has it all. The 42 acre property includes 26 sparkling swimming pools, Tennis and PickleBall Courts, horseshoes, free bike rentals and so much more. Very close to hiking trails; La Casa del Zorro is definitely an oasis in the desert.
Borrego Valley Inn: This hotel is located in the quaint Borrego Springs village among cute locally owned shops and restaurants. The property has multiple swimming pools and a lovely hot tub. The only downside? It is adults only. Then again that may be an upside!
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is approximately one-fifth of San Diego County in size. From sandy roads to Big Horn Sheep to star gazing nights – it certainly is a place that can steal one-fifth of your heart as well.
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Kaitlin is a former ballerina who now travels around the country in an 18-foot converted school bus. Her and her husband have welcomed 34 sweet children into their home the past eleven years. Although they would not be a forever home for all of them, they adopted their daughter buckets and are legal guardians to their son monkey. Follow their crazy adventures on Instagram @runawaymusbus