Anza-Borrego Desert State Park became California’s first desert park in 1933. The largest state park in the contiguous United States, it’s flanked by rugged mountain on three sides and the Salton Sea to the east. Its 650,000 acres contain spectacular desert vistas, a variety of plant and animal life, and numerous archaeological, cultural, and historic sites.
Anza-Borrego was named after a Spanish explorer and an animal inhabitant.
It was through Borrego Valley that Juan Bautista de Anza discovered the first land route to California. This happened five years after Father Junípero Serra had founded the first mission in San Diego. In 1774 Anza led a party of explorers from Arizona down into Mexico and up along the Colorado River, then finally north across a dead sea into California and the Borrego Valley. Coyote Canyon, at the north end of the valley, provided a natural staircase over the mountains.
One of the park’s most elusive year-round residents is the bighorn sheep. The word borrego is Spanish for sheep.
Anza-Borrego’s historical roots run deep. Within the park’s boundaries are portions of the southern route to the California gold rush, the Butterfield Overland Mail Route, and the Southern Emigrant Trail.
A considerable diversity of terrain and vegetation awes the visitor. Eroded badlands sprawl at near sea-level elevation and piñon-juniper woodlands cover 6,000-foot-high mountains. The park is a fascinating nature reserve with over 1,000 species of plants amid a great diversity of terrain.
As Mark C. Jorgensen, the park superintendent, says, “This park is preserved forever, for the deep, palm-filled canyons, lofty crags, wrinkled badlands, and endless vistas provide a lifetime of exploration and tranquility for our generation and many generations to come.”
The park has 500 miles of back-country roads, unlimited hiking trails, guided nature walks, and unobscured views of the night skies.
To reach the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park Visitor Center drive through the tiny town of Borrego Springs. When you first approach the visitor center you may not see anything except the sign, but look closely. The center is built into the earth—be a desert ground squirrel and burrow deeply into the attractive chambers for a bounty of desert touring information. Exhibits include a film of an actual earthquake experience as it occurred in the desert here; live pupfish; desert stones to touch; and temperature gauges.
It is open Thursday through Mondays, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. but only on weekends during the hot months, when the temperature may hit 110 °F. The visitor center is the starting point for nature talks and walks, and guided tours.
Some of the flora, fauna, and wildlife one might see near the centre are ocotillo, cholla, peninsular bighorn sheep, roadrunners, black-tailed jackrabbits, and several species of hummingbirds.
One of the most popular spots—both because of its location and beauty—is Borrego Palm Canyon. Located near the Visitor Center, the canyon campground offers the only RV hookups within the park. Fifty-two sites have hookups for large RVs, while there are 65 sites that will accommodate tents, or smaller trailers and motorhomes. To book reservations, click here.
Anza-Borrego is the only California state park that allows camping outside the designated campsites.
The nearby town of Borrego Springs is your best resource for groceries, fuel, and restaurants while in the state park.
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is a great destination for photographers. The vastness and stark beauty of this desert region, with its unobstructed views of distant horizons, can easily overwhelm you. Anza-Borrego is a very popular outdoor destination, especially during the spring wildflower bloom. If you’re looking for desolate desert landscape locations to photograph, you may want to leave the paved highway. There are also many hiking trails that you can follow into rock-lined canyons, palm oases, and badland overlooks—all offer great photo opportunities.
The desert’s vast vistas are a compositional challenge, best photographed during the early morning or late afternoon hours. The sun casts long shadows over the rocky terrain, which adds depth and contrast to your images. As veteran travel photographer Susan McCartney often points out, “It’s best to photograph outdoors when your shadow is longer than you are.”
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is located on the eastern side of San Diego County, with portions extending east into Imperial County and north into Riverside County. It’s about a two-hour drive from San Diego, Riverside, or the Coachella Valley. Many people approach from the west through Julian via Highways 78 and 79. These highways descend from the Peninsular range of mountains with beautiful views of the great bowl of the Colorado Desert.
From Indio you’ll take Highway 86 south and turn west on Route S22. This scenic 21-mile route to the state park is referred to as Erosion Road. The first scenery along this roadway is riddled by fractures and faults, abundant evidence of earthquake motion. Referred to as the Borrego Badlands, these twisted sedimentary layers resemble a miniature Grand Canyon of washed-out, rainbow-colored hills. Floodwaters cascading from the Santa Rosa Mountains to the north carved deep valleys, gullies, washes, and sharp ridges into this dramatic, intimidating landscape. Iron deposits in the soil created brilliant pink, red, yellow, and green hues.
There are a few more stories to tell about some of the other interesting places in this area. Watch this space!
The impulse to travel is one of the hopeful symptoms of life.