Anza-Borrego Desert State Park: Badlands, Palm Oases, Canyons & More


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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 of badlands, palm oases, slot canyons, and cactus-studded hills.

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 and what to do. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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 and what to do. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Situated northeast of San Diego and due south of the Palm Springs/Indio area, Anza-Borrego is easily accessible from anywhere in Southern California. Our journey took us south on State Highway 86 (which skirts the western shore of the Salton Sea) before we veered west on S22 (Borrego Salton Seaway) which dissects the park. A few miles down the road, we encountered thick stands of ocotillo and badlands.

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 and what to do. The visitor center is the starting point for nature talks and walks, and ranger-led guided tours. Desert bighorn sheep are often spotted on nearby trails to Palm Canyon.

Palm Canyon Campground as viewed from Anza-Borrego Desert State Park Visitor Center nature trail. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Palm Canyon Campground as viewed from Anza-Borrego Desert State Park Visitor Center nature trail. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One of the most popular spots—due to its location and beauty—is Borrego Palm Canyon. Located near the visitor center, the canyon campground offers the only RV hookups within the state park. Fifty-two camping sites offer full hookups including 50/30/20-amp electric service, water, and sewer. In addition there are 65 sites that will accommodate tents and smaller RVs.

Anza-Borrego is the only California state park that allows camping outside the designated campsites.

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 (3 miles roundtrip), 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).

The visitor center is the starting point for nature talks and walks. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The visitor center is the starting point for nature talks and walks. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

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.

Palm Canyon Campground near the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park visitor center contains 65 non-hookups and 52 full-hookup sites including 50/30/20-amp electric service. It includes campsites for virtually every type of camper and every size of rig. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Palm Canyon Campground near the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park visitor center contains 65 non-hookups and 52 full-hookup sites including 50/30/20-amp electric service. It includes campsites for virtually every type of camper and every size of rig. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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 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.

You'll often spot a roadrunner or other wildlife along the nature trail at the visitor center. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You’ll often spot a roadrunner or other wildlife along the nature trail at the visitor center. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park has 500 miles of back-country roads, unlimited hiking trails, guided nature walks, and unobscured views of the night skies.

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 the town and the big, bright cities of Southern California, plus 600,000 acres of undeveloped Anza-Borrego Desert State Park all around.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park with its incredible beauty, its mystery, and legends is quite a lure. And there’s so much more to discover on our next visit. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park with its incredible beauty, its mystery, and legends is quite a lure. And there’s so much more to discover on our next visit. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to Stay: Palm Canyon Campground (Anza-Borrego Desert State Park); The Springs at Borrego RV Resort and Golf Course

Worth Pondering…

Keep close to Nature’s heart…and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.
— John Muir

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