Since we purchased the California State Park pass last year, we’ve been trying to visit our state parks as often as possible. It wasn’t until last spring, when everyone was going bonkers for wildflowers during the super bloom, that we learned about Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. This is California’s largest state park, located about 80 miles north west of San Diego. Anza-Borrego is most well-known for its spring wildflowers, but we discovered enough natural wonders (like slot canyons, some almost alien-looking landscapes, and a few natural palm oases) to have us looking forward to coming back in any season. Here’s our guide to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.
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When to visit Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
Anza-Borrego hosts a lot of out-of-state winter visitors looking to escape the cold and enjoy the mild California desert temperatures. December through February sees highs in the 60s and lows in the 40s. Things quickly heat up, with April and May in the 80s, and June starting to hit triple digits.
On our visit over the last weekend in March, daytime temps were already pretty warm, so we appreciated the partially cloudy day. We found shade during our mid-day hike of the slot canyon and waited until later in the afternoon to do a second hike, Borrego Canyon. This meant cooler temperatures and a partially shaded trail by the mountain.
While summer days can be scorching, the lows are in the 70s, which means it’s shorts and t-shirt weather for stargazing.
Best time to visit Anza-Borrego for Wildflowers
With prime conditions, the desert floor can look like it’s carpeted in colorful wildflowers. The blooms in Anza-Borrego depend on the winter rains, but can generally be seen in March and April. Check out the current flower forecast report here.
2018 was nowhere at the levels of 2017, but when we went in late March 2018, all of the ocotillos were tipped in crimson blooms, some cacti were flowering, and there were bright yellow patches of wildflowers on our hike up Borrego Canyon.
We recently took a trip during the second weekend of March 2019, and it looks like Anza Borrego is shaping up for another super bloom. There was a full field of yellow desert dandelions along Di Giorgio Road. Further down the road in Coyote Canyon, there were lots of yellow sunflowers, plus a mix of other beautiful desert blooms. Purple verbena covers the hillside right off Highway S-22 at mile marker 31. We also saw a lot of wildflowers around the Visitor Center and on the trail to Hellhole Canyon.
Entrance fees for Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
Most of Anza-Borrego’s over 600,000 acres are completely free to enter. A few of the more popular spots, like Borrego Palm Canyon, Tamarisk Grove, Bow Willow, Vern Whitaker Horse Camp and the Visitor Center are $5 to $10 to enter, though that would be covered with the California State Park pass.
Hotels in Borrego Springs
The small of Borrego Springs (population 2,500) is surrounded by Anza-Borrego State Park. Booking a hotel in Borrego Springs means you’ll still be close to many of the popular attractions in the park. Check out Borrego Valley Inn, with its comfortable, Spanish-style rooms and suites, two pools and a spa. To try out van life, book an RV at the Desert Sands Vintage Trailer Park. Each trailer comes with a fully equipped kitchen, plus there’s a pool on the property.
Camping in Anza-Borrego
Anza-Borrego has almost unlimited camping options. If you want to camp at a traditional campsite with amenities like toilets and designated spots, check out Borrego Palm Canyon or Tamarisk Grove Campground on ReserveCalifornia.com. Reservations can be made up to six months in advance. These campsites do fill up during wildflower season in Anza-Borrego.
Anza-Borrego is unique in that it offers free dispersed camping. This means you can camp anywhere within Anza-Borrego State Park as long as:
1) Your car is parked no more than one car length off the road (but you can walk in further to set up your campsite); and
2) You are at least 100 yards away from any water source.
Here is more info about free dispersed camping plus a map published by the park.
There are also a few designated areas for free car camping, including Rockhouse, Pegleg, and Clark Dry Lake. These spots are great for those with an RV but are fine if you’re tent camping too. These spots have zero amenities, so you’ll have to bring in all your water and pack out any trash or waste. We popped our tent up in Rockhouse during our first visit to Anza-Borrego and had a great experience. Check out more information on Campedium here.
Hiking in Anza-Borrego: Slot Canyons, Caves, and a Palm Oasis
With a remote desert park spanning such a huge expanse of land, you can be sure there’s going to be a lot of places you can only explore on foot. There are over 100 miles of trails, but here’s our list of the best hikes in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.
Who knew there were slot canyons in California? Though these might not be quite as breathtaking as the oh-so-insta-famous Antelope Canyon, they are still seriously cool. There are several slot canyons around Anza-Borrego, but the most popular one earns the title of “The Slot.” No reservations, it’s a short trail, and it’s not that busy. We thought this was the perfect mid-day hike since it’s partially shaded and much cooler down in the canyon. We felt like Indiana Jones squeezing ourselves through the narrow gaps with the canyon walls towering high above.
Directions: The Slot is located about 15 miles outside of Borrego Springs (link to the trailhead in Google maps here). Once you turn left off of the 78, drive 1.8 miles down a dirt road. There is no entry or parking fee to this part of the park, and you do not need 4wd here (unlike other parts of the park). We parked in the dirt lot and started the 2.3-mile loop trail from there.
Borrego Palm Canyon
All the cool parts of this hike are in the name – it’s up a canyon to a palm oasis, and you may just spot borregos, or desert bighorn sheep. Anza-Borrego is one of the last preserved habitats for these bighorn sheep and sightings are pretty rare. They come to drink the water from the underground spring that also feeds the palm oasis. It’s also one of the places the native California fan palm grows naturally.
Directions: The Borrego Palm Canyon Trail starts right across from the Borrego Palm Canyon Campground (link to map here), which is about four miles from Borrego Springs. It costs $10 to enter and park in the paved lot which also has bathrooms. This 2.9-mile loop is the most popular in Anza-Borrego but features so many of the reasons people come to this state park.
This approximately one-mile roundtrip trail leads to rounded sandstone formations with wind-eroded holes you can climb all over and caves you can explore. Though the trail is short, it’s steep in a few spots.
Directions: The Wind Caves Trailhead is about 30 miles away from Borrego Springs. Head south off the 78 onto Split Moutain Road, which turns into Fish Creek Wash. You’ll most likely need a 4wd vehicle for this last portion of the drive.
Hellhole Canyon Trail to Maidenhair Falls
This 4.9-mile roundtrip trail takes you to two waterfalls and a natural palm oasis. This hike may require some bouldering, and you have a search a bit for the trail as it isn’t clearly marked after you reach the Hellhole Palm oasis. Just try to follow the footsteps and listen for the water!
Directions: The Hellhole Canyon trailhead is located 2 miles west of Christmas Circle in Borrego Springs.
Palm Bowl is yet another palm oasis in the dry desert of Anza-Borrego. With over 100 palms and just a short two-mile roundtrip trail, it’s worth the trip even if it’s located in the far southern part of the park.
Directions: The Palm Bowl trailhead is located about 50 miles south of Borrego Springs. Once you park, head away from the campground to find the trail.
Other things to do in Anza-Borrego: Viewpoints, sculptures and pumpkin patches
This scenic lookout over the badlands of Anza-Borrego is what initially spurred my desire to visit the state park. It’s often called the Grand Canyon of California. However, we soon realized that driving four miles up the sandy trail off the S-22 probably wasn’t going to end well with our 2-wheel drive sedan. We went back and forth for a bit; I read a number of people that said they did make it without 4-wheel drive, but the road conditions change all the time and just driving by the turnoff I could tell it was pretty sandy. I can’t wait to go back so I can see the view from Font’s Point in person. The best times to go are supposed to be sunrise and sunset.
Galleta Meadow Statues
The Galleta Meadow Statues are a massive, permanent art installation by Ricardo Breceda in the desert near Borrego Springs. There are thirty larger-than-life sculptures dotted throughout these desert sands, including prehistoric animals and fantastical creatures. There’s a 350-foot-long serpent, a faceoff between a scorpion and a grasshopper, dinosaurs, camels, and elephants. See the link here for a map of the statues or pick up a map from the visitor center. Many of the statues are right off the road, so you’ll spot them as you’re driving by.
The Pumpkin Patch
On one acre of land just east of the park there lies the pumpkin patch, a geological oddity so named because of the large, pumpkin-looking boulders strewn all across the desert landscape. These formations are actually called concretions, formed when tiny wet specks of sandstone dried and cemented around a small fragment, like a shell or leaf. These formations grew over time just like a pearl, eventually developing into their pumpkin size. You’ll need a high clearance vehicle and most likely 4WD to get to this spot.
Explore the Badlands
Anza-Borrego is massive, and much of it is only accessed through rough or sandy trails that you’ll need a 4 WD vehicle for. If you don’t have one and still want to explore the terrain, California Overland does desert tours in their off-road vehicles.
For a full list of access points and off-road trails, see here.
Clark Dry Lake
Clark Dry Lake looks how I’d expect Death Valley to be: flat, dusty ground, cracked and dried from the scorching sun. You can walk around the dry lake bed and camp nearby right off Rockhouse Trail.
Directions: The Clark Dry Lake bed is about 10 miles from the center of Borrego Springs, off the S-22 and down Rockhouse Trail.
Borrego Springs is the first International Dark Sky Community in California, so even if you end up staying in town you’ll see a sky full of stars. Head out deep into the badlands to see even more tiny twinklers up above.
Here are a few of the best spots to go stargazing in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park:
- Culp Valley area and Culp Valley Primitive Campground (accessible with 2WD)
- Blair Valley/Little Blair Valley/Blair Valley Primitive Campground (accessible with 2WD)
- Fish Creek Primitive Campground (high clearance and 4WD vehicles recommended)
- Mountain Palm Springs Primitive Campground (high clearance and 4WD vehicles recommended)
Unfortunately when we went, it was both almost full moon and kind of cloudy, so star visibility was pretty poor. Plus, it was incredibly windy (like I thought our tent might blow away), so we didn’t get out to do any night photography. Next time!
If you want a bit of help to know what you’re looking at or where things are going to be in the night sky, try a stargazing guide app like Star Walk or Stellarium. The app NightCap Pro allows you to take long exposures with your camera phone, so you can still capture some awesome night sky shots full of constellations even if you didn’t bring another camera.