Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is the perfect road trip in Southern California if you’re visiting San Diego or Orange County. In this post, we’ll offer tips for visiting, including some of the best locations to visit, what to see, and what to expect from the trip.
The first thing we should mention is that although Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is convenient to Los Angeles, Orange, and San Diego Counties, we’d only recommend it from the latter two. If you’re staying in Los Angeles, Joshua Tree National Park is easier to access and we also consider it a better destination.
Next, we’d recommend that most people do Anza-Borrego Desert State Park as a day-trip. Although it’s the largest California State Park, many of its highlights can be seen during a day-trip, which will offer a nice overview of this fascinating ecosystem.
As the name suggests, Anza-Borrego is a desert, and can get incredibly hot during the summer months. Camping is an option, but unless you’re well-prepared and have camped in a desert before, it can be uncomfortable. Don’t go in expecting some posh, glamping experience like you see on TV.
In fact, we should underscore the rustic, remote, and hot nature of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park before continuing. That permeates all elements of a visit, from the unpaved roads to primitive campsites to large stretches of arid land that comprise some of the hiking trails. This is not to discourage you from visiting Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. To the contrary, we really enjoy it. It’s just important to go in with realistic expectations.
Also worth noting is that the heat should not be overemphasized, nor should Anza-Borrego be considered some desolate, desert wasteland. In addition to the aforementioned wildflowers, Anza-Borrego has Cholla Cactus, Barrel Cactus, Desert Agave, Ocotillo, Brittlebush, and many other plants. The ecology of the park is fascinating, and it’s truly a beautiful place.
In terms of heat, it’s mostly an issue during the summer months. If you visit during the fall, winter, or spring, you’re more likely to encounter temperate weather. In fact, from December until March, you’re looking at high temperatures in the lower 70s. From October through May, Anza-Borrego is downright comfortable, and you’re more likely to be chilly at night than hot during the day. Summer is a different story, but it’s still no Death Valley.
Upon arriving at the park, our first recommendation would be to visit the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park Visitor Center. The main reason for this is to learn a bit about the unique ecology of the park, which provides a nice background that will enrich your subsequent experiences in the park. There’s a wealth of information here, along with a number of hands-on displays. Even by the high standards of California State Parks, it’s a very nice Visitor Center.
The other reason is that it affords you an opportunity to talk to Park Rangers, who can advise of current park conditions, hazards, and provide hiking (and other) recommendations. So much changes at Anza-Borrego from season-to-season or even week to week that it’s beyond the scope of any static online resource to provide you with up-to-date info about what’s currently happening in the park, such as the best locations for wildflower blooms.
Speaking of which, Californians flock to Anza-Borrego every spring to see the wildflower bloom. Although it may come as a surprise given ‘desert’ in the name, the park is home to a range of flowers and greenery, including poppies, Desert Lilies, Sand Verbena, Lupine, and Dune Evening Primrose. Every few years, Southern California will have an abnormally rainy winter, which creates a super bloom of the park’s wildflowers.
We wrote about our experience (and shared numerous photos) seeing this in our Super Bloom at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park post, which covers the best spots to see the wildflowers and more. It was an incredible experience–the diverse assortment of wildflowers looked like a veritable tapestry of color, coming alive in fields of yellow, purple, and white flowers. Many of these wildflowers are right off the main roads, and require almost no off-roading or hiking.
While driving around the primary roads that cut through Anza-Borrego, you don’t need a four-wheel-drive or high-clearance vehicle. However, we would caution against taking a rental car on some of the off-road paths. Many of these are punishing washboard roads, and it’s easy to get a flat tire or puncture the undercarriage of your car if you’re not careful (or just get unlucky).
The Visitor Center park rangers can provide info as to the current condition of off-road trails, and the level of risk for two-wheel-drive vehicles. You’ll definitely want to err on the side of caution when it comes to off-roading; I’ve gotten flats on desert roads before, and it is not a fun experience.
In terms of basic hikes, the two most popular are the Slot and Borrego Palm Canyon. The latter is the most popular hike in Anza-Borrego, and this 2.9 mile hike leads to a literal palm-lined oasis, complete with waterfall! This hike is moderate in intensity, but you’ll want to bring plenty of water and sunscreen if you do it during the summer.
The Slot is a 2.3 mile loop trail that goes through a slot canyon (hence the name) and past other scenery in Anza-Borrego. This is another of the park’s most interesting hikes, and is a cool and unique experience. The Slot grows progressively taller and narrower as you progress deeper into it, and can be a tight squeeze in some areas. Neverthless, it’s ‘easy’ as far as intensity and difficulty of the hike go.
Another hike worth mentioning is the long trek out to Goat Canyon Trestle Bridge. We’ve yet to do this as it’s a 14-mile out and back hike, but the bridge looks really cool, as does the scenery along the way. If you’re doing a day-trip, it’s probably not going to be high on your list of things to do, though.
While technically not part of the State Park, one of the coolest things to see in the area are the metal sculptures of Galleta Meadows. These giant critters are visible from the road all around the town of Borrego Springs and include dinosaurs, woolly mammoth, and other pre-historic creatures.
There are over 130 sculptures scattered around this area, and all were crafted by Ricardo Brecedaare and were commissioned by Borrego Springs landowner Dennis Avery. This local conservationist originally wanted creatures from the Plio-Pleistocene age that would’ve inhabited the area, but has since expanded the purview of his collection.
The largest of them is a 350-foot long serpent that dips in and out of the ground (you can find this one via Google Maps). These sculptures are genuinely cool, especially the dinosaurs. Not quite as cool as the Cabazon Dinosaurs near Palm Springs, but they’re 100% less-preachy about it.
While this is private property and not technically part of Anza-Borrego, it is open to the public for free viewing and short-term camping. These sculptures are a hoot, and truly one of the best things about a visit to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. They’re one of the main reasons why we recommend Anza-Borrego over other parks in Southern California!
Overall, from this guide, it should be easy to see how you can take the two-hour or so drive (it’s a pretty drive, too) from Southern California to Anza-Borrego, and spend a little over a half-day there to see the beautiful scenery, wildlife, plant life, and (of course) dinosaur sculptures. While you could obviously spend much longer at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, we think a day-trip is the perfect amount of time for out-of-state visitors who have limited time in California and want to get a taste for this unique ecosystem!
If you’re planning a California road trip or vacation, check out my California category of posts for other things to see and do. If you enjoyed this post, please use the sharing buttons above to help spread the word via social media. I greatly appreciate it!
Have you been to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park? What did you think was the highlight of the experience? Did you see the super bloom? Any tips for visiting this California State Park of your own to add? Any questions about going to Anza-Borrego? Share your thoughts on this or anything else, or questions you have in the comments!