Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, CA, parched, hot, alien and stunning!

Chollo Cactus at twilight in Palm Canyon.

California Fan Palms grace the oasis at top of Palm Canyon, fed by a creek that disappears into the desert sands just a 1/2 mile below the oasis.
Rangy Ocotillo plants can grow to 15 feet; the slightest moisture will set bright red flowers to bloom.
Mojave Yucca sends up tall stalks prior to stunning bloom!
Peninsular Bighorn Sheep, the park’s name-sake, are an endangered species with only about 200 left inside the park (photo courtesy CA State Parks).
Sunrise at Palm Canyon; the 6 AM temperatures of about 60 degrees will rise to 95 by Noon!

After touring Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Parks last spring, we decided to explore another of California’s vast desert parks. Anza Borrego Desert State Park is 60-some miles due east of Oceanside, CA, about a 10 hour journey from Stockton.  A search through found the main campground and we booked three days for our teardrop travel trailer.

Anza Borrego is stark and desolate, upon first glance. Car tours and hikes in the following three days change your opinion of the desert landscape – it’s alive, and never ceases to yield amazing specimens, both plant and critter! By 8 PM that first night we were treated to a stunning, starry night!  Clean air and absence of competing light from big cities allows star-gazing to take on a new dimension; and you can see the Milky Way with skies so bright! 

Anza-Borrego State Park, huge at 634,000 acres, is larger than the other 269 California parks combined! Borrego is Spanish for “lamb”, only about 200 of the park’s endangered Peninsular Bighorn Sheep remain inside the park. The park’s rugged features are “Colorado Desert”; this is where, millions of years ago, the Colorado River met the Gulf of California. Today, thousands of tourists are peering into the Grand Canyon, wondering where all that dirt and rock went. At Anza-Borrego, we’re standing on it!

On our first full day, we visited the nearby Visitor Center, took in the stunning video on the creation of this park and walked through the adjoining desert garden, admiring about two dozen native plant species, only found in such dry desert locations. 

Our second day, we departed for the Palm Canyon trailhead at 6:30 AM, and were on the trail by 6:40. It’s a mile and a half up a stark, bone-dry canyon – we’re on the lookout for snakes and Bighorn Sheep. Unfortunately, we see neither. About a mile up the trail, having climbed about 300 vertical feet, we hear water running and come upon a pretty stream and increasing vegetation.

The final half mile, through a narrow, rocky canyon, yields more of the rushing stream, and at the apex, a beautiful California Fan Palm oasis (fan palms are California’s only native palm tree). This green oasis couldn’t be imagined, or viewed, from the dusty desert below.

On the trail and throughout the park, we could identify California Fan Palm, Indigo Bush, Brittle Bush. Creosote Bush, Blue Palo Verde (reaching 30 feet tall, with yellow flowers), Chollo Cactus, Barrel Cactus in bloom, Hedgehog Cactus and Mohave Yucca. And, our favorite, the Ocotillo, a rangy plant that shoots spindly shafts skyward 12-15 feet and, with the slightest bit of rain, blooms with spectacular red flowers!

The park is home to a wide array of wildlife, from the Peninsular Bighorn Sheep we did not see, snakes including Rattlesnakes, Roadrunners (birds which can fly but are most often seen crossing roads!), Black-tailed Jackrabbits, coyotes and a wide variety of lizards.

In the early morning the temperature drops to 59°, but by 8 o’clock it’s up to 82°. Highs in the late afternoon will hit 99 to 102° in our three day visit. We make a mental note: for a return to the desert, pick a time when the temps are going to be in the 80s, not the 100s! We slept two nights with our trailer door wide-open until early morning hours!

Exploring east, we toured 30 miles to the strange Salton Sea, the vast inland ocean formed in 1906 when a huge Colorado River flood sent waters raging into the Salton Sink.  Unimpeded for over 18 months, flood waters formed a 25 x 35 mile inland ocean, 52 feet deep and 220 feet below sea level!

In the 1940s to 1960s, fish were introduced into the Sea and the advent of air conditioning brought big resorts to several of the Sea’s towns: Salton Sea Beach, Desert Shores on the west side, Bombay Beach and others on the east shore.

Then came Tropical Storm Kathleen in 1976, quickly followed by Tropical Storm Doreen in 1977.  Heavy rains, with nowhere to go but into the Sea, pushed the lake level steadily higher, inundating these resorts.  Property values collapsed and owners fled, abandoning homes and trailers. 

We drove through Riviera Keys, with scores of paved, named streets, multiple deep canals excavated with plans to line with homes and docks – a virtual ghost town with only a few occupied and many abandoned homes. After the lake’s floods, almost nothing more was built; further north at Desert Shores, we spied the same “big resort plans gone bust”.

Our final night in the park continued bright with an almost full moon.  Several times in the night we hear coyotes howling like choir boys from nearby!

Returning to the California coast, we turned west up Highway 79, cresting the San Ysidro mountains at more than 4,000 feet. We leave behind the parched desert and are now into a cool, green oasis which extends for miles, as the mountains wring out the moisture coming off the Pacific. Anza Borrego  gets almost none of it, being on the east side of the southern Sierra mountains.

How to get there: We drove south through California’s Central Valley on I-5,  to I-210, I-10, I-15, then Hwy 79 up through the mountains – scenic at 4,000+ feet – then descended a dramatic, 15 mile switch-back road down to Borrego Springs, with the Salton Sea shimmering in afternoon, hazy sunshine to the east. It’s about a 10 hour drive from Stockton.

What to take: Camera and binoculars, good walking shoes or boots and water bottles for hiking the park’s spectacular trails Where to stay: Anza Borrego has a fine campground for both tents and RVs; several additional more primitive and back-country camps offer options.  Motels are found in Borrego Springs.

For more information: Anza Borrego State Park,, Ph: 760.767.5311.

Next week, a report on touring historic Route 66, from Oklahoma to Santa Monica, CA.  For other inspirational destinations in CA, see my Record blog:!

Happy travels in the West!

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