Anza Borrego Desert State Park: sunshine, stunning vistas and ghost resorts on eerie Salton Sea

Elusive Bighorn sheep in Anza Borrego Desert State Park (photo courtesy of CA State Parks)

Winter sun, stunning vistas make Anza Borrego Desert State Park and the ghost resorts on eerie Salton Sea a place to reflect upon.

View looking over the Anza Borrego Desert.

Last week’s column featured California’s two desert national parks, Death Valley and Joshua Tree. Both feature a mild winter climate and evocative topography; this week we’ll cover nearby Anza Borrego Desert State Park and the other-worldly adjoining Salton Sea.

Anza Borrego Desert State Park, due south of Palm Springs, is the second largest state park in the contiguous US, just slightly smaller than the huge Adirondack Park in New York. It’s bigger than the other 259 California State Parks, combined. And when including the strange and alien Salton Sea just east, 35 miles long and more than 20 miles wide, this is a huge and unique desert just ripe for exploration during winter.

After modest rains, the spindly Ocotillo plant bursts into red blooms.

The park is named for Spanish explorer Juan Bautista De Anza and the Spanish word borrego, for bighorn sheep. The park’s rugged desert, ringed by mountains and sand dunes, depending upon sparse rainfall, yields diverse wildflowers, exotic palm groves and a variety of cacti. Sharp-eyed visitors can see roadrunners, kit foxes, mule deer, Eagles and the elusive bighorn sheep. Additionally, chuckwallas, iguanas and rattlesnakes make the park home.

Park headquarters, visitor center and developed campground are located on the edge of Borrego Springs, a city with provisions for travelers, restaurants and motel options. This is the Colorado Desert, where, millions of years ago, the Colorado River met the Gulf of California. When tourists visit today’s Grand Canyon and wonder where all that dirt and rock went – the answer is Anza Borrego.

Start your visit with a tour of the mostly underground visitor center. It shares the history of the native peoples that populated the area hundreds of years before settlers arrived, explains the geography of the region, and offers an adjoining garden full of the plants you’ll find throughout the park.

The California Palm oasis, awaiting hikers on the Palm Canyon hike above the Anza Borrego Desert.

For an early morning adventure (to beat the heat) start at the park campground and follow the Palm Canyon trailhead. The mile and a half hike up a bone dry canyon, with about 300 vertical feet gain, reaches a point where you’ll hear running water and find a pretty stream and increasing vegetation. A narrow, rocky canyon yields more rushing water and, at the top, a beautiful California fan palm oasis (fan palms are California’s only native palm tree).

Stunning blooms along the hike through Palm Canyon.

At the start of the hike, you wouldn’t imagine, nor could you see, this lush oasis. Keep your eyes fixed on the bluffs and ridges above for views of the elusive Peninsular bighorn sheep, as well as a variety of desert plants including indigo bush, brittlebush, creosote, blue palo verde (with yellow flowers), chollo, barrel and hedgehog cactus and Mojave yucca. Our favorite, the Ocotillo, is a rangy plant that shoots spindly shafts skyward to 18 feet and, with just a bit of rainfall, bursts forth in bright red plumage.

In the park, visit the Indian Hills area, featuring pre-Columbian rock art and petroglyphs, as well as a number of Morteros, bedrock mortars used by ancient Native Americans. When night-time falls, Borrego Springs, a Dark Sky community, provides outstanding opportunities for reveling in a wondrous star-filled night sky.

Exploring on the east side of the park reveals the strange Salton Sea, a vast inland ocean formed in 1906 when a huge Colorado River flood sent waters raging into the Salton Sink. Unchecked for 18 months, floodwaters created a 25 x 35 mile inland ocean, 55 feet deep and 220 feet below sea level.

Flooded, abandoned business, stray dog, Bombay Beach on the Salton Sea.

After World War II, the advent of air conditioning and introduction of sport fish into the sea led to a half dozen resort towns springing up, all of them vying for Los Angeles crowds. Speculation blossomed and the lakeside resorts grew quickly – Salton Sea Beach, Desert Shores and Riviera Keys on the west side, Bombay Beach and others on the east shore.

Tropical storms Kathleen and Doreen slammed the Salton Sea area in 1976 and 1977. Heavy rains, with nowhere to go but into the sea, raised the lake level steadily higher, flooding much of the resort towns. Property values collapsed and owners fled, abandoning homes and trailers. Today their skeletons remain, marking these ghost resorts.

Trailer skeletons in flooded trailer park inundated in 1976/77, Bombay Beach along the Salton Sea.

Recent California drought has now reduced the lake level to the point where the few remaining homes with boat docks are high and dry and the future for the lake, increasingly saline, is bleak. Drive today through Riviera Keys, with scores of paved, named but vacant streets, multiple deep canals excavated with plans to line them with luxury homes and docks – a virtual ghost resort with only a few occupied and many abandoned homes.

How to get there: Head south on I-5,  take I-10 east and past Palm Springs, then follow Hwy. 86 south (the Salton Sea will be on your left), and Hwy. S22 west to Borrego Springs. The park is about a 9 hour drive from San Joaquin County.

Flood of 1976 swamped the trailer park in Bombay Beach.

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,; phone (760) 767-5311.

Contact Tim at, follow him at Happy travels In the west!

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  • Blog Author

    Tim Viall

    Viall is a local travel writer who retired in late 2012 after 10 years as executive director of Stockton, CA's, Emergency Food Bank and six years with the Downtown Stockton Alliance. Previously, a 21-year career in daily newspapers helped shape his ... Read Full
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