Anza-Borrego Desert State Park: Badlands, Canyons, Mountain Peaks and More

The Anza-Borrego Desert with its incredible beauty, its mystery and legends is a major lure

The park’s name was derived from that of an early Spanish explorer, Juan Bautista de Anza, who came through in 1774 in search of a land route from Sonora, Mexico, to Spanish settlements along the California coast. The explorer’s name is combined with Borrego, the Spanish word for bighorn sheep that live in the rocky hillsides of this desert.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Covering more than 600,000 acres, Anza-Borrego is the largest state parks in the contiguous United States. From a distance, its mountains and valleys look dry and barren—yet amidst the arid, sandy landscape you can find regions rich in vegetation and animal life.

Lush oases with graceful palm trees lie hidden in valleys where water bubbles close to the surface. A multitude of birds shelter beneath the long frond skirts hanging from the palms, and a few rare desert bighorn sheep roam the rocky mountain slopes. Coyotes fill the night with their laughing song and mountain lions prowl the high country. Two-thirds of Anza-Borrego remain pristine wilderness.

Early American history holds a prominent place in the Anza-Borrego story; between the years 1848 and 1880, a steady stream of California-bound travelers crossed the Anza-Borrego Desert along the Southern Immigrant Trail or by way of the Butterfield Stage Line on their way west from Missouri. This was the only all-weather road overland route across the American continent at that time. Thousands of sheep and cattle also made the arduous journey as Arizona ranchers drove their herds across the desert to feed the hungry miners in California gold fields.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park © 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 own journey took us along Interstate 10, then south on State Highway 86 (which skirts the western shore of the Salton Sea) before we veered west on County Highway 22, which dissects the park. A few miles down the road, we encountered thick stands of ocotillo, with their graceful wands richly tipped in deep scarlet-red blossoms.

Driving to the state park visitor center we were momentarily confused. Walking up the trail there were no buildings in sight. Then we realized that the visitor center had been built underground with a desert garden covering it. The 7,000 square-foot building houses exhibits, a small theater, and bookstore. Park rangers were helpful in answering our queries and directing us to interesting scenic drives and hikes.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Later in the day we drove our four-wheel-drive dinghy up the sandy wash to Fonts Point, where the Borrego Badlands spread out to the southeast. Deep chocolate ridges twisted and turned in convoluted patterns of crumbling sandstone where thick layers of fossilized shellfish and coral told the story of an ancient sea that covered the area millions of years ago.

Driving southwest of Borrego Springs to Ocotillo Wells we drove south on Split Mountain Road to Split Mountain where tremendous geological pressure had rolled a sandstone cliff into a spectacular, spiral rock face. The road wound through the middle of a sandy wash, and we held our breath a couple of time when our tires started to spin in the deep sand.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Farther along Split Mountain Road we parked and hiked back to see rare elephant trees with their thick, stubby trunks, free-form limbs and peeling yellowish bark. Early Native Americans used the reddish-colored sap of the tree as a dye. Near the end of the road we hiked the steep but easy trail up to the wind caves which as strange sandstone formations from an ancient seabed. From there, we had a splendid view out over the Carrizo Badlands and the unique Elephant Knees formation.

Yet another dinghy side trip, this time following County Highway 2 took us southeast along the Old Southern Immigrant Trail as it wound in and out of the park boundary. Reaching the Blair Valley area, we pulled off and hiked the short 0.25-mile Morteros Trail to a boulder-strewn area where a Kumeyaay village stood centuries ago, leaving their story behind in the agave cooking pits and metates that are still found there. Unique pictographs tell more of their story to those who may have any idea how to decipher them.

The Anza-Borrego Desert with its incredible beauty, its mystery and legends is quite a lure. And there’s so much more to discover on our next visit.

Roadrunner in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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