Experience the Wonders of the Desert at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and Salton Sea

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is a gem of a state park. With desert landscapes, slot canyons, and dirt roads to explore, and hidden oases, this is a great place to add to your southern California itinerary.

Anza Borrego is about 90 miles east of San Diego, due south of Palm Springs, and is larger than the other 279 California State Parks combined. This huge desert expanse is ripe for winter exploration. It includes the strange and alien Salton Sea just to its east, 35 miles long and almost 20 miles wide.

The park’s name comes from a combination of 18th-century Spanish explorer Juan Bautista De Anza and the Spanish word borrego for bighorn sheep which De Anza found in his explorations. Dunes and lofty mountains ring the park’s diverse desert and depend on sparse rainfall to yield diverse wildflowers, cacti, and exotic California fan palm trees.

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

Visitors can find mule deer, kit, foxes, roadrunners, eagles, and the elusive Peninsular bighorn sheep. Additionally, rattlesnakes, iguanas, and chuckwallas call the park home.

Begin your exploration at park headquarters, visitor center, and developed campground on the edge of Borrego Springs, a town offering provisions for travelers, restaurants, and several motel options. Start your tour in the primarily underground, calm visitor center offering the history of the indigenous peoples that populated the area thousands of years before settlers arrived.

The center does an excellent job explaining the region’s geography; its adjoining garden is full of the plants you’ll find throughout the park. This is the Colorado Desert where the Colorado River met the Gulf of California millions of years ago. Today’s visitors touring the Grand Canyon wonder where all that rock went—the answer is the Anza Borrego desert!

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

Begin an early morning hiking adventure to beat the heat starting at the park’s main campground and following the Palm Canyon trailhead a mile and a half up a bone-dry canyon. With a vertical foot gain of about 300 feet, you’ll eventually reach a point where you’ll hear unexpected running water, find a pretty stream, increase vegetation, and revel as the narrow canyon opens upon a beautiful California fan palm oasis. 

As you take in the lush oasis, keep your eyes on the bluffs and ridges above for views of the elusive Peninsular big horn sheep. Throughout the park, you’ll find a variety of desert plants including creosote, blue Palo Verde with yellow flowers, brittlebush, indigo bush, Cholla cacti, barrel and hedgehog cactus, and Mojave yucca. A favorite, the tall, 18-foot rangy Ocotillo, shoots its spines skyward and with just a bit of rainfall bursts forth in bright red plumage.

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

Visit the Indian Hills area and explore pre-Colombian rock art and petroglyphs. You’ll also find several morteros and bedrock motors used by ancient peoples to grind acorns. When nighttime comes, the park and Borrego Springs, an International Dark Sky Community offer outstanding opportunities for taking in a wondrous, star-filled night sky.

Explore just east of the park to find the eerie Salton Sea where an inland ocean formed in 1906, the result of huge Colorado River floods sending waters raging down recently excavated irrigation canals flooding the desert for 18 months and creating a 25 x 35-mile inland ocean almost 60 feet deep and 220 feet below sea level.

Angelinos stocked this new sea with gamefish; with the advent of air-conditioning, a half dozen resort towns sprang up around the sea, all vying for southern California crowds. Lakeside resorts grew quickly, speculation led to boom times, and lakeside resorts like Desert Shores, Riviera Keys, and Salton City grew on the west and Bombay Beach and others on the east. Resorts drew big crowds for fishing, water sports, and nighttime performers like Sammy Davis, Jr. and Frank Sinatra.

Salton Sea © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Good fortune did not bless the area as tropical storms Kathleen and Doreen slammed the Salton Sea area in 1976 and 1977. Heavy rains and floods with nowhere to go but into the sea raised the lake level steadily flooding most of the resort towns. Property values collapsed, owners abandoned homes and trailers, leaving only skeletons and ghost resorts behind.

More recently, the ongoing California drought continues to lower the lake level, perpetuating this ecological disaster area. Today, visit the Salton Sea Visitor’s Center in Mecca and explore this intriguing territory.

Anza Borrego has a nice campground for tents and RVs near Borrego Springs which offers several motel options and restaurants. Several additional more primitive and backcountry camps provide further opportunities.

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

Best time to visit Anza-Borrego State Park and Salton Sea

The best time to visit Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is from late fall through early spring, when temperatures are mild.

Winter: During the day the temperatures get to 70°F although they start off chilly in the low to mid-40’s. Rainfall is the highest during the winter months, but even so, it’s still relatively dry. Only about an inch of rain falls each month during the winter season.

Spring: Temperatures climb throughout the spring. In March, the average high is 78°F and by early June the average high is approaching 100°F. On unusually warm days even in March temperatures can hit or get over the 100 degree mark. Rainfall is low. From late February through March, it is possible to see wildflowers although the number of flowers varies greatly from year to year.

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

Summer: Summers are very hot and dry. The average high temperature is 105°F and can get up to 120°F on the hottest of days.

Fall: Fall is the reverse of spring. Temperatures cool off and rainfall is low. In October, the average high is 90°F and in November the average high is 78°F.

Happy desert travels!

Worth Pondering…

There are not many places in the world where you can get to the beach in an hour, the desert in two hours, and snowboarding or skiing in three hours. You can do all that in California.

—Alex Pettyfer