Anzo-Borrego Desert State Park: Washes and Wildflowers, Valleys and Vistas

Montezuma Valley

When I arrived in SoCal three years ago and began taking weekend jaunts to explore my new home, I was unprepared for how often people asked if I'd visited the desert.  I readily confess that I moved here to escape twenty years of New York winters, but I really thought vacationing in the broiling heat was going way too far.   I have consistently been proven wrong and, in the late winter and early spring, have found no better escape from the urban grind than a desert getaway, with Anzo-Borrego Desert State Park( topping the list. 


At 640,000 acres, Anzo-Borrego covers nearly one-fifth of San Diego County and is the largest state park outside of Alaska.  The largely undeveloped preserve features spectacular topography:  undulating dunes, candle-like sandstone formations, granite mountains cleaved by deep valleys, piles of boulders left behind by flash floods and isolated but verdant oases that spring up in the least plausible places.  

Montezuma Valley

 Anzo-Borrego's otherworldly landscapes consistently show up the settings of any Hollywood movie or science fiction novel you can name and, if your timing is right, wildflowers will unfurl in explosions of color unlike anything you've seen outside a museum gallery.  


Barrell Cactus in Bloom

Giant Agave


Loosely measured by desert residents as the time between the Vernal Equinox (which occurred on Tuesday, March 20th) and early June, spring is the best time to experience this kind of display.  The blooming season varies widely from year to year, being dependent on temperamental winter rains, so to find out what's blooming now and what park horticulturalists expect to see shortly, call Anzo-Borrego's Wildflower Hotline at (760)-767-4684 or visit the park's wildflower page:

When making hotel or resort reservations, be sure to inquire about the property's policy regarding re-booking in case you want to move your visit ahead or back by several days.    


Agave Blossoms & Fruit

Crown of Thorns


The Anza-Borrego Desert Natural History Association(, a non-profit group of residents, naturalists, artists and biologists devoted to protecting and expanding the park, publishes The Sand Paper, an excellent newsletter about the park's flora and fauna, including detailed schedule of events that often includes local garden tours and native plant sales.  I recently purchased a thriving juvenile agave plant in a brilliant twelve-inch ceramic pot for a mere twelve dollars.  Try finding that kind of bargain at a big box store or nursery.   I love ABDNHA's wonderful Sky Calendar, which tracks how and where to view of stars, planets and constellations and other night sky phenomenon with incredibly precise detail.


Last Saturday, I left Los Angeles at 5a.m., starting my descent through theMontezuma Valley shortly after 7a.m.  I reached Borrego Springs, located on the valley floor, at around 8:45a.m.  Allowing plenty of time for wildlife spottings and photo ops, I had sighted nearly fifty Swainson's Hawks, seven turkey Turkey Vultures, scores of hummingbirds, wrens, roadrunners, quail and a small pack of the park's namesakeborrego, Spanish for Peninsular Bighorn Sheep, which promptly flashed their white backsides at the gringo and scampered away over the rocks.  

Borregos Eye the Gringo



I arrived at the Anzo-Borrego Visitor's Center shortly before 9a.m., giving me just enough time to refill my two half-gallon water bottles and join the morning Cactus Loop Hike, led by the wonderfully personable volunteer naturalist named Jan Bigelow.  I was familiar with many desert plant survival tactics, like waxen skins (which hold in moisture) and sharp spikes (which ward off hungry mouths), but I finally learned how to identify two plants that have always given me fits:  the popcorn flower and elephant tree.   


After several self-guided walks, based on ranger suggestions, I checked intoThe Palms Resort at Indian Head ( for a shower and nap.  This mid-century gem is a popular choice with design aficionados, and I found it the perfect hub from which to balance relaxation with a vigorous exploration of the park.  (Check out my review of The Palmsand its surprisingly good restaurants, FIND The Red Ocotillo and Krazy Coyote Bar & Grill, also in this section.)  


After a snooze, change of socks and shirt, I smeared myself anew with sunscreen and packed up my desert hike essentials:  a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses, sturdy hiking shoes and two gallons of water.  Remember to wear light, breathable clothing that can be added or subtracted by layers.  (And for my fellow city folk, "light" means absolutely no black, navy or brown, which soak up the sun's heat and direct it toward your body rather than reflect it away from your skin).  I grabbed a sandwich at local eatery Calico's (finely shaved turkey and hard cheddar on a fresh slab of whole grain bread with avocado and tomato) before returning to the Anzo-Borrego for the Borrego Hawk Watch Experience, ( in which a volunteer naturalist and hawk watcher Ann Keenan led us to one of the park's two hawk-watching sites, which were much better raptor spots than the ones I had been using.   The watch, began in 2003 by a local birder, tracks the 6000-mile migration of Swainson's Hawks from Argentina to California and is considered so valuable that the Hawk Migration Association of America ( depends on its data for its yearly census reports. 

Swainson's Hawk over Palm Canyon



Anza-Borrego's dedicated rangers also publish their own monthly interpretive calendar, which is chock full of Visitor's Center talks, ranger-led walks, strenuous hikes and up-to-date wildlife sightings.  


For March events,


For April events, visit



After dinner, I took a short hike up to the Anzo-Borrego's outdoor amphitheater for a terrific after-dark campfire program called The Bats of Borrego and Beyond, a phrase which several young boys were chanting as though it were the weekend's Hollywood blockbuster.  Early Sunday morning, after an uninterrupted night of slumber at The Palms, I braved the Palm Canyon Trail, to which I've devoted a separate piece including pictorial highlights of one of the best desert hikes in all of California.  


In just forty-eight hours, I clocked two species of raptors, over a dozen species of birds, twenty-seven wildflowers and/or desert plants in bloom and a pack of Bighorn Sheep.  I hiked and drove through spectacular country, at times seemingly the only human being for miles around.  I meditated, soaked up the sun, cooled off in a spring here and an oasis pool there and, in the process, forgot my troubles and got happy.   What are you waiting for?     


WHAT:  Anzo-Borrego Desert State Park, Borrego Springs, CA  (

HOURS OF OPERATION:  Dawn until dusk for the day use areas of the developed campgrounds. 

DIRECTIONS FROM SAN DIEGO:  I-8 East to Hwy 79 North and follow it until County Hwy S3 North.   Follow the signs for Anzo-Borrego Desert State Park to County Hwy 22 and the park Visitors' Center.  

DIRECTIONS FROM L.A. and the O.C.:   There are numerous routes to Borrego Springs, which is approximately two-and-one-half hours from downtown L.A.  The route I prefer starts out direct and fast before tapering off to more leisurely county highways and roads.  From your starting point, make a Google Map beeline for Temecula.  Turn South on CA-79 South and continue for a little over forty miles.  Follow the road signs for Borrego Springs through the Montezuma Valley, with its glorious descent to the desert floor and into Palm Canyon, which will place you at the intersection separating the Anzo-Borrego Visitors' Center and The Palms Resort at Indian Head.  


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