Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

Explore Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, one of San Diego’s best getaways.

By Sarah Daoust

It’s one of San Diego’s more stunning—and unsung—backyard getaways: Borrego Springs. What makes this scenic slice of northeast San Diego County so special? It is surrounded by Anza-Borrego Desert State Park—one of the region’s most adventure-rich destinations for those looking to truly become one with nature.

Located approximately 60 miles east of Escondido, Anza-Borrego is the largest desert state park and the second largest state park in the U.S.—spanning 640,000 acres of hiking and biking trails, 500 miles of dirt roads, 12 wilderness areas, historical landmarks, natural preserves, paleontological sites, more than 4,500 cultural sites, campgrounds, canyons and caves. History buffs will have a field day here, literally, as the park houses five locales on the National Register of Historic Places, and some of the rocks found on site are more than 470 million years old.

Jaw-dropping views can be found at every turn, including the stark Borrego Badlands, Font’s Point and the best stargazing in all of Southern California at nighttime.

Early springtime is an ideal time to make the trek out to this natural playground, which transforms into a Technicolor oasis of blooming wildflowers (typically from mid-February to mid-April). El Niño 2016 and the amount of winter rainfall will be determinants of prime bloom time; thankfully, there’s a wildflower hotline that visitors can call for updates (760.767.4684).

Adding to the vibrant landscape are palm groves, cacti and sweeping vistas for miles. Be on the lookout for wildlife in the form of bighorn sheep, golden eagles, roadrunners, kit foxes and mule deer; plus red diamond rattlesnakes, iguanas and chuckwallas in warmer weather. The area is also home to native tiny pupfish, which can be spotted in the pond at the park’s visitor center. To explore the terrain in style, California Overland offers adventures to the Borrego Badlands, slot canyons, a dry lakebed and Font’s Point.

Artsy entertainment abounds in Anza-Borrego. The Borrego Art Institute—showcasing local plein air painters and artists such as renowned sculptor Ricardo Breceda—encompasses a gallery, pottery studio, workshop, gardens and a restaurant. ArtFarm is the latest conception; it’s an expanded art, food and education campus, including new parking facilities and a creative approach to urban farming in the desert. The Institute’s annual Art Guild Show with works by members of the Borrego Springs Art Guild runs Jan. 28-Feb. 28.

Speaking of artist Breceda, Galleta Meadows is a must-visit. Take an easy driving tour through a menagerie of 140 of Breceda’s life-size metallic sculptures depicting modern-day, mythical and wild beasts that once roamed the Anza-Borrego Desert as far back as 6.5 million years ago. Get up close with gomphotheres (four-tusked, elephant-like animals); giant tortoises; camelops (early camels); huge sloths; the “incredible Bird God of the Winds,” which has a 17-foot wingspan and is based on the fossil remains of the extinct Aiolornis incredibilis; a 350-foot-long serpent with the head of a dragon; dueling dinosaurs; and more.

Lodging in the area ranges from quaint inns to luxe five-star digs. Find mid-century modern décor and quiet charm at The Palms at Indian Head, a renovated hotel that once hosted the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Bing Crosby and Cary Grant. The vibe is low-key, private and diminutive—with just 12 simply decorated guest rooms and no phones. However, the sheets are soft, the pillows are abundant, and warm cookies arrive at your doorstep each night around sunset. The Palms also boasts one of the largest privately owned pools in California, while the candle-lit Coyote Steakhouse is perfect for an intimate dinner. Another bonus: At the back of the property, guests have access to the Palm Canyon hiking trail, a particularly popular loop for wildflower viewing in the spring.

Preferred lodging also includes La Casa del Zorro Resort, a sprawling 42-acre retreat that epitomizes casual luxury—housing the upscale Butterfield Room restaurant, a bar, spa, tennis courts and 19 casitas with wood-burning fireplaces and private pools. Or try the Borrego Valley Inn, a rustic-chic, pueblo-style boutique hotel with two pools—one of which is clothing-optional.

To eat, dine like a local at Carlee’s Place, a laid-back watering hole known for its seafood gazpacho and liver and onions; and at Carmelita’s Mexican Grill, known for its shrimp enchiladas and chicken fajitas (760.767.5666). Red Ocotillo is a new spot in town, serving up hearty American cuisine such as meatloaf, bacon Benedict with salmon, and old-fashioned spaghetti ‘n’ meatballs (760.767.7400). Kendall’s Café is also worth a visit for breakfast and lunch; it’s an old-school diner with the best blueberry pancakes, chicken-fried steak and biscuits ‘n’ gravy in the region. Anza-Borrego isn’t exactly a hotbed for healthy eats and haute cuisine, but keep in mind those calories can be worked off amid the glorious landscape just outside.

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