The author McKenna Mobley admiring the view in Anza Borrego State Park

Anza Borrego State Park – Ultimate Visitors Guide (2023)

The brightest and clearest starry night skies can be found in Anza Borrego State Park. An off-the-grid experience, you won’t find a hot shower or cell service in the state park but you will find plenty of hiking trails, native flora and wildlife, and natural hot springs.

As a California local, Anza Borrego is one of my all-time favorite state parks in California that’s completely removed from civilization. But travelers be warned: if you visit Anza Borrego once, you are sure to make a few return trips.

In this article, I’ll guide you through everything you need to know to make your trip to this desert oasis in California absolutely magical.

Here’s what we’ll cover (skip to jump around):

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About Anza Borrego State Park

The Terrain

The author's friends looking at the bedrock mortar in Anza Borrego State Park
My friends examining a bedrock mortar milling feature

Anza Borrego State Park encompasses some of the most rugged terrains in California. Part of the Colorado Desert, the 935 square miles of unique desert landscape was officially declared a protected area in 1927. The area is known for its unique geology, paleontological relevance, flora and fauna, as well as its climate.

This vast area is found east of San Diego, south of Palm Springs, and west of the Salton Sea.

History

View of people wandering in Anza Borrego State Park

Anza Borrego State Park is named after the Spanish explorer who crossed the Anza Borrego desert in 1774, de Anza, and the Spanish word for sheep, borrego.

Anza Borrego has a rich cultural history of Native American presence in the park. Once inhabited by the Kumeyaay and Cahuilla peoples, Anza Borrego has an abundance of artifacts, rock art, and archaeological features that date back thousands of years.

The incredible natural history in this Southern California Desert is a major draw for geologists and nature lovers around the United States. From ocotillo groves to California badlands and giant palm oases, Anza Borrego is truly a natural playground.

Keep your eyes on the ground when hiking in Anza Borrego Desert State Park because there is an exceptional fossil record history, making it one of the coolest things to do in California.

How to Visit Anza Borrego State Park

How to Get to Anza Borrego State Park

The author with her best friend on a camping van in Anza Borrego
My best friend and I slept in her van in Anza Borrego

There are two main ways to get to Anza Borrego State Park – from Los Angeles following the I-15 or from San Diego.

The one-way trip from Downtown Los Angeles is around 3 ½ hours. Follow the I-10E to the I-71S to the I-15 towards San Diego. After this junction, you will want to take the CA-79S to Palm Canyon Drive. There are a few street turns that are easy to miss off of the CA-79S, so pay close attention to the GPS.

The trip is significantly shorter from the San Diego side (about 90 minutes), and you could easily visit as a day trip from San Diego. From the I-5S, merge onto the CA-163N and then the I-15N until Poway Rd. From here, you will take a left onto CA-67 until you turn left on the CA-79. Follow road signs for the park from here on and you shouldn’t miss it!

Your best pet is to rent a car and drive into the park. There are no Ubers or taxis that drive far into the park and there is no cell service to request a ride back. Anza Borrego is nearly impossible to explore without your own car.

🚗 Need a Car? Rent your own car with Discover Cars to get to all the hidden nooks and crannies of the park. I recommend renting a 4WD vehicle to explore off-roading in the desert. 

Entrance Costs, Hours, Details

A camp fire and two two camping chairs near it in Borrego Springs Campground
My fire near the Borrego Springs Campground

🎟️ Entrance – $10 per vehicle per day, collected at the visitor center upon arrival.

🕖 Operating Hours – The visitor center is open from 9 am-5 pm daily, the visitor center parking lot is open from 7 am-7 pm daily. Borrego Palm Canyon Trail and Hellhole Canyon Trail also have parking parking lots.

🚙 Parking – Parking is included in the entrance pass. There are parking lots at almost every hike trailhead in the park as well as along the side of the road in front of park nature exhibits.

🖥️ Website – Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

📝 Reservations – No reservation is needed for day-use park entrances. Camp reservations can be made on ReserveCalifornia.gov up to 6 months in advance.

Things to Do in Anza Borrego

Anza Borrego Desert State Park is a San Diego County gem with so much to do. From exploring the deep trenches and washes of the desert scape to scowling the cliffs for bighorn sheep and camping under a star-filled night sky, Anza-Borrego is a natural paradise.

Let’s explore the best hiking trails, San Diego County campgrounds, stargazing spots, and wildlife-spotting opportunities the park offers:

Hiking

Ocotillo and yellow wildflowers found in the hiking trails of Anza Borrego
Yellow wildflowers and ocotillo are common occurrences on the hiking trails

🖌️ Pictograph Trail – View rock art that dates back hundreds of years on a 1.8-mile out-and-back trail. Enjoy the views of Little Blair Valley and Granite Mountain as you make your way to the historic pictographs. Make sure to bring your camera because the rock art is incredible.

🌴 Borrego Palm Canyon – A 3.25-mile loop trail just west of Borrego Springs. This popular trail brings hikers into a palm-filled canyon filled with sagebrush, barrel cacti, and other native flora. This hike is the closest to the visitor center, making it a great starting hike.

🌵 Cactus Loop – This trail is an easy 0.7-mile loop that is perfect for the whole family. The Cactus Loop Trail is remote and you aren’t likely to encounter many other people on the trail. This trail is right across from Tamarisk Grove Campground and is perfect for cactus lovers.

🔮 Calcite Mine – Follow an old mining road into the Santa Rosa Mountains on the Calcite Mine Trail. Explore an old WW2-era calcite mine in an easy hike that is just under 4 miles long. Enjoy the slot canyons of this hike and watch out for rattlesnakes. 

🏜️ The Slot Loop – You don’t have to travel to Utah for slot canyons! Anza Borrego Desert State Park has its very own slot canyons inside the park. This 2.3-mile loop hike is one of my favorites but beware, the trail does get pretty narrow in some places. The Slot Loop Trial is one of the best California hikes.

Camping

Camping tents under the colorful sky during sunset in Anza Borrego
A group tent site witnesses the last glimpses of the fading evening sun

With over 100 places to camp in Anza Borrego Desert State Park, it’s safe to say that there’s room for everyone. Choose from primitive tent campgrounds, camp in the backcountry, or stay at an RV park in Anza. There are many ways to spend the night in Anza Borrego, one of the most romantic California destinations

🏕️ Mountain Palm Springs Campground – I’ve stayed at this tent-only campsite for over a week and cannot recommend it enough. The only amenities are 2 pit toilets and fire rings but the remoteness of this campground in a palm oasis wash makes it a sought-after spot.

🏕️ Tamarisk Grove Campground – This is one of the only developed campsites in Anza Borrego Desert State Park. It’s suited for tents, trailers, RVs and there are even small rustic cabins available for rent. Nearby hikes include the Yaqui Trail and the Cactus Loop Trail.

🏕️ Bow Willow Campground – This campground is on the west side of the park by Julian, CA. Each site comes with a shaded awning, a picnic table, and a fire ring. There are pit toilets at the campground, RVs and tents share the sites, and palm oasis hikes are nearby.

Stargazing

A camping tent with lights at night in Anza Borrego
I caught a few bright stars with my non-professional camera in the state park

Anza Borrego Desert State Park is one of the best places to witness the Milky Way in all its star-flickering glory. The mind-boggling amount of visible stars, constellations, and the occasional planet give Anza Borrego an awesome astronomy reputation.

The Anza Borrego Desert State Park visitor center hosts occasional stargazing activities in the park. Learn about the different constellations from a professional and definitely don’t leave the binoculars at home!

The Springs at Borrego RV Resort is another superb place to stargaze in the desert. This campground has a small observatory with an 11-inch telescope and holds public lectures and sky-fanatic gatherings annually.

Wildlife Spotting

Anza Borrego Desert State Park houses a huge concentration of native wildlife. I’ve personally seen jackrabbits, snakes, desert mice, coyotes, and birds of prey in the park but there are also bobcats, mountain lions, and desert bighorn sheep.

Anza Borrego is home to the largest density of bighorns in Southern California, so keep your eyes peeled for them when out hiking. They like high elevations and rocky terrain.

Other critters are likely to appear at random during your stay in the state park. Your chances of spotting wildlife are doubled the more you hit the hiking trails. Remember, keep your distance from the wildlife, never feed the animals, and never try to pet them.

Where to Stay in Anza Borrego

Tent Camping – Agua Caliente Campground is a popular campsite among park visitors at California’s largest state park. A majority of campers are tent campers but the site also allows RVs. The biggest draw to Agua Caliente Campground is the natural hot spring pools on site. This is the ideal place to camp for ultimate relaxation while soaking in the hot springs.

🚒 Motorhome/RV– The Springs at Borrego RV Resort is a luxury RV resort just inside the state park. It has hookups, a swimming pool, and even a golf course. Borrego Palm Canyon Campground is another great campsite for RVs and is open year-round.

🏨 Hotel Palm Canyon Hotel and RV Resort is one of the closest hotels to Anza Borrego Desert State Park. It features a pool, a hot tub, and a gym, and is only a short drive away from the California state park.

Tips for Visiting Anza Borrego State Park

Tip #1 – Head to Either Ocotillo or Borrego Springs to Resupply

Even though you’re off the grid in Anza Borrego Desert State Park, not all hope is lost for resupplying. The closest towns to the state park are Ocotillo and Borrego Springs.

Ocotillo is closer to the west entrance of the park near Julian. It’s about a 15-minute drive from Mountain Palm Springs Campground. Borrego Springs is only 5 minutes from the visitor center. Although it’s by no means a large, over-developed town, they do have a general store and a place to buy firewood.

Tip #2 – Download Offline Maps and GPS Prior to Arrival

The author's friend posing for a photo in Anza Borrego Desert State Park
My friend posing in Anza Borrego Desert State Park

Most places in Anza Borrego Desert State Park are off-grid. Although you may find an occasional LTE bar or two atop a hill, count on no cell service inside the park. 

Download offline maps before you arrive at the park. Maps.me is a great offline map app and Gaia GPS is a reliable offline hiking app.

Tip #3 – Bring Plenty of Drinking Water

The author's friend during their visit in Anza Borrego Desert State Park
The California sun beats down even on a winter day

Anza Borrego Desert State Park is a part of the Colorado Desert. Temperatures can exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer and early fall months.

Bring plenty of drinking water if you plan on hiking in the state park. I recommend steering clear of campsite spigots and sticking to the purified water you brought. If you do want to filter the spigot water, be sure that it is potable water. Stay away from non-potable water at all times. 

Tip #4 – Bring All Camping Supplies if Staying Overnight

A motorhome camping in Anza Borrego Desert State Park
I seize any opportunity to take my motorhome camping

Most campsites inside the park boundaries are primitive. This means that there is no running water, flushable toilets, or the like.

You will need to bring all of your camping supplies if you are staying in the park overnight. This means you must bring your own tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, camp chaircooking pots, utensils, and more. 

Tip #5 – Wear Closed-toe Shoes

All of the hiking trails in Anza Borrego Desert State Park are dirt or sand. The park is also notorious for being a cacti haven. Wear closed-toe shoes as opposed to hiking sandals like tevas to avoid getting stabbed in the foot by a cholla cactus.

Tip #6 – Bring Tweezers to Pick Out Stuck Cacti

Close up view of a cactus in Anza Borrego Desert State Park

Stepping on a cactus is inevitable in Anza Borrego Desert State Park, even when wearing closed-toe shoes. Bring tweezers with you to pluck out the stubborn cholla cactus that somehow got dragged along for the ride.

Cholla cacti are lurking around almost every corner in Anza Borrego (or at least it seems), so be careful where you put your hand, rear end, and tent.

Tip #7 – Have a Spare Tire, Just in Case

Speaking from my own experience getting a flat tire in Anza Borrego Desert State Park, I recommend having a spare tire with you just in case. Running over a nail from firewood can happen to even the most durable all-terrain tires.

If you make the mistake of venturing into the desert state park without a spare, you will need to make a side trip to San Diego to fix the flat. At the least, make sure your vehicle has a donut tire to get you to a repair shop in one piece.

Tip #8 – Take a Side Trip to Julian, CA

Billiard tables inside Julian saloon
A charming Julian saloon

If you enter the park from the west, you may just pass Julian, CA, a small-town American gem. A side trip into Julian is well worth the venture if you are entering the park from other entrances as well.

Julian is famous for its seasonal homemade pies and apple ciders and is one of the coolest California mountain towns. The small town also embodies old-timey America and you will find local honey and produce in its general stores.

What to Pack for Anza Borrego

Sunhat

Our Pick
Outdoor Research Sunbiolet

In the scorching desert heat, this sunhat will help shield you from sunstroke and burning.

Few hiking trails provide visitors with shade. This can be detrimental to your health in the summer months. Prevent heat stroke by bringing your best sunhat to Anza Borrego Desert State Park.

The Outdoor Research Sunbiolet is my favorite SPF-rated sunhat for the intense desert heat.

Hiking Boots

Our Pick
Salomon X Ultra 4 Mid Boots

From dodging cacti and native wildlife to exploring the unique trails, you’re going to want a solid pair of hiking boots on your trip to Anza Borrego.

Don’t forget your close-toed hiking shoes so you can explore the palm groves and natural palm oases of Anza Borrego Desert State Park. My favorite hiking boots are the Salomon X Ultra 4 Mid Boots for long hikes but I also love Blundstones for easy hikes and for setting up camp.

Sunscreen

Our Pick
Thinksport Clear Zinc Active Face SPF 50

The desert sun is no joke, and you’re going to want to protect your skin from harmful UV rays with a strong sunscreen.

The sun is strong in Anza Borrego, and doing everything in your power to shield yourself from it is a good idea.

Thinksport sunscreen is my go-to sunscreen brand when adventuring in extreme outdoor conditions. This SPF 50 sunscreen is incredibly high in zinc and keeps outdoor athletes protected all day under the sun.  

Waterproof Jacket

Our Pick
Outdoor-Research-Aspire-II

Whether for rain or wind, you’ll thank yourself for bringing a waterproof jacket on your trip to Anza Borrego.

Be prepared for a desert curve ball by bringing a rain jacket with you to Anza Borrego Desert State Park. Though Monsoon season in Anza Borrego is from July through September, and I don’t recommend visiting during this time, the desert can receive random amounts of rainfall throughout the year.

Even if it doesn’t rain on you while you’re exploring the state park, a rain jacket is a California camping essential and also helps protect against the wind – which Anza Borrego receives a lot of. I always have this Outdoor Research Aspire II rain jacket in my backpack just in case. 

1L Water Bottle

Anza Borrego Desert State Park is one of the hottest California state parks. You will want to bring plenty of water when hiking in the desert terrain of Anza Borrego. The 1.5-liter Nalgene water bottle has a large carrying capacity so you don’t have to keep refilling your bottle.

Sunglasses

Our Pick
Oakley Contrail Polarized Sunglasses

It’s no secret that the desert is a sunny place. The polarization on these Oakley sunglasses will help reduce eye strain in the sunlight by getting rid of glare.

Even your eyes can get sunburnt if exposed to harmful UV rays for too long. These Oakley sunglasses are polarized to keep your eyes protected during long hours outdoors. 

Down Jacket

Our Pick
Patagonia Down Sweater Hoodie

Temperatures drop considerably at nighttime in the desert. This Patagonia down sweater hoodie will keep you warm and cozy.

Desert nights can be unbearably cold. Make sure you bring a warm down jacket to Anza Borrego Desert State Park to stay toasty during an unexpected wind gust or during chilly spring nights.

The Patagonia Down Sweater Hoodie is the perfect jacket to keep you warm in the desert. It comes in cute colors and keeps you warm all night.

FAQs About Anza Borrego State Park

Is Anza Borrego State Park worth visiting?

Anza Borrego Desert State Park is one of the best state parks in California. Every moment spent inside the park is worth it. From starry night skies to abundant hiking trails in the Colorado Desert and bighorn sheep sightings, this state park is a Southern California favorite.

What is Anza-Borrego known for?

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is known for its consistent spring wildflower blooms, its geologic features, and its other natural wonders like ocotillo groves and Native American archaeological features.

Is Anza-Borrego blooming now?

While desert cacti are alive and thriving year-round in Anza Borrego Desert State Park, the wildflower blooms occur each spring. Check out the park in late March or early April for the best chance to witness this natural beauty.

What is the best time to visit Borrego Springs?

Spring is the best time to visit Borrego Springs. It’s not too hot at this time and the spring wildflowers are abundant. 

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Have fun exploring Anza Borrego Desert State Park in depth! Let me know in the comments which campsite was your favorite and if you spotted any wildlife. Check out our best activities in Joshua Tree guide for more desert fun in California

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