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Ford F250 FX4 Power Stroke - Anza Borrego Desert State Park

A desert diamond in the rough

Photography by Carl Calvert

California's Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is one of the largest state parks in the Golden State-and certainly one of the most unique. Encompassing more than 600,000 acres, Anza-Borrego contains something for everyone: cool desert oases, diverse wildlife, stunning views that go on forever, rich lore, a bevy of wonderful plant life, hikes into pristine canyons, and much more. For the off-road enthusiast, there are miles and miles of trails that take you deep within this mystic desert realm. Located in Southern California's Sonoran Desert, Anza-Borrego is approximately 30 miles south of Palm Springs and is bordered on the south by the Mexican border.

We had been to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park many times in the past to camp. On these trips, we had managed to explore most of the park and in the process had driven down a majority of the sandy off-road trails, trampled down many of the hiking trails, and had traveled to most of the park's highlights. Last winter (mid January 2006, to be exact) we took our 29-foot Komfort fifth-wheel trailer and F-250 FX4 Power Stroke to Anza-Borrego to renew our experiences with the park and to visit some of our favorite places. The plan called for us to spend four nights at the park, with three full days to explore a number of areas that make Anza-Borrego special.

In the past, we've camped in everything from a tent to a Toyota truck with a camper shell, and this was our first time doing it in luxury with our fifth-wheel trailer equipped with all of the modern conveniences. We had reservations at the State Park Campground at Borrego Palm Canyon, the only state-operated facility within the park with full hookups.

To make it a bit easier for our readers to fully grasp the Anza-Borrego experience, we decided to write this as a bit of a journal, outlining our trip on a day-to-day basis. We also decided to visit those areas within the park that were representative of the full array of what it had to offer in the way of off-roading, hiking, and exploring.

Day One: Blair Valley And Bow Willow
One of our favorite areas of the park is Blair Valley. Located approximately 10 miles south of our campground and park headquarters, Blair Valley is home to a stunning desert valley surrounded by mountains on all sides. The area is reached by a number of sandy off-road trails that crisscross the valley and take you to several of the valley's highlights. Our destination this morning was the Marshall South homesite, where a pioneering family set up residence in the 1930s, scratching out an existence on top of a mountain in the harsh desert landscape. The road to the homesite is located approximately three miles from highway S-2, a main thoroughfare through Anza-Borrego. The road is sandy but very passable for most vehicles.

After parking, we hiked the two-mile, fairly steep trail to the homesite ruins. Along the way there are stunning views of the valley below and the mountain ranges beyond. Once at the top, the true gutsy nerve of the South family comes instantly in focus. There are still a few walls left of the old house, part of the family's well, and scattered belongings, including the rusty remains of a double bed and box springs. It doesn't take a genius to realize that this family had it tough; so tough, in fact, that Mrs. South called it quits after a few years and moved the family to more fertile grounds.

After hiking back down, we piled into our four-wheel-drive diesel and spent some additional time exploring the trails and stopping for a picnic lunch. There are other sights to see in Blair Valley besides the homesite, including Native American grinding holes on the Morteros Trail, pictographs on a two-mile hiking trail, and a hidden 15-foot waterfall at the end of Oriflamme Canyon Road.

Leaving the Blair Valley area, we proceeded down S-2 to Bow Willow Campground, located approximately 20 miles south of Blair Valley. We had camped at Bow Willow before and were particularly fond of a hiking trail that starts at the edge of the campground. The road into Bow Willow is, again, sandy (the Anza-Borrego off-roader soon becomes quite familiar with these sand-strewn paths) but also very passable. The campground itself has about 20 campsites with sun shelters and fire pits, but without any hookups.

At the north end of the campground is a trail, and hikers can walk from one to six miles away to explore the unique area. Many side trails take the explorer to palm tree oasis groves, including the Southwest Grove, Pygmy Grove, Surprise Grove, the Palm Bowl, and others. Along the way, you'll encounter many of the desert's spiny friends, including the ocotillo, red barrel cactus, and other prickly flora.

Day Two: Borrego Palm Canyon Hike And Downtown Borrego Springs
Our campground was located conveniently next to Borrego Palm Canyon, perhaps the shining jewel of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. At the far end of the park campground, a hiking trail begins that takes you to the heart of Palm Canyon. We had hiked Palm Canyon often over the years, including a memorable day when we packed swimsuits that were put to good use at the trail's end in a number of pools and waterfalls. We were looking forward to one of the most spectacular hikes in the park that takes the hiker along a seasonal stream and into a canyon bordered by spectacular cliff-like mountains dotted with numerous desert wildlife. We were distressed to learn that approximately three years ago a tremendous flash flood had roared through the canyon, radically changing its topography and dramatically changing the palm oasis at the end of the trail.

In spite of the flash flood, the area is still a sight to behold. Even though this year has seen scant rainfall, the stream was very much in evidence, fully 10 feet wide in places, with a number of waterfalls over huge granite boulders. The oasis at the end is a bit smaller than before the flood, and much of the oasis is cordoned off to protect further loss of the trees and promote new growth. This is still a very special place, and we enjoyed the hike to its fullest. There are two trails, one high and one low, that you can take to the end of Palm Canyon, and we hiked up the lower trail and back down the upper one to see as much canyon beauty as possible.

We brought along our mountain bikes and rode them the three miles into Borrego Springs, the town that lies just outside the campground. Borrego Springs is a quaint mix of grocery stores, lunch places, restaurants, art shops, motels, gas stations, and everything else for the wandering tourist. Although it can't hold a candle for tourist power to nearby Palm Springs, it's still worth a trip to take in the local color, do a bit of shopping, and sample the local restaurants.

Day Three: Split Mountain Road, Sandstone Canyon, Wind Caves Trail, and Elephant Tree Trail
The Split Mountain Trail meanders over terrain that ranges from towering cliffs to sandy open stretches to wind-hewn rock walls to rugged open country. You could spend a full day just off-roading this area. The road ranges from some tricky sandy stretches to boulder-strewn canyons, however, our Super Duty navigated all of it with ease. Most of the time you don't need four-wheel drive, but to play it safe we kept all four wheels turning during the entire trip.

We were aiming for a very special place: Sandstone Canyon, located approximately five miles from where the payment turns to dirt. At first, the canyon appears much like other canyons we've driven through, but the farther back you travel, the tighter the sandstone walls become, until they come within a foot or two of either side of the truck. The Super Duty traversed this area carefully, and, after traveling for a mile or so, we turned around while it was still possible.

Back out on the main trail we headed back to the Wind Caves. This two-mile trail takes the hiker to a cliff-infested region pockmarked with hundreds of small caves that have been blasted out by the unrelenting Anza-Borrego winds that occasionally whip thorough the area. This was our first trip to the Wind Caves area, but it won't be our last.

Leaving the Split Mountain area, our last stop for the day was to be to the Elephant Tree Trail, a hike to see one of the more unique forms of flora in Anza-Borrego. The Elephant Tree Trail is located just west of the paved Split Mountain Road, and its one-mile loop takes less than an hour to navigate by foot. Its star is the Sonoran Desert elephant tree. Anza-Borrego is the only place in California where this rare plant grows. Like an elephant, it stores water in its trunk and lower branches. The tree is definitely different to look at and shouldn't be missed. Unfortunately, only one tree remains on this hike. Last time we were here (approximately 10 years ago), there were three trees to see. The last remaining one seems quite healthy, though, and should be around for years to come.

The areas noted here are several of the highlights of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, but there are certainly many, many more that are worth visiting. Among these, the Coyote Canyon area in the northern part of the park merits a visit and has miles of off-road trails. Fonts Point in the eastern area offers one of the best views of the park, and the Carrizo Badlands in the southern section is also worthy of visiting for its off-road trails and scenery; Culp Valley in the west offers its own jewels. There are several campgrounds in Anza-Borrego, ranging from where we stayed with full hookups to primitive areas where you simply find a place to park and settle down. There are also a number of motels and campgrounds outside the park in the town of Borrego Springs.

Remember that when off-roading in the park all vehicles must be highway legal and must remain on established roads. Nearby Ocotillo Wells State Vehicular Recreation Area lies outside the park, but offers a bit more challenging off-road ride, if you so desire. For more information on the park you can access its Web site at www.anzaborrego.statepark.org, or you can call the park headquarters at (760) 767-5311.

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