Anza Borrego in Southern California’s Desert

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Anza Borrego in California.
Anza Borrego in California. Evan Quanstrom photos.

Anza Borrego: California’s little-known desert Domelands

By Evan Quarnstrom

Slot Canyon in northern Anza Borrego.
Slot Canyon in northern Anza Borrego.

While most who visit California come for the warm, sunny beaches, the Golden State is also globally known for its glorious desert landscapes.

Locals and tourists alike flock to the desert to enjoy the desolate terrain and geologic wonders, with National Parks like Joshua Tree and Death Valley receiving most of the attention.

However, in the extreme southern end of the state lies another lesser-known desert destination that is equally as jaw-dropping in its own right: Anza Borrego.

Why visit Anza Borrego?

To the naked eye, Anza Borrego doesn’t match up to its flashier desert counterparts that have earned the National Park status but don’t let that fool you.

A little bit of venturing off the beaten path rewards those curious enough to explore with uniquely beautiful hikes and only a fraction of the crowds.

Hiking the Pictograph Trail in Anza Borrego.
Hiking a narrow trail in Anza Borrego.

But Anza Borrego has it all. Throughout the 2,400 square kilometers of desert, narrow slot canyons gouge sheer sandstone cliffs.

Boulders the size of houses precariously balance on mile-high peaks. Evidence of the land’s Native American history abounds and magnificent flower blooms paint the landscape come springtime.

A staple in the diet of adventure seekers in Southern California, Anza Borrego is largely unknown to the outside world.

This could be because best-kept secrets in Anza Borrego are not found on the beaten path, but require a sense of adventure and exploration.

For those of us that frequent this edge of the desert, that’s just how we like it and what keeps us coming back.

Squeeze through a slot canyon

Ever dreamed of hiking through a smooth sandstone slot canyon?

Villager Peak summit.
Villager Peak summit.

You don’t have to travel to Utah or Arizona to get this experience, we have plenty of slots right here in California.

Anza Borrego is no exception, and the biggest difference is you won’t have to fight for elbow room to hike or get photos in the tight quarters.

There are plenty of slot canyons in the park that are relatively accessible, including many that you can have all to yourself.

Soak in the views on a desert peak

Anza Borrego has a peak for everyone. Whether you are looking for a quick desert stroll or a strenuous overnight hike, the views from the countless peaks in the area are expansive.

With plenty of peaks in the mile-high-plus range, views stretch far east out over the Salton Sea and Joshua Tree National Park, south deep into the Mexican desert, or north, where on a clear day the towering snow-capped behemoths of San Jacinto and San Gorgonio can be seen.

An ongoing theme: the best part about the peaks is the solitude and unaltered nature. It’s an experience that is hard to get at other popular peak-bagging destinations in California.

Time your visit with a ‘super bloom’

Every couple years Anza Borrego does get its fifteen minutes of fame during the springtime flower blooms that have been coined ‘super blooms’.

Depending on how wet of a winter it was, the seemingly bleak desert landscape can explode into a sea of colorful flowers that stretch for miles.

Flower bloom in Borrego Springs
Flower bloom in Borrego Springs

While the rise of social media and Instagram has let the secret out, the flower blooms are still a spectacle to experience and with enough research and due diligence, you can also get a bloom all to yourself away from the crowds.

How will you know when to go? Check the flower reports come spring.

Search for sea fossils

Native American pictographs on the "Pictograph Trail" en route to Whale Peak.
Native American pictographs on the “Pictograph Trail” en route to Whale Peak.

While Anza Borrego may be land-locked today, peering hard into the sediment deposits can provide clues into a drastically different past.

In the area called the ‘Domelands‘ at the south end of the park, fossils of ancient marine life abound, visible to the naked eye. These fossils tell a story of the park’s past, when it was once beneath the sea millions of years ago.

A bit of hiking will surely lead you to the countless sand dollar and sea snail fossils, if you are lucky, it’s been reported that whale and walrus skeletons have been found as well.

It’s not every day that you can study marine biology 70 miles from the sea — quite the unique experience.

Dive into North America’s past

Due to the remote geographic location and lack of development, artifacts of the Native Americans that once inhabited these lands are quite abundant if you know where to go.

Hiking the Pictograph Trail in Anza Borrego.
Hiking the Pictograph Trail in Anza Borrego.

Some areas are well-marked and documented, where you can find pieces of pottery, grinding holes in the rock used for cooking, or even ancient rock art hidden within natural caves (check out the Pictograph Trail).

Most locations are not publicized, kept secret to preserve them from vandalism and overcrowding. However, it adds to the allure of hiking in the backcountry of the park that you could stumble upon a piece of North American history at any moment.

Cactus bloom on Villager Peak in Anza Borrego.
Cactus bloom on Villager Peak in Anza Borrego.

A destination for the adventurous

If you are looking to pull up to a paved parking lot, snap an epic photo, and get on with your journey, Anza Borrego is not for you. Anza Borrego requires getting your boots dirty and a keen sense of adventure.

Native American morteros in Anza Borrego. They were used to grind nuts and seed.
Native American morteros in Anza Borrego. They were used to grind nuts and seeds

While the more popular desert destinations in California are highly frequented for good reason — their breathtaking beauty — that doesn’t mean that places like Anza Borrego should be ignored.

Next time you are planning an adventure and looking to get off the beaten path and away from the crowds, Anza Borrego is a great place to start.

Evan Quamstrom

Evan Quarnstrom is a 27-year-old from San Diego, California with a keen interest in traveling, adventure, surfing and learning languages. Visit his website evanquarnstrom.com