Goresky's Guide to the Anza Borrego Desert

Borrego's are bighorn sheep. Anza is a Spanish explorer who led an expedition through this region in 1772. I don't think they are related. At least the sheep don't appear to understand Spanish. My favorite sites in order are: The Slot, Font's Point, Vista del Malpais, Coyote Canyon, Calcite Mine. Each is within a 40 minute drive of Borrego Springs.

Books and Maps

"The Anza-Borrego Desert Region" is encyclopedic but not very helpful in choosing destinations. But it has a wonderful index. So once you've figured out where you want to go, look it up in the index and read about it. It comes with a map in the back that is up to date and very detailed.

Another excellent map is published by Earthwalk Press. And the official Park map is online, in the "park brochure". It is also here:  ABDSPmap.pdf Or, you can buy it at the park headquarters in Borrego Springs for $1, provided they haven't run out. It is up to date, it shows the whole park on one page, and the 4WD roads on it are mostly passable. (Some of the roads indicated on the other maps actually degenerate into foot paths or worse; some are blocked by boulders, and others don't even exist!) Not all the roads are shown on the park map, but it's surprisingly accurate. Also: the park map has red stars (*) for points of interest and we've found them all to be good except for the "archeological" sites, which were not so exciting (see "Morteros Indian site" below). But the natural sites with stars (*) on this map are all spectacular. Depending on when you get up, and how much time you want to spend hiking, you can often do two starred sites in a day. To get an overview, use this park services map to locate the places I mention below: they almost all have red stars (*).

I use all three maps since each one has different features. The Park map is not nearly as detailed as the other two, but it is good for an overview.

Getting There is half the fun

No, it's not. Google Maps says it will take you 8 hours from San Francisco, assuming all goes well. If you follow their directions, all will not go well, I assure you. They want you to drive through LA and Anaheim on 91, then take I-15 South to Temecula, then bear East, so that you are coming in to Borrego Springs from the West. It is true that the way into Borrego springs from the west is quite picturesque but the road is slow and if you get behind some camper, then you're stuck behind him for 50 miles. What is worse: the road through Anaheim is jammed up from about 3pm to 8 pm every weekday, and probably in the mornings too.

My suggestion, if you are coming in from the North, or from LAX, is to head for I-10, and go in through Palm Springs-Indio; turn onto 86S (which becomes 86) to Salton City (see "Salton City" below), and then back West along the Borrego Salton Seaway (S22). It is a bit longer in miles but it's a fast and easy road most of the way, with much less chance of getting waylaid by a slow camper or a traffic jam. But it's mostly boring, and the Google method is a prettier road. However my route has two spectacular sights along the way: as you enter the Palm Springs canyon you pass through one of the biggest wind farms I've ever seen, with windmills everywhere. Also, when you leave 86 and turn onto S22 at Salton City, the road quickly enters the badlands and the scenery becomes amazing. S22 then takes you right into Christmas Circle in Borrego Springs.

Make sure you come in a 4WD, otherwise you'll not be able to get to the best sites.


The park consists of 4 or 5 enormous valleys. (OK, if you're an expert, they are basins, not valleys: caused by spreading of the earth's crust while the mountains on the sides are rising.) There are several viewpoints overlooking Borrego Springs and its valley. From these, it doesn't look like it could possibly be very interesting. But the scale of the valley is almost beyond comprehension, and along the sides of the valley there are countless beautiful little nooks and crannies. If you want to visit the Park Headquarters Visitor Center, it's in Borrego Springs: Christmas Circle is at the south end of the main street and the Park Headquarters at the North end, after the main street becomes a gravel road. They have a great collection of books about the area, and they operate a nice campground about a mile away (with showers and toilets). (You can camp anywhere. There are also several hundred "primitive" campsites: little more than a clearing set off from the 4WD roads, which you are encouraged to use. And there are about 20 official developed campgrounds with showers and toilets.)

Must-See Items

Borrego Springs is the main town. It has 2 gas stations! One is right at Christmas Circle, and it has a coin operated car wash, which is a good way to get the mud off the windows. We use it to clean up our rental car at the end of our stay. (People tell us to also carry a full assortment of Sharpie's to color over the scratches, but we haven't had to do that yet.) Borrego Springs used to have 2 "markets" (= small grocery store) but one closed down. Still you can get fresh milk, bread, fruit, veggies there. Considering how remote this location is (4 hours from LAX; 3 hours from San Diego), this market does an extraordinary job of supplying a wide range of necessities. But if you prefer that Big Supermarket feel, you may wish to do your main grocery shopping in Palm springs (at Von's, 2315 E. Tahquitz Canyon) on the way down. There is a small "clinic" in Borrego Springs with a wonderful nurse practitioner and a pharmacy, for minor emergencies.

Coyote Canyon (*) leaves from campground near the visitor center, in Borrego Springs. This is where you can see bighorn sheep. The first time we came here, we saw the bighorns and got lots of photos; the second time we couldn't find any, but we weren't looking hard. The guys in the visitor center always know where the sheep are. Even if you don't see the sheep, it is a nice walk up the canyon, along the only running stream in the whole area. If you decide to do it, it's best to enter the campground, pay your $3 for a day pass (to park the car), and hike from there. You can also hike from the visitor center, but you basically have to walk a flat, uninteresting mile to the campground before the hike begins (and the same mile back again at the end). We hiked up to the palm grove, but the hike continues much further. It's all uphill, and on a hot day it can be strenuous.

Font's Point (*): This is a dramatic spot. You drive over a wash, along the desert "floor" for about 4 miles. It all looks pretty much the same. Then you park the 4WD and walk to the lookout. As you approach the lookout, an incredible vista opens before you. It turns out that you're on the top of a cliff overlooking the badlands, the Anza- Borrego valley; you can see the Salton sea in the distance; and behind it all is mountains and more mountains! Best on a clear day.

Vista del Malpais (*): This is very close to Font's Point yet entirely different. The road in from the highway follows the desert floor as before, but at some point (on "Short Wash") it makes a steep descent into a wash. (I found it best to keep to the left when descending into the wash, and keep to the right when climbing out of the wash.) Anyway, as you drive along the thick sandy wash, the walls become more and more vertical around you. You can stop and hike in the bandlands anywhere along the way, and the vista itself has a somewhat different view than Font's point, although it's also on the edge of the same escarpment. There are a number of ways out by following one or another wash, but they are slow. If there was any rain recently, they can be extremely gooey and slippery. (We went out the way we came.) After visiting the Vista del Malpais once, we tried to access it the next day from the "cutacross trail" from the south, but our wheel wells immediately filled up with this sticky gooey mud; it was as slippery as snow, and we finally turned back. But it had been raining earlier that day. If it has been dry (which is most likely) then I think you should be able to come out on any of these washes.

The Slot (*): this is a spectacular slot canyon, barely wide enough for one person, almost a quarter mile long. It makes a really fun hike. (Do NOT do this if rain is forecast; the slot fills up in a flash flood very quickly.) I recommend entering the area from highway 78, but if you're thinking about getting there from the Font's Point area, watch out: Borrego Mountain Wash has a one-way section (going North; see the "Wilderness Press" map from the book), and they mean it. We approached this point once from the North, on Borrego Mountain Wash, and once from the South, from Buttes Pass. Driving in from the south you come to a drop-off that, to be honest, I was even afraid to drive down. So we parked and walked down, but from the bottom we could see that even the ATV's weren't able to drive up! So my recommendation is: after Font's Point and Vista del Malpais, go back into Borrego Springs, and back out again to highway 78, to get to the Slot. (Or, if you can get down the Cut Across Trail to the San Filipe Wash, then Buttes Pass is a fairly easy road up to the Slot area.)

Driving around: In the same area are some nice washes, also accessible from highway 78 (actually from the bottom of the "Texas Dip" on Borrego Springs Road). The San Filipe Wash leads into Rainbow Wash, which Bob and I drove up and then hiked into. It's very pretty. Hills of the Moon is also pretty. Each wash gets narrower and narrower, eventually ending in a box canyon. You can hike inside the wash, or you can scramble up the side and hike along the ridge between two washes.

Calcite Mine (*): There is a 4WD road up to the mine, but it looked pretty dangerous so we parked across the highway (S22) and hiked up. I thought it was interesting, but the hike up to the mine is a climb, maybe 800 feet, and the highway is always visible in the distance so you don't really get the feeling that you're in the wilderness. But it's still interesting. If you dig among the mine tailings you can find some nice pieces of calcite -- this is the crystal with double refraction. We have some nice pieces at home that we found here. We did two more things here, but I'm not sure I can get you to the exact spots:
(a) From the calcite mine turnoff, if you continue towards the Salton Sea (perhaps 1 1/2 miles?) there is a turnoff towards the north which leads immediately to an escarpment with a great view, a popular place for RV campers. We found it easily because it was the only turnoff that had a traffic jam. We checked out the view.
(b) then I think we went back to the calcite mine turnoff and drove down into Palm wash. It was tricky and tight at the beginning (but we had a Jeep Grand Cherokee; a smaller SUV should have no problem); then we followed the wash towards the Salton Sea. It's a fun drive through thick sand and occasional rocks. We passed beneath the same escarpment and I got a photo of all the campers lined up along the top. The wash gets easier to navigate as you go. You pass out of the park almost immediately so there are more ATV's: we saw several bozos with their jeeps stuck in precarious situations! We followed the wash all the way out to highway 86, then drove home.

Things you could see but probably don't want to

--Salton City: You call this a city? It was laid out as a resort in 1950. Idiocy knows no bounds: the sea was polluted and shrinking, even then. The total "downtown" population today is about 300. OK, they have built some new retirement homes on the outskirts, but I'd stay away from here anyway, unless you really want to see a failed, polluted, impoverished, dreary piece of landscape. Or unless you're looking for birds (there are zillions of them). The city was originally laid out with streets, subdivisions, etc. but was never developed. All those streets, and street signs are still there, but there is only desert where there should be houses, except occasionally some squatter has put up a shack. (Look it up on Google Maps, the layout is amazing.)

Actually Bob and I did go to see this, pretty much knowing what to expect, but we were still shocked. The "sea" is only about 2 feet deep and it stinks. It was originally dry and the area was mined for salt. The sea was created by accident in 1905 when an irrigation canal from the Colorado River broke. Over the next two years this created the sea. The breach was later repaired and the sea has been shrinking ever since. The State is thinking about ways to further destroy this area. The san Andreas fault runs right through the middle: the sea straddles two continental plates! The Landers quake (1992, mag. 7.6) occurred along this fault, shaking the whole Salton trough.

--Ocotillo Wells: this is the RV area, and it is very popular. They have campsites with showers, and lots of motorbikes, ATV's etc.; they're allowed to go anywhere within this area. I am enclosing a map of this area, in case you end up there by mistake: itís pretty easy to become lost here. We think the existence of Ocotillo Wells acts to protect the Anza Borrego park because otherwise these guys with ATV's and motorbikes would be riding in the park. The park is not policed at all, and even Borrego Springs has only 2 policemen. (I met the deputy at the car wash in Borrego Springs. He was polishing their bright purple ghost car with its 450 horsepower engine.) So the park would get pretty torn up, but instead these yahoo's have a place to go where they can blow off some steam. (Ocotillos are those tall cactus things with 30 or 40 stalks per plant. They are not really cactii, they're some other species with a long latin name.)

--Agua Caliente Park (*) (in the southern area of the park) -- this is a nice little hot springs in a campground (which is overrun with kids on the weekend). But compared to the hot springs at Nakusp, Fairmont, Banff, or Harrison (in B.C. and Alberta), forget it! There is a very pretty hiking loop which leaves from the hot springs and takes you through several canyons; it's about 1.5 miles long. We did the loop but skipped the hot springs. We also checked out the Box Canyon (*)--here the interest is not in the landscape but in the 100 year old wagon road, built by hand, that was used as the main access route to and from southern California. If you only have a few days, these spots are probably too far from Borrego Springs for you, and even if you put them together with the Morteros Indian site, there are better places to spend your time. (It's different for us: we explored for a week, two years ago, and we had another week, this year.)

-- The Morteros Indian site (*), which we saw this year, is in a beautiful location but the "interest" consists of several little holes worn into the rock, used by the Morteros Indians 500 years ago as a mortar. big deal. The Anastasi Indians in Santa Fe had whole caves dug out of the cliff, 2000 years earlier. And I'm not even mentioning the Incas of Peru who carved huge, heavy rocks so perfectly that they exactly lock into place, forming beautifully straight walls and temples. So I wasn't impressed by the Morteros holes.

Other things we've done

-- Rockhouse Canyon, Butler Canyon, and Clark Dry Lake, NE of Borrego springs, on the other side of the mountain called Coyote Peak. This canyon is invisible from Borrego Springs, and it is completely uninhabited, except for a little factory that makes rocks or sand or something like that. The dry lake is weird. You can walk onto it, for several miles. It's completely flat and the ground is all parched and cracked. The spreading and thinning of the earth's crust at this point caused the Clark Basin to droop, and it filled up with water. It now drains from below (whatever that means: I read about this in some geology book.) There is a 4WD road all the way to the head of the canyon (1 hour each way from the dry lake). Not much there, except that the nature of the desert is different from other parts of the park, and youíre completely cut off from civilization.

--Elephant Tree Trail (*), Gypsum Mine (SE of Borrego springs) -- there is a nice "nature trail" here with labels on the various plants. The elephant tree is apparently very rare. We followed the road past the Gypsum mine (ugly!) into a wash and drove until it became too narrow to turn around; then we walked from there. The walls of the wash become very high. Bob was wearing black black sunglasses and a hummingbird came along and looked him over for almost 2 full minutes, I wish I'd had a photograph of Bob looking at the hummingbird and the bird looking at Bob, about 2 inches apart, both of them not believing their eyes. We never made it to the wind caves (*) (also in this area).