The Biggest State Park You've Never Heard Of: Anza Borrego

Everyone who asked where we were going for the long weekend had the same response when we said “Anza-Borrego Desert State Park”. “Oh” they paused, “never heard of it”. Even from San Diego and Los Angeles natives, no one knew about the second largest state park in the continental United States.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California’s largest state park, is 600,000 acres of slot canyons, badlands, palm oases, ancient oyster reefs, and free camp sites. Only two hours from San Diego, it’s surprising this park isn’t more well known. If you’re interested in checking out this secret desert, here are a few things to see.

See: The Slot, Split Mountain, Wind Caves, Elephants Knees, Cactus Loop, Borrego Springs Metal Sculptures, Salton Sea Beach

Dine: Big Horn Bar + Grill, Palm Greens Cafe, The Fudge Factory, Center Market (kombucha + organic, gluten-free snacks)

Stay: Arroyo Salado Primitive Campground

ON THE DESERT FLOOR

In springtime, Anza-Borrego is flush with wildflowers and flowering cacti. On the Galleta Meadows Estate, the wildflower blooms carpet the desert floor between 130 giant metal sculptures of prehistoric animals that once lived in the area, including saber-tooth tigers, mammoths and a 130-ft long serpent. Also, unique to the area are the natural oases home to California’s only native palm, the California fan palm.

South of Borrego Springs off the Tamarisk Grove campground, stroll through the Cactus Loop Trail to see barrel cactci, cholla and ocotillo bright with blooms. Look up periodically to check the hills for desert bighorn sheep.

INTO THE SLOT CANYONS

We weren’t anxious to visit Anza-Borrego until we heard about the slot canyons. The most popular in the park is simply called The Slot. From Route 78, drive two miles up to the trailhead parking area. From there, head down into the siltstone canyon for this short 0.8 hike. As you go, the canyon becomes taller and narrower. It can be a tight squeeze at some points, but it’s worth it to feel like you’ve been transported to Utah.

THROUGH SPLIT MOUNTAIN

For geological wonders, head to Split Mountain. A few miles past the turn-off for the The Slot, head right on Split Mountain Road to Fish Creek Campground, a primitive campground at the entrance to Split Mountain. Those with AWD can skip the 3-mile walk from the campground and drive straight to the Wind Caves trailhead, but most of fun comes from admiring the striated rocks and anticlines along the way. However, if you hike, watch out for ATVs along the road, as this is a popular spot for off-roading. When you come out of Split Mountain, you can choose the trail up to the Wind Caves or follow the wash through the mud hills. Along the way to an bizarre mesa called Elephant Knees, you’ll see remnants of the past like fossilized oyster shells. So many geological oddities in a 10-mile hike.

Everyone who asked where we were going for the long weekend had the same response when we said “Anza Borrego State Park”. “Oh” they said “never heard of it”.

UNDER ORION’S BELT

Adding to the awesomeness, there is so much free camping! While there are 175 sites in the developed campgrounds, there’s no need for payment or reservations the eight primitive campgrounds in the park. At these camps, you’ll need to pack in water and a metal container for all campfires– easily bought in town. We stayed at Arroyo Salado campground, which was a bit of a drive from our other activities, but its seclusion made for great stargazing.

OUT TO SALTON SEA & PALM SPRINGS

From the Arroyo Salado campground, the quickest route back to Los Angeles is past the Salton Sea. The once popular resort area in the 1950s is now mostly abandoned and in great disrepair. Due to the increased salinity of the sea, most fish species have died off and washed up on shore. In fact, on our visit, we realized the beach was not made of sand, but of fish bones. It’s worth a stop if only to marvel at the state of its eery beaches.

With its vast badlands, diverse desert habitat and bizarre rocks formations, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is an unexpected and wonderful state park we should all get to know a little better.▲