One of my favorite campgrounds as of November 2019 for the beautiful desert landscape, solitude, night sky, wildlife, hiking, and golf. The campground is at the base of the Santa Rosa mountains on the south eastern edge of California. Just step out of the trailer and you see mountains within walking distance to the west and north. You are on a long gradual pitch above the valley floor with views going forever to the Sonoran Desert and Salton Sea toward the east. Above all you notice the absolute lack of sound. The long pull thru campsites are nicely spaced and had full hookups. The park is a designated International Dark Sky Park and Borrego Springs is an International Dark Sky Community.
From the state park's website:
“Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is the largest state park in California. Five hundred miles of dirt roads, 12 wilderness areas and many miles of hiking trails provide visitors with an unparalleled opportunity to experience the wonders of the California Desert. The park is named for Spanish explorer Juan Bautista de Anza and the Spanish wordborrego, or bighorn sheep. The park features washes, wildflowers, palm groves, cacti and sweeping vistas. Visitors may also have the chance to see roadrunners, golden eagles, kit foxes, mule deer and bighorn sheep as well as iguanas, chuckwallas and the red diamond rattlesnake.”
Looking towards the canyon and hiking trails
It was great walking out of the trailer and just hiking in any direction!
The town of Borrego Springs is small, but has a couple decent places to eat and a great outfitter. If you golf there are a few outstanding courses. I played the Tom Fazio designed Ram's Hill Golf Course. This was far and away the most beautiful and best conditioned golf course I ever played. See the awards including Best Course in the US (2016), on their website. https://www.ramshill.com
Looking toward Borrego Springs
The park Visitor Center has some paleontology exhibits with locally found fossils including an extinct camel and giant zebra.
Borrego Palm Canyon Trail.
This trail leaves from trailhead parking at the tent camping portion of the campground. It is a nice hike and our first experience seeing California Palms in their natural setting. These are the only palms native to the western US and at up to 60 feet are the tallest in California. They are a remnant of an earlier wetter epoch and are confined to a few water fed canyons below 1,000 feet in elevation.
The trail is popular with campers looking for bighorn sheep. There were only 273 of them in the state in 2012. Many people we met on the trail asked if we saw any. The funny thing is that the only time we saw them was in the parking lot at the trail head!
After arriving at the park with our trailer the day before, we had enough time for a short bike ride so we pedaled up to the trailhead to check it out. There we saw a mother and child (ewe and lamb) drinking from a small pool of water. We immediately froze and watched them from behind our bikes as they watched us. I thought it best to back off and let them be, but they took as many steps forward as we went back.
Eventually the ewe jogged to the tallest nearby rock and scanned the area as the lamb skipped along awkwardly and nonchalantly as kids do. Unfortunately I only had my phone and they were too far away to get a clear shot. Soon the ewe shot off with urgency with the lamb following her – disappearing into the desert brush.
Maidenhair Falls trail.
Easy trail close to the campground.
Borrego Springs from trail
Looking pack on the parking lot at trail head
Slot Canyon Trail (The Slot).
Just a little southeast of Borrego Springs, on Rt 78 there is a tiny brown sign saying Buttes Pass. Take this sandy road a few miles to the trailhead. After a steep sandy trail down into the canyon, this is an easy walk through a funhouse of a slot canyon. Some sections may require one to go through sideways which is half the fun. Other sections may give you some concern as some of the sides look like they could come down at any time, and they probably can. This trail was pretty busy and often we had to wait for others to pass through a tight section.
Standing at the parking area above The Slot
First mile of this 5.6 mile out and back is flat, sandy, and open as you rise slightly through the dry wash of the desert with plenty of space between cactus. The fun part comes as the canyon narrows and rises with 977 feet of total elevation gain. Most of that gain seems to come by scrambling up and over boulders. This is both the allure and difficulty, especially when the trail disappears more often than not.
False trails appear often. A typical scenario is coming to a flat open area and facing several car to house size boulders in which to select for the route. A few times I had to retrace my steps, but often the fun of exploring and puzzle solving takes over and I would seek out a method to get back to the trail.
First gloms of California Palms as the trail gets rockier
Typical. Standing on a high rock trying to figure out how to get to the trail that I'm guessing is at the base of the trees.
Whoops. I'm up too high. Off the trail!
After going through several palm oasis, eventually the trail seemed to dead end and I turned back. An unusual even for me, I actually missed the trail badly on the return. I found myself high on a rough scree (loose rock) covered hillside looking down on the tops of palms where the trail was.
I attempted controlled skidding and holding on to loose rock as I worked my way down. When I saw the trail it was below an unmanageable vertical drop from where I stood and additional maneuvering through brush got me back on track.
This is the last section I scrambled down
Always fun to find a face in a rock.
Still, I was loving it! I found a high boulder that I climbed to enjoy the view back towards the valley while rehydrating and having a snack.
It was around then that I noticed the spots of blood from my interesting route down. :)
Mountain Palm Springs Loop Trail.
51 miles from Anza-Borrego State Park Visitor Center. West on Rt 78 and south on S2 or 9 miles south of Agua Caliente County Park.
From an overlook on S2 we saw some adventurous souls going into the rougher sections of the park.
Trying to find the tail head was difficult in that there are no signs. I recommend using an app like AllTrails. From the parking lot there were footprints leading in to two canyons – one to the north and one to the west. To add to the confusion, the trail to the north is called Mountain Palm Loop on the app and the one to the west is named Mountain Palm Springs Loop. We took the later. A nice trail leading up and into a notch between rising foothills that leads to California Palm oasis.
At the oasis I continued up a steep and loose gravely trail up the ridge until it started to wrap into the mountains and I was loosing my views. I paused for a couple photos looking back the way we came to the east.
While driving to Mountain Palms we stopped at two places that were pretty cool:
This just looks like a little scenic view pull-over on Rt 78 west of Borrego Springs. But, there is a stone marker pointing out that the first road into southern California was hewed through this canyon by a Mormon Battalion using hand tools in January of 1847, and that the Butterfield Overland Mail Route ran through here (starting in 1858). The Butterfield mail route ran from St. Louis Missouri to San Fransisco.
I then walked over obvious foot travel marks to the edge of the canyon and saw the trail. It was really cools picturing the Mormons hacking their way through the canyon and the old stage coaches rumbling through.
I had read about this route in books about the Apache Wars. The Apaches had disrupted travel enough to force the closing of the Butterfield stage through Arizona. The Pony Express was established to make a more northerly (though still dangerous), route.
Vallecito County Park and Stage Station.
The Vallecito Stage Station is a testament to one of the most dynamic decades of this area’s history. First used as an army supply depot, then as a rest stop on the “Jackass Mail” route between San Antonio and San Diego, the building was busiest during the lifetime of the Butterfield Overland Stage (1858-61). The stage line carried mail and passengers over 2,800 miles separating Tipton, Missouri and San Francisco in 25 days. It was said to be the longest stage ride in the world
Brief write up
Vallecito County Park Brochure:
We spent over an hour talking to the park ranger who stays at the small dry campground at the park. She seemed happy for the company as there was only one camper staying there. She was a wealth of information about the park, showing us where the stage coaches would park in front of the station. The Butterfield trail then went right through what is now the parking lot and campground. She pointed out a fence and said that the native peoples of this area hold this land sacred and protect it from people wanting to take artifacts. She is taking an archeology course at the state park headquarters in Borrego Springs. The day before we arrived she found a Spanish coin dated in the 1700's in the campground.
The Red diamond on the top left indicates where Box Canyon is and the Blue diamond is Vallecito. CA 78 at the top going to the right goes back to Borrego Springs.
Ram's Hill Golf Course.
Sand dunes on the way from Arizona to Borrego Springs.