Anza-Borrego Desert State Park: The Top Sites & Trails

Last Updated on: 20th October 2023, 12:49 pm

At over 600,000 acres, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is California’s largest State Park. For reference, if it were a National Park, it would rank in the top twenty. As such, you can’t expect to see everything in a single day – or even two.

The park was named after Juan Bautista de Anza, an 18th-century Spanish explorer. At the time when this region was claimed by Spain, Anza helped establish a new route to California via mainland Mexico rather than the Baja Peninsula. And this barren desert landscape probably looks just as Anza saw it centuries ago.

Most visitors will be experiencing the park either as a day trip from San Diego or while en route to Joshua Tree National Park as part of a longer trip. My case was the latter, and I spent a night camping at the park. This allowed me to see some additional sites the next morning, not to mention giving me a head start for Joshua Tree.

The following guide presents the attractions in the order that I visited them. But if you only have a day, I’d start with The Slot before focusing on the sites and hikes around Borrego Springs. If you also want to see the Wind Caves, anticipate having to leave out other hikes like the Palm Canyon Trail.

At the end of this guide to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park’s main landmarks, you can find comprehensive info on transport, where to stay in the park, and available tour options.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

Park Entry Fees

At the time of writing, basic park entry costs $10 per vehicle. At some of the more remote sites like The Slot, you’ll encounter stations where you can place cash into an envelope, after which you place the receipt on your dashboard. Otherwise, you can wait until you reach Borrego Springs, where you’ll find machines that take card. 

Note, however, that if you plan on paying for a campsite at the park, do not bother paying anything until you choose your campsite. The reason is that park entry is included in the cost of a campsite. Not realizing this at the time, I paid for park entry only to realize that it was a waste!

As we’ll go over below, Anza-Borrego has campsites with amenities for a fee, while the park also allows free dispersed camping.

The Slot

Compared with Utah or Arizona, California isn’t exactly known for its slot canyons. The Slot at Anza-Borrego, however, is a notable exception. And it’s also one of the State Park’s most popular hikes. 

As such, it would be wise to start your day here in the morning before it gets too crowded. To do so, rather than head straight to the Visitor Center in the main part of the park, continue down Highway 78 before heading north along Buttes Pass.

While Buttes Pass is unpaved, it’s a lot smoother than other dirt roads elsewhere in the park, and you should be fine in a regular sedan. But ideally, to see everything, you’ll be driving a 4×4 or AWD for this trip.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

In my case, I arrived at the parking lot at 9:30 after leaving San Diego two hours prior. While there was a large group in the parking lot getting ready for a hike, I only saw a couple of other people on the hike itself. 

I did this hike in summer, however, which is low season due to the extreme heat. Apparently, things get much more crowded in the winter months, with the parking lot potentially filling up early.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

As a loop trail, The Slot is about 2.2 miles, or 3.5 km long. But the actual slot canyon makes up less than half of the entire loop. While I did do the full loop which only took me an hour, you’re not missing much by doing this as an out-and-back hike.

Before your trip to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, be sure to download AllTrails app and subscribe so you can view the trail map (and all others in this guide) offline.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

From the parking lot, look for the trail that takes you directly down into the slot canyon. Otherwise, you could also start the loop from the opposite direction, allowing you to climb down the steepest part of the hike.

Aside from light scrambling, the slot canyon itself is quite easy to traverse. Other than an interesting arch, however, it doesn’t have too many remarkable features. But I always find walking through slot canyons to be fun regardless.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

As mentioned, the actual slot canyon is quite short. And before you know it, you’ll be walking along a wash in the open desert.

After walking on flat ground for a little bit, the trail will take you up a steep hill – easily the most tiring part of this hike. As mentioned, you can choose to do the loop in the opposite direction to walk down it instead.

In either case, the views from this upper portion of the hike are spectacular, and they remain so until you find yourself back at the parking lot.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

After my trip to Anza-Borrego, I would go on to do the Painted Canyon and Ladder Canyon Loop hike near Mecca, California, situated in between Anza-Borrego and Joshua Tree. And I found that slot canyon to be much more exciting and challenging.

So if you have limited time at Anza-Borrego and will be traveling onward to Joshua Tree, I’d recommend that hike instead. But ideally, you’ll have time for both.

The Wind Caves

The Wind Caves are the most difficult landmark to reach of this entire guide. And while the entire site may be pretty small, it’s arguably the top highlight of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park as a whole.

Just be forewarned – you’ll definitely want a 4×4 or AWD with high clearance to make it here. This remote section of the park is not somewhere where you’d want to get stuck.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

From The Slot, return to Highway 78 and continue heading east. Eventually, you’ll reach the small village of Ocotillo Wells, at which you’ll want to turn right onto Split Mountain Rd.

Keep heading south until you reach Fish Creek Wash, where you’ll again want to turn right. This unpaved wash can be very rocky at times, so be sure to drive carefully.

Including a stop at a store along the way, it took me roughly 90 minutes to reach the Wind Caves Trailhead from The Slot parking lot.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

Once you do reach the Wind Caves trailhead (again, see AllTrails), the walk there is only about fifteen minutes. But as I was doing this hike in summer, the temperature was hovering over 100 °F (38 °C) by this point in the day and this was no easy journey.

It should go without saying, but be sure to bring plenty of water if you’re visiting in the warmer months.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

Before long, the Wind Caves came into view in the distance. But what exactly are they?

They’re part of a sandstorm formation which, as the name suggests, has been eroded by wind. And over time, various Swiss cheese-like holes have formed in the rocks, with some becoming large enough to be considered caves.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

While just a tiny section of the park, the area reminded me somewhat of Cappadocia and its numerous ‘Fairy Chimneys.’ 

I had a walk around, exploring the various caves and ‘alleyways’ in between the large rock formations. All in all, there were only a few caves that were easy to fit in, but it was a good way to escape the blistering sun.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

Aside from the Wind Caves themselves, the views of the surrounding area were also incredible.

While probably my favorite part of Anza Borrego, the area just isn’t very big, and I only spent about twenty minutes in total (this was also partly due to the extreme heat). 

Considering what a major detour it is to get here, I was expecting there to be a bit more to explore.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

The Cactus Loop Trail

Finished with The Slot and the Wind Caves, it’s finally time to start making your way to the main section of the park. Return to Highway 78 and then continue heading west.

While it’s possible to take Borrego Springs Rd. toward the center, depending on your schedule, you may want to head further west before turning right onto Yaqui Pass Rd (see map above). That’s where you’ll find the Cactus Loop Trail.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

This is a short and easy trail, though not particularly remarkable. It features an abundance of cholla cacti, just like the ones you can find at nearby Joshua Tree. There are also some pretty nice views from atop the hill.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

The various landmarks at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park are much farther apart than one would normally expect, and If you feel like you’re at all running behind schedule, I’d consider this hike skippable.

But if you do visit, you can do the whole loop in thirty minutes or less.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

Around Borrego Springs

Next, I headed north to Borrego Springs, a town of several thousand people situated in the heart of the park. It’s here that you’ll find gas stations, general stores, a few restaurants, and hotels.

And if you’re planning to camp, the main campsites are located in this general area, not to mention other major trails and landmarks of Anza-Borrego.

It’s also here that you’ll find the Visitor Center, where the staff will be happy to answer any of your questions about the park. After a quick visit, I drove south along Montezuma Valley Rd. to briefly check out the Montezuma Valley Road Lookout.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

The overlook is indeed worth a visit for those who have the time. While not the most epic viewpoint of the park, it’s at least accessible via a paved road.

At the time of my visit, it was extremely windy, and by simply opening the car door, the brochure just given to me by the park staff immediately blew out over the edge!

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

Palm Canyon Trail

Originally, my plan for the remainder of the day was to set up camp at a designated campsite near the Palm Canyon Trail before hiking that very trail. But due to the crazy wind, it took ages to set up the tent and try to figure out how to weigh it down (tent stakes are useless in the desert).

Though I’d planned to finish the day with a visit to the Galleta Meadows around sunset, due to the late start, I barely ended up finishing the Palm Canyon before dark.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

The Palm Canyon Trail, easily accessible from the Visitor Center area, is one of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park’s most popular hikes. The out-and-back hike is just about 2.5 miles, or 4 km roundtrip. And it culminates in a beautiful desert oasis.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

Unfortunately, since I started this hike so late in the day, the lighting was far from ideal. By the time I made it to the grove, the nearby mountains were blocking the sun, and the lighting was far from ideal for photography.

With that in mind, sometime around midday may be best to do this hike.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

While the palm grove was badly burned in a fire in 2020, aside from the blackened trunks of many of the trees, it’s no longer easy to tell.

Interestingly, according to the informational placard, these California fan palms are the only palms native to the Western US.

I saw some hikers hanging out in the grove area to watch the sunset, though I decided to head back to my campsite to cook dinner before dark. All in all, this trail took me around 90 minutes.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

Back near the beginning of the trail, I was treated with a bighorn sheep sighting. While by no means a rare sight in the western half of the US, these animals are always exciting to see in person. Here, I happened to catch several walking along the top of a nearby cliff.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

The Galleta Meadows Sculptures

Galleta Meadows, situated north of Borrego Springs, is arguably Anza-Borrego’s most well-known spot. But oddly enough, in a park with so many natural wonders, Galleta Meadows is famous for its manmade metal sculptures.

They’re all the work of artist Ricardo Breceda, and they were added to liven up this barren patch of land. Largely added in 2008, there are now at least 130 sculptures to seek out during your visit.

You’ll find some of the main highlights labeled on Google Maps. But the best way to explore the area is to just drive around, occasionally getting out to get a closer look.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

For many visitors, these sculptures are one of the top highlights. And as much as I wanted to experience them at a leisurely pace, I was in a big rush and only got several pictures.

As mentioned, I’d planned to see these sculptures the previous evening, but the terrible wind complicated my plans. And so I had to squeeze a visit to Galleta Meadows into an already jam-packed itinerary.

Nevertheless, I managed to find some of the most popular highlights, such as the massive serpent, various elephants and the large scorpion.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

It wasn’t until getting there that I realized how far apart many of the sculptures are and how big this area really is. If you have the time, you could probably spend a couple of hours seeking out all the sculptures and photographing them.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

Font's Point

Finished with the sculptures, it was finally time to make my way east out of the park. While there are numerous landmarks in this general area (see more below), I only had time for Font’s Point, arguably Anza-Borrego’s most spectacular overlook.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

To get there, head east along the Borrego Salton Sea Way. You should eventually see a sign for Fonts Point, at which point you want to turn right onto an unpaved wash.

It’s then a 4-mile drive to reach the viewpoint. While you’ll want to keep your eye out for some large rocks on the road, I didn’t find this wash to be nearly as bad as the journey to the Wind Caves.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

In the end, the effort is well worth it. From the viewpoint, you can overlook a huge area of eroded badlands as far as the eye can see. Given all the cracks and crevices of the rocks, Fonts Point will surely appear different at different times of the day.

Some people like to come here early to catch the sunrise, though this would entail driving down the wash in the dark.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

More Around Anza-Borrego

There are several additional hikes and landmarks around Anza-Borrego that I wasn’t able to visit due to time constraints. In the center (Borrego Springs) part of the park, for example, is a popular hike called Hellhole Canyon.

It’s an out-and-back hike that’s about 5 miles, or 8 km, roundtrip. But if its name is anything to go by, you might want to skip it in summer.

Along the Borrego Salton Sea Way, you’ll pass the trailhead for the Calcite Mine Slot Canyon. It’s said to take around an hour and 45 minutes and includes some difficult scrambles.

Also in the eastern part of the park is the Pumpkin Patch, an area that features numerous round rocks that do indeed resemble pumpkins. Looking at the map, it seems like quite a challenge to reach by vehicle.

Additional Info

From San Diego, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park can be reached in about two hours by car. The ride is quite interesting, as the route takes you through the Cuyamaca Rancho State Park in the Laguna Mountain range. One moment, you’ll be enjoying views of forests and lakes and then you’ll suddenly find yourself in a vast, barren desert.

You’ll need to decide on your Anza-Borrego itinerary in advance before departure, as where you start the day will have a big impact on the particular route you take.

Coming from Joshua Tree, Borrego Springs is about 90 minutes from the Cottonwood Visitor Center in the southern part of the park. But you might want to set aside time to do the Painted Canyon & Ladder Canyon Loop situated in between the two parks.

As mentioned above, several major landmarks at Anza-Borrego can only be accessed with a 4×4 or AWD SUV, so consider arranging one in advance if you don’t own one.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is a rare State Park to allow free dispersed camping, similar to how most Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land works. This means you can simply pitch your tent anywhere you see fit and spend the night there.

There are some rules, however, such as no campfires and no camping too close to a water source. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to find a detailed list of rules on the official website, so you may want to call in advance or confirm at the Visitor Center.

While the idea of free camping sounded appealing to me at first, it wasn’t long before I considered the downsides: lack of toilets and running water, or even a table on which to cook.

So in the end, we camped at the Palm Canyon Campground near the Visitor Center and Palm Canyon Trail. It cost $33 per night, for which we got a little shelter, picnic table and access to toilets and showers.

The showers, however, cost an additional fee. For one dollar, you can buy two shower tokens, each of which gives you two minutes of water. At least the water was warm.

As mentioned above, the experience was marred by the extreme winds that day. The hard desert ground could not take normal tent stakes no matter how hard you tried to pound them in. And so we had no choice but to search for large rocks to place in the tent to weigh it down.

The intense wind persisted throughout the night, and I barely got any sleep. And I woke up to find that the tent had largely collapsed on me.

Most people worry about potential rain when camping, but out in the desert, wind is something you definitely have to consider. I’d later have a similar experience in Death Valley. But having learned my lesson at Anza-Borrego, I drove to the nearest town and booked a hotel.

Needless to say, you’ll have a much better experience if you’re sleeping in an RV rather than a tent. If you don’t have one, consider renting one.

I noticed that some of the campsites at Anza-Borrego had large stone walls on one side which would’ve helped a lot, though there were only several and they were all occupied. Most campsites, on the other hand, are completely open on all sides.

If camping is not your thing, there are actually quite a few hotels to choose from within Anza-Borrego. The most popular option seems to be the Borrego Valley Inn, located in the heart of Borrego Springs. A bit further south, La Casa del Zorro is another highly-rated option.

Other hotels in the area, meanwhile, include Borrego Springs Resort and Spa and Stanlunds Inn and Suites, both of which have positive reviews.

If traversing the vast Anza-Borrego Desert State Park sounds like too much of a hassle, or if you simply lack the proper vehicle, consider taking a tour from San Diego.

This full-day 4×4 tour will take you to many of the park’s hard-to-reach destinations, while this tour will take you around Anza-Borrego in addition to nearby sites like the Cleveland National Forest.

Anza-Borrego is home to some beautiful scenery and landmarks, as you can see pictured in the guide above. But it’s hard to get a true sense of what it’s like to explore the park from pictures alone.

Given the park’s total size, many of the main landmarks are very far apart from one another, with some only accessible via very rough road. So by the time you get to a particular landmark, your expectations are going to be pretty high, but I didn’t always feel like each landmark, hike or viewpoint delivered.

And considering all the other parks throughout the southern half of California alone, I don’t think Anza-Borrego can quite compete.

Whether or not you should visit the park largely comes down to your itinerary. If you’ll be traveling from San Diego to Joshua Tree and beyond and won’t have a problem setting aside a day for Anza-Borrego, then it makes for a great stop along the journey.

But if you have limited time and have to decide between Anza-Borrego and somewhere like Joshua Tree, Mojave National Preserve or Death Valley, I would place Anza-Borrego near the bottom of the list.

If you’re staying for a while in San Diego, then Anza-Borrego would make for a great day trip. But if you’re looking for a less intensive outdoor adventure, also look into the Torrey Pines State Natural Preserve.

There are countless accommodation options in San Diego, and choosing the best place to stay largely depends on your budget and which neighborhood you prefer. Here are some of the highest-rated options in some of the city’s most popular neighborhoods:

In the Old District, some of the most popular options for a reasonable price are the Cosmopolitan Hotel and the Old Town Inn.

If you’d prefer the downtown area, Chic Condo Steps from Petco Park has great reviews.

And if you’d like to stay right by the coast, consider The Inn at Sunset Cliffs.

If you happen to be crossing the border on foot from Tijuana and are looking for a hotel you can easily reach via public transport, consider the Mission Bay Inn.

That’s where I stayed upon my arrival in San Diego before renting a car the next morning. It was convenient being able to get on the tram from the border crossing, riding it to Clairemont Drive Station and then being able to walk to the hotel in a few minutes. Though I didn’t go, the hotel also happens to be near SeaWorld.

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