anza borrego hellhole canyon view point
California,  Destinations,  RV Travel,  West US

Anza Borrego in a Day: Experience the Best Things to Do at California’s Largest State Park in One Day

Travel Date March 2021

Anza Borrego, near Joshua Tree National Park, is well known among California natives and thankfully we listened when they shared this gem.  We left San Diego headed east to explore some of California’s National Parks but decided to spend a day at Anza Borrego Desert State Park en route.   

What is Anza Borrego known for? 

Anza Borrego is the largest desert state park in the continental United States.  The park is over 640,000 acres with over 500 miles of dirt roads.  Wilderness encompasses most of the park area.  

The landscape resembles a smaller version of the Grand Canyon.  Earthquake activity has caused wrinkles and faults in the rainbow-colored hills.    The Wind Caves and the Anza Borrego Mud Caves are popular natural wonders at Anza Borrego Desert State Park but both were closed due to COVID when we visited.  

Where is Anza Borrego? 

The park is located in the Colorado desert of Borrego Springs, California.  Only 53 miles from the southern entrance to Joshua Tree National Park, Anza Borrego is definitely worth at least a half day stop.     

What does Anza Borrego mean? 

Before visiting, I wasn’t sure what Anza Borrego meant.   I do not know much Spanish so it was a complete mystery.    

Anza Borrego Desert State Park was named after Spanish explorer Juan Bautista de Anza.   He discovered the first land route to California while passing through the park. Borrego is a Spanish word for lamb, referencing the local endangered Peninsula bighorn sheep. 

Fun Facts About Anza Borrego 

  • Anza Borrego Desert State Park is over 640,000 acres and is California’s largest state park. 
  • The park covers 20% of San Diego County and contains 500 miles of dirt roads. 
  • There is one species of native palm tree in the park, California fan palms. 
  • Palm oases are an indication of a permanent water source or an indication of the water table near the ground surface.    
  • Over 550 fossils have been found in the park including ground sloths, giant tortoises, and camels. 
  • Desert cactus and wildflower bloom between January to April.   The timing and magnitude of the bloom vary each year. 
  • Summer is very hot at Anza Borrego.  It is one of the hottest locations in California with a record high of 122 degrees Fahrenheit. 
  • Kumeyaay and the Cahuilla Native Americans lived in Anza Borrego as long as 12,000 years ago.  Both tribes still reside in San Diego County.  San Diego County is home to 18 Native American reservations.  
anza borrego welcome sign

Admission  

Anza Borrego Desert State Park is spread over a large area and admission fees are only required in the most popular areas such as the Visitor Center, Hellhole Canyon, and Borrego Palm Canyon.   We planned our activities to fit all of these into one day which meant we only paid the $10 admission once during our visit.   

The daily admission cost is per vehicle and can be paid with credit card at the visitor center self-pay kiosks. 

Camping at Anza Borrego 

The park has multiple campgrounds on ReserveCalifornia.com  with varying degrees of amenities.   There are also several private campgrounds in the area.   

Free Camping at Anza Borrego 

Anza Borrego offers an abundance of free camping options with no amenities. 

Free car or tent camping near Anza Borrego 

Dispersed backcountry camping is allowed in most of the Anza Borrego Desert State Park with a few restrictions. 

  • Cars must be parked less than 100 feet off road but walk in camping allowed further from road.  
  • No ground fires. 
  • Camping allowed more than 100 yards from water sources. 
  • Leave no trace. 

Free RV Camping near Anza Borrego  

We chose to park along the park border at the Peg Leg Smith Memorial.  It is a trailhead with a pit toilet and a large parking area.  Peg Leg Smith was a mountain man that served as a guide for many early expeditions.  The legend is that Peg Leg found a gold mine once but never found it again.  Some believe the lost mine might be located in the hills near the Memorial. 

Several other RVs were parked at the Peg Leg Smith Memorial and in the nearby desert.   We stayed here for three nights and didn’t have any issues.  It is a convenient and free location to explore Anza Borrego.  

pippi at peg leg smith memorial near anza borrego

How long do I need at Anza Borrego? 

Anza Borrego is the largest state park in California and has enough things to do for a whole week.  But if you are limited on time, I’d recommend a minimum of a half-day but a full day will allow time to explore the sculptures at Galleta Meadows.   

Things to do at Anza Borrego Desert State Park 

Anza Borrego covers a lot of area but the most popular attractions are located within 15 minutes drive from the Visitor Center.  Start your trip at the Visitor Center and don’t forget to use the self-pay kiosks in the parking lot to pay the $10 vehicle admission fee.  Credit cards are accepted at the Visitor Center kiosks but exact change is required if paying at a trailhead. 

A few of the top things to do at Anza Borrego are: 

  • Anza Borrego Visitor Center 
  • Hiking 
  • Off-Road Trail Riding 
  • Sculptures at Galleta Meadows 
  • Scenic Driving Tour along Erosion Road 
  • Salton Sea 

Anza Borrego Visitor Center 

The Anza Borrego Visitor Center contains a museum with exhibits about the local Native American Indian tribes.  It includes several individual stories and displays about tribal practices and traditions.   The museum also contains several geology displays including fossil replicas of extinct camels, ground sloths and giant tortoise.   There are also a few impressive taxidermy displays of local species.   

giant tortoise at anza borrego visitor center
animal display at anza borrego visitor center

My favorite part of the Visitor Center was the Anza Borrego State Park film.   The educational video was about 15 minutes long and focused on the animals found in the park.   The baby mountain lions were definitely the stars of the show. 

Hiking at Anza Borrego 

Anza Borrego Desert State Park has an abundance of hiking options including slot canyons, palm oasis, mines, and high desert “mountains”.   Even if you don’t have a full day at Anza Borrego, there are several shorter trails for interested visitors. There are also nature walking trails around the visitor center and campground.

blooming beavertail cactus
chainfruit cholla cactus in california desert
bee on desert flower
purple cattails in california desert
desert flowers in california
blooming ocotillo in california desert

The top 10 rated trails range from less than a mile and easy rated to a 16-mile difficult section of the Pacific Crest Trail.     The most popular AllTrails hikes in Anza Borrego are: 

  • The Slot 2.3 miles moderate 
  • Goat Canyon 5.8 miles difficult 
  • West Butte, Wind Caves, Slot Loop 4.5 miles  moderate 
  • Laguna Mountain Ridge via PCT 16.6 miles difficult 
  • Pictograph Trail 2.6 miles easy 
  • Calcite Mine 3.7 miles moderate 
  • Wind Caves 0.9 miles moderate 
  • Palm Wash Loop 7.8 miles moderate 
  • Maidenhair Falls  5.8 miles moderate 
  • Borrego Palm Canyon 3.2 miles moderate 

In our day at Anza Borrego, we hiked Maidenhair Falls and Borrego Palm Canyon.  For fairly fit visitors, this 9 mile combination is manageable.

hummingbird at anza borrego
Hummingbird
wildflowers at borrego palm canyon

Maidenhair Falls via Hellhole Canyon 

As stated previously, Hellhole Canyon is a popular hike at Anza Borrego and requires a park pass.  There is a toilet and a self-pay (cash only) kiosk at the trailhead if you want to go straight to the trail before visiting the Visitor’s Center.    

The 5.8-mile hike has two points of interests in addition to the desert animals and plant life.    Hellhole Canyon oasis is the first point of interest and is a palm oasis with several California fan palms.   It feels like a destination worthy of a hike on its own but it’s just the midpoint of this trail.   

hellhole canyon oasis at anza borrego

The second point of interest is Maidenhair Falls which is a small mossy cove with a trickling waterfall.   Based on AllTrails reviews, the waterfall gains strength and size during wetter times of the year.   We enjoyed a snack on the shaded rocks in front of the trickle. 

maidenhair falls at anza borrego

The trail between the oasis and the waterfall is not level and requires some maneuvering.  I would not recommend it for anyone with balance or mobility issues.   The last mile requires stepping from one boulder to another and some were large enough that I had to use my hands to lift myself up and over.  We saw several seniors on this trail but do not expect an easy stroll. 

maidenhair falls trail at anza borrego
kara climbing over boulders on maidenhair falls trail in anza borrego

Borrego Palm Canyon 

Our second hike at Anza Borrego was the 3.2-mile Borrego Palm Canyon trail.  The trailhead parking area is located near the Visitor Center behind the campground.  A walking path also leads from the visitor center to the trailhead if you want more mileage.    

An interpretative educational pamphlet is available at the Visitors Center for this hike.  15 numbered posts along the trail align to the short stories on the pamphlet which cover nature, history, geology and Native American Indians. This trail was more popular than Maidenhair Falls and we passed many groups of all ages on the main trail to the oasis.   

borrego springs palm trail

Posted signs advised the oasis was closed for restoration.  Once we arrived at the palm oasis, we saw several hikers off trail wandering along the water’s edge.  It was sad to see vegetation being destroyed in the name of a selfie.   However, the oasis closure made the end of the trail unclear.  The oasis was beautiful but the end of the trail felt anticlimactic. 

borrego palm canyon

A ranger at the visitor center advised us to take the alternate route back for better wildlife spotting opportunities.   Sadly, we didn’t see any Bighorn Sheep or Mountain Lions but we enjoyed watching the Gambles Quail and other birds.  We didn’t see any other hikers on the alternate route and it was a nicer experience than the main trail. 

gamble quail at anza borrego

OHV Trails at Anza Borrego Desert State Park 

With over 500 miles of dirt roads, off-roading is popular at Anza Borrego.  We didn’t do any off-roading so cannot recommend any specific trails. 

Galleta Meadows Desert Sculptures 

Borrego Springs is home to over 130 metal sculptures.  You do not want to miss the opportunity to see art in the desert if spending a full day or more at Anza Borrego.   The sculptures are free to visit and you do not need an Anza Borrego park pass to visit these.    For all of the details on visiting the sculptures check out our Galleta Meadows blog. 

galleta meadows metal art sculptures at anza borrego

Scenic Driving Tour – Erosion Road 

The Erosion Road driving tour pamphlet provides a 21-mile one-way self-guided driving tour. If you only have one day in Anza Borrego, the Erosion Road tour isn’t a top priority. 

erosion drive at anza borrego

The tour takes you east from the park towards the Salton Sea with stops at several geological sights.   You do not need a valid admission pass to take this tour since it follows a public road.  However, I would recommend only if you are driving east on Highway S22 (the Borrego Salton Sea Way) or are particularly interested in geology.  

rock fault along erosion drive at anza borrego

Salton Sea 

Salton Sea is located 32 miles east of Borrego Springs.   We drove to the Salton Sea at the end of our Erosion Driving tour.    

salton sea beach road side sign

The Salton Sea is one of the world’s largest inland lakes.  High spring flooding caused the canal gates on the Colorado River to fail in 1905 which caused the entire volume of the river to fill the Salton Trough.  It took engineers 18 months to stop the flooding and by that time the Salton Sea had grown to 45 miles long and 20 miles wide.   

The lake is slowly drying up and the resulting increased salinity limits the type of fish able to live in the lake.  On our visit, the lake smelled strongly of Sulphur but there were birds in the water’s edge.  

birds along water edge at salton sea in california

Many photographers enjoy taking photos of the abandoned resorts and vacation homes on the lake.   We found the east area of the Salton Sea to be impoverished and didn’t take any photos of the abandoned buildings and graffiti.  

Summary Anza Borrego 

With desert sculptures, palm trees, Native American history, and desert hiking, Anza Borrego Desert State Park has things to entertain all types of travelers for a day or even a week.  Within an hour of Joshua Tree National Park and without all of the crowds, Anza Borrego is a can’t miss California desert road trip stop. 

moon rising over anza borrego in california desert

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2 Comments

  • Martha Whitfield

    If we are ever in the area (always thought of Joshua Tree) I would definitely like to check out the Galetta Meadows art sculptures – from the pictures, they were a real work of art.

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