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Hiking in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

Hiking and biking trails thread California's largest state park

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Slot canyon in Anza-Borrego State Park, California

Sliding through a narrow slot canyon in Anza-Borrego State Park, California

L Friedland
As the cool sandstone walls got closer and closer, until I was forced to remove my backpack and turn sideways to wiggle through, I began to understand why this is called a slot canyon. I was hiking in the California's Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, in a group led by a naturalist from Borrego Springs Ranch Resort and Spa. Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, the largest in California, is approximately 90 miles northeast of San Diego and surrounds the tiny town of Borrego Springs. It covers approximately 600,000 acres of sand dune, mountains and washes - and inside hikers and bikers will find the largest concentration of snakes and lizards in California!

The Slot hike was approximately1.5 miles and is listed as moderate. But with hundreds of miles of trails, you won't have trouble finding both easier and much tougher trails to hike or mountain bike. Much of the hiking is out in the desert, which is surrounded by a series of mountain ranges including the Santa Rosas, the Bucksnorts, Jacumbas, Vallecito and Pinyons. In winter and early spring the area is awash in flowers, including red and yellow cacti, red ocotillo, and yellow creosote. If you’re a photographer, like me, this is a piece of heaven.

The Eye-Catching Geology of California’s Anza -Borrego Desert State Park

Rocks and fossils in the park date back over 500 million years. At the main visitor’s center there’s a model of the Aiolornis incredibills, an extinct bird with a 16 foot wing span, whose fossils have been found in the park. Mammoth bones have been found here, too, and human habitation dates from approximately 12,000 years ago. At Mine Canyon you can see signs of Native American habitation from approximately 2000 years ago, including mortars, metates, and slicks. At Blair Valley you can see some of the best preserved examples of pictographs in the Park.(Removing artifacts or defacing pictographs is against the law and it's downright wrong.)

The Slot trail I followed cut through sandstone that was reportedly deposited by the Colorado River. The numerous layers of different minerals from long ago were evident, as were the faults created by numerous upheavals over the millennia.

Hikes in Anza-Borrego State Park, California

There are hundreds of miles of biking, mountain biking and hiking trails in the park, numerous camping sites and dirt roads for 4-wheel drive cars and trucks. Other hikes for greate sighseeing include:
  • Borrego Palm Canyon Trail, an easy to moderate 3 mile loop to a California palm grove and year-round stream (oasis).
  • Elephant Tree Discovery Trail, an easy 1.5 mile trail that includes a visit to the rare Elephant trees along self guided tour with signs discussing desert flora.
  • Trail to Yaqui Well, an easy 1.5 mile trail to a desert water hole
  • Jasper Trail, a 15 mile moderate hike through Grapevine Canyon that is also considered to be a great mountain bike trail.
  • Marshal South Home Trail, a steep moderate 2 mile trip to the ruins of Ghost Mountain House
  • Mud Hills Wash to Elephant knees, a 4 mile, moderate hike to the top of Elephant Knees Mesa where you can view the vast oyster shell reefs.
  • Ghost Mountain and Pictograph Trail, a strenuous 14.6 mile hike described in Modern Hiker. This hike gives you wide-open vistas of the desert, some historic old post road markers, the ruins of a Depression-era mountaintop homestead, some ancient Native American pictographs and morteros, and a stunning dry waterfall at the end of Smuggler Canyon. To see this complete hike visit Modern Hiker.

Tips for Hiking or Mountain Biking in Anza-Borrego State Park, California

  • The desert can hit 120 degrees in the summer. Winter months are the best time to visit the park because temperatures are often in the 70’s during the day. However it can get very cold at night so proper clothing and equipment is a must.
  • This is the desert. Always take more water than you think you’ll want and drink before you get thirsty
  • The dirt roads are often sandy and not appropriate for 2-wheel drive cars

Four-Wheeling in near Anza-Borrego State Park, California

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is open to exploration by highway-legal vehicles along established primitive roads, but closed to off-road recreation. However, adjacent Ocotillo Wells State Vehicular Recreation Area has more than 80,000 acres of desert open for off-road exploration and recreation. Outside the boundaries, to the south and east, large tracts of BLM land (U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management) are also open to off-highway vehicles

Contact Information for Anza-Borrego State Park and Ocotillo Wells

For information about the parks and maps go to the main (underground) Visitors Center located two miles west of downtown Borrego Springs, a town completely surrounded by the park. The center is at the east end of Palm Canyon Road, just off County Road S-22. For online maps and directions visit Anzo-Borrego Desert Park's map page.

. For more information about Ocotillo Wells, which is managed by California State Parks, visit Ocotillo Wells State Vehicular Recreation Area.

Lodging Near Anza-Borrego State Park

There are camping sites in the park. There is also lodging in tiny Borrego Springs, which is encircled by the park. Guests at Borrego Ranch Resort & Spa can take hikes in the park with a naturalist who knows the geology, flora and fauna intimately.
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