With so much public land in the Western US, very rarely do we visit the same spots twice. Anza-Borrego is one exception. I’ve been venturing here for years, and it’s become one of my go-to recommendations for beginner overlanders. It’s a huge park with a variety of terrain, and your experience can vary depending on which section you’re visiting.
The main Anza-Borrego region is designated as a California State Park. This is different from National Parks, National Monuments, Bureau of Land Management (BLM), etc. which are governed by Federal agencies and laws. You’ll need to pay extra attention to California’s additional regulations, especially regarding dispersed camping, campfires, firearms, and drones. Millions of years ago, the entire region was submerged as part of the Imperial Sea. Now, a series of badlands, canyons, and sharp mountain ranges are all that remain. For years, the park had a consistently humble number of annual visitors, especially when I first started visiting about a decade ago. Since Covid, the park’s popularity has soared, and I’ve actually noticed some of the trail surfaces significantly changing from the increased traffic. High-clearance AWD/4WD is recommended to visit this park. You’ll be able to visit some cool spots without it, but you’ll be physically limited from some of the best points, not to mention the risk and unnecessary wear-and-tear on a typical car. There’s enough in Anza-Borrego to write books (and I’m sure many exist), so this log will primarily account some of my favorite parts, and how our crew typically visits the park.
Most visitors coming into Anza-Borrego will likely take the mountain pass (S22) from Los Angeles/Temecula or San Diego. As you’re coming over the pass, you’ll witness the steep drop-off into the basin, and depending on the time of the year, you’ll very much feel the change in temperature. If you’re coming in later in the day and looking to immediately camp the night, I recommend Culp Valley off the main road in. It’s a mostly unshaded primitive site, but the elevation gives it a cooler temperature often 10-20 degrees from the basin floor. Like most places in the park, high-clearance is recommended. Since this is a designated campground, there could be more people on the weekends.
Once you’ve made it down to the basin floor, you’ll enter the small town of Borrego Springs. This is the closest you’re going to get to amenities during your stay here. It’s an actual town people live in, and even has its own schools. If this is your first time, drop by the Visitor’s Center for some neat info. Geographically, you are now near the center of the various POI. The northwest region of the park is generally more accessible to regular tourists. You’ll need to pay the (currently) $10 park fee to enter some of the more popular points, such as Borrego Palm Canyon. The northwest is worth a visit, but to be quite honest, the east and southeast sections are far more memorable. If your trip duration is limited, I would skip the northwest for another time.
To the east, Font’s Point is iconic and worth a visit every trip. The trail up is a sandy wash, and you should absolutely NOT take your FWD sedan up this trail. You WILL get stuck. We helped bail out a Mazda3 sedan on our most recent trip. They ended up hiking the way in, but luckily we were there to recover their vehicle. Off-road tows/recoveries are very expensive, especially in this area. Once at the peak, you’ll be granted breathtaking views of the Borrego Badlands below. What you’re seeing are the remains of formerly underwater trenches.
Another neat spot nearby to the south is aptly named The Slot, a hike through one of the slot canyons you saw from Font’s point earlier. Unfortunately the easiest drive is all the way around near town to get down. The path in should be graded, but be wary of any ruts and dips from rain. Unless you have a strong AWD/4x4, do not go down the rear end of the slot canyon. It’s a steep trail down with a sand pit at the bottom. Going down is easy, but coming up… let’s just the very first time I’ve ever had to recover my vehicle was here (shovel + traction mat)! The hike itself is short, up-close, and personal – you’ll be somewhat squeezing through some of the cracks. It can also get hot here, so check this out in the morning if you’re visiting in the hotter months.
Heading towards the southern part of the park, we typically head towards Fish Creek to setup base camp. When I first came to this park, the Fish Creek area was very sandy and infrequently traveled. Most recently, I found the wash very rocky with some small boulders. It was like if all the sand had been rinsed out of the wash – either from flash floods or simply the increased traffic. I probably wouldn’t take anything besides a 4x4 truck with All-Terrain tires through it now. Traveling down the wash, you will pass by Fish Creek Campground up on the bank to the left. It’s easy to miss, especially when dark. This is a designated primitive campground much like Culp Valley. There are only a handful of spots, first-come-first-serve, but missing out isn’t game over – you can set up camp up and down along the wash. Be wary of your campsite selection, sometimes drivers will recklessly blast down the wash. We camped up on a bank on the last trip, but as we were leaving, a ranger mentioned that the banks will soon be closed to vehicles. Camping would still be permitted, but vehicles would no longer be allowed. Weather down in Fish Creek is generally warmer in the summer and colder in the winter.
A crowd favorite within Fish Creek wash is the Wind Caves hike. Easy to miss, it is a short one mile hike from the trailhead to the wind-carved sandstone structures. It’s an amazing sight to behold, especially at sunset. The plays of light and shadow really showcase how long it must have taken for the wind to have carved these caves. Visitors will often rest here a while, even take naps. The thermal mass of the stone provides a cool retreat from the heat.
Usually this concludes a typical introductory trip when we show new campers the ropes. There are numerous other spots in Anza-Borrego worth a visit, but if you’re on a tight timeline, these are my recommendations. Stay tuned for the next travel log!