In extreme southern California, 50 miles inland from the Pacific Coast, lies a dramatically beautiful part of the Sonora Desert: the Anza-Borrego Desert.
The Anza-Borrego occupies a vast area in San Diego, Riverside and Imperial Counties (red circle approximates).
California’s Anza-Borrego Desert State Park protects 600,000 acres of the desert. It’s a spectacular place to visit, with numerous opportunities for hiking in a desert environment a 2-hour drive from San Diego (lower left of map) or 1-1/2 hours south from Palm Springs. The blue star marks Borrego Springs, where you’ll find groceries, some restaurants and lodging, as well as the State Park Visitor Center.
The desert’s name comes from two sources. “Anza” was Juan Bautista de Anza Bezerra Nieto, (1736 – 1788), Spanish colonial explorer and governor of New Mexico under Spanish rule. Borrego is the Spanish word for bighorn sheep. The endangered Peninsular bighorn sheep are native to Anza-Borrego.
It requires a fair amount of luck to actually see a Borrego. They’re wild creatures, extremely shy, and they avoid humans. They can navigate the roughest terrain, and their natural coloration means that even if one were standing in plain view on one of the rocky mountain slopes, it would be difficult to spot.
Some of the best hiking in Anza-Borrego involves traveling up canyons descending from the Santa Rosa Mountains that surround it to the north and west.
Borrego Palm Canyon is one of the most popular trails,clearly marked and accessed from a large parking area with restrooms and water. The trail isn’t excessively strenuous, gaining 700 feet in approximately 1.5 miles. It is not entirely smooth going, and could challenge visitors not accustomed to desert hiking, even if the sun and temperature are not at their most extreme.
At the end of that distance, you reach the canyon’s namesakes:
Those are the California fan palm (Washingtonia filifera), California’s only native palm tree, limited in range to small oases like the one in the photo.
You can see others if you visit the “Indian Canyons” south of Palm Springs, which lies on the far side of the Santa Rosa Mountains to the north.
It is a genuine oasis, and spring-fed water flows into the canyon, even in the terrifically arid Anza-Borrego, as you can see below me in the following photo:
Another easy and worthwhile hike is colorfully-named Hellhole Canyon:
You won’t see palm trees, but there are all the other desert flora: palo verde, mesquite, ironweed, several varieties of cacti and the bizarre-looking ocotillo:
As for fauna, I’ve never seen a borrego in Hellhole Canyon, but there is this sign along the trail:
For many years, I visited the park, disappointed not to have a Borrego sighting, but they’re elusive.
Standard wisdom states that the Borregos, extremely reclusive at the best of times, are particularly hard to spot in summer, when they retreat to high ground to escape the broiling heat.
A few years ago, I dragged my brother and and his sons to the desert in mid-July, determined to show them a stunning part of California that wasn’t the beach or Disneyland.
Applying that “standard wisdom,” I felt confident to offer a relatively large sum of money to the 2 teen-agers if either of them spotted a borrego (something I hadn’t accomplished in multiple visits to Anza-Borrego).
The temperature was approximately 110 degrees Farenheit. We hiked up Palm Canyon for half a mile or so, but weren’t stocked with enough water to venture far in those conditions.
We turned around and reached the canyon parking lot. Naturally, this is what we encountered.
A herd of borregos, including several juveniles, there to greet us.
A park ranger we met explained that with so few humans around (we were the only hikers on that blistering day), the sheep had come down because of the water that dripped out of some of the spigots installed for humans.
My nephews had beaten the odds. It cost me all the cash I had in my wallet, AND I had to buy lunch in nearby Borrego Springs, to boot. Take that, Uncle Brad.
NOTE: Anza-Borrego is an extreme environment. Do not attempt to hike there if you’re not dressed for it (including real shoes, not sandals, for heaven’s sake) and unless you have plenty of water. It’s a deadly serious matter. There could be a mountain lion, although that’s unusual. There are rattlesnakes, so pay attention.
Anza-Borrego is truly an extreme climate in summer. It gets cold on winter nights, but the days can be lovely. Nighttime star displays are indescribably beautiful. In spring (with enough rain), the desert can bloom with brief, intense wildflower displays.
If you do encounter borregos (or any wildlife), enjoy looking at them and leave them alone. Thank you.
Remember that early morning and late afternoon are often the best times for desert photography (click for larger images):
One other bit of hiking advice. Look all around you as you go, including behind you. You never know what you might have passed by.
Have you been? Leave a comment.
© Brad Nixon 2017. Some photos © Marcy Vincent 2017, used by kind permission. Map © Google. Brad and borregos photo by one of the guys, so I gave the credit to Kevin Nixon, © 2017.