The first trip to the Anza Borrego Desert State Park is an experience that takes many travelers by surprise. Located in Southern California, the Anza Borrego is considered a “living desert.” That means you will not find desolate miles of sand dunes like in the African Sahara. The Anza Borrego consists of rugged mountains interrupted by large valleys and sweeping flatlands. A mountain range of oak forests borders the desert to the West, blocking the moisture from the sea from reaching the area. On that coastline you will find the metropolitan area of San Diego which sits just north of the border with Mexico, and the Mexican city of Tijuana. A trip to the Anza Borrego desert starts in San Diego for the majority of travelers, mostly because the lands to the east of the park are endless square miles of desert terrain. After a winding journey along the oak-shaded mountain roads, the landscape suddenly changes. The Anza Borrego Desert takes hold and the road enters a desert land that visitors will not soon forget.
Two things strike the initiates to the Anza Borrego State Park. The first is the stark piles of rock. It almost seems as though giant dump trucks unloaded heaps of broken boulders – on a very grand scale. The other feature is the plant life. The Anza Borrego is called the Living Desert for good reason. While the vegetation is sparser than most places, the terrain is dotted with plants to the edge of sight. Even the sky-high heaps of stones, the Anza Borrego version of mountains, are covered in plants. In the spring, the flowers break loose on the desert, awing those lucky or wise enough to visit during that season.
The Anza Borrego Desert State park has to types of roads. One is the winding, mountainside variety. The vistas from those roads is stunning. The vantage points provide views of vast tracts of desert land. Homesteads dot the terrain, long slopes of sand and gravel erode down from the feet of the mountains, and steep mountainsides rise to the sky. From the roadside viewpoints you can plot your next drive along the valley roads or stake out a place to take a hike. The ample wildlife of the desert might also make an appearance. If you are lucky you will catch sight of the desert bighorn sheep while golden eagles often use the updrafts to soar high over the mountain slopes.
The second type of road you will find in abundance in the Anza Borrego Desert take the form of straight lines that go for many miles across the desert floor without seeming end. The flatlands that surround those roads can harbor unexpected surprises. The plant life is abundant there because the unseen water table beneath is much closer for their roots to find. The animal life is also more likely to make an appearance. While the mountain boulders hide unseen wildlife, the flatlands offer less refuge. There is the home of the kangaroo rats, the roadrunners, the coyotes, and the desert jack rabbits. While it all seems fun and games from that description, be advised that, while on a hike in the desert, the harsh conditions tend to breed more rugged forms of wildlife as well. Included in nature’s mix are rattlesnakes, tarantulas, and scorpions too. Does that mean you will find things like that at every turn of the trail? Not at all. In fact, the sightings are rare enough to make them an experience to look forward to rather than avoid. And speaking of trails, keep your eyes peeled for road signs announcing sightseeing opportunities and trailheads. A hike across the flatlands leads to something unexpected almost every time. Flatland trails can take you to the foothills of nearby mountains, end at drop offs that you don’t see coming (it’s safe), or descend into keyhole canyons. I have yet to take a hike in the Anza Borrego Desert that disappointed or which didn’t present surprises.
Just when you think you know the Anza Borrego Desert State Park, it teaches you something new. The rock formations there all share a stark and rather harsh motif, yet are strangely appealing just the same. Gazing at them brings to mind eons of wind erosion helped along by desert flash-floods brought down from the bordering mountains in dramatic fashion. An area of badlands exists within the park as just one more feature amid dozens more. The park contains both lowlands and high plateaus and at its center is the charming town of Borrego Springs. The sandy back roads, if your car is appropriate for such things, just might provide an experience of a lifetime.
The tale of the Anza Borrego Desert is not one that can be told in a single article. Nor is it a landscape that can be experienced with a single visit. It is a park that has many stories to tell and many adventures to offer. But one detail that visitors relate often echoes the tales of travelers that have gone before. When you leave the Anza Borrego Desert State Park, it does not leave you. The haunting images of the desert landscape follow you home. In a strange event of slow-release memories, the desert unravels in your mind well after you have departed. The experience leaves most visitors with an empty place in their souls that only the Anza Borrego can fill.