Winter is coming.
So it might be time to lace up your hiking boots, pack up your camping gear, and head for…the desert.
About 90 miles away, an easy two-hour drive from Coronado is Anza-Borrego State Park, the largest state park in California. Named after 18th-century Spanish explorer Juan Bautista de Anza and the Spanish word “borrego” for sheep, this diverse desert landscape with over 600,000 acres encompasses hundreds of miles of hiking and biking trails for the outdoor enthusiast.
Although many visitors head to Anza-Borrego in early spring to witness the stunning desert blooms, late fall and winter offer just as many opportunities to engage with the abundant wildlife, explore the badlands and slot canyons, and participate in ranger-led activities.
Family-friendly hikes, clean park facilities, and near the town of Borrego Springs make this state park the perfect getaway for newbies and seasoned campers.
Anza-Borrego was also designated an International Dark Sky Park in 2018, making it a must-see destination for stargazers, especially during new moon cycles and meteor showers.
Stayover: 3 nights, tent camping on Veterans Day weekend
Campground: Borrego Palm Canyon Campground, site 93 ($25/night plus $8 reservation fee)
Temperature: High 93 degrees/Low 64 degrees (unseasonably warm due to Santa Ana winds that weekend); For current weather click here.
Sunrise: 6:10 am Sunset: 4:48 pm
Day 1: Camp Set-up, S’mores, and Bats!
Like most camping trips, I start out ambitious with my departure time but always manage to arrive at the campsite right at sunset.
For this particular trip, it was probably a blessing because the Santa Ana winds kicked up that weekend and by sunset, the warm air attracted some white-winged flies–the perfect feast for bats! The Western Mastiff Bat and the Pocketed Freetail Bat are known to roam the region.
We set up camp under the waning sunlight, grilled hotdogs, roasted s’mores by the campfire, and drank hot cocoa with another family that camped with us. Each site has plenty of room for two large tents and two parking spaces. And unlike the RV sites, there are shade structures, picnic tables, and grills.
Taking a moonlit stroll around the campground, we discovered a bevy of open-air toilets–it’s quite a sight and experience to partake in! Of course, there are also enclosed facilities and coin-operated showers nearby.
Know Before You Go: If someone on your trip is known to get car sick, make sure to pack some Dramamine (chewable tablets for kids are also available) for the winding drive down the mountain into Anza-Borrego. To be most effective, take the recommended dose about an hour into your drive.
Day 2: The Slot and Metal Sculptures of Anza-Borrego
As the sun rose swiftly over the horizon, we made breakfast consisting of oatmeal, boiled eggs, and sausage. Anza-Borrego is an excellent place for children to run about and explore.
When the weather began to warm, we took a 30-minute drive over to The Slot, a narrow siltstone canyon with the trailhead off a dirt road. It’s one of the most exciting hikes on this trip and reminded us of the film, 127 hours with James Franco. Although the trail is a 2.3-mile loop, we elected to hike a mile in and back to stay in the shaded sections.
After a quick snack, we climbed back into our air-conditioned cars and ventured out to find the rusted-red, scrap metal sculptures known to dot the desert landscape. Created by artist Ricardo Breceda, whimsical creatures like The Serpent and extinct animals that once roamed the region, like the Saber-tooth Tiger and Mammoth can be viewed. Just make sure you don’t touch the artworks, or you might need a tetanus shot!
With our sightseeing adventure drawing to an end, we picked up more ice for the coolers and water. I prefer mineral and electrolyte-infused water in the desert, especially on hot days like the ones experienced. At camp, it was Mexican food night! And we cooked up steak fajitas and sautéed onions and peppers over the open fire.
Day 3: Borrego Palm Canyon Natural Trail and Fonts Point Overlook
The next morning we rose early and walked over to the Borrego Palm Canyon trailhead located at our campsite. Although it’s an easy three-mile in and back, it’s also easy to get off track on the rocky trail. We had to double back a few times to get back on the trail.
On this trail, you may encounter the Bighorn Sheep that are known to frequent the oasis at the end of the trail. You’ll also find the California Fan Palm, the only native palm in western North America. Be sure to take plenty of water and snacks on this 2.5-hour hike. There’s also an alternate route that takes you along the ridgeline.
After lunch, we escaped the heat and showered off desert dirt. Around 3:30, we packed some wine and cheese and watched the sunset at Fonts Point. The views of the badlands were breathtaking, but one can easily slip off the high cliffs–so watch your little ones closely. It’s also a four-mile drive on a dirt road, so make sure your vehicle is well equipped to handle the terrain. Our front-wheel-drive Chevrolet Traverse did just fine on the bumpy ride.
We completed our day with a little night hike around camp with the kids on scooters and decked out in neon glow necklaces and bracelets.
Day 4: Visitors Center Trail and Pack-out
Coyotes howling awoke us this morning. But before we packed up, we took the kids on the Visitors Center Interpretive Trail. At the center, you can view the award-winning film, A Year in the Desert. This 15-minute short film takes you through the seasons where you discover how the wildlife survive in the dangerous terrain. The volunteers were gracious and informative–able to answer any curiosities you might have.
We packed up before noon and made it back to the coastal shores of Coronado by 2 pm.
Things to Know: If you’re heading there this weekend, check out the “Anza-Borrego Dark Sky Talk” at 7 pm located at the Borrego Palm Canyon Campfire Center.