-You Want Flowers! We’ve Got Flowers…
-Enjoying Anza Borrego

Here meet some of the key places to explore in our desert regions, primarily our incredible 600,000 acres Anza Borrego Desert State Park.  You can also find more details about these places and many more in Outdoors San Diego: Hiking, Biking & Camping by Tom Leech and Jack Farnan, available at many book stores, park visitors centers and and For web sites, check the topic — SD Outdoors organizations.

A quick alert to be careful about heading out on our trails as it’s not  like walking around the block. Wear good walking shoes for good grip, be careful to not stumble (a walking stick is often a good aid, especially when up and down hill hikes), be  prepared for the heat, and go with knowledgeable leaders in the back country. Finally, understand that Tom Leech has no liability for troubles on the trails.


Spring is prime season for desert flowers in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. And lots of people head out there in March and April to check them out. Before you go, check with the state park by calling 760-767-4684, the desert flowers hotline, or going to their web site at

The State Park Visitors’ Center in Borrego Springs is a place well-worth visiting, especially if you can (a) go during the week or (b) arrive early (they’re open from 9-5 every day). Take your camera and binocs. You’ll see plenty of flowers right there, plus the guides can direct you to colorful spots in the areas nearby. Or, if you’re into wandering, head out on the Borrego Palm Canyon Trail (trailhead near the campground), out to the oasis.

However, if you’re a bit more adventurous and not thrilled with crowds, head out to many other wildflower options in many parts of this 600,000 acres (Whew! We love it) state park. And, if the locations are at higher altitudes or in the park’s southern regions, those flowers will be available for your perusing long after the ones in Borrego Springs have faded.

Here are some of those places (exercise caution, wear hats, take plenty of water, etc. and check with the Center if 4-WD is needed):  Plum Canyon, Yaqui Well, Yaqui Pass/Kenyon Overlook, Hellhole Canyon/Surprise Canyon, Blair Valley, Mine Wash, Culp Valley, Elephant Trees, Split Mountain, Dos Cabezas, Bow Willow & Mountain Palm Springs campgrounds…


By Tom Leech. Originally appeared in San Diego Magazine Online Outdoors Forum April 2002

Ocotillo in bloom

We’re blessed with having a variety of environments in our one county. A couple of hours out from the city is the desert, with outdoors opportunites tending to peak this month before going dormant until fall. April can be a prime flower season, though this year is relativity puny. We’ll suggest a few ways to enjoy our desert.

The desert here truly means different experiences to different people. For some a day trip to Borrego Springs to see the museum and with luck see desert colors on display. For many a pleasant weekend away from the city’s congestion to one of the resorts or campgrounds. For true desert lovers, an exploration out in the great open, with the nearest camper a mile away.

The desert evokes reactions that tend to grow on you. When they are on display, the flowers are truly memorable. The air is fresh, the vastness relaxing. Out there, you recall what sunsets and stars really look like on full display.

We are particularly fortunate in San Diego because our desert is almost entirely a state park, at nearly 600,000 acres the largest in the state system. Anza-Borrego Desert State Park takes its name from a Spanish explorer of two hundred years ago – Captain Juan Bautista de Anza – and the Spanish word for lamb – borrego – from the resident big horn sheep. The park was established in 1933, and except for scattered inholdings and the community of Borrego Springs, the huge area within its borders is all public land.

Also fortunate is that some significant additions have been made in the last couple of years, saving critical habitat and adding to our opportunities for exploration and enjoyment. Volunteer organizations such as AB Desert Natural History Association and AB Foundation are key players in continuing to enrich the park. And they welcome new supporters.

Several books will enhance your desert experience appetite and provide the details for an enjoyable and safe desert experience. Pick up the Lindsays The Anza-Borrego Desert Region, or Anza-Borrego A to Z, plus Larry Hogue’s All the Wild and Lonely Places.

Whether your first time or tenth, the Park’s Visitors Center is well worth a visit. Its many excellent displays, maps, books and slide show will give you an appreciation of why so many people enjoy the desert. Outside is a short trail displaying many of the desert’s plants with descriptive markers. The rangers and volunteers are well-informed and will provide tips, camping options, road cautions, etc.

Recall last year’s required day use permits? Those are significantly reduced this year. Now a permit is not needed except when staying in or entering trails from three fee-area campgrounds: Borrego Palm Canyon, Tamarisk, and Bow Willow.

Directions: take I-8 east to 67 north. Drive through Ramona to Santa Ysabel. Take 79 north to S-2 east. Keep alert for sign to S-22 which veers off to the left. Just as you enter Borrego Springs, turn left to Park headquarters. Phone is 760-767-4205.

One of the beauties of camping in Borrego is the low investment required. For years my crowd’s typical facilities were ground cloths, sleeping bags and maybe a lean-to. The location was a flat spot that looked inviting; in other words you can pretty much pick your spot, rare in camping. Not likely to rain, few bugs, and those stars were something from the sack.

The next level up was to park the VW bus or camper in some of the mildly-developed campgrounds: Blair Valley, Yaqui Pass, Bow Willow, Palm Spring, Culp Valley. Then to get real facilities, e.g., flush toilets, the major campgrounds beckoned: State Park Borrego Palm Canyon or Tamarisk Grove; County Parks Agua Caliente or Vallecito.
So pick your level. For developed camping reservations, call 800-444-7275 (State); 858-565-3600 (County).

To fully experience the desert take a walk along one of the many trails or drive off the main roads. Get a map or ask for tips at the Visitors Center. Remember to be properly prepared. Carry water. Wear a hat and sturdy shoes. Watch out for the tricky cactus, especially those” jumpers”, and take along tweezers (just in case). Encouraged so far? Know where you’re going, travel with others, watch for rattlesnakes, don’t get stuck….

Here is a sampling of accessible, easy and rewarding hiking areas and trails:
Borrego Springs area
– Borrego Palm Canyon Trail. This is the most traveled trail in the park, located a short distance from the visitor center. What you will see on this three-mile round-trip hike is a full-desert array – a running stream, ample foliage (and flowers now), great rock climbing, and eventually a plush palm grove. Directions: when entering Borrego Springs, take the sign to the park campground and pick up the trail there.
– Hellhole Canyon, Surprise Canyon. About a mile before you got to Borrego Springs on S-22, you passed a large parking lot on the left (or north). Here is a kiosk with information and directions into these two canyons, Surprise a modest trail off to the left, Hellhole a hearty stroll out into the canyon to an oasis.

Ocotillo Wells area
– Split Mountain. The favorite of many, as the geology and variety are spectacular. It really is a split mountain, with the road wandering right between the two halves, ending in a totally different world of mud hills and a trail up the wind caves. Directions: head down 78 from Julian, about 34 miles to Ocotillo Wells. Turn Right (south) on Split Mountain Road. Drive six miles to end of pavement and turn right onto dirt road. CHECK ROAD CONDITIONS FIRST.
– Elephant Trees Discovery Trail. This is an easy and excellent introductory trail which loops around a variety of desert plants, with many informational markers. Pick up a pamphlet at the start and follow the stone guides. Barrels, ocotillo and many others. Directions: same way as Split Mountain, except look for sign five miles from 78. Park and trek in.

Yaqui Pass area
– Cactus Loop Trail is an easy 1 mile loop adjoining the Tamarisk and Yaqui Pass campgrounds. Directions. Head down 78 from Julian to S-3 left or north. See sign across from Tamarisk.
– Kenyon Overlook Trail. This one-mile trail winds up and over to spectacular views of the desert plains (Mescal Bajada), canyons and mountains, plus a full range of barrels, ocotillo, beavertail and cholla. North of Tamarisk Campground, uphill, see marked parking area on the right.

Southern Borrego, Ocotillo
– Take the hike eastward from the Mountain Palm Springs campground. In less than an hour you’ll be in a rich desert palm oasis, also accessible from Bow Willow campground. Directions: I-8 eastward to Ocotillo, S-2 north 17 miles.
– Palm Spring area, accessible by most cars, is educational and fun for kids. Further north on S-2, off to right.

With this year’s puny rainfall, this so far has not been plush in wildflower displays. Ocotillo, brittlebush, desert lavender and palo verde are faithful perennials, but the usual colorful cacti are hiding their blooms. Determined flower seekers can generally be rewarded by tracking the climate changes. When the flowers have faded in Borrego Springs, low altitude, they may be seen in canyons or hillsides at mid altitudes, and perhaps flourishing in May at high desert, such as Culp Valley. To get current info, call the Wildflowers Hotline at 760-767-4684 (though the recorded message seems to be well behind time this year).