The largest desert park in the United States lies just two hours east of San Diego with 500 miles of dirt roads to explore its vast wilderness. But don’t let its deep silence fool you: Anza Borrego, though a harsh environment, is alive and on the move. Just when you think the earth is standing still, you’ll hear the sound of falling rocks followed by the hooves of approaching Bighorn Sheep.
There are several points to pull off along the roughly 25 miles of roads spanning east to west in the park, where you can hike among towering ocotillos and blooming wildflowers. Surrounded by a handful of mountain ranges, this unique landscape is home to miles of mud caves, slot canyons and palm oases.
Explore the mud caves
A visit to the Arroyo Tapiado Mud Caves should be on every San Diegan’s bucket list. Over time, flash-flooding has carved one of the largest networks of mud caves in the world, with 20-something, winding routes in which you’ll squeeze through tunnels that open up to 80-foot ceilings in some parts. Though deemed unsafe by park standards, the caves aren’t off-limits to visitors who often explore the earth’s mysterious depths with flashlights and headlamps. Northern Anza Borrego, State Route 2, mile marker 43.
Hike through a natural maze
For a less claustrophobic experience in the Arroyo Tapiado Badlands, there’s roughly 10 slot canyons to hike through and explore. This fascinating area was once underwater, so keep an eye out for fossils and other ancient artifacts in this natural labyrinth. Pro tip: No truck? No problem. This area of the park is accessible for non-four-wheel drive cars. Pull up, park, and enjoy, but don’t venture too far beyond, or your car will get stuck in the sand.
Hang with Bighorns
Borrego Palm Canyon is the most popular hike for park visitors hoping to see Bighorn Sheep in their natural habitat. The desert park’s namesake live in herds, and can usually be found where there’s water nearby, making the palm canyon prime for viewing as they scale up and down the rocky cliffs with ease. Pro tip: parking is free at the visitor center, but it’ll add another mile to the 3-mile, easy-to-moderate roundtrip hike. Start at the visitor’s center, where you can also get maps, or go on led tours. 587 Palm Canyon Drive, Borrego Springs.
Within the park, there are three developed campgrounds with overnight fees starting at $15. But the real adventure lies in primitive camping, and Anza Borrego has very few restrictions on where you can pitch a tent. Stargazing is unrivaled in this region, and with wildflowers in bloom, there’s no better time than now to pack up and ship out.
Snap a surreal selfie
Driving through Borrego Springs, you’ll double take — is that a Woolley Mammoth? What you see is not a mirage, it’s one of 130-something convincing metal sculptures that decorate the landscape, by artist Ricardo Breceda. You can pull right off the road to view the public artwork and get the ultimate surreal selfie. For more information on the sculptures and where to find them, visit the Chamber of Commerce located at 786 Palm Canyon Drive, Borrego Springs.