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Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

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Anza-Borrego Desert State Park


Anza-Borrego Desert State Park encompasses a large area of the Colorado Desert in eastern San Diego County and parts of Imperial County and Riverside County. Don't let that term "Colorado Desert" confuse you. This is a northwestern extension of the Sonoran Desert, named after the Colorado River. It is characterized as a "low desert," as opposed to the higher Mojave Desert, and is home to a wide variety of classic American desert flora and fauna.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is one of the largest state parks in the U.S., covering over 900 square miles. It was named after the early Spanish explorer Juan Bautista de Anza, and for the Spanish word for bighorn sheep, borrego. It was created primarily to preserve the isolated oases of native palm trees, but even before the park was created, the idea had expanded to include the preservation of all native desert plants and animals, perhaps especially the sheep, and the historical and archeological resources in the desert.

The park continues to grow today, as concerned citizens raise money to acquire additional lands to be deeded to the park. See the http://www.theabf.org/index.htm Anza-Borrego Foundation and Institute for more information on these projects. They conduct many other activities, including wildflower tours guided by expert naturalists.

I used to visit Anza-Borrego Desert State Park about once a year or so. My last assignment in the Naval Reserve was to a unit that supported a major technical command in San Diego. For five or six years in a row, I spent my two weeks of annual active duty in San Diego, and I almost always spent at least one day of the weekend in between exploring the desert. Invariably, my trips to the desert would also include a few hours exploring Cleveland National Forest along the way, but that's another story. (I'll write up that description one of these months.)

One thing I loved about the desert was that it made me appreciate the lushness of my home territory here in the East. The desert has beauties and wonders of its own, and I do appreciate them, but the contrast with home made both the desert and my home forests that much more magnificent.

Since they kicked me out of the Navy for getting too old, I haven't traveled much. I guess I haven't been to the desert since 2002. Maybe I'll get back there one of these years.

The main California State Parks Web site for Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is at http://www.parks.ca.gov/default.asp?page_id=638. Check for the latest information.

You can make on-line reservations for camping at http://www.reserveamerica.com/campgroundDetails.do?subTabIndex=0&contractCode=ca&parkCode=anza.

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How to Get There

Despite the vastness of the park, very few roads lead through it.

Probably most visitors to the park arrive from the south. Take Interstate 8 east from San Diego about an hour and a half, or west from El Centro about half an hour, to the town of Ocotillo. From there, take County Route S2 north (or is it west?). You'll enter the park in ten or twelve miles, but this is the far end of the park from the places I know well. Continue on S2 for nearly 40 miles to reach State Route 78, on the west side of the park, which is the part I'm more familiar with.

From the Palm Springs area, you can take State Route 86 south about 15 or 20 miles to Salton City. From there, take County Route S22 west, and you will be in the park in no time. You would have to drive all the way across the park along S22, S3, and State Route 78 about 35 or 40 miles, to reach the part of the park that I know.

The way I usually went was to enter from the west along State Route 78. From San Diego, I would take Interstate 8 east about an hour or so to Pine Valley. Then I'd take County Route S1 north through Cleveland National Forest. I'd stop for a little sightseeing and birdwatching along the way before arriving at the town of Julian. From there, I would take State Route 78 east, down the precipitous Banner Grade, to the west entrance to the park.

After knocking around in the vicinity of Tamarisk Grove (described below), I would usually return to San Diego by a different route. I would drive south (or is it east?) along County Route S2 through the park to Ocotillo. There I would get on Interstate 8 and head back to San Diego.

Many of these "county routes" have very colorful names. S1, where I would watch the sun rise in Cleveland National Forest, is the "Sunrise Highway." Perhaps my favorite street name of all is the northern part of S2 from where it crosses State Route 78. This road is called the "Great Southern Overland Stage Route of 1849." Somewhere in the Carrizo Badlands it becomes the "Imperial Highway." Boring!

Access fees to the park, last I checked, are $6.00 per vehicle per day, year-round. Camping fees vary widely from one campsite to another. Fees are for one vehicle, and there are additional fees for additional vehicles.

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Terrain and Ecosystems

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is part of the Colorado Desert (which is itself a part of the Sonoran Desert). It is a lowland surrounded by high mountains, which block most of the rainfall. In tectonic terms, this is an area of sea-floor spreading that extends onto the North American continent. As the East Pacific Rise spreads, the Gulf of California spreads with it, and the land north of the gulf sinks and tears. Baja California and much of western California are slowly drifting northward and pulling away from the rest of North America, and the land at its eastern margin subsides. This is the Colorado Desert.

In fact, it is this subsidence that is thought to have caused the Colorado River, the eastern boundary of the Colorado Desert, to hasten its flow across the Colorado Plateau in the last several million years, excavating the Grand Canyon.

So Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is a hot, dry lowland in the middle of otherwise mountainous and temperate Southern California.

Although the main part of the Sonoran Desert is characterized by the saguaro cactus, there is none of this giant plant in the Colorado Desert. Plenty of other cacti, but not that one.

Much of the land consists of rolling hills and alluvial fans spreading into the low valleys.

Deserts are odd like that. The denuded land is wide open to erosion, but the lack of water means that there is not much erosion taking place. Nevertheless, the occasional rains and flash floods leave their mark. You can plainly see the structure of the alluvial fans and the stark gullies in the naked desert, though you don't see much of the water that formed them.

The part of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park with which I am (was?) most familiar is along San Felipe Creek (sometimes called San Felipe Wash) in the western part of the park. The creek flows - disappearing in spots, but always at least a little more moist than the surrounding desert - from the western edge of the park east through Grapevine Canyon. It picks up a little additional water at the greatly exaggerated Yaqui Well at the southern flank of Pinyon Ridge, waters the blessed shade trees of Tamarisk Grove, then eventually makes its way to the Salton Sea just east of the park.

Yaqui Well, one of my favorite hangouts, is not a well at all but a natural oasis. There is, almost unbelievably, a small but dense stand of cattails out there in the middle of the desert.

The immediate vicinity of San Felipe Creek and Yaqui Well is home to several woody plants that are large by desert standards. I wouldn't call it a forest, but there is an irregular line of trees - desert ironwood, smoke tree, and a few others - marking where the water is. Right around Yaqui Well, this line of trees spreads out a bit, to a width of maybe sixty yards, but it's still not a forest.

Another of my favorite places to kick back was Lizard Wash. (They have the cleanest lizards you ever saw!) About half a mile up the wash from the paved road are a few large boulders on the eastern flank of the wash. These form a perfect perch for a lunch with a view, though I had to pick a different perch one year when I found that an earthquake had rolled my favorite boulder down the hill a bit.

My favorite campground was Tamarisk Grove Campground. Some time in the latter half of the nineteenth century, enterprising stagecoach operators planted a small stand of drought-tolerant tamarisk trees along San Felipe Creek to form a shady rest-stop for their passengers. The legacy is a shady place to camp in something very much like a small forest. You can also camp in the open desert at Yaqui Well Campground, just a half mile away, but that just didn't feel right to me. I always camped in the pleasant, shady confines of the tamarisks.

Move away from San Felipe Creek and you'll find only a few woody plants, and nothing at all like a tree. On the flanks of the rising ridges and on the alluvial fans, you'll find creosote bush, brittlebush, and "towering" ocotillo. But most of the plants here, even rather large ones, are not woody. The landscape is dominated by cactus. The most common in the general area is the teddy bear cholla. There are also other species in the cholla genus (Cylindropuntia) and large barrel cactus. Most of the cacti in the area are small, less than knee-high. Other large plants that can be seen here are the desert agave, whose flower stalks, often dead, rise more than ten feet above the desert and can be seen for miles. Higher up, near where I usually entered the park, there was Mojave yucca, but there was none of that in the lower desert.

These deserts are home to most of the animals that you might expect, plus a few surprises. Yes, there are lizards and snakes, and the coyote and roadrunner might make an appearance. There are the desert bighorn sheep for which the park is named, and the occasional desert cottontail. If you look carefully you might find the droppings of nocturnal rodents, but you won't likely see the rodents themselves unless you go out at night. You might not have thought of bats, but you wouldn't be too surprised to hear that they are quite plentiful there around dawn and dusk. But would you go to the desert looking for hummingbirds? You should! The first day I spent in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, I saw more hummingbirds than I had previously seen in my entire life!

On my way back to San Diego after a day in the desert, I usually drove southeast across the higher desert. Here there was less teddy bear cholla and more creosote bush, but it was pretty much the same desert. Only in the very dry Carrizo Badlands just northwest of the town of Ocotillo did I see a real change in the land. I would always stop at the Carrizo Badlands Overlook and marvel at the true barrenness of the place. Pale, steep dolomite walls of the Coyote Mountains are dotted with gleaming deposits of gypsum, and not much else. There is hardly a living green thing to be seen. A few good rainstorms would surely wash those bare hills away to nothing in a week or two, yet there has obviously not been a good rainstorm in a week of centuries.

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Trail Description

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is a huge park, and I am only familiar with a tiny part of it. Extrapolate from this small sampling with caution.

Trails in the desert are kind of weird. The sparse vegetation and rainfall mean that the trails are generally no more eroded and no less overgrown than the general landscape. The only thing to indicate clearly the difference between "trail" and "not trail" is the lines of small rocks set up along the edges. I suspect that the true back-country trails (which I never dared to explore) may be a little harder to follow.

Considering the lack of erosion and the general lack of vegetation, you might wonder why it is important even to stay on the trails. I can think of two things:

  • Trails are generally free of branch buds of teddy bear cholla. If you do find one on the trail, you can (carefully!) kick it out of the trail. And these things are quite dangerous, so you don't want to stumble into one. I've got a story about that.
  • You don't want to get lost. Even if, like me, you recognize that you are out of your element and you could die by getting lost in the desert, and so you stay very near the roads and such, it still might be possible to get lost. And it wouldn't take long at all for the consequences of getting lost to become pretty severe. Stay on the trails.

Even on a short hike that never gets out of sight of "civilization," always carry water. Carry more than you think you'll need. You will need more than you think you'll need. I've got a story about that.

Of the hundreds of miles of trails and jeep roads throughout the park, here are the four trails I can describe from first-hand experience:

  • Yaqui Well Trail. This trail runs from Yaqui Pass Road, just south of the Tamarisk Grove Campground, west a little over a mile to Yaqui Well. Return along the same trail. There is a box at the trail head that sometimes contains self-guiding pamphlets (put it back when you finish the hike). There are numbered posts along the way that correspond to numbered explanations in the pamphlet, describing the plants you'll see. The trail is mostly level and sandy, but it climbs up and down one small rocky ridge. From the top of the ridge, you'll get a sweeping view of the alluvial plain of San Felipe Wash, and the imposing southern face of Pinyon Ridge. Look for sheep up there. (Watch carefully, and you might see a few boulders that move. Those are sheep.) At the end of the trail is Yaqui Well, a most improbable puddle and thick stand of cattails in a small bowl surrounded by low scrubby hillocks. This is an excellent place to watch wildlife, especially birds, and especially hummingbirds. On a summer day after about ten in the morning, you might plan to drink two liters of water on this hike. One liter earlier in the day or at cooler times of the year. Not a difficult hike, but maybe a little long for young children.
  • Cactus Loop Trail. This loop runs from Yaqui Pass Road, just north of the Tamarisk Grove Campground, northwest a short way up Pinyon Ridge, and returns to the starting point after about a mile. Like the Yaqui Well Trail, there is a box that sometimes contains pamphlets, and there are numbered posts along the way corresponding to numbered descriptions in the pamphlet. Emphasis is on cactus, but the pamphlet also describes some of the woody bushes and a couple of geological features. The trail climbs a bit, and is somewhat rocky, but only moderately rugged. Not so much wildlife on this trail, except for lizards. The birds are present, but not concentrated as they are at Yaqui Well. On a summer day after ten in the morning, you might plan to drink a liter of water on this hike. I'd recommend you bring at least a liter any time of year and any time of day. This is a great hike for young school-age children, and very educational.
  • Lizard Wash. There is a jeep road that runs way up the little canyon, but I never followed it very far. It begins on the south side of State Route 78 just about a mile west of the intersection with Yaqui Pass Road (County Route S3, where Tamarisk Grove Campground is). Just about every time I visited the park, I'd head up Lizard Wash for lunch after a morning hike on one or two of the other trails. I would park about a half-mile up the road and climb up onto some boulders that stand about thirty feet above the canyon floor. It's a great place to watch lizards hunting flies on the boulders or on the canyon floor, and the occasional roadrunner hunting lizards along the wash.
  • Tamarisk Grove Campground. At the central intersection of the driveways is a little garden of local fauna with small signs telling you about each plant. It is very informative, and very well laid out. I was always alone when I went there, but if I had kids with me, I would be sure to spend a good deal of time walking around the campground to learn about the desert while shaded by the non-native tamarisk trees. There are also plenty of birds to be seen in the campground, including hummingbirds and white-winged doves.

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Plants and Animals

This is not meant to be a comprehensive list, by any means. This is just a list of the most common things I remember seeing there, and some of the more interesting things I saw there. It also mentions interesting things that I did not see but tried to see. You might look for these if you visit.


  • Desert Bighorn Sheep (Ovis canadensis nelsoni). I never saw one, but I often hiked to Yaqui Well before sunrise hoping to see them coming in for a drink. I understand they are more numerous now than they were just a few years ago, so you might have better luck. According to the Anza-Borrego Foundation and Institute's Web site, Borrego Palm Canyon seems to be the best place to see them.
  • Coyote (Canis latrans). It was not uncommon to see them crossing the roads or wandering the desert in broad daylight. And it would be unusual not to hear them in the night. Their nocturnal howling suggested several of them together, but I rarely saw more than one at a time, and never more than two, in the daytime.
  • Desert cottontail (Sylvilagus audubonii). Not common, but this was the only terrestrial mammal I saw in the desert besides humans and coyotes. On two separate occasions a year apart, I saw one lone rabbit early in the morning on the Yaqui Well Trail. Each time, it appeared to be a young animal, but I can't be very sure. Maybe they're just small and a little neotenous compared to eastern cottontails.
  • Desert rats. Never saw the animals, but there were a great many droppings between the boulders in Lizard Wash. I have very little idea what species they might have been from.
  • Bats. The ones I saw in my early morning hikes to Yaqui Well appeared to me to be western pipistrelle (Pipistrellus hesperus), but they might have been any of the park's other bats, including the very common Brazilian free-tailed bats (Tadarida brasiliensis) or the less common pallid bats (Antrozous pallidus), or California myotis (Myotis californicus)


  • Phainopepla (Phainopepla nitens). Common everywhere, this dull charcoal-gray bird lights up with steely blue and glints of other colors when its iridescent feathers catch the sunlight, and the white spots on the underside of its wings flash as it flies. It quickly became my favorite desert bird. I've got a story about that.
  • Raven (Corvus corax). It seemed odd to me to see this denizen of the high cliffs living quite happily in the low desert valleys, but there they were.
  • Hummingbirds. Both Costa's hummingbird (Calypte costae) and Anna's hummingbird (C. anna) are quite common in spring, and I saw great numbers of both species around Yaqui Well. At the right time of the spring, I frequently saw the extraordinary courtship display of Anna's hummingbird I've got a story about that. Like almost all hummingbirds, those of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park prefer reddish trumpet-shaped flowers. The chuparosa is made for hummingbirds, so if you find one in bloom, stake it out.
  • Doves, including the white-winged dove (Zenaida asiatica) and the mourning dove (Z. macroura). My pamphlet says the white-winged dove is "uncommon," but I saw them and heard their distinctive song all along the Yaqui Well Trail and all over the Tamarisk Grove Campground. The mourning dove may be more common around Yaqui Well, but the white-winged dove is dominant among the tamarisks.
  • Greater roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus). Not terribly common, but they can be found. Watch for them wandering the empty campsites of Yaqui Well Campground or hunting along the wash and the road in Lizard Wash.
  • House finch (Carpodacus mexicanus). Very common in the scrub around Yaqui Well.
  • Lesser goldfinch (Carduelis psaltria). They may be seen anywhere in the desert from Yaqui Well to the ridges above Lizard Wash.

Other Creatures

  • Western side-blotched lizard (Uta stansburiana elegans). This is the more common of the two kinds of lizards that appear in the middle of the trail and disappear into the scrub in less time than it takes for you to be certain that you saw a lizard at all. If you didn't notice its tail being held up, it was probably a side-blotched lizard. You may be able to see them foraging in Lizard Wash if you sit on the rocks and watch the road.
  • Zebra-tailed lizard (Callisaurus draconoides draconoides). Another of the lizards that appear magically and disappear before you know what it was. This one does you the favor of holding its black-and-white tail up vertically as it runs.
  • Western chuckwalla (Sauromalus obesus obesus). A large, nearly black lizard, more commonly seen when it is good and warm.
  • Rattlesnakes, including red diamond rattlesnake (Crotalus exsul exsul) and Colorado Desert sidewinder (C. cerastes laterorepens). I never saw either one, but I've heard that they're not too uncommon. I probably always went too early in the year, when most large reptiles are still hibernating, even in the desert.
  • Big ole honkin wasp. I don't know the species, but I once saw some kind of a wasp that was nearly as long as my hand. I looked up "big ole honkin wasp" on Wikipedia, but didn't come up with much.

Trees and Bushes

NOTE: Bear in mind that terms like "tree" and "bush" don't have quite the same meanings and connotations in the desert as they might have in other places. "Trees" tend to be small and bushy. "Bushes" are often the largest woody plants around. And some have such conspicuous blossoms that I listed them among the wildflowers.

  • Tamarisk (Tamarix sp.). This non-native species, planted in a small grove along San Felipe Creek to create a shady stage-coach stopover in the 19th century, is the only thing like a true tree in the area. It dominates Tamarisk Grove Campground.
  • Desert Ironwood (Olneya tesota). This is the most tree-like of the native woody plants. It forms a nearly forest-like thicket along the outflow of Yaqui Well.
  • Smoke tree (Cotinus obovatus). An invasive species that tolerates the occasional flash flood, thanks to its deep roots. It is commonly seen marking the track of frequently flooded washes. Not too common right around the Tamarisk Grove/Yaqui Well area, you'll see it on the drive into the park.
  • Creosote bush (Larrea tridentata). Some sources say this is the most common perennial in the Colorado Desert. Maybe so, but in the area of San Felipe Creek, I think the teddy bear cholla is the most common perennial. Nevertheless, creosote bush is quite common. It produces large, bright yellow flowers in spring.
  • Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens). Its large size makes it visible for miles, and its distinctive form makes it probably the most recognizable woody plant in the desert. In spring, it sports red tubular flowers at the tips of its long branches, which are very popular with the hummingbirds. When the rains cease, its leaves turn yellow, or even red, making it look like the whole plant is covered in blooms. It can grow several sets of leaves per year, producing a new set after a good rain, and shedding them when it starts to get dry.
  • Catclaw (Acacia greggii). The only acacia native to the United States, its innocent-looking feathery leaves hide wicked hooked thorns.


NOTE: There are many more desert wildflowers in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park than are listed here. See the "wildflower reports" on the park's Web site at http://www.parks.ca.gov/default.asp?page_id=24977.

  • Brittlebush (Encelia farinosa). In springtime, the desert can take on a subtle golden cast. Look closely, and you will see that it is a blanket of blooming brittlebush. In bloom, the bush doubles in size, as its daisy-like flowers grow on long stalks that stand high above and radiate far beyond the permanent branches. Then, when the flowers die off, the bush shrinks back to its usual size, and its pale gray-green leaves contribute to the usual drabness of the desert. In dry conditions, the leaves are crumbly, giving the plant its name.
  • Chuparosa (Justicia californica). A rather small bush, it is noticeable only for its brilliant red tubular flowers. This shrub is a favorite of hummingbirds. ("Chuparosa" is the Spanish word for "hummingbird.")
  • Desert agave (Agave deserti). The tall flower stalks, usually dead, can be seen for miles. If you catch one just beginning to bloom, the young flower stalk looks like an asparagus spear thicker than your leg and taller than you. The main body of the plant looks very much like an aloe.


  • Teddy bear cholla (Cylindropuntia bigelovii). It's everywhere, and rather dangerous. I've got a story about that. Sometimes also called "jumping cholla," there is another species (C. fulgida) that lives at higher elevations that is more properly the jumping cholla.
  • Barrel cactus (Ferocactus cylindraceus). There are many species in two different genera that are called barrel cactus, but I think the most common one in the vicinity of San Felipe Creek is the California barrel cactus, F. cylindraceus.
  • Beavertail cactus (Opuntia basilaris). A close relative of the prickly pear, this pinkish cactus has some of the prettiest flowers of all the cacti in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. (That's a beavertail cactus on the cover of the book at right.)
  • Prickly pear (Opuntia sp., possibly O. phaeacantha). Not found in the low elevations of San Felipe Creek, you sometimes see it in the higher areas north of the Carrizo Badlands, and often in the Laguna Mountains that overlook the park.
  • Fishhook cactus (Mammillaria dioica). This "miniature barrel cactus" also has rather pretty flowers, but the plant is very small and the flowers tiny.
  • Hedgehog cactus (Echinocereus engelmannii). A medium-sized cactus with attractive flowers.
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