Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

If you're looking for a West Coast fly-in destination from October to April, you'd be hard pressed to find one more magnificent and fascinating than the largest state park in the continental U.S.: Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Located 50 nm northeast of San Diego, the park encompasses 600,000 acres of mountains, desert and canyons, a spectacular variety of desert flowers, plants and wildlife, a first-rate airport, and the thriving little town of Borrego Springs where you'll find all manner of places to stay and eat. This article from the pages of Pilot Getaways magazine gives you all you need to know to plan your trip.


PG Summer 99Under atranslucent blue bowl of desert sky, the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park sprawls over600,000 acres of mountains, desert, and oasis canyons. Located near the California-Mexicoborder, approximately 50 nm northeast of San Diego and 40 nm north of Mexico, this is thelargest State Park in the contiguous U.S.

Sky TrailAlthough a desert now, from the air the effects of water past and present are clearlyseen throughout this region. Twisted arroyos and deep slot canyons carved by flash floodsand earthquakes snake their way down from steeply eroded cliffs. Multicolored layers ofmineral deposits stripe the mountains ranging down both sides of Borrego Valley. Flashesof green highlight hidden oasis canyons and a drop in altitude reveals the presence ofwater. Under it all lie the bones of mastodons, sabertooths, and camels that roamed theselands a million years ago when they were grassy savannahs filled with lakes and rivers.

In the heart of the park lies the friendly little town of Borrego Springs, one of thebest-kept secrets of Southern California. Known for its sweet grapefruit, mild climate,and growing artist community, Borrego Springs is host to many restaurants, resorts, andfine golf courses and “theres not one darn traffic light anywhere” as thelocals are fond of boasting. Here in the desert surrounded by mountains, the pace of lifeslows down and nature emerges in all her subtle beauty and power. Whether you want a quietretreat for yourself or a family getaway, Borrego provides something for everyone.

Airport InfoThe best times of year to fly in are October through April. Daytime temperatures rangefrom 70 to 84 degrees and the nighttime average falls to between 43 and 54 degrees. ByMay, the temperatures are climbing up into the nineties and above one hundred degreeweather is the average for June through September.


Borrego Valley AirportThe Borrego Valley airport lies three miles east of Borrego Springs at an elevation of520 ft. Runway 07/25 is 5,000 x 75 ft. of pavement in excellent condition withpilot-controlled lighting. There is a very active aerobatic box just north of the airportfrom ground level to 5,000 ft. All traffic patterns are flown on the south side of theairport to avoid the aerobatic box (right traffic Runway 25).

The approach from the east isrelatively straightforward, passing over the Salton Sea, one of the few bodies of water inthe United States that is below sea level (elevation -228 ft. MSL). Mountains exceed 6,000feet MSL in all other quadrants, so it is best to delay your descent below 8,500 feetuntil within 10 miles of the airport, for approaches from south through north. This mayrequire a few turns to avoid a rapid descent – what an excellent excuse to fly theAnza Borrego Sky Trail! (See “Things to Do.”)

Airport DiagramThe Borrego Valley FBO is located onthe south side of the runway. It has a full service pilot lounge with restrooms, vendingmachines and a well-stocked information kiosk staffed by a very friendly on-site manager,Viki Cole. From 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. seven days a week, Viki will sell you gas, rent you acar, and give you information about local accommodations and shuttle services. Give her acall at (760) 767-7415. The tiedown area is located in front of the FBO. The fee is $3 pernight and you supply your own tiedown cables. There are also several charter services andflight schools located at the airport.


SpreadThe Anza-Borrego Desert State Park was named forthe Spanish explorer Juan Bautista de Anza and the Borrego Cimarron big horn sheep. In1774, Anza found a way up from Mexico over the Salton Sea to the Borrego Valley. He cameto see if the notch he noticed in the California coastal range on a previous trip wouldprovide a way over the mountains to California. The notch proved to be a natural staircaseover the mountains via Coyote Canyon at the north end of the valley and the first overlandimmigrant train from Mexico to California was established. A year and a half later, Anzaled 240 soldiers, colonists, and 1,000 horses, cattle and mules from Culiacan, Mexico onan expedition of 1,600 miles through Borrego and over Coyote Canyon into California tofound the pueblo of San Francisco.

The California Gold Rush brought the next wave of settlers and the famous ButterfieldOverland Stageline forged roads through the desert on its way to San Francisco. This wasnever a hospitable land for ranchers or farmers and, in 1933, most of the Borrego Desertwas set aside for a state park.

Another famous General led his troops through the Borrego area during World War II.General George Patton used the Carrizo Badlands to train his troops for desert warfare inNorth Africa. Army tank destroyer units from New Mexico and anti-aircraft units fromCalifornia began to arrive here immediately after Pearl Harbor. Naval aviators in theirP-38s used the Carrizo Impact area as a bombing and gunnery range. Because liveordnance still covers the area, it is closed to the public. It can, however, be viewedfrom the air where bomb craters are still visible below.

Tour MapThings to Do

With a park this large and diverse, sightseeing from the air can be a lot of fun. Withthis in mind, the park service has published the Anza-Borrego State Park Sky TrailGuide Book. Authored by State Park Pilot Jon Muench, the Sky Trail is a 150-or-so-mileguided tour of the park and surrounding areas from the air. The publication is in twoparts. The first part is a Pilots Manual with detailed flight instructions, VOR, andGPS coordinates for navigation. The second part is a descriptive tour of the Sky Trailintended for a passenger to read aloud to the other passengers. The tour begins at theBorrego Valley Airport and covers many areas that can only be seen from the air. Write tothe park at the address listed below for a copy of the Sky Trail (cost of $2.50) or giveJon a call at the district office, (760) 767-5311, for more suggestions about where to flyin the area. Ask him about the sleeping circles or the local intaglio, large scale designscarved in the earth whose patterns are only visible from the sky.

An easy 5-mile bike ride or drive west down Palm Canyon Road from the airport, Anza-BorregoState Park offers a wealth of activities. One hundred and ten miles of hiking,mountain biking, and off-road vehicle trails take you from mountain peaks to hidden oasiscanyons or desert plains. Bicycles, off-road vehicles, and tour guides are all availablefor hire if you want to go further than your feet will take you. Look for roadrunners,golden eagles, kit foxes, mule deer, and bighorn sheep as well as desert iguanas,chuckwallas, and four species of rattlesnake.

FlowersAnd lets not forget the wildflowers.Every spring beginning mid-February and peaking in early March or April, the desert floorbecomes a living carpet of color. Yellow, purple, blue, and white blossoms slowly spreadacross the plain and up the mountainsides. The park will notify you of this yearspeak bloom time two weeks in advance if you mail them a stamped self-addressed postcard inan envelope addressed to: Wildflowers, Anza-Borrego State Park, 200 Palm Canyon Drive,Borrego Springs, CA 92004.

Or, call the wildflower hot line at (760) 767-4684 for an up-to-date recorded message.

Ranger PatrolThe park Visitor Center at theend of Palm Canyon Drive is definitely worth a trip. The 7,000-sq. ft. facility is builtunderground with a beautifully landscaped desert garden as its roof. If you donthave the time or the inclination to hike, a stroll through these gardens will give you ataste of the variety of plant life in the park. The center is hidden from the parking lotbut just follow the walkway past the flagpole to the dramatic entrance. An excellentbookstore and friendly rangers provide much information about the area. The park offersall kinds of activities such as nature walks, fireside talks, stargazing, and audio-visualperformances at the center. Especially for children they offer a Junior Rangerprogram with “kids only” hikes and activities lasting an hour or two. Contactthe center at (760) 767-5311 and they will send/fax you a schedule of all the upcomingevents for the month and give you good suggestions for park activities based on yourneeds. Be sure to visit the parks web site at

Jeep TourTake a tour of the area with one of the local tourguides. “Borrego Paul” of Desert Jeep Tours will pick you up from theairport or any local hotel for a two-hour informative and entertaining desert tour in anenclosed comfortable four-wheel drive Jeep. He can arrange tours of the badlands, fossilbeds, and Indian ruins or a trip to the deserted gold mines up in the mountains. Sunsettours complete with dinner and a look at the nocturnal creatures of the desert can begeared for family adventure or for romance. Hell tell you how scorpions glow in thedark and give you a leaf of a “potato chip” plant to crunch on. Whether yourinterest lies in the beautiful scenery, geology, or plant and animal life of the area orin the Indian culture or gold miners yarns, Paul and his guides have a story foryou. Tell them what you want to see in advance and a custom tour can be designed for youand your crew. The average two-hour tour runs $49 per person and requires a 24-houradvance reservation. Call toll free at (888) 295-3377 or

Borrego PaulTry a Dune Buggy tour for a differentexperience of the area. An experienced driver takes you for a tour open air, dune buggystyle. Anything from a one-hour tour to an all day event can be scheduled in advance ofyour arrival. The cost begins at $39 per person for one hour and ranges up to $145 for afour-hour tour. Desert Rat Tours, (760) 767-3755.

If you want a human powered experience, contact Carrizo Bikes on Palm CanyonDrive for mountain bike rentals, ride suggestions or guided bike tours. They even havetandem mountain bikes available. Their rentals begin at $7 for the first hour then drop to$5 for each additional hour. Call them for a 24 hour rate or for availability andreservations. Carrizo Bikes, (760) 767-3872.

For something Out of the Ordinary, say a Llama trek, a hot air balloon ride orstargazing in a desert arroyo complete with telescopes and a noted astronomer, contactCarrie Ellwood at Out of the Ordinary Group Adventures to arrange your next adventure.(619) 487-3418 or [email protected].

PlanesStarting in February, you can watch pilotspracticing their aerobatics skills every weekend at the Borrego Valley Airport.The California State Champion practices here. Grab a drink and a bite to eat on therooftop deck of the Cross Winds Restaurant and watch pilots maneuver in the 3,000 sq. ft.aerobatics box just North of the airport. On the third weekend in April, Borrego Airporthosts a mini Akrofest for the basic, sportsman, and intermediate classes ofaerobatics pilots and, on the first weekend of October, the 23rd annual Akrofest willinclude competition through the advanced and unlimited classes. The Annual Peg LegSmith Liars Contest is held on the first Saturday in April. Reported to be a goldminer who rushed into town to tell everyone of his big strike and then realized he hadbetter make up a convincing lie about its location in a hurry, Peg Leg is rememberedduring this annual event when the locals gather at Christmas Tree Circle to let emfly. The only rule for this event is that your lie cant be longer than 15 minutes.According to our friend, Borrego Paul, since this is an amateur event, all lawyers andtour guides are disqualified!

For more information about area events, write to the Borrego Springs CaliforniaChamber of Commerce at 622 Palm Canyon Drive, P.O. Box 420, Borrego Springs, CA 92004or call (800) 559-5524 or email them [email protected].They also have a very good web site at

Where to Stay

No matter what your budget or trip agenda, Borrego Springs has something to offer thatwill fit your needs. For such a small community, there are an amazing variety ofaccommodations offered. There are exclusive, gated spas that only admit pre-registeredguests and offer programs designed to pamper and relax the most stressed out artist,actor, or executive. There are championship golf resorts with beautiful courses andelegant restaurants. A variety of family oriented resorts offer tennis, guided tours, bikerentals, and units with kitchenettes.

B&Bs offer all types of options from the very Zen with clothing-optional poolto the sun-drenched Southwestern motif with a telescope on every patio. For those keepingan eye on their budget, there are several moderate to inexpensive motels offering cleanbasic accommodations with or without a kitchenette. The Borrego Springs Chamber ofCommerce (mentioned above) will gladly provide you with a list of area accommodations oremail Borregos VIP Concierge at [email protected]for suggestions and reservations.

La Casa del Zorro ResortFor a lovely upscaleexperience, try the La Casa del Zorro Resort. This is a four-star resort with sixchampionship tennis courts, three beautiful swimming pools, a luxurious fitness spa, and awonderful restaurant all on 42 acres, only five minutes from the airport. Although this isa luxury resort, it is run with a relaxed, friendly, unpretentious style that immediatelymakes you feel welcome and at ease from the moment they pick you up at the airport. Thehand-hewn beams and adobe walls of the main reception rooms were a part of the originalBurks ranch house built in 1937 and opened to guests as the Desert Lodge. At thattime, the population of Borrego Springs was only 25 and guests would gather around theranch house kitchen table at the end of the day to talk and read by kerosene lanterns.Today, guests gather in the Fox Den lounge or the Butterfield dining room to listen tomusic, look at the beautiful original artwork and enjoy a wonderful meal. From May toDecember during their Jazz Weekends, youll find folks relaxing around the pool orhanging out in the Rose Arbor listening to live jazz and soaking up the sun.

The resort has grown over the last 60 years to include 60 rooms and nineteen Casitas.The rooms include large single rooms, Executive Suites with sitting room, and oversizedDeluxe Rooms with vaulted ceilings, fireplaces and private patios. All are oversized roomsand come with plush bath robes, coffeemakers, and a daily newspaper. Two townhouse-styleDeluxe Piano Suites feature a baby grand piano in the first floor living room and afireplace on each floor. The Casitas are one- to four-bedroom detached homes and arearranged to give the maximum amount of privacy. Newly decorated, they feature fireplaces,wet bar, mini-bar, and compact kitchens. Their private yards and patios come with a poolor spa and are beautifully landscaped with local desert plants. Some even feature a familyof owls living in their tamarisk trees. Perfect for a family outing or a private weekendgetaway.

The rates vary with the season and the day of the week. During peak season from 1/16 to4/30, rooms range from $95 to $190 during the week and $115 to $245 on the weekend. TheCasitas range from $175 to $500. Their mid-season rates, 5/1 to 5/31 and 10/1 to 1/1 areabout 20% less and the bargain season, from 6/1 to 9/30, is almost half price for theluxury rooms and Casitas. For reservations and information about Jazz Weekends and specialevents, call (800) 824-1884 for reservations. Website:

There are several interesting Bed and Breakfast style places in Borrego Springs. Trythe Borrego Valley Inn for a great experience. It is with in walking distance ofthe park and offers 14 rooms in the southwestern style on ten acres. There are beautifulviews of the mountains from the two swimming pools and a telescope is even provided onyour patio for stargazing. Rates: $80 to $135. Call (760) 767-0311 for reservations orvisit their website www.borregovalleyinn.comfor a preview.

For a family oriented resort with a western feel, relax at the Palm Canyon Resort.Imagine sitting on your balcony with a fresh pot of coffee, watching the sun rise over themountains. With reasonable rates starting at $75, the rooms are large and comfortable andthe park is just a stroll down the road. Like most of the hotels in Borrego they will pickyou up at the airport and help you arrange any activities you are interested in from golfto spelunking. (800) 242-0044, website:

Camping is always an option in Borrego. The park surrounding the town offers opencamping, meaning you can dry camp without a fire, anywhere in the park for $5 per night.One mile from the Visitors Center is the Palm Canyon Campground, which offers the luxuryof hot showers, rest rooms, and shade ramadas. Register for either of these in theVisitors Center at the end of Palm Canyon Drive. For the ultimate in inexpensiveaccommodations, talk to Viki at the FBO and she will let you pitch a tent on the grassbeside the FBO office and leave the port-a-potty out back unlocked for you.

Where to Eat

Many of the best restaurants in town are in the resorts and hotels. In La Casa delZorros southwestern style restaurant, you dine surrounded by the originalpaintings of Marjorie Reed depicting the Butterfield stage route through California and aview through the rose arbor to the mountains beyond. Serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner,the restaurant offers a variety of interesting appetizers, salads, sandwiches, and entreesfrom a Portabella Burger to a Salmon Wrap or a luscious cut of beef, perfectly done.Dinner may require a jacket and reservations during the prime season. (760) 767-5323

The nearby Rams Head Country Club, 1862 Rams Hill Road, is reported to have oneof the best views in town from its glass-enclosed dining room and the buffet at the BorregoSprings Resort Hotel, 1112 Tilting T Road is rumored by the locals to be the best dealin town.

For an early breakfast before that big hike, try Kendalls Caf on theback side of The Mall shopping center at 528 Palm Canyon Drive for your basic coffee shopexperience. If youve got to have that latte, try the Coffee & Bookstoreat 590 Palm Canyon Drive for an espresso, some great pastries and a book.

When the sun goes down, the locals hang out at Carlees on (you guessedit!) Palm Canyon Drive. A combination bar and restaurant, Carlees has live countrywestern music on Friday nights. Lets not forget the Crosswinds Restaurant atthe airport. Open for lunch and dinner from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., the Crosswinds offers acomplete menu and a full bar with everything from Buffalo Burgers to pasta.


Much of what Borrego has to offer can be enjoyed without a car. Most of the hotels andresorts in town offer a pick up from the airport and many have a shuttle available totransport guests to activities. Check with your hotel for availability. Tour guides willpick you up in their vehicles at your hotel, bicycle rentals can be arranged by your hotelor through Carrizo Bikes, and if you are staying in one of the resorts on Palm CanyonDrive, many things are with in walking distance, including the State Park.

The FBO has 3 cars available for rent at $33 per day with 100 free miles. Call (760)767-7415 to reserve a car. Reservations should be made well in advance especially forholiday weekends or during the wildflower season.

The next time youre looking for stunning scenery, friendly people, or just aplace to relax, come to the Anza-Borrego Desert. While youre here, thank the statepark ranger, Jon, for his work on the Anza-Borrego State Park Sky Trail and for thesupport of a government agency that actually supports and encourages generalaviation.