It’s one of the simple joys in life: gazing at a clear night sky and wishing upon a star. In Southern California, there are fewer and fewer places we can go to get away from the city lights and see the Milky Way in all its glory. One – dubbed “California’s Secret Desert” – is THE place to go to get away from the urban chaos. Let’s just say Borrego Springs is where Californians-in-the-know leave the cosmopolitan behind and bring the cosmos in.
The entire town of Borrego Springs is made up of one main road that is less than a mile long, located 90 miles from San Diego and 150 miles from Los Angeles. There are just two dozen streetlights in the whole town, with the nearest stoplight 50 miles away, and it is surrounded and protected by the 600,000-acre Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. It is quite simply in the middle of nowhere.
This means you will not find a Starbucks, McDonald’s, big box or chain store anywhere nearby. Instead, you are left with a unique opportunity to step a little backwards in time and take in the slower, uncomplicated pace of an authentic desert experience in a truly special place.
When you head over the mountains on County Highway S22 on the way into Borrego Springs, the views of the vast open desert below literally takes your breath away. It’s about as close an experience on Earth as what I imagine the moon would be like.
Surrounding Borrego Springs is Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, the largest state park in California. Among its five hundred miles of rugged dirt roads and 12 wilderness areas, you are sure to see plants like agave and chollo cacti, and animals like roadrunners, rabbits, deer, iguanas, and snakes (beware the red diamond rattlesnake, which can be found in dry grassy areas as early as February when higher temperatures coax them out of their winter hiding – some won’t give a warning, so if hiking in tall grasses, wear boots).
Other wildlife in the park, but less likely to see, are golden eagles, foxes, and bighorn sheep. This area is a particularly special place to visit in the spring months when the wildflowers grow rampantly.
While you can explore the park on your own, the best way to experience it is with a trusted guide for two reasons. One, they know the best places to go for surreal vistas, dry washes, and palm groves in an ever-changing landscape, and two, most areas can only be accessed by four-wheel drive vehicles so if you’re driving your environmentally-conscious Prius, this is the only way to get to the trail heads.
The only full-service tour company is California Overland. They offer a variety of tours that range from a two-hour light excursion to a full
day of adventure through the canyons, desert floor, and everything in between. Lunch is included in the 4 and 8-hour tours, starting at $95 per person.
If budget allows, opt for the private Jeep tours, which start at $200 per person for a two-hour excursion and go up from there for the 5-or 8-hour treks. Guides driving Jeep CJ7s are extremely knowledgeable and customize each tour to your liking. Lunch is provided on the 4 and 8-hour excursions, as is ice water with fresh lemons on all. In winter months, Overland provides a nice treat to warm up – hot Julian apple cider.
How to get there
The nearest major airport is San Diego International airport, which is about a 90-minute drive to Borrego Springs. Various car rental agencies are available in the airport terminal.
To drive from San Diego, take I-5 South then merge onto CA-163 N toward Escondido. Follow 163 N for about 10 miles and take I-15 N. From there take the Scripps Poway Parkway exit 17 toward Mercy Road. Turn right onto Scripps Poway Parkway and proceed for about 8.6 miles and turn left onto CA-67 N which becomes CA-78 after about 11 miles. Proceed to Santa Ysabel, turn left onto Santa Ysabel, and follow for about 11 miles. Turn right onto San Felipe Road/S-2 toward Borrego Springs and follow for 5 miles. Turn left onto Montezuma Valley Road/S-22 and continue for about 18 miles into Borrego Springs.
Alternatively, from Los Angeles (approximately 3 hours): Take the 5 Freeway South to the CA-91 East towards Riverside and exit to the 15 South towards San Diego. Merge onto CA-79 South towards Indio and turn Left onto CA-79. Turn Left onto San Felipe Road/CR-S2, then Left onto Montezuma Valley Road / CR-S22. Continue for about 18 miles into Borrego Springs.
Where to stay
- The Palms Hotel, 2220 Hoberg Rd., Borrego Springs, CA 92004; (760) 767-7788, www.thepalmsatindianhead.com. The classic
mid-century lodge used to be the exclusive hideaway for the 1950s Hollywood elite. The property features an Olympic-sized pool. Room rates begin at $119.
- Borrego Springs Resort & Spa, 1112 Tilting T Dr., Borrego Springs, CA 92004; (760) 767-5700 or (888) 826-7734, fax (760) 767-5710, www.borregospringsresort.com. This is the only property in the area that features golf, with three 9-hole courses. It is also the most elegant accommodations with a full-service spa. Rates for a double begin at $179.
- Borrego Valley Inn, 405 Palm Canyon Drive, Borrego Springs, CA, (760) 767-0311 or (800) 333-5810, www.borregovalleyinn.com. All 15 Southwestern/Mexican-styled rooms feature Saltillo tile floors, private sun and star patios, and walk-in showers. Request room number 10 for a Jacuzzi tub instead of a shower. Doubles start at $185.
Where to eat
- Carlee’s Bar and Grill, 660 Palm Canyon Dr., Borrego Springs, CA 92004; (760) 767-3262. This is the hot spot in town, open year-round, with great burgers, rib-eye steaks, and salads. They are known for their lemon drop martinis, which are nothing to look at, but deliciously balanced. Entrees run about $11-$27.
- Carmelita’s Mexican Grill & Cantina, 575 Palm Canyon Dr., Borrego Springs, CA 92004, (760) 767-5666. This is the place to go with homemade tortilla chips, roasted tomato salsa, fresh chunky guacamole, excellent enchiladas, and margaritas made to order with freshly-squeezed lime. Open year-round. Entrees start at $11.
- Kendall’s Cafe, 587 Palm Canyon Dr., Borrego Springs, CA 92004, (760) 767-3491. The diner-like café features simple Continental cuisine in a homey atmosphere. A full breakfast is $7-$10, lunch and dinner entrees start at $10.
- In the Palms Hotel is the Krazy Coyote Bar & Grille, 2220 Hoberg Rd., Borrego Springs, CA 92004, (760) 767-7788, www.thepalmsatindianhead.com, serving California cuisine with a touch of flair, from crab cakes and rack of lamb to homemade crème brulee (entrees $24 and up). Seasonal hours, reservations recommended.
- The French Corner, 721 Avenida Sureste, Borrego Springs, CA 92004, (760) 767-5713, www.thefrenchcorner.biz. This is the best food in town, offering classic European dishes like crepes, beef bourguignon, coq au vin and homemade desserts like tarte tartin. Open Oct-May. Entrees run about $27-$45.
What to see and do
- Galleta Meadows, located along and throughout Borrego Springs Road, north of Palm Canyon Dr., www.galletameadows.com.Throughout Borrego Springs, this is a collection of 129 original steel welded sculptures created by artist and welder Ricardo Breceda. The most recent addition brings fantasy and science fiction to life with a 350-foot dragon whose serpent body emerges from the desert and crosses over to the other side of the road. There is no official entrance or exit, so when you see the sculptures, you’re there. No admission fee, open year round 24/7.
- Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, 760-767-5311, 200 Palm Canyon Drive, Borrego Springs, CA 92004, www.parks.ca.gov, is the largest state park in California. Among its five hundred miles of rugged dirt roads and 12 wilderness areas, you are sure to see plants like agave and chollo cacti, and animals like roadrunners, rabbits, deer, iguanas, and snakes (beware the red diamond rattlesnake, which can be found in dry grassy areas as early as February when higher temperatures coax them out of their winter hiding. Other wildlife in the park, but less likely to see, are golden eagles, foxes, and bighorn sheep. The visitor’s center is open 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. daily Nov-April and on weekends from May-October.
- Wildflower Season; Depending on winter rains and temperatures, wildflowers are abundant in Borrego Springs from late February through April. Keep an eye out for the enchanting Desert Lily, vibrant pink Sand Verbena, and white Dune Evening Primrose, among many more. For the latest information on wildflower blooms, sign up to receive e-mail notifications at www.theabf.org, or call the hotline at (760) 767-4684.
- Font’s Point; to get there, follow S22 east, turn right at Fonts Wash at mile 29.3, then Drive 4.5 miles to the trail head. From there, you’ll park and hike through the somewhat challenging upper badlands. Go in the afternoon when the lowering sun creates a stunning rainbow of colors on the Borrego badlands below. Note: 4-Wheel Drive vehicles are highly recommended.
- California Overland; 1233 Palm Canyon Dr., Borrego Springs, CA 92004, (760) 767-1232 or (800) 6-EXPLORE, www.californiaoverland.com; is the best way to see all that Anza-Borrego has to offer with a variety of tours that range from a two-hour light excursion to a full day of adventure through the canyons, desert floor, and everything in between. Lunch is included in the 4 and 8-hour tours, starting at $95 per person. Tours are seasonal, but if you call in advance, most guides will arrange for a private tour off-season. Note: If budget allows, opt for the private CJ7 Jeep tours, which start at $200 per person and go up from there. Guides provide snacks and ice water with fresh lemons on all tours and in winter months, hot Julian apple cider. Note: ask about celestial outings with astronomer-in-residence Dennis Mammana, who occasionally schedules night trips to prime viewing locations, telescope in tow.
To learn more: The Borrego Springs Chamber of Commerce, 786 Palm Canyon Dr., Borrego Springs, CA 92004; (760) 767-5555 or (800) 559-5524, fax (760) 767-5976, www.borregospringschamber.com.
About the Author: Lindsay Taub is an award-winning journalist with over a decade of experience as a writer/editor/photographer covering travel, lifestyle, culture, arts, food, health, and all facets that make life a journey. Follow her on twitter @lindsaytaub58.