Anza Borrego Desert State Park is the country's largest state park and, in our opinion, the most underrated, and one of our favorite places in Southern California to go!
We head out to Anza Borrego as much as possible as soon as winter hits and the weather is cool enough to brave the desert. A portion of the PCT runs through here and you can expect to see unique cacti and ocotillo, bighorn sheep encounters (if you're lucky), Gold Rush era artifacts (and legendary ghost apparitions), hidden palm oases, and cool iron art sculptures.
Desert Wildflower Blooms
Come to the desert between January and March after a wet season for the legendary desert wildflower blooms. The desert floor is scattered with a rainbow of wildflowers, presenting an amazing visual juxtaposition of life against what is usually viewed as a barren desert. The most impressive is the bright pink flowers emerging from the Beavertail Cacti and the crimson red flowers covering the 6+ foot tall Ocotillo Cacti. Follow the bloom report here.
The atmosphere is thin and the sky is breathtaking; plus there is nothing in the desert to obstruct your vision. The sky is actually the reason we fell in love with camping in Anza Borrego Desert in the first place.
Camp out during the meteor showers in October, or time your trip with the moon: You're guaranteed to see shooting stars, the milky way, and maybe a UFO during the new moon, or come when the moon is full and reflects off the desert sand, lighting the whole desert up like a lantern in the sky as you moon bathe beneath.
Hidden Palm Oases
There are a surprising amount of hidden palms within Anza Borrego Desert. I know what you are thinking - palm trees in the desert - are you sure it's not a mirage?! I'm telling you it's not, and it's awesome!
The one we typically visit is Southwest Grove via The Mountain Palm Springs Trail which begins from Bow Willow Campground. Now, one must be very trail savvy to navigate this terrain as the trail itself is very faint, rocky, and hard to distinguish. Once you wrangle in your old scout skills and traverse your way through the desert, the payoff is well worth it when you see the out-of-place palms off in the distance. It is lush and shady - a lovely reprieve from the scorching sun of the desert.
Bighorn Sheep Encounters
Anza Borrego is named after these sheep, yet it is very rare to actually have the chance to spot one as they are very reclusive and wary of human activity. We were fortunate enough to see not just 1, but a whole bachelor squad of 12 sheep! They towered high above us on the rocky mountains looking down prepared to ram us if we posed a threat. It was both fascinating and terrifying, but we feel so lucky to be one of the few hikers who have had the coveted encounter!
We usually link this desert to alien activity since the thin atmosphere and clear skies make it is easy to spot a potential UFO, but thanks to the activity of death, robberies, and duels of the Gold Rush days, this desert actually has plenty of other paranormal activity.
One particular sighting is that of the Ghost Lights over Oriflamme Mountain and the Borrego Valley. Since 1892 there have been reports of fireball like objects that rise into the air and then explode like a firework, or sometimes fly in an arch formation.
Book a site at Tamarisk Grove Campground to try to spot the phantom fireballs, and then hike over to the haunted trail at Yaqui Well where legend has it ghostly skeletons dance together in a frenzied gold celebration under the full moon on hot summer nights.
Vallecito Stage Station County Par
This is also a haunted hot spot as it was the only wagon route available in to Southern California during the Gold Rush, and the harsh climate caused many to die along the way. Aside from the ghost stories, there are really cool Gold Rush Era artifacts to admire including the original stagecoach station from the 1850s and a small cemetery.
But if you're interested in the ghost stories, the main sighting in the area is that of "the girl in the white dress" who died on her journey in the 1850s on her way to meet her fiancé who just struck gold. She was buried in her white wedding dress near that station, and is still seen at night restlessly wandering the area.
Another infamous sighting is that of the phantom stagecoach that campers see and hear as it hesitates past the old station and then disappears, supposedly leaving wagon trails and hoof prints behind.
As you head home from the desert, try to make a stop in the quaint town of Julian: a historical landmark that has been around since the 1850s and boasts cute shops, interesting history, delicious pies, and an intoxicating down-home vibe.
Til next time, stay wild!