Best Short Hikes in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

Best Short Hikes in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is the second-largest state park in the United States and is located about a two-hour drive from San Diego, California.

In 1984 the Colorado and Mojave Deserts (which encompasses Anza-Borrego Desert State Park) was designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. In 2017 Anza-Borrego Desert State Park was the subject of social media acclaim as the result of a super bloom. And, in 2018 Anza-Borrego was designated an International Dark Sky Park. Clearly, it has a lot going for it.

FUN FACT: A “super bloom” refers to an eruption of wildflowers in the desert. Conditions for a super bloom include above average autumn rainfall followed by a cooler winter.

Best Hikes in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

There is no shortage of spectacular hikes in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. However, with many visitors only staying for a day or two, it is easy to run out of time to experience the entire spectrum of landscapes that Anza-Borrego has to offer.

These hikes have been selected because they illustrate the diversity of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, do not typically require a 4 x 4 vehicle to access, and are also short. You can combine multiple hikes on a single day or pick and choose from this list of the best short hikes in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Enjoy!

TIP: Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is approximately 650,000 acres. Access to many areas requires a 4 x 4 vehicle. Always check road requirements and road conditions at the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park Visitor Center.

Hike #1: Borrego Palm Canyon Trail

Description and Photos

The Borrego Palm Canyon Trail provides the ultimate surreal desert experience. The trail crosses desert terrain and ascends up a rocky canyon. Keep your eyes peeled for bighorn sheep! There are a few water crossings along the way (with rocks to step on to stay dry). The trail culminates with the bizarre sight of a desert oasis complete with a grove of palm trees. The Borrego Palm Canyon Trail was simply amazing.

RANT: Please do your part and obey the signs to stay outside the fenced area near the palms on Borrego Palm Canyon Trail! The area is under rehabilitation so that future generations can also enjoy this beautiful landscape. I was infuriated by the number of folks disregarding the posted signs.

Location and Length

The Borrego Palm Canyon Trail is located adjacent to the Borrego Palm Canyon Campground (near the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park Visitor Center). This trail is 3 miles round-trip with an elevation gain of ~700 feet. You can return exactly the way you came or, instead, bear right at the marker labeled ‘Alternative Trail’ (you’ll see the sign once you begin your return) for a slightly modified return route.

Hike #2: “The Slot” Trail

Description and Photos

A slot canyon is a narrow canyon that is significantly deeper than it is wide. Slot canyons are formed by water rushing through rock (and can therefore be dangerous in rainy conditions). Exploring “The Slot” is a unique experience. Simply descend down the badlands from the parking area and start walking. You’ll wander the canyon floor, scrambling over rocks and squeezing through narrow spots.

FUN FACT: Antelope Canyon is sandstone slot canyon located on Navajo land near Page, Arizona. You may recognize it from the opening credits of the show Jeopardy.

Location and Length

The Slot trailhead is located 1.8 miles down Buttes Pass Road; not far from Highway 78. Buttes Pass Road is a dirt road but a 4 x 4 vehicle is not necessarily required. Check the road conditions at the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park Visitor Center to be safe. The hike through ”The Slot” is 2 miles round-trip. Here are more detailed directions and instructions provided by the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park Visitor Center:

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Hike #3: Cactus Loop Trail

Description and Photos

The Cactus Loop Trail showcases a wide variety of cacti in a small area. Take a copy of the nature trail guide to learn about the various cacti species. The trail climbs up (and back down) the hillside and there are nice views throughout the hike. We were a bit late but imagine the beauty of all the cholla cacti backlit by the sunset.

Location and Length

The Cactus Loop Trail trailhead is located across from Tamarisk Grove Campground. This nature trail is a one-mile loop.

The Yaqui Well Trail trailhead is also located across from the Tamarisk Grove Campground (just down the road from the Cactus Loop trailhead). The Yaqui Well nature trail is slightly longer at 1.5 miles one-way (to return, go back the way you came or take the Yaqui Well Primitive Camp road). Based on the nature trail guide, you’d expect the Yaqui Well trail to end at a naturally occurring year-round spring. We couldn’t find the spring (and neither could others) but it’s possible that it is located within an area that was closed for rehabilitation. So, there’s nothing compelling on this trail that you won’t find on the nearby Cactus Loop Trail. Consequently, we’d recommend skipping the Yaqui Well hike unless you have additional time or want some more exercise after Cactus Loop Trail.

Hike #4: Ghost Mountain (Marshal South Homesite) Trail

Description and Photos

The Ghost Mountain hike was a great surprise. Furthermore, we had the whole trail to ourselves the entire hike. The trail ascends up and around a steep hillside via a rocky switchback path. Pause a few times and take in the superb views on each side of the mountain. The trail ends at, what once was, the home of Marshal South and his family. In the 1930s Marshal moved his wife and three children to this desolate location. Today we can still see the ruins of their home including a bed and water cistern. It is remarkable to think about their lives. This location is a good place to sit and enjoy a picnic before descending back down the Ghost Mountain trail.

LEARN MORE: The story of Marshall South and his family can be read in this book: 

Location and Length

The Ghost Mountain (Marshal South Homesite) Trail is located in Blair Valley, 2.7 miles from Highway S-2, near Blair Valley Primitive Campground. The road into Blair Valley, off Highway S-2, is a dirt road but a 4 x 4 vehicle is not necessarily required. Check the road conditions at the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park Visitor Center to be safe. To reach the Ghost Mountain trailhead follow the signs to the Pictographs and then to Marshal South Home / South Residence. The hike up Ghost Mountain to the ruins of the South Residence is 2 miles round-trip with an elevation gain of ~450 feet. Return the way you came.

In addition to Ghost Mountain, other Blair Valley trails include:

  • ‘Ehmuu-Monteros Trail – an easy 0.5 mile walk back in time through a seasonal Kumeyaay Village Site
  • Pictograph Trail / Smuggler’s Canyon Trail – an easy 0.9 mile one-way trail that climbs over a low pass, leading to a pictograph-covered boulder. Continue 0.5 miles further to reach Smuggler’s Canyon. The trail stops at the edge of a dry waterfall with great views of the Vallecito Valley. Return the way you came.

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Bonus: Galleta Meadows Metal Sculptures (Borrego Springs Public Art)

While en route from one hike to another take some time to explore the super cool GIGANTIC metal sculptures scattered around Borrego Springs. There are over 130 of them located on Galleta Meadows property. The artist behind this amazing public art is Ricardo Breceda.

FUN FACT: Anza-Borrego Desert State Park surrounds the town of Borrego Springs. Borrego Springs was designated an International Dark Sky Community in 2009. You’ll find yourself here to visit the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park Visit Center and also for food and supplies.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park Area Map with Points of Interest

This map is of the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park area. The map highlights the best short hikes, metal sculpture locations, and various points of interest. 

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Anza-Borrego Desert State Park Accommodation

Camping Overview

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park has four developed campgrounds:

  • Borrego Palm Canyon campground (tent and RV sites with and without hookups)
  • Tamarisk Grove campground (tent and cabin sites)
  • Vern Whitaker Horse Camp campground (equestrian campsites)
  • Bow Willow campground (tent sites)

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park also has eight first-come first-serve primitive campgrounds:

  • Blair Valley Primitive Campground
  • Sheep Canyon Primitive Campground
  • Culp Valley Primitive Campground
  • Arroyo Salado Primitive Campground
  • Yaqui Pass Primitive Campground
  • Yaqui Well Primitive Campground
  • Fish Creek Primitive Campground
  • Mountain Palm Primitive Campground

Finally, in addition to developed and primitive campgrounds, backcountry camping is allowed in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

Tamarisk Grove Campground

We stayed at Tamarisk Grove Campground in a primitive cabin but we can’t wait to return with Camper Dan for some backcountry camping. Our review and photos of the cabin at Tamarisk Grove Campground can be found on Hipcamp under the link above or theDyrt. The review reads as follows:

Tamarisk Grove Campground is about 20 minutes south of Borrego Springs. It sits next to the highway but there’s minimal traffic so it isn’t terribly loud. There are tent sites as well as primitive cabins. Each site has a fire ring and table. There are also flush toilets and paid showers. There is no potable water at this campground – be sure to bring your own. The cabins are simple structures with platforms for sleeping. There are no amenities in the cabins – no electric, no water, no mattress, no linens, etc.

The campground is across the street from both the Cactus Loop and Yaqui Well trail heads. We recommend the short Cactus Loop hike over the Yaqui Well hike. Go at sunset to catch the cholla cacti backlit by the sunset.

TIP: Try Hipcamp to discover campsites (or list your own land!). Use this link to sign-up and receive $10 in Hipcamp credit towards your first direct booking (not available for federal or state land)!

TIP: If you’d prefer to explore Anza-Borrego Desert State Park without having to camp, check out these Borrego Springs accommodation options.

March 24 – 26, 2018

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