Anza-Borrego Desert State ParkAugust 9, 1999
by Jean Tucker
This article first appeared in PILOT GETAWAYS magazine, and is reprinted here by permission.
Under a translucent blue bowl of desert sky, the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park sprawls over 600,000 acres of mountains, desert, and oasis canyons. Located near the California-Mexico border, approximately 50 nm northeast of San Diego and 40 nm north of Mexico, this is the largest State Park in the contiguous U.S.
Although a desert now, from the air the effects of water past and present are clearly seen throughout this region. Twisted arroyos and deep slot canyons carved by flash floods and earthquakes snake their way down from steeply eroded cliffs. Multicolored layers of mineral deposits stripe the mountains ranging down both sides of Borrego Valley. Flashes of green highlight hidden oasis canyons and a drop in altitude reveals the presence of water. Under it all lie the bones of mastodons, sabertooths, and camels that roamed these lands 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 the best-kept secrets of Southern California. Known for its sweet grapefruit, mild climate, and growing artist community, Borrego Springs is host to many restaurants, resorts, and fine golf courses and "there’s not one darn traffic light anywhere" as the locals are fond of boasting. Here in the desert surrounded by mountains, the pace of life slows down and nature emerges in all her subtle beauty and power. Whether you want a quiet retreat for yourself or a family getaway, Borrego provides something for everyone.
The best times of year to fly in are October through April. Daytime temperatures range from 70 to 84 degrees and the nighttime average falls to between 43 and 54 degrees. By May, the temperatures are climbing up into the nineties and above one hundred degree weather is the average for June through September.
The Borrego Valley airport lies three miles east of Borrego Springs at an elevation of 520 ft. Runway 07/25 is 5,000 x 75 ft. of pavement in excellent condition with pilot-controlled lighting. There is a very active aerobatic box just north of the airport from ground level to 5,000 ft. All traffic patterns are flown on the south side of the airport to avoid the aerobatic box (right traffic Runway 25).
The approach from the east is relatively straightforward, passing over
the Salton Sea, one of the few bodies of water in the United States that is
below sea level (elevation -228 ft. MSL). Mountains exceed 6,000 feet MSL in
all other quadrants, so it is best to delay your descent below 8,500 feet
until within 10 miles of the airport, for approaches from south through
north. This may require a few turns to avoid a rapid descent – what an
excellent excuse to fly the Anza Borrego Sky Trail! (See "Things to Do.")
The Borrego Valley FBO is located on the south side of the runway. It has a full service pilot lounge with restrooms, vending machines 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 a car, and give you information about local accommodations and shuttle services. Give her a call at (760) 767-7415. The tiedown area is located in front of the FBO. The fee is $3 per night and you supply your own tiedown cables. There are also several charter services and flight schools located at the airport.
The Anza-Borrego Desert State Park was named for the Spanish explorer Juan Bautista de Anza and the Borrego Cimarron big horn sheep. In 1774, Anza found a way up from Mexico over the Salton Sea to the Borrego Valley. He came to see if the notch he noticed in the California coastal range on a previous trip would provide a way over the mountains to California. The notch proved to be a natural staircase over the mountains via Coyote Canyon at the north end of the valley and the first overland immigrant train from Mexico to California was established. A year and a half later, Anza led 240 soldiers, colonists, and 1,000 horses, cattle and mules from Culiacan, Mexico on an expedition of 1,600 miles through Borrego and over Coyote Canyon into California to found the pueblo of San Francisco.
The California Gold Rush brought the next wave of settlers and the famous Butterfield Overland Stageline forged roads through the desert on its way to San Francisco. This was never a hospitable land for ranchers or farmers and, in 1933, most of the Borrego Desert was 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 in North Africa. Army tank destroyer units from New Mexico and anti-aircraft units from California began to arrive here immediately after Pearl Harbor. Naval aviators in their P-38’s used the Carrizo Impact area as a bombing and gunnery range. Because live ordnance still covers the area, it is closed to the public. It can, however, be viewed from the air where bomb craters are still visible below.
With a park this large and diverse, sightseeing from the air can be a lot of fun. With this in mind, the park service has published the Anza-Borrego State Park Sky Trail Guide Book. Authored by State Park Pilot Jon Muench, the Sky Trail is a 150-or-so-mile guided tour of the park and surrounding areas from the air. The publication is in two parts. The first part is a Pilot’s Manual with detailed flight instructions, VOR, and GPS coordinates for navigation. The second part is a descriptive tour of the Sky Trail intended for a passenger to read aloud to the other passengers. The tour begins at the Borrego Valley Airport and covers many areas that can only be seen from the air. Write to the park at the address listed below for a copy of the Sky Trail (cost of $2.50) or give Jon a call at the district office, (760) 767-5311, for more suggestions about where to fly in the area. Ask him about the sleeping circles or the local intaglio, large scale designs carved 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-Borrego State 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 oasis canyons or desert plains. Bicycles, off-road vehicles, and tour guides are all available for 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.
And let’s not forget the wildflowers. Every spring beginning mid-February and peaking in early March or April, the desert floor becomes a living carpet of color. Yellow, purple, blue, and white blossoms slowly spread across the plain and up the mountainsides. The park will notify you of this year’s peak bloom time two weeks in advance if you mail them a stamped self-addressed postcard in an 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.
The park Visitor Center at the end of Palm Canyon Drive is definitely worth a trip. The 7,000-sq. ft. facility is built underground with a beautifully landscaped desert garden as its roof. If you don’t have the time or the inclination to hike, a stroll through these gardens will give you a taste of the variety of plant life in the park. The center is hidden from the parking lot but just follow the walkway past the flagpole to the dramatic entrance. An excellent bookstore and friendly rangers provide much information about the area. The park offers all kinds of activities such as nature walks, fireside talks, stargazing, and audio-visual performances at the center. Especially for children they offer a Junior Ranger program with "kids only" hikes and activities lasting an hour or two. Contact the center at (760) 767-5311 and they will send/fax you a schedule of all the upcoming events for the month and give you good suggestions for park activities based on your needs. Be sure to visit the park’s web site at www.abdsp.org
Take a tour of the area with one of the local tour guides. "Borrego Paul" of Desert Jeep Tours will pick you up from the airport or any local hotel for a two-hour informative and entertaining desert tour in an enclosed comfortable four-wheel drive Jeep. He can arrange tours of the badlands, fossil beds, and Indian ruins or a trip to the deserted gold mines up in the mountains. Sunset tours complete with dinner and a look at the nocturnal creatures of the desert can be geared for family adventure or for romance. He’ll tell you how scorpions glow in the dark and give you a leaf of a "potato chip" plant to crunch on. Whether your interest lies in the beautiful scenery, geology, or plant and animal life of the area or in the Indian culture or gold miner’s yarns, Paul and his guides have a story for you. Tell them what you want to see in advance and a custom tour can be designed for you and your crew. The average two-hour tour runs $49 per person and requires a 24-hour advance reservation.
Try a Dune Buggy tour for a different experience of the area. An experienced driver takes you for a tour open air, dune buggy style. Anything from a one-hour tour to an all day event can be scheduled in advance of your arrival. The cost begins at $39 per person for one hour and ranges up to $145 for a four-hour tour. Desert Rat Tours, (760) 767-3755.
If you want a human powered experience, contact Carrizo Bikes on Palm Canyon Drive for mountain bike rentals, ride suggestions or guided bike tours. They even have tandem 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 and reservations. Carrizo Bikes, (760) 767-3872.
For something Out of the Ordinary, say a Llama trek, a hot air balloon ride or stargazing in a desert arroyo complete with telescopes and a noted astronomer, contact Carrie Ellwood at Out of the Ordinary Group Adventures to arrange your next adventure. (619) 487-3418 or email@example.com.
Starting in February, you can watch pilots practicing 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 the rooftop 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 Airport hosts a mini Akrofest for the basic, sportsman, and intermediate classes of aerobatics pilots and, on the first weekend of October, the 23rd annual Akrofest will include competition through the advanced and unlimited classes. The Annual Peg Leg Smith Liars Contest is held on the first Saturday in April. Reported to be a gold miner who rushed into town to tell everyone of his big strike and then realized he had better make up a convincing lie about its location in a hurry, Peg Leg is remembered during this annual event when the locals gather at Christmas Tree Circle to let ‘em fly. The only rule for this event is that your lie can’t be longer than 15 minutes. According to our friend, Borrego Paul, since this is an amateur event, all lawyers and tour guides are disqualified!
For more information about area events, write to the Borrego Springs California Chamber of Commerce at 622 Palm Canyon Drive, P.O. Box 420, Borrego Springs, CA 92004 or call (800) 559-5524 or email them firstname.lastname@example.org. They also have a very good web site at www.borregospringschamber.com.
Where to Stay
No matter what your budget or trip agenda, Borrego Springs has something to offer that will fit your needs. For such a small community, there are an amazing variety of accommodations offered. There are exclusive, gated spas that only admit pre-registered guests and offer programs designed to pamper and relax the most stressed out artist, actor, or executive. There are championship golf resorts with beautiful courses and elegant restaurants. A variety of family oriented resorts offer tennis, guided tours, bike rentals, and units with kitchenettes.
B&B’s offer all types of options from the very Zen with clothing-optional pool to the sun-drenched Southwestern motif with a telescope on every patio. For those keeping an eye on their budget, there are several moderate to inexpensive motels offering clean basic accommodations with or without a kitchenette. The Borrego Springs Chamber of Commerce (mentioned above) will gladly provide you with a list of area accommodations or email Borrego’s VIP Concierge at BorregoVIPConcierge@Borrego.org for suggestions and reservations.
For a lovely upscale experience, try the La Casa del Zorro Resort. This is a four-star resort with six championship tennis courts, three beautiful swimming pools, a luxurious fitness spa, and a wonderful restaurant all on 42 acres, only five minutes from the airport. Although this is a luxury resort, it is run with a relaxed, friendly, unpretentious style that immediately makes you feel welcome and at ease from the moment they pick you up at the airport. The hand-hewn beams and adobe walls of the main reception rooms were a part of the original Burk’s ranch house built in 1937 and opened to guests as the Desert Lodge. At that time, the population of Borrego Springs was only 25 and guests would gather around the ranch 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 to music, look at the beautiful original artwork and enjoy a wonderful meal. From May to December during their Jazz Weekends, you’ll find folks relaxing around the pool or hanging 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 oversized Deluxe Rooms with vaulted ceilings, fireplaces and private patios. All are oversized rooms and come with plush bath robes, coffeemakers, and a daily newspaper. Two townhouse-style Deluxe Piano Suites feature a baby grand piano in the first floor living room and a fireplace on each floor. The Casitas are one- to four-bedroom detached homes and are arranged 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 pool or spa and are beautifully landscaped with local desert plants. Some even feature a family of owls living in their tamarisk trees. Perfect for a family outing or a private weekend getaway.
The rates vary with the season and the day of the week. During peak season from 1/16 to 4/30, rooms range from $95 to $190 during the week and $115 to $245 on the weekend. The Casitas range from $175 to $500. Their mid-season rates, 5/1 to 5/31 and 10/1 to 1/1 are about 20% less and the bargain season, from 6/1 to 9/30, is almost half price for the luxury rooms and Casitas. For reservations and information about Jazz Weekends and special events, call (800) 824-1884 for reservations. Website: www.lacasadelzorro.com
There are several interesting Bed and Breakfast style places in Borrego Springs. Try the Borrego Valley Inn for a great experience. It is with in walking distance of the park and offers 14 rooms in the southwestern style on ten acres. There are beautiful views of the mountains from the two swimming pools and a telescope is even provided on your patio for stargazing. Rates: $80 to $135. Call (760) 767-0311 for reservations or visit their website www.borregovalleyinn.com for 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 the mountains. With reasonable rates starting at $75, the rooms are large and comfortable and the park is just a stroll down the road. Like most of the hotels in Borrego they will pick you up at the airport and help you arrange any activities you are interested in from golf to spelunking. (800) 242-0044, website: www.pcresort.com.
Camping is always an option in Borrego. The park surrounding the town offers open camping, 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 luxury of hot showers, rest rooms, and shade ramadas. Register for either of these in the Visitors Center at the end of Palm Canyon Drive. For the ultimate in inexpensive accommodations, talk to Viki at the FBO and she will let you pitch a tent on the grass beside 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 del Zorro’s southwestern style restaurant, you dine surrounded by the original paintings of Marjorie Reed depicting the Butterfield stage route through California and a view through the rose arbor to the mountains beyond. Serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner, the restaurant offers a variety of interesting appetizers, salads, sandwiches, and entrees from 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 one of the best views in town from its glass-enclosed dining room and the buffet at the Borrego Springs Resort Hotel, 1112 Tilting T Road is rumored by the locals to be the best deal in town.
For an early breakfast before that big hike, try Kendall’s Café on the back side of The Mall shopping center at 528 Palm Canyon Drive for your basic coffee shop experience. If you’ve got to have that latte, try the Coffee & Bookstore at 590 Palm Canyon Drive for an espresso, some great pastries and a book.
When the sun goes down, the locals hang out at Carlee’s on (you guessed it!) Palm Canyon Drive. A combination bar and restaurant, Carlee’s has live country western music on Friday nights. Let’s not forget the Crosswinds Restaurant at the airport. Open for lunch and dinner from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., the Crosswinds offers a complete 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 and resorts in town offer a pick up from the airport and many have a shuttle available to transport guests to activities. Check with your hotel for availability. Tour guides will pick you up in their vehicles at your hotel, bicycle rentals can be arranged by your hotel or through Carrizo Bikes, and if you are staying in one of the resorts on Palm Canyon Drive, 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 for holiday weekends or during the wildflower season.
The next time you’re looking for stunning scenery, friendly people, or just a place to relax, come to the Anza-Borrego Desert. While you’re here, thank the state park ranger, Jon, for his work on the Anza-Borrego State Park Sky Trail and for the support of a government agency that actually supports and encourages general aviation.
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