By Karen Carlson
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is the largest state park in California. It is approximately 660,000 acres and provides 500 miles of dirt roads, 12 wilderness areas and many miles of hiking and riding trails.
It also provides visitors with an unparalleled opportunity to experience the wonders of the California desert.
The park is named for Spanish explorer Juan Bautista de Anza and the Spanish word borrego, or bighorn sheep. The park features washes, wildflowers, palm groves, cacti and sweeping vistas. You may also have the chance to see roadrunners, golden eagles, kit foxes, mule deer and bighorn sheep as well as the desert species of rattlesnakes.
Most visitors use highways from the east such as S22, S2, or 78.
Visitors from San Diego via highways 79 and 78 have the added pleasure of driving through the mountainous Cuyamaca Rancho State Park — quite a different experience from the desert of Anza-Borrego. The highways from the east climb to 2,400 feet or so and then descend about 2,000 feet to the valley.
A little warning about S22. It’s very winding and steep — and winding. I say that twice because, if you or anyone in your party gets car sick, this road will get them there quickly. Never fear, though. I drive it with horse trailer in tow and very slowly, so it’s doable.
As for Highway 78, past Julian, down what’s called Banner Grade, this, too, is winding and steep, and places are very narrow, and I wouldn’t drive it horse trailer in tow unless I was forced to somehow, but it’s a beautiful drive much of the year.
S2 is my favorite way out to Borrego. It doesn’t get my heart pounding and palms sweaty as does S22. All routes take about the same amount of time to travel.
Where the highways break out of the mountain terrain, they reveal the great bowl of the Anza-Borrego desert. If you are not driving, pay close attention to the view. It’s stunning.
The mountains surround the desert valley and the highest to the north are called the Santa Rosa Mountains, a wilderness with no paved roads in, out or through.
They have the only all-year-flowing watercourse in the park and are the home of the peninsular bighorn sheep, often referred to as desert bighorn. Few park visitors ever see them. The sheep are shy, but they are quite a sight to see.
The sky is a special color blue that you can only experience in person as there are no words that would do it justice.
I visit, ride and camp within the park every chance I get, and now is the time to get out and camp! Vern Whitaker Horse Camp, Vallecito Park & Horse Camp, and Stage Coach Trails Camp (and others) all provide access to various regions to and within Anza Borrego State Park, and these are some of my favorite places to stay with my horse, Cricket.
Each camp has restrooms and corrals for comfort of rider and horse. The terrain and trails are very diverse depending on where you decide to stay and ride. From deep, sandy washes to cactus-lined, hard pack trails on the valley floor to single track, dusty trails through gorgeous meadows of the mountains that lead you to the desert floor, you will find each place unique and exciting in its own way.