The drive from Oceanside, north from the shores of the Pacific Ocean to the Anza-Borrego desert and the Salton Sea, is one of the
great drives of Southern California. Highway 78
runs across the Coast Range and the Laguna Mountains, through the
Cleveland National Forest, before descending to
the sandy flatlands and badlands of this
least-known desert of the American Southwest.
Before entering the forested hills, the route passes through the San Pasqual Valley. Across
the range is the historic mining town of Julian.
Our destination, the town of Borrego Springs --
with hotels and motels -- is surrounded by the
vast state park.
It's a short drive from Borrego Springs to the cities of the
Coachella Valley, including Palm Springs, Indio,
Palm Desert, and Desert Hot Springs.
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
The largest state park in the
Lower 48, Anza-Borrego's 600,000 acres include
mountains higher than 6,000 feet, palm-covered
canyons, badland areas, and some of the most
wondrous desert wildlife in all of California.
The park is less than 2 hours' drive from San
Diego and 31/2 hours from Los Angeles. Spring
and fall are the optimum seasons for visiting
The town of Borrego Springs is
surrounded by the park and is the main access
point for the park's attractions. The Park
Visitor Center is located at the north end of
Palm Canyon Drive, the town's main street (Road
S-22). This is definitely the place to begin a
visit to the park. Children will enjoy reading
the Junior Naturalist handbook, available here,
and a short trail leads through the desert in
front of the visitor center, which is buried in
the desert scape. Because of the intense heat of
the summer months, the park's interpretive
program starts each year in November and ends
during May. However, the park facilities are
Anza-Borrego is one of the
nation's foremost fossil and bone yards.
Thousands of fossils have been collected in the
park area and are now catalogued and stored in
the fossil library. Most are fossils of small
(and some very, very small) animals. However,
more than 100 species of large animals have been
unearthed in the park, including the giant
ground sloth, bison, llama, ancient dog,
American lion, zebra, horse, dromedary camel,
mammoth, and many reptiles. These animals once
thrived in what is now the Borrego Badlands,
where waving seas of grass grew to the edge of
an ancient sea.
In springtime the southern California desert
blooms. After the winter rains, the desert puts
on its spectacular display of wildflower color.
Spring is also a comfortable time of the year to
visit the desert park, when daytime temperatures
are only in the 70s and 80s. Later, after the
flowers disappear, the mercury shoots up to over
100 degrees, and most of the winter residents
leave for cooler climes.
Cacti offer delicate pastel flowers. On the
desert floor are bellyflowers, tiny little
plants requiring visitors to get down beside
them. These are the earliest bloomers and the
first plants to wither, as the summer warmth
ends their annual cycle. The best time for
viewing is mid-March to early April
Anza Borrego Desert State Park operates the Borrego/Palm Canyon Camprground, in Palm Canyon.
Another campground without hookups is in this
area. Tamarisk Grove Campground, south of
Borrego Springs, has no hookups. For
Borrego/Palm Canyon reservations, call
800-444-7275. Unlimited primitive camping is
permitted across the park.
For more information, go here.
Oceanside to the Salton Sea
110 miles, 177 km
2 hours, 15 minutes
Oceanside The drive begins at the intersection of Interstate 5 and California Highway 78 The road is a divided (six-lane) roadway between Oceanside and Escondido, passing through San Marcos (16 miles from the start). Escondido is 25 miles from I-5.
Junction-Interstate 15 This freeway leads north to Riverside and south to San Diego.
San Pasqual Valley The highway runs across the valley, passing by the small town of Ramona, which has cafes, a motel, gas, stores and a ranger station for the Cleveland National Forest.
Santa Ysabel Small town with gas, cafes, store. Hwy. 79 leads north, an alternate route to Borrego Springs (32 miles) via County Roads 5-2 & 5-22. Lake Henshaw is 11 miles along this road. Hemet is 61 miles.
Inaja Picnic Area In the Cleveland National Forest.
Wynola Springs A tiny village with a cafe and fruit market.
Pine Hills Road Leads south. William Heise County Park (campground and picnic area).
Julian Town (pop. 1,320) with gas, cafes, store, bar, deli, B&Bs, motel. The Julian Hotel is an historic landmark, now a B&B inn with a respected dining room.
Junction-Highway 97 Leads north to Lake Henshaw & south to Cuyamaca.
Cuyamaca Rancho State Park Located on Hwy. 97, about 20 miles south of Julian, with camping.
The road climbs into mountains again and then descends through a canyon into the desert.
Agua Caliente County Park 21 miles off the highway with camping and hot springs. Closed from June 1 to September 1 because of summer heat. New cabins are now available
Junction-County Road S-2 Leads south to Ocotillo and Interstate 8. It passes the historic Butterfield Stage Station (19 miles) and Agua Caliente Springs. By driving north on Rd. S- 2, you can take another desert route to Borrego Springs.
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park The highway crosses the park boundary as it runs through the canyon formed by San Felipe Creek.
Junction-County Road S-3 To Borrego Springs and the Anza-Borrego Park Headquarters. Turn north for the park facilities and Borrego Springs services. The park visitor center is 16 miles from the junction.
Tamarisk Grove Campground Just off the highway to the east.
Yaqui Pass (el. 1,750 feet) There is a camping (parking) area to the east of the highway, at the pass.
Borrego Springs The town is spread across the valley, with a golf resort at the southern end, and the county road continues northward to the business center of town. The road ends in a circle with a picnic park in the middle. Stores, cafes, motel, resort hotel, banks, RV park, and gas station.
Park Facilities: There is a campground in the Palm Canyon section of the park, a few minutes' drive from the visitor center.
East via County Road 22 Our drive continues for another 30 miles east via County Road S-22, passing through the Borrego Badlands. An alternate route to the Salton Sea is via County Road S-3 south, retracing our way in, and then along Highway 78 to Elmore and Brawley.
This preferred route via S-22 provides a shorter drive to the Coachella Valley (Palm Desert, Palm Springs, etc.). The road passes through bizarre and fascinating badlands, including the stark canyons of Arroyo Salado, which are seen to the south of the road. A campground suitable for tents and pickups is located at Arroyo Salado.
Salton City Far from being a city, this community is basically a few stores, a cafe and a motel at the highway junction. The Salton Sea is a salty lake that attracts wildlife, including abundant brine shrimp and the many bird species that feed on the shrimp.
Junction-Highway 86 This is the route along the west shore of the briny Salton Sea, with Brawley to the south and the towns of the Coachella Valley to the north.
Indio is 23 miles from the junction.
Palm Springs is 46 miles from Salton City via Highway 86 and Highway 111.
For More on Anza Borrego Desert State
Park and Borrego Springs,
to our Anza Borrego Destinations