Hidden California: The Anza-Borrego Desert

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Early morning golf in Palm Springs California

Nestled in the Anza-Borrego Desert is a little oasis of tranquility and low-cost fun.

When you hear the words "Palm Canyon Drive," you probably think of the main drag in Palm Springs, with its Rolls Royces, expensive department stores and leather-skinned ladies with Gucci bags and too much jewelry. But did you know there's another Palm Canyon Drive in another California desert community that is known more for its casual, friendly locals, rustic, inexpensive motels, and charming hole-in-the-wall eateries?

Yep, if you're looking for the ultimate in quiet, relaxing, low-frills/low-cost desert getaways, don't head for the Palms, consider the "other" Springs: Borrego Springs, a tiny but scenic and well-equipped, visitor-friendly desert town happily isolated within the 600,000-acre Anza-Borrego Desert State Park -- America's largest desert state park. Borrego Springs -- known to most of the locals simply as Borrego -- is what Palm Springs probably was, say, 50 years ago. But it's doubtful if Palm Springs was ever this charming, this peaceful.

Borrego is surrounded by rocky peaks inhabited by rare bighorn sheep and blessed with a bountiful array of nature's wonders. A two-hour drive from either San Diego or Los Angeles, Borrego provides an old-school desert ambiance that reinvigorates the spirit and refreshes the mind. There are no traffic signals in sun-drenched Borrego, no Starbucks, no long lines, and, as a result, no stress. All you need to remember are these three magic words: relax, explore, save.

Pillow talk

Borrego offers several economical lodging options, perhaps the best being Palm Canyon Resort on Palm Canyon Dr., 800-242-0044. With rooms as low as $70 a night, the Palm Canyon, which looks like an Old West town from the outside, offers a pool, BBQ area and fully stocked fitness area for all guests, and each room is equipped with a refrigerator, fresh brewed coffee and hair dryers.

Another inexpensive but comfortable option is the Stanlunds Resort Inn and Suites on Borrego Springs Rd., 760-767-5501. The Standlunds, whose October-May rates are as low as $75 a night, offers a pool, private patios, a BBQ facility, continental breakfasts on weekends, and coffee in all rooms. And it, too, is right in the heart of town.

But the real story in Borrego is the surrounding Anza-Borrego desert and its open-camping policy, which means you're free from the restrictions of designated campground areas found at more densely populated parks such as Yosemite and Sequoia. Visitors to this state park can explore a virtually limitless range of camping experiences unmatched anywhere in the country. There are also plenty of RV spaces. Campers can call 767-5311 for more information.

The blossoming desert

An early spring trip to Borrego is what we advise. In the spring, there are all kinds of things to do and see. The desert and mountain wildflower season, which runs from February through April, is a sight to behold. Bring your camera. A favorite annual spring event is the Grapefruit Festival, the third week of April. Capping off the wildflower season, the festival includes special events live music, dances, a tennis tournament, picnic, classic car show, youth games, interpretive programs at the state park, and more.

And both you and the kids will love going "critter watching." Who says there's no life in the desert? Borrego is loaded with wildlife in the spring. Just driving through town, you'll see coyotes -- don't worry, they're more scared of you than you are of them -- as well as road runners, jack rabbits, and much more.

The Anza-Borrego Desert State Park offers a virtually limitless range of jaw-dropping scenery. Highlights include Font's Point, Borrego Palm Canyon, 17 Palm Oasis, Southern Emigrant Trail and Split Mountain. The park also offers a wide variety of programs, films, tours, etc., covering areas such as paleontology, geology, animal/plant life, astronomy, history and more. The park's main visitor center is just outside of town, west of Palm Canyon Drive, 760-767-4205. Helpful websites include statepark.org/ and borregosprings.com/.

Simple pleasures

There are several inexpensive public golf courses, and Borrego is also a perfect place to play tennis. At Borrego Springs Tennis Club there are four lighted courts available to the public, and at Borrego Springs High School and Elementary School, a total of three courts are available when school is out. All hotels and motels in Borrego have pools, and the high school pool is open to the public in the summer.

Another fun idea when visiting Borrego is to bring your telescope. Because the area is surrounded on all sides by mountain ranges (which help block out interfering light), Borrego is one of the best places in America for stargazing, with crystal clear desert skies.

There aren't a whole bunch of dining choices, but the ones that are there are charming and fun. They include Borrego Pizza, Etc., 767-4310, Crosswinds at the Airport, 767-4646, George's & Family Little Italy, 767-3491, Kendall's Cafe, 767-3491, La Casa del Zorro, 1-800-824-1884, Pablito's of the Desert, 767-5753, and the Coffee & Book Store, 767-5080.

The County Airport at Borrego Springs has a lighted 5,000-foot runway and offers fueling and space for overnight or longer stays. But the best way to get to Borrego is by car. Just drive from wherever you are, or take a cheap flight to San Diego or McClellan-Palomar Airport (in north San Diego County, just east of Carlsbad), rent a car and take the scenic, relaxing two-hour drive away from the city and out to Borrego.

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