BORREGO SPRINGS, California – Hot. Desolate. Sublime. With temps soaring in the triple digits, summer was definitely no man's land in this tiny town of 2,500 residents, three hours southeast of Los Angeles. But for an urbanite like myself, it proved an idyllic time to discover the monastic-like silence of Borrego Springs, California's Secret Desert.
There's not a single traffic light or restaurant chain and only a dozen streetlights. Borrego Springs is the quintessential balm for the soul, a surreal alternative to its bourgeois neighbor, Palm Springs. It also has one of the blackest night skies in the US, so much so that it was recently deemed California's only Dark Sky Community. It's Disneyland for the stargazer.
Traveling from Temecula to Borrego Springs by Highway S-22, as the car crested the hill, I gasped. Seeing the sprawling valley — most of it the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, at 600,000 acres, the largest park of the lower 48 United States — with its black, jutting rocks and ocotillo-speckled landscape was enough to deem this adventure a success.
With visions of frolicking in their ornate, Olympic-size pool, our group headed to one of the best motels in Borrego Springs, The Palms at Indian Head. Once a swinging hangout in the 1950s for Hollywood jetsetters like Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe, it's now a practical, clean bungalow with great mid-century bones.
The Palms' slogan is "make yourself at home," and that's just how you'll feel when you pick up your key and welcome packet at the lonely front desk. No check-in, no doorman, no bag attendant, no concierge. Not a single staff member in the evening. Our foursome had the entire run of the hotel to ourselves, one other couple. Kind of exciting, like a kid left home alone for the first time, and a little eerie at times. I had moments of scenes from The Shining flash before my eyes.
After a serene night of Jack Nicholson-free dreams, top of my agenda was to explore the Galleta Meadows Estate. Driving along a forlorn road with only a few houses dotting the scenery, I was wondering what exactly we were looking for when — in the middle of nowhere — a ten-foot metal sculpture of a lioness attacking a zebra of graphic proportions materialized on the horizon. Then an eagle with a 30-foot wide wingspan appeared to the left, a horse in mid-gallop to the right. And on. And on.
Spanning hundreds of acres in both directions off Borrego Springs Road, Galleta Meadows Estate, which is owned by Dennis Avery of Avery Labels, is a mini Marfa, Texas, and a city folk's safari rolled into one. There's no fear of getting attacked or eaten, only wonderment at sculptor Ricardo Breceda's life-like creations — some modern-day species, some prehistoric. The pièce de résistance of Brecada's painstaking artistry is the 350-foot dragon that spans both sides of the road. (See image at the top od the page.) Take that Comic-Con.
My appetite for the ethereal whet, Font's Point was next on the list. I had heard that the view of Anza-Borrego's badlands was like seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time. Alas, a 4x4 was required and unfortunately California Overland Desert Excursions, the only 4x4 Jeep touring company around, had no room for us.
After refueling at Carmelita's Cantina, an authentic Mexican food joint with homemade chips and $4 margaritas, we set out to do the unthinkable: hike midday in Anza-Borrego. Taking the ranger's advice at the elaborate Visitor Center, we opted for the three-mile Borrego Palm Canyon Trail because it was short but promised a rewarding destination of shade, springs, and a mysterious grove of native palm trees.
I overheard a local hiker say he was still on the lookout for the elusive bighorn sheep native to Borrego Springs after 30 years of exploring the area. That's all I needed for motivation to do the hellish hike in noonday heat. I was going to see a sheep or else.
The park pamphlet indicated geological tidbits and traces of Native American life, which was worth it, but we returned drenched, parched, and, worst of all, dissed by the bighorn.
As I was settling into yet another disappointment climbing into the car, my boyfriend grabbed my wrist and he motioned for me to turn around slowly. Lo and behold, a graceful bighorn was enjoying a sip from the small pond by the parking lot. He was probably laughing his white tail off at the tourists who just travailed three sweaty hours to see him, only to find him hanging out at entrance to the trailhead.
Satisfied with my mission-accomplished status (even if I had been the butt of a bighorn's practical joke), we headed home on S-22 on the 21-mile driving tour of the Borrego Badlands. On Erosion Road through Anza-Borrego State Park, the earth's tectonic activities played out like Technicolor, dreamlike scenes, an unexpected exclamation point to a treasure trove of the desert's secrets revealed.
PLAN YOUR TRIP
When to Go
- Low season: June-August
- High season: November-April
It's not as hot in the high season, but it has a quirky charm in summer because it's literally a ghost town of sorts.
Where to Stay
The Palms at Indian Head
2220 Hoberg Road
Borrego Springs, CA 92004
Where to Eat
575 Palm Canyon Drive
Borrego Springs, CA
660 Palm Canyon Drive
Borrego Springs, CA
- Their lemon Drop rivals LA's finest.
587 Palm Canyon Drive
Borrego Springs, CA
- Authentic American diner eats for breakfast.
See the locations in this story. (Google Maps)