South Coast Region

Borrego Springs, California, offers up a hiker’s haven through stunning desert landscape

Borrego Springs, California, offers up a hiker’s haven through stunning desert landscape, with a few surprises

A steel-welded sculpture of a serpent head.
Ricardo Breceda's collection of steel-welded sculptures dots the landscape in Borrego Springs. — Photo courtesy of Galleta Meadows Estate

It’s hard to visit San Diego County without some expectation of adventure. The desert beckons with unique landforms and endless hiking, and the small-town ambience of history-rich communities like Borrego Springs is irresistible. But take a few steps off the beaten path and you never know what awaits.

Gomphotherium metal sculptures

A 350-foot serpent appears to snake in and out of the desert earth, a prospector pans for gold and two sabre-toothed tigers sit ready to pounce. Looming up out of the desert and throughout the community at the north and south ends of Borrego Springs Road are a series of welded steel sculptures depicting prehistoric and modern animal figures. The sculptures were commissioned by Dennis Avery, a private landowner and community benefactor, as a means of drawing year-round tourism to Borrego Springs.

Sally Theriault, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park interpreter and visitor centre manager, said artist Ricardo Breceda completed all 130 of the sculptures, which are always open for public viewing.

“There are mammoths, sloths, camels, things like that,” said Theriault. “They are whimsical, and in some cases just suggest the animal.”

Many a traveller visits Borrego Springs for the annual wildflowers that decorate the landscape in the spring.

“We don’t always know how that will be because the flowers depend on good winter weather,” said Theriault. “The sculptures are a draw for the community in every season.”

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

Adventure lovers traipse the landscape in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, which boasts 630,000 acres of wild and wonderful landforms—from the mud hills of the badlands to mountains, wind caves and Slot Canyon.

“Many people visit the park,” said Theriault, “but most of them don’t know about it before they get here. There is so much (that) you can hike all day and never see another person.”

If you have the time and the tenacity, the natural wonders deep within the park—accessible only by four-by-four vehicle, depending on the season—are enough to take your breath away.

Discover wind caves, where the wind has eroded the sandstone over many years to create unusual formations. Visit the Slot, a narrow siltstone cave that boasts a short but exciting hike that ends with a passage beneath a breathtaking rock span.

Theriault reminds visitors to check in with the visitor centre about road conditions in the park at any time of year.

“It does get flash-flooded,” she said, “and a lot of the time you’d need a four-wheel-drive vehicle to get to some of these places.”

Hellhole Canyon

A little-known hike that is well worth the effort is the trek through Hellhole Canyon, aptly named by cattlemen from days gone past who had a “hell of a time” rounding up their cattle from the canyon given the 3,500-foot elevation, extreme heat and complete lack of shade coverage.

The canyon backs up against the San Ysidro Mountains and is accessible via a 5½-mile hike through moderate and advanced terrain—or, for the scenic adventurer, a 400-metre walk from the car to a lookout that provides a beautiful view of the canyon and the Borrego Valley.

For the seasoned hiker, the five-mile trail is wide and accessible for about 1.2 miles, until the canyon narrows and becomes a bit of a rock scramble. Maidenhair Falls is a 20-foot waterfall that is a welcome oasis in the desert heat—the trail to the falls is faint, but if you listen for them, you’ll find them.

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