If you'd like to dally in the desert, head to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. It's the only park in the state system that allows visitors to camp anywhere.
With 600,000 acres, there is plenty of room to pitch a tent; Anza-Borrego is the largest state park in the continental United States.
With the quiet desert community of Borrego Springs as headquarters, you can fan out to see numerous natural and historical attractions.
The park is named for Capt. Juan Bautista de Anza, who led California's first overland immigrants from Mexico through the region in 1775, and for the desert bighorn sheep that inhabit the surrounding mountains.
Located south of Palm Springs on the other side of the Santa Rosa Mountains, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park covers the eastern section of San Diego County from the Riverside County line almost to Baja.
Get there from Los Angeles by driving east on California 60 (Pomona Freeway) past Riverside to join Interstate 215 south. Soon after it joins Interstate 15. Exit beyond Rancho California to California 79 and continue east.
Beautiful Back Country
You'll pass through beautiful back country bordering the Cleveland National Forest. Look for the San Diego County S2 road turnoff about three miles beyond Warner Springs. Finally, bear left on S22, which wriggles among rock-strewn hills before descending the mountainside to Borrego Springs.
Turn left (west) on Palm Canyon Drive to the park visitors center for tour information and a desert orientation.
Displays of native plants and rocks cover the center, which is built underground like the shelters of desert animals. Watch the multiprojector slide show that introduces you to the wildlife, vegetation and people of the desert.
Among the exhibits is the lower jaw of a giant mammoth that roamed the area 1 million years ago, as well as mementos of more recent human inhabitants--prospectors, cattlemen, farmers and even Gen. George Patton's armored troops that practiced here for the World War II invasion of North Africa.
The visitors center is open every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Pick up a driving map (50 cents) of the park's major attractions. Also ask about the topics and times of ranger-led hikes and campfire programs. Phone: (619) 767-5311.
For some exercise and a close-up view of desert terrain and vegetation, walk the nearby Borrego Palm Canyon nature trail, a round trip of three miles. Along the way are 15 kinds of plants once used by the Indians for food, medicine and shelter.
Take your car to explore other park highlights. One is Font's Point, which overlooks the multicolored Borrego Badlands (via a 4 1/2-mile rough dirt road and recommended for four-wheel drive).
South of town, paved county road S2 follows the historic Southern Emigrant Trail, one of the first overland routes to California. At Box Canyon you'll see where the Mormon Battalion used picks and shovels to widen a gorge so its wagons could pass.
Also along the trail is the reconstructed 1835 Vallecito Station, where stagecoach passengers rested after crossing the desert. Today's travelers relax in soothing thermal pools at Agua Caliente Springs County Park just south on S2.
Range of Accommodations
Besides free camping anywhere along park roads in the Anza-Borrego Desert, there are three major campgrounds with facilities and fees. Closest to Borrego Springs is Borrego Palm Canyon camp near the visitors center. It has 52 sites with full hookups ($16) and 65 others without ($10); reserve with Mistix.
To enjoy the desert in style, check into La Casa del Zorro, an oasis of comfortable lodgings and fine food hidden behind willowy tamarisk trees south on Yaqui Pass Road. The 50-year-old inn recently underwent a major renovation.
Reserve one of its 18 casitas--modernized cottages that pamper you with a private porch, separate living room and bedrooms, fireplace, mini-kitchen, two TVs and telephones. One called the Pepper Tree has its own swimming pool and costs $375 per night, but most casitas are $150/$300.
Last year three new buildings with 42 suites and a pair of swimming pools doubled La Casa's capacity.
Included are two deluxe executive suites with grand piano and Jacuzzi. Rates $150/$250. Remodeled motel-type rooms ($95) and sitting-room suites ($125) also are available.
The resort's restaurant has long been known as the best around, and recently it was divided into two dining areas. The Presidio serves gourmet fare (and requires that gentlemen wear jackets), while the Butterfield Room has become an informal steak house. There's dinner theater Friday and Saturday evenings.
For meal or room reservations at La Casa del Zorro, call (800) 824-1884 or (619) 767-5323.
Another choice is to go up the road to Rams Hill, a $30-million residential development with guest accommodations in one- and two-bedroom homes with kitchens ($150/$170). Phone (619) 767-5028.
You're welcome to play golf on Rams Hill's 18-hole championship course and dine in the clubhouse.
Visitors also will find five motel-style lodgings in Borrego Springs, where the year-round population of 2,000 builds to 5,000 or so in the winter season.
Get a list of accommodations and dining spots from the chamber of commerce; phone (619) 767-5555. The chamber office at 622 Palm Canyon Drive is open every day from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Round trip from Los Angeles to the Anza-Borrego Desert is 360 miles.