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Desert day hike near San Diego
March 20, 2014 6:20 PM   Subscribe

I have a free day in San Diego and would love to go on a desert hike. Where should I go?

I'm in San Diego on business, and unexpectedly have a free day on my own. I've never seen a desert, so I'd love to do a hike. Where should I go? Joshua Tree was my first thought, but is a little far, so I'm also thinking of Anza Borrego. I have the entire day, can rent a car, and if there is a hostel near the location, could also stay the night nearby. I'd love to hear whether this is a good choice, and if I should be considering other places that might be closer (my absolute ideal would be to stop by a beach too, which seems unlikely if I'm doing a day trip the opposite direction).

Related complications: I did not plan for this at all so I've got a pair of sneakers and a backpack, but no other gear. I have no experience in this climate and would be hiking alone, so I'd also love to hear tips in that regard (terrible idea?). Thanks!
posted by susanvance to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (9 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
 
Anza Borrego is my favorite, there is a very easy walk (no extra gear required) that takes you to an oasis, I take everyone that comes and visits me there, it's always a hit.
posted by eldvno at 6:38 PM on March 20 [3 favorites]


Anza Borrego is great. You want the Borrego Palm Canyon Trail -- with tennies, you'll do the first part of the trail and then stop at the "tourist turnaround." Later you can come back with proper boots and do the full route. It's the perfect time of year to visit - low 80s. (Also, because of your lack of gear, if you don't do this hike you should do one of the other established trails - this is not the visit for you to bushwack.)
posted by BlahLaLa at 6:42 PM on March 20 [3 favorites]


You definitely want to do the Borrego Palm Canyon Trail. It's about 2 to 2.5 hours drive out of town, so you can quite easily go out and come back the same day, although that would be kind of silly for a hike that short. You can make more of a trip of it by going to the state park visitor center, which is very close to the trail and pretty interesting. Aside from the visitor center and park headquarters area, there are not many visitor services in Anza Borrego State Park. Only two other campgrounds have running water, and a lot of people camp "primitively", meaning they bring all their water and food out and dig a small hole in the ground as a restroom.

The park headquarters and trail are just outside the small town of Borrego Springs. I don't know for sure, but it's highly unlikely that there's a hostel there, although there are motels. Normally this would be a great time to visit the desert and there would be a quite a few people out there because of the annual wildflower bloom, but with the lack of rain that we've had this year, there won't be many wildflowers.

If you'd like to see more of the desert, drive out there to Borrego Palm Canyon on S-22 and do whatever you want there, then take County Road S-3 south out of Borrego Springs to State Route 78, where you'll head west. Then take S-2 south to Interstate 8, and I-8 back west towards San Diego. There's a couple places to stop along the way on S-2 - just info stops and stuff. The main roads are paved, but seeing anything off the state or county roads will put you on a dirt road. Once you get to I-8, you can either head all the way back to San Diego on it or get off on S-1 (Sunrise Highway) and head through our local mountains and an old gold mining town (Julian). S-1 goes along the top of the escarpment just to the west of where S-2 goes along the desert floor.

Note that if you do make your way down to I-8, you'll go through a border patrol checkpoint on your way back to town just inside the San Diego County line. If you do the route I've described in reverse, you'll hit one on S-2, but you won't be stopped if you're heading south. Basically, if you try to drive out of San Diego County you're going to hit one of these no matter which way you go. They're not full checks like at the border, usually you just slow down and they wave you through, although they seem to be a bit more gung-ho at the S-2 checkpoint.
posted by LionIndex at 8:58 PM on March 20 [1 favorite]


It's a long day trip but if you don't mind driving, Joshua Tree NM is great and has several short hikes and desert things to see. I've done it as a day trip starting in SD the first time I was ever in SD.
posted by jclarkin at 9:07 PM on March 20 [1 favorite]


Absolutely Palm Canyon! And do go to the visitor's center, it's really nice.
Also if you have time go out to Seley Ranch and get some of their amazing grapefruit.

Another option is to go see the petroglyphs.

And finally, as you're driving around you may see some of the 129 bizarre metal sculptures...
posted by exceptinsects at 9:25 PM on March 20


Related complications: I did not plan for this at all so I've got a pair of sneakers and a backpack, but no other gear. I have no experience in this climate and would be hiking alone, so I'd also love to hear tips in that regard (terrible idea?). Thanks!

It's a wonderful idea (if you're sticking to a well-marked non-deathmarch trail).

You'll want a good broad-brimmed hat, sunscreen, long-sleeved shirt, chapstick, and two liters of water. Some trailmix along with your lunch. Maybe sunglasses, maybe spare socks.

If you were doing anything more robust than a well-marked trail, you'd want this stuff:
http://www.rei.com/learn/expert-advice/day-hiking-checklist.html

Pick up a whistle anyway because they're light and you can always use one for more robust hiking.
posted by sebastienbailard at 10:36 PM on March 20


Nthing the AnzaPalm trail, it's really great, and driving around Anza is terrific. If you also have time (and you should), check out The Slot, which is also Anza, about a 20 minute drive from the PalmCanyon trailhead. A bit claustrophobic in parts, but way cool.
posted by BlerpityBloop at 7:22 AM on March 21


If you also have time (and you should), check out The Slot, which is also Anza, about a 20 minute drive from the PalmCanyon trailhead. A bit claustrophobic in parts, but way cool.

It is in fact way cool and ok for tennis shoes, but the rental car agency might not like the mile+ of off-road driving you have to do to get to it. Low clearance vehicles are normally OK on that road, but I've seen people get stuck in sand before.
posted by LionIndex at 8:39 AM on March 21


Thanks all! I did end up going and had a fantastic time, and your advice was extremely helpful in planning out the day. I went to the visitors center first, and got some great personalized advice (I'd definitely advise anyone to check in with them first as it sounded like area conditions change rapidly).

I actually skipped the Palm Canyon Trail, as there seemed to be hoards of tourists there plus a steep parking fee. On the visitor's centers advice, based on my interests and car/gear limitations I ended up doing the following:

The Hellhole Trail - It was recommended for flower and wildlife viewing due a water source at the end of the canyon, and did not disappoint. The trail is bouldering-heavy near the end, but I did fine just in sneakers going up to the 2nd oasis.

The Slot - Amazing and the road was just fine for a sedan (the parking lot had lots), though apparently that isn't always the case.

Should be noted that it was a a nice weekend day and there were tons of hikers in all locations so I felt very safe doing the above on my own. In the future I'd definitely be sure to wear a hat and better footwear (primarily due to the proximity of biting creatures and cacti), but it worked out fine.

I also stopped at Cuyamaca State Park on the way there, which was right on the way, and was lovely too. I didn't have time to do either of the peaks, but it was great to hike a bit in the mountains too! Then I ended the day at Sunset Cliffs park back in San Diego and got a beach sunset in too :-)
posted by susanvance at 7:00 AM on March 24


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