Travel Tips

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, a Quiet Alternative to Palm Springs

Locations in this article:  Los Angeles, CA San Diego, CA Santa Barbara, CA

Purple MountainEven California locals may be surprised to discover that there is a vast desert state park nearly the size of Rhode Island only 90 minutes away from civilization in Palm Springs and San Diego.

The permanently protected 650,000-acre Anza-Borrego Desert State Park retains its historical Wild West roots, with gold mines, old stage routes, and desert flora and fauna.

The terrain can vary from 6,000 ft. above sea level studded with pines and oak to a flatter barren topography that feels like you’re on the moon.

There is nothing contrived about this desert landscape—it has real rockscapes sculpted over centuries, creating an eerie and otherworldly experience, including formations that are like a mini-version of the Grand Canyon. In the distance you can see what looks like a mirage, but it’s really the Salton Sea, right at the base of southern segment (known as the Mojave segment) of the San Andreas Fault.

And somewhere out there in the middle of nowhere, beyond the dense activity of Palm Springs, there is a restored hideaway called Borrego Ranch Resort and Spa.

Borrego PoolNow under new ownership, the newly remodeled resort dates all the way back to 1937, when early Palm Springs developer Dana Burks named it Desert Lodge. The resort was later known as La Casa del Zorro, which celebrated its heyday in the 1960s.

The Borrego Ranch Resort and Spa is located in the under-developed town of Borrego Springs, a refuge from lively Palm Springs-area resorts. A word of warning: Travelers looking for an active nightlife or a busy city center might get bit stir crazy way out here. But for families and couples looking for a quiet escape (it’s also pet friendly) this off-the-beaten-path location is a good choice. The private self-containment also makes it a suitable destination for corporate retreats.

The hotel sits on 42 acres of desert with natural “xeriscape” landscaping, a sustainable practice for desert-area flora that doesn’t require much irrigation. The resort has been restored and upgraded from its heyday in the 1960s, and still maintains some original elements such as wood-beamed ceilings, white stucco walls and spacious up-to-date rooms and private casitas. It’s a compact location, with only 44 poolside rooms and 19 casitas.

Sycamores over casitaThe food menu is health conscious with a focus on fresh and locally grown produce, and the service is friendly, but inconsistent. For now, if you want to find a great eatery off the property, ask for a tour of the country club at the private residential community (the wraps with chicken, crab and ahi tuna are outstanding). Otherwise, you’re out of luck—Trader Joe’s is in La Quinta, well over an hour driving through moon-like terrain. So far the resort is not up to par to be a star destination location, but there is room for improvement.

The new owners of the resort recruited the top guns from Miraval Resort and Spa (Oprah’s favorite getaway in Arizona). Joseph DeNucci, president and general manager of Borrego Ranch and Spa was responsible for Miraval’s success, and is envisioning Borrego as an up-and-coming exodus from over-developed Palm Springs area. The idea is to bring back the California tradition of rule-free, carefree vacationing with a wellness approach.

The resort’s wellness spa is still in its embryonic stages. Spa manager Gina “Gigi” Rosella Terinoni brings a background of ancient healing techniques and overall well-being experiences to traditional spa services. Hopefully, the limited treatment menu will be expanded soon to keep up with this highly competitive industry.

Stream outlookEven in the desert, outdoor activities are plentiful, and range from relaxing to team-building exercises. Some are reminiscent of summer camp, such as archery, horseshoes, shuffleboard, and a giant chess game. Others are more traditional wellness offerings including yoga and group exercises classes. Golfers will be pleased that the top-tier 18-hole Tom Fazio Signature Golf Course features challenging holes with steep elevation changes and beautiful water features while golfing under the blazing sun.

Additional challenges include a 30-foot rock-climbing wall, and a “walk the walk” feat that hoists participants 30 feet high on balance beam. For extreme sports enthusiasts, off-site activities include challenging hiking, rock climbing and ATV excursions in the national park.

The absence of light pollution also makes this destination a prime spot for star gazing—where the sky is the star of the show, not the city lights. In fact, city-dwellers may be intrigued by the fact that the International Dark Sky Association has nominated the region as a Dark Sky Community for its quality outdoor lighting that shuns light pollution. On a cloudless night, moonlit sky is a widescreen performance that changes every night.

Bottom line: Although Borrego Ranch Resort and Spa claims to be an “ultra-luxurious” resort and aims to rival the best in the West, it’s still too early in its inception to compare.

For more information call 800-824-1884 or visit

By Marjorie Hope Rothstein for

For more ideas on great places to stay, check out our Hotels & Accommodations section.

Headed to Palm Springs? Don’t miss our article on Famous Film Festival Alternatives.

Traveling in Southern California? Check out One Tank Trips: Los Angeles to Santa Barbara County.