Updated: Dec 13, 2020
With over 500 miles roads and dirt trails, Anza-Borrego is one of the premier overlanding and off roading destinations in Southern California, and for good reason. An expansive desert wilderness of 600,000 acres, the desert landscape in Anza-Borrego is comprised of washes, badlands, slot canyons, mud palisades and palm oases. This corner of the northern Sonoran desert is sure to awe you!
Adventure Rating: Epic
Trip Length: 216 miles, 4-6 days
Season: Year round, but October - May recommended to avoid summer heat.
Technical Rating: Green to blue. There are numerous moderately technical sections along this route. Novices are advised to have a spotter for sections like the Diablo and Borrego Mountain Wash "drop offs".
Typical Terrain: Sandy roads and washes, graded dirt roads, rocky jeep trails, and two short but steep off camber sections ("drop offs").
Recommended Vehicle: High clearance 4x4 with all terrain tires.
Adventure Vans: Sprinter 4x4s not recommended.
Alternative Routes: We've provided an easy route around Piepkorn Slot Wash. See bottom of route guide for more info. One Way Trails: There are two "drop offs" along the route, both of which are one way to ensure safety on the trail. Taking this into account, the route should be driven starting near the town of Ocotillo and working your way north.
The Anza-Borrego Discovery Trail travels over 200 miles of dirt roads and trails in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and to a lesser extend, Ocotillo Wells SVRA (State Vehicle Recreation Area). At over 600,000 acres, Anza-Borrego is the largest state park in California, attracting many outdoor recreationalists and naturalists throughout the year. The park sits at the northern boundary of the Sonoran desert before it transitions into the Mojave desert to the north. The Peninsular mountain ranges to the west drain cloud systems of precious precipitation before they make their way towards the inland deserts of Southern California. Anza-Borrego and Ocotillo Wells are comprised of a series of badlands, slot canyons, desert washes, palm oases in steep canyons, and rugged mountains and buttes. Ocotillo Wells is also a favorite among the freestyle moto crowd and SxS (side-by-side) enthusiasts, while Anza-Borrego caters to primarily street legal vehicles. Anza-Borrego features over 500 miles of roads and trails. Anza-Borrego is surrounded by the Bucksnort and Santa Rosa Mountains to the north, the Jucumbas to the south, and the Vallecitos and Pinyons to the west. The eastern side of the park slopes gently into the Salton Sink (more than 200' below sea level), and it is this section of the park where badlands predominate. Other favorite activities in the park include stargazing, hiking, mountain biking, and flora and fauna viewing. Late February through March is the best time to view wildflowers in the desert. Those years with above average rainfall typically feature superblooms, when the desert landscape explodes with a variety of flowers and colors. Just over seven million years ago, Anza-Borrego and Ocotillo Wells were both marine environments, as the Gulf of California (Sea of Cortez) extended all the way up to Palm Springs. Many of the washes and canyons within these parks feature remnants of the areas marine past (like Shell Reef, Mollusk Wash, and Oyster Wash). Approximately 6 million years ago, the sea began to recede and the area began its transition to a terrestrial, desert environment. The Anza-Borrego Discovery Route is meant to be driven from south to north. This is because there are two uni-directional (one way) drop offs along the route. The trail has numerous sections that qualify as mild to moderately technical, but those with a 4x4 vehicle with a 2" lift and 32" tires should be able to tackle the entire route without issue. Novice drivers are recommended to travel with more experienced off road drivers, as some sections (like Diablo drop off and Piepkorn Wash) may require a spotter. Those that tackle the route will experience a series of badlands and desert washes, slot canyons, stunning desert flora, spectacular views, and intriguing wind and mud caves. Those that prefer to explore on foot will enjoy the route as well, as many of the discovery points require short hikes to reach, and those seeking out longer hikes may considering areas like Rockhouse Canyon and Goat Canyon Train Trestle.
The route begins just outside of small town of Ocotillo and heads up Carrizo mountain, which affords nice 360 degree views of the surrounding desert and Salton Sea. Head back down Carrizo mountain and over to Mortero Palms (DP2), which requires a short hike up the canyon to reach. Mortero canyon is about one of twenty or so canyons in the park where the endemic California fan palms can be found. From Mortero Palms head towards the Dos Cabezas Water Tower (DP3). If you're feeling adventurous, you can follow the rail road tracks several miles to the Goat Canyon, featuring the world's largest wooden trestle. Those seeking a quicker easier alternative should head right from the water tower back the pavement on Sweeny Pass Road. Those seeking to maximize their backcountry experience should turn left and follow the train tracks. Follow the sandy wash which soons become a shallow canyon, and also features a few technical sections as you drop in and out of the canyon. Eventually the trail brings you back for a short stint on pavement before dropping back onto dirt. Canyon Sin Nombre, translated as canyon with no name, is a mildly technical trail that is also a favorite among the overlanding and off road crowds and is sometimes referred to as the "geologist tour". The trail features a number of interesting rock formations, some of which have been estimated to be 500 million years old. Once you reach Vallecito Creek, follow the trail north to Arroyo Tapiado. The canyon features numerous mud caves (DP6), some of which exceed 1,000 feet in length and cave ceilings up to 80 feet in height. From Arroyo Tapiado the trail snakes through the desert land scape until reaching the famed Diablo Drop Off. The Diablo Drop Off used to be much more technical before California State Parks started to grade the hill on a regular basis. After heavy rains, the trail may degrade to its old form, featuring numerous pot holes and off camber dips and lips creating a white knuckle experience. Novices should plan on having more experienced drivers to spot them, although this may not be required if the trail has been recently graded. From Diablo Drop Off, swing a left up Fish Creek Wash and then another left into Sandstone Canyon. This is one of the tightest canyons in the park where vehicles are permitted, and it becomes increasingly more technical as you make your way towards the trail's end. Next up are another set of mud caves, known as the famed mud palisades (DP9), which can be explored just like the mud caves in Arroyo Tapiado. Descend back down the mountain into the heart of Fish Creek Wash (DP10), another favorite 4x4 trail in the park. If you're up for a short uphill hike (.9 miles round trip), the wind caves are definitely worth checking out. At the top of the hill you'll find various geologic features made of sandstone, some of which feature windows and caves. From Fish Creek Wash make your way north into Ocotillo Wells SVRA. Expect to see a lot of motos, ATVs and side-by-sides in Ocotillo Wells, which is a designated State Vehicle Recreation Area. First up is Shell Reef (DP13), a favorite freestyle location for the moto crowd that likes to send it big and a reminder of the region's marine past. Other interesting discovery points in Ocotillo Wells include the bubbling mud pots also known as gas domes (DP14) and the pumpkin patch (DP15). The pumpkin patch features rocks dozens of rounded rocks called concretions, a process where sand sticks to smaller objects like a pebel or piece of a shell, and grows over time as more sand cements itself to the object. Seventeen Palms Spring (DP16) is another desert oasis worth a visit. Near Slot Canyon trail is your second drop off, the Borrego Wash Drop Off. From Borrego Wash, the route works its way north through Inspiration Wash, which also happens to be dead in the middle of the largest badlands areas within both parks. Those wishing to capture a glimpse of the infamouse metal sculptures at Galleta Meadows will want to head west towards the town of Borrego Springs. Ricardo Breceda is the creator of the more than 100 sculptures featured at Gallet Meadows. Some of the favorites include the giant sea serpent, fierce dinosaurs, and the scorpion. As you leave the badlands, Rockhouse Canyon stretches into the northern reaches of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. The trail grows increasingly rocky and more technical as you near the end of the 4x4 trail. Rockhouse Canyon is aptly named for the remains of three old rock houses, several miles up the canyon. Reports indicate that it's about a 1.5 - 2 hour round trip from the trailhead to the rock houses. As you descend back down the mountain towards the Borrego Salton Seaway, keep an eye out on your left for the Clark Dry Lake bed, which is also a great place to set up camp (to avoid getting stuck, stay off the playa if there's been recent rain). Crossing the pavement of the Salton Seaway, head over to one of the most photographed locations with the park, Fonts Point (DP22). Fonts Point provides a spectacular 270 degree view of the badlands that surround it below. The badlands are especially impressive when as the sun rises from the east and sheds its light on the creases and crevices of barren landscape below. The final leg of the route concludes through a series of sandy washes in Ocotillo Wells SVRA. Tectonic Gorge is a twisty and fun sandy wash that dumps you out at the Truckhaven 4x4 Training Area. If you're looking to brush up on your off road skills, this is the place to do it! There's all kinds of cool obstacles to try your hand at, like the impressively scary Cross Over Peak obstacle, a 30 foot nearly vertical wall over a series of concrete tubes. But don't worry, Truckhaven features obstacles for all skills levels! Truckhaven provides endless fun, and can you think of a better way to conclude a sweet overland adventure at a rad off road skills park like this? We didn't think so! :)
Those seeking a quicker and easier way around the moderately technical section that passes Piepkorn Slot can take the easy alternative route instead. There is step-down near Piepkorn Slot that may be more challenging for vehicles without a lift.
Anza-Borrego and Ocotillo Wells feature an endless supply of incredible backcountry camping opportunities. Be sure to acquaint yourself with the rules around fires. At the time this route was published, Ocotillo Wells required all fires to be in a steel fire ring. Some of our favorite spots include:
Mortero Canyon near the volcanic hills and lava flow
Vallecito Wash near the Great Souther Overland Stage Route
Hollywood & Vine campsite
Fish Creek Wash
Clark Dry Lake
Fonts Point Plateau
DP1 - Painted Gorge
DP2 - Mortero Palms
DP3 - Water Tower con Dos Cabezas
DP4 - Piepkorn Slot
DP5 - Great Southern Overland Stage Route
DP6 - Arroyo Tapiado Mud Caves
DP7 - Diablo Drop Off
DP8 - Sandstone Canyon
DP9 - Mud Palisades
DP10 - Elephant Knees
DP11 - Wind Caves
DP12 - Fish Wash
DP13 - Shell Reef
DP14 - Gas Domes
DP15 - Pumpkin Patch
DP16 - Seventeen Palms Spring
DP17 - The Slot
DP18 - Borrego Mountain Wash Drop-off
DP19 - Gallet Meadows Giant Metal Sculptures
DP20 - Belly of the Badlands (Inspiration Wash)
DP21 - Clark Dry Lake
DP22 - Fonts Point
DP23 - Tectonic Gorge
DP24 - Truckhaven 4x4 Training Area
Maps + Navigation
>> Always check with local land managers for road closures and conditions.
Gaia GPS (Neotreks Land Use layer, Gaia base layer)
Download GPX files