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Backcountry hidden pleasures:   Our guide to unique lodging adventures in San Diego’s beautiful backcountry

Story and most photos by Jonathan Ronald Goetz

Photo, left: Borrego Valley Inn, courtesy of Bryre Roots

Photo, right: Palm Canyon Hotel and RV Resort with renovated Western theme

May 7, 2018 (Borrego Springs) -- Borrego Springs and the surrounding Anza-Borrego Desert State Park  are among the best places in the world to see the night sky, drawing visitors from across the globe.

Borrego Valley Inn, an intimate couples-only hotel and its sister property, Palm Canyon Hotel & RV Resort, a Western-themed, family-friendly hotel also offering ‘50s-style vintage glamping, both provide historic charm and comfort for guests seeking affordable lodging  as well as celestial night sights.

Borrego Springs is the only dark skies community in California and the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is now an international dark sky park, as East County Magazine reported earlier this year. Borrego Springs uses mitigated light pollution devices and policies to make for better stargazing.

This dark sky offers one of the world's best views of stars, meteors and galaxies. You haven't seen the Milky Way until you see it from Borrego Springs. We found visitors from all over the world on our recent visit.

Photo, right: ©Dennis Mammana/

“The Cahuilla, Cupeño, and Kumeyaay still call this 'homeland,'” says the welcome sign at 2,300 feet, on our way into Borrego Springs.

Borrego Springs is best known as a mecca for snowbirds who flock to the warm desert town from fall through spring.

Summertime temperatures reach well into triple digits. But summer’s clear skies are perfect for stargazing, and lodging rates are up to 50% off, in the desert. If you've only seen stars from the city, you've never seen the Milky Way. The galaxy is a spectacle in the cool desert night.

Those light particles started out a billion years ago, and when they reach your eyes, their journey is complete. Get an air-conditioned room for a respite during afternoon heat. For the ulitmate stargazing experience, you can sign up for Borrego night sky tours and photography classes from famed astronomer Dennis Mammana at

If you're staying in a desert during late spring or summer, your hotel's amenities are super important because it may be where you may spend the hottest hours. Pack a cooler full of ice, water and food, and keep your tank full. Bring binoculars.

Photo, left: Setting for Two: You may watch the garden, the mountains, the skies, or each other, in your romantic setting for two at Borrego Valley Inn.

Borrego Valley Inn is serene and cozy. With only 15 units, it's great for couples. The adults-only rooms accommodate up to two people.

With European and standard pools plus spas (four bodies of water for 15 Southwestern  suites that each sleep one or two adults), you can truly fully sunbathe either on your own private patio or at the pool. So much water for a desert!

Photo, right: Clothing is optional inside this fence.

The Inn surrounds a beautifully manicured courtyard. When we stayed in late April just after the annual Lyrid meteor shower the weather was beautiful and there were plenty of flowers in bloom despite the lack of recent rain.

The rooms start off at a spacious 250 square feet with the Cholla Queen. The abundance of room options at Borrego Valley Inn is a definite plus, with 320sf rooms, 370sf, 380sf, 410sf all the way up to 640sf with a full kitchen. Those preferring a tub to a walk-in shower should opt for the for the 370sf Deluxe King Jacuzzi.

Each room has a private patio, offering seclusion and desert views.

A kitchen is important to us, and we were traveling as a family, so we tried Glamping at Borrego Valley Inn's sister site, Palm Canyon Hotel & RV Resort, also on Palm Canyon Drive in 92004.

Our vintage trailer was equipped with kitchen settings, propane grill and firepit.

Photo, left: Glamping at Palm Canyon Hotel & RV Resort (Drivin' & Vibin' video review)

When we visited in late April, there were still plenty of blooming flowers, though perennials instead of annuals. It lived up to Highway West Vacations' promotional video and the promise of “relaxing in a peaceful desert landscape.”

When Highway West Vacations purchased Borrego Valley Inn two years ago, they replaced many of the hot water heaters (we had fast hot water & AC at glampsite) and air conditioners, according to the general manager. The hotel was in pretty good shape, so they didn't have to do much.

Not so with Palm Canyon Hotel and RV Resort, purchased and rehabbed five years ago. Highway West Vacations renovated it as an old country western recreation destination, brainchild of General Engineering Contractor Jake Fredericks who incorporated existing rustic wood elements into the new theme.

Photo, right: Fredericks Ancient and Ethnic Art displays nativity set depicting the birthplace of Christ, hand-made by the remote Ayacucho villages in Peru using native clay and color.

Summer mornings in the desert

Christopher Gagnon, the hotel’s general manager, meets a lot of stargazers over the summer.

A lot of his guests see shooting stars, he says, adding, that in summer, “They go out hiking at about 6 a.m., before it's too hot.”  Guests return for breakfast and settle into air-conditioned rooms, “then go back out at night to see the stars around 9 p.m.,” Gagnon tells East County Magazine.

Summer, instead of being more expensive, is actually much cheaper, often a 50% discount versus in season (September – May).

Gagnon says most of the guests find a season they like to visit and keep coming back in that favorite Borrego time of year. Summer is popular with many stargazers in this internationally acclaimed dark sky community.

Photo, left: Cholla Standard Queen at Borrego Valley Inn, the most basic room, is 250 square feet and like all rooms, has a private patio.

Mornings are just as good at Borrego Valley Inn. Breakfast was excellent and a great value considering the ambiance, with fireplaces both indoors and outdoors around a lovely manicured courtyard with stunning mountain views.

Our omnivore had scrambled eggs with cheese, bell peppers, sausage and avocado. The vegetarian had toast served with a small jar of jam, granola, yogurt, blueberries, strawberries, and dried apricots.

Those planning to eat at Big Horn Bar & Grill at 221 Palm Canyon Drive should note the restaurant is closed Monday, Tuesday and in summer. Our editor and many famous people have eaten there.  There are other eating establishments in town, however, and for those opting for glamping, you can cook your own meals on a propane grill provided at each glamp site.

Photo, right:  Kathy Jorgensen is considered “Borrego royalty,” according to a source at the Anza Borrego Foundation, which has a storefront at The Mall at 587 Palm Canyon Drive.

Water is important when you are in the desert, and the Anza-Borrego Foundation (ABF) gave us each a free bottle of cold water at The Mall. If you venture out for a walk even in the cool of early morning or evening, carry several bottles. Avoid hiking in the heat of the day during summer to avoid dehydration. 

There were two recent medical emergencies at our hotels before we arrived that show the importance of staying hydrated. In one, a visitor was airlifted to a hospital after suffering heat exhaustion while hiking, even before the hottest weather. The second involved a night of drinking, probably without enough water.

Come in with at least three days worth of water. Pack your own cooler full of ice, water and food. There are two markets in town, although they can be a little pricey. It has urban amenities yet is isolated, hence the world-renowned stargazing far from the glare of city lights.

An option to keep during the day is to visit air-conditioned shops at The Mall (note, the mall itself is outdoors).  You can find a 3D printer and phone charging USB outlets at the County Library, and millennia old art at Fredericks Ancient and Ethnic Art, along with a market and other places to shop or eat.

Photo, left: The Mall

Another interesting place to visit is Christmas Circle, which includes gift shops and a gallery selling sculptures by Ricardo Breceda, whose works can be seen throughout the desert in and around Borrego Springs.

Photo, right: Stagecoach sculpture by Ricardo Breceda, whose whimsical metal artwork has become iconic in the Borrego region.

The Borrego Art Institute is also worth a visit. Catherine Chambers says, about her clay, pictured, at the Borrego Art Institute, “It has always been the process and the idea of a piece- rather than the product- that has been my focus in creation.”

Primarily a figurative oil painter, Chambers says “working with clay has become an opportunity to express abstract ideas and images.” Most of her work is hand built and may also incorporate metal, wood or stone post firing. She concludes, “As I love the look and feel of the material itself, the final piece often leaves ample room for the raw clay to speak for itself.”

Her work was on display at the Borrego Art Institute at 665 Palm Canyon Drive, also known as Christmas Circle.

Photo, left: Borrego Art Institute, April 24 2018

If you’re fortunate, you may spot bighorn sheep, who come to lower elevations in summer in search of water.  On our trip, we stopped by Agua Caliente County Park in the southern end of desert, where we spotted two Peninsular Desert Bighorn Sheep.

Agua Caliente supervising park ranger Maggie Tull told us there are “bighorn sheep, bobcats, mountain lions, all the reptiles like snakes, roadrunners,” in the county park.

Anza-Borrego was named, in fact, after the Spanish word “borrego”, meaning sheep, and the Spanish explorer Juan Bautista de Anza. Coincidentally, a native Arabic speaker told me that Anza also means “sheep” in Arabic.

Photo, right: Bighorn sheep at Agua Caliente County Park.

Tull isn't scared by rattlesnakes. She advises, “Just don't try to touch the snakes (or wildlife) or go turning up rocks in the middle of the day.”

Agua Caliente County Park, like much of Borrego Springs, closes during the hottest summer months. Tull says during the summer, the park is taken over by a growing herd of about 30-40 bighorn sheep, which find an abundant supply of food and water there at the County Park.

Most  mineral springs have been capped and feed public swimming pools that are available for a $3 fee to soak in the mineral water. Only one mineral spring remains in its natural state, and feeds a few palm trees in an oasis near the entrance of Agua Caliente, where we spotted the bighorn.

If you come in fall, winter, or spring, staying at Agua Caliente is an option; cabins have bed frames but you must bring your own air mattress. According to Ranger Jennifer Geiszler, "The cabins at Agua Caliente County Park in the Anza-Borrego Desert are extra-large with a deck, kitchen counter and sink, and a private bathroom. It's one of our most popular destinations because of the natural hot springs on site."  The park will reopen  Labor Day weekend.

For links to additional resources and activities in the Borrego area, check East County Magazine's "Beauty of Borrego" and“Day tripping in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park” articles.

East County Magazine gratefully acknowledges the County of San Diego for providing a Community Enhancement Grant to support our “Backcountry Hidden Pleasures” weekend getaways coverage.

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UPDATE: Library (and 3d printer?) have been moved

Since this story published, County Library (and I assume 3d printer?) have moved from the Mall to nearby really nice big park and Sheriffs substation servicing Borrego Springs and Ocotillo Wells, I remember reading, on-air.

Winter/Spring great time to review Summer #spj #spjsd #1

Along with Anza Borrego's calendar this late winter/early spring:

Steve Bier Memorial Bike Ride in Fish Creek
January 12, 2019

Share some memories and raise a beer for the one and only Ranger Steve. Many knew Ranger Steve Bier as an ambassador of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park®. Jim & Gary have chosen to put on a ride to share a few memories of the man that influenced the desert experiences of so many of us. This year we will be joined by retired District Superintendent Mike Wells for some interpretation of the breathtaking landscape we'll be riding through.



Anza-Borrego: In Focus- In the Wild: Earthquakes & Fault Lines with Chuck Houser
January 25-26, 2019

Most Californians live within 30 miles of an active fault. But what exactly is an active fault? This class will outline the process used to locate, evaluate, and characterize faults as well as highlight three significant Southern California earthquakes. Our Saturday field tour will be in the field, training your eye to notice the landforms and indicators of fault activity.



It's not too late!

From the bottom of our hearts and our hiking boots, we want to thank each of you who made a donation this year. Whether through time volunteered, your membership dues or personal donations, your support means the world to us here at Anza-Borrego Foundation. If you have not already, please consider making a year end tax-deductible donation. Your support allows us to continue our work making the Park whole, supporting its highest needs, and celebrating the wonders of this special place. We could not do this work without all of you!



Sheep Canyon Bikes & Brews with special guest Mark Jorgensen
February 2, 2019

Gary & Jim are at it again, this time with a ride through Lower Coyote Canyon from the end of the blacktop to Third Crossing and … continuing on through Collins Valley into Sheep Canyon. This is a strenuous 18+ mile ride that includes a 6 mile climb at the start through some sand, rocks, and water crossings. We will be joined by retired ABDSP Superintendent Mark Jorgensen for some interpretation of our surroundings.



Valentine's Day in Nude Wash with Diana Lindsay
February 16, 2019

Join us for a Valentine’s weekend getaway to explore the geology and vegetation of Nude Wash. This moderate two-mile loop has a challenging set of dry waterfalls to scale. Geologic features include signs of detachment faulting and fault-sheared and gouged granitic and metamorphic outcrops. We will climb to a saddle and then hike down a ridge that overlooks Sunset Wash and has great views of the Borrego Badlands. We'll be joined by Burning Beard Brewery from El Cajon!



Desert, Sea & Mountains Birding Tour with Mark & Bob
February 22-24 2019

Join the always interesting, always fun, always educational duo of Mark Jorgensen and Bob Theriault as they guide new and seasoned birders alike on an adventure to explore the Anza-Borrego region's rich aerial wildlife. This three-day birding extravaganza will include a day at the Salton Sea, a day here in the Borrego Valley, and a day up in the western mountains of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park®. Don't miss out on a chance to explore this vibrant region's birds with such a vibrant pair of instructors!


Anza-Borrego Foundation is the nonprofit cooperating association for Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. The mission of Anza-Borrego Foundation is to protect and preserve the natural landscapes, wildlife habitat, and cultural heritage of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations. ABF's education programs provide high quality, in-depth educational courses to over 1,300 visitors each year.

(760) 767-0446


Thank YOU!! Keep up the great work yourself. I enjoy reading your stories as well!

Re: Karen Pearlman comment on Borrego article

Thank you Karen! That means the world to me! I admire you so much, both how you're able to consistently generate so many high quality articles newsworthy to east county for the Union Tribune, and the gamut of places you cover and people you know and with whom you have developed rapport. You're phenomenal, and I'm glad you loved the pictures and commented on our site. Thank you! We went in spring, which I understand is also when you've gone. I had a great time, and totally recommend the hotels I reviewed, the Borrego Valley Inn and Palm Canyon Hotel and RV Resort.