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/dennismammana.com
“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 http://www.borregonightskytours.com/aboutdennis.htm.
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.
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.
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.