Borrego Springs
Desert destination like Palm Springs before glitz

Conventional wisdom is that the desert gets a little hot in the summertime, but there are ways to enjoy the desert even then — especially when you consider you'll be saving enough on your lodgings to pay for the gas to get there. Choose a desert area that is a little less developed, and you'll save even more.

An excellent choice would be Borrego Springs, an area about 90 miles northeast of San Diego that looks a lot like Palm Springs did before it was fully developed. A couple of resorts and a handful of lodgings cater to warm-weather lovers and golfers but, for all intents and purposes, Borrego Springs still seems like a backwater town with more acreage devoted to golf courses than commercial buildings. The area attracts seniors who have found affordable winter homes as well as boomers who want an inexpensive vacation.

But gazing at the vividly green golf courses set against the brown hues of the nearby San Ysidro Mountains, one starts to realize this is more than just an economy vacation spot — this is a walk back into history. It's easy to envision this land once populated only by Native Americans, with its pictographs still etched on desert canyon walls. But it's also easy to envision this as the next Palm Springs, with new fancy resorts filling up broad stretches of parched desert floor now occupied only by cacti and sagebrush.

When you think about it, this really is Palm Springs — minus, of course, the fancy resorts and upscale shopping. But the views are the same, the blue skies are the same, and the sizzling summer weather is the same. The prices, however, are different.

Spacious, comfortable rooms at the full-service Borrego Springs Resort were going for $139 during our May visit — and that was the higher winter rate. On June 1, the rate was going even lower. Considering this campus-style resort has golf, tennis, a couple of Palm Springs-style swimming pools, one of the best resort restaurants we've encountered, and an overall country club feel, these are bargain basement prices compared with what you'll find in more developed tourist areas.

Beating the heat, whether it be in Borrego or Palm Springs, really is not a problem if you are careful about when you do what. True, summer temperatures will reach over 100 degrees, but that's a drier heat, and usually only in the afternoon. Desert mornings and evenings can be blissful — warm, yes, but quite comfortable for those of us who thrive on warm weather.

The key is to plan your outdoor activities in the early morning or early evening. If you're going hiking, just make a point to get started at sunrise and be realistic about how much ground you can cover. During the hotter months, we always choose the easiest trails — call us wimps, but there's no point in being miserable while you're on vacation. The steeper climbs are best left for the more moderate winter temperatures. And no matter what time of the year, always bring lots of water, a hat and sunscreen when you're spending time outdoors in a Southern California desert.

If you have the inclination, there actually is plenty to do in the Borrego Springs area. Many people will choose just to stay close to the resort, especially during summer, but others will find there is a myriad of trails and sights to see in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. The town of Borrego Springs is, in fact, surrounded by this 600,000-acre state park, the largest in the state system. In fact, about one-fifth of San Diego County's land is within the park's boundaries.

As you drive to various locations within the park, you'll marvel at the desert vistas and enjoy observing the plant and animal life so prevalent in the park. Certain times of the year colorful wildflowers are in bloom; at other times, plants like the Ocotillo plant or the Cholla cactus fill in the desert landscape to create an other-worldly feel. Roadrunners skip across roads, black-tailed jackrabbits hop along golf greens as well as the desert and, up on the craggy rock mountain ledges you may even spot some bighorn sheep.

Bits of history are around every corner. The Anza Borrego Park includes geography where stagecoaches drove the first intercontinental mail. Visitors can see old wagon roads as well as stations where the stagecoaches stopped and replenished horses and supplies. Hiking trails take you to these and other sites such as waterfalls (which can be dry depending on the season), historic monuments and old settler houses such as the hike up to Ghost Mountain where you can enjoy great views and poke around a house once occupied by a family that seemed to be living alone on top of the world.

These Borrego adventures are all outlined in maps and materials available at the Anza-Borrego Park Visitor Center, just a couple miles from downtown Borrego Springs. Inside, dioramas depict the park's various types of vegetation and wildlife, while naturalists stand by to answer your questions. Outside, short interpretive trails take you through a small part of the nearby desert so that you can identify the various plant species you�ll be seeing in the desert. (But one note of caution: plan your bathroom stops elsewhere because the day we visited, four of six bathrooms were not open, and the other two were plugged to the point they were not useable).

While we did take advantage of some early morning hiking and sightseeing, we also found the Borrego Springs Resort pools enticing. There were plenty of umbrellas and "tents" to keep out of the heat, so the pool area was an especially relaxing place to spend a few hours catching up on our reading. We especially enjoyed the resort restaurant — it looks like some hotel banquet room you would see set up for a wedding reception but all of the menu items we sampled were outstanding — really a cut above the average-caliber food you might expect this far away from "civilization."

On our way out of Borrego Springs, we stopped by nearby Julian, a small historic mountain town that is a popular day or weekend trip for not only San Diego residents, but Southern California motorcycle and sports car clubs who find these curvy, scenic roads especially well-suited for their frequent excursions. As soon as you gain elevation from the desert you enter the forests and then, suddenly, you're on Julian's tiny Main Street. The business district, in fact, is only about three blocks long and four blocks wide, although you'll find sporadic businesses outside of the downtown area. On a weekend, about the only place to park will be a tourist parking lot on the southwest edge of the downtown area. On weekdays, street parking is usually plentiful.

Most of the buildings downtown are historical in some sense — many dating back to the post-Civil War period when the town was founded. Today, the town of Julian is known for its apples and a tourist ritual is to enjoy a fresh-baked apple pie and ice cream at one of several local eateries. For a town with just a few hundred souls, Julian has an unusual number of bakeries and pie shops such as Mom's Pie House, where visitors stop for their obligatory treat.

The other shops in Julian run the gamut from tacky tourist shops to crafts of all types to the normal small-town fixtures like hardware and general stores. While the women folk are enjoying this western town's shopping diversity, the men folk and the youngin's probably will get a kick out of the historic comedy skits that are staged three times each weekend afternoon during the summer out on the town's Main Street.

All of this is in keeping with the rich history you'll also find in the Anza-Borrego Desert — a destination that offers many rewards no matter what the time of year.

AT A GLANCE

WHERE: Borrego Springs is about 90 miles northeast of San Diego and is about 150 miles from Los Angeles.

WHAT: Borrego Springs is like an undeveloped Palm Springs. There are a couple of resorts and some other lodgings and golf courses, but the valley is mostly open and surrounded by the Borrego-Anza State Park.

WHEN: Any time of year. Especially in summer, be sure to bring lots of water, sunscreen and a hat, and time your outdoor adventures for early morning or early evening.

WHY: Lots of natural beauty combined with resort style accommodations.

HOW: For more information on the Borrego Springs Resort, visit www.borregospringsresort.com or phone 888-826-7734. For more information on Anza-Borrego State Park, visit www.anzaborrego.statepark.org or phone 760-767-5311.

Photos: Anza-Borrego State Park Visitor Center feature interpretive trails; golf is a major attraction at Borrego Springs Resort; poolside at Borrego Springs Resort; hiking in the Anza-Borrego State Park.

Photo credits: Cary Ordway, Sandi Ordway

OTHER DESTINATIONS: If you're looking for other California vacation ideas, be sure to check out other California Weekend articles on Yosemite National Park, Idyllwild, Julian and Sequoia National Park.

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