The Anza-Borrego Desert is a tranquil wonderland of canyons, badlands, mesas, buttes, dunes, washes, palm groves, cacti, wildflowers, and sweeping vistas. It’s California’s largest state park, and it’s just a two-hour drive northeast of San Diego or three hours southeast of Los Angeles, yet it’s still largely undiscovered. Imagine if Palm Springs—which sits just across mountains to the north—had never been developed, and you start to get a sense of it, although the Anza-Borrego landscape holds more geological surprises. Summertime is hot: Temps can climb north of 100 degrees. For optimal conditions, consider November, when you’re most likely to find deals, or February or March, when the desert wildflowers explode into bloom. (Check weather here.)

Since California’s coastal highway between Los Angeles and San Diego (Interstate 5) is such a popular corridor for vacationers, let’s start there. At Oceanside, turn east onto 76 toward Borrego Springs, the hub of the Anza-Borrego Desert, but make two stops en route to help set the scene for the vast open spaces and wonders of nature to come. First, Palomar Observatory, Caltech’s center of astronomical research and home to the famous 200-inch Hale Telescope. (On weekends from April through October you can take a guided tour if you get there by 10:15 am to buy your ticket.) Second, Warner Springs (just north on 79) for Sky Sailing. There’s hardly a better introduction to the vast solitude and drama of the desert landscape than by soaring above it in a colorful glider. Back in your car, head south on 79 and east on S2 and S22 to Borrego Springs.

First stop: The Anza-Borrego Desert State Park Visitor Center to pick up a detailed topographical map and to ask about current trail conditions, since some roads are impassable without four-wheel drive. Make the easy three-mile round-trip hike up Borrego Palm Canyon, and when you reach the fan-palm oasis, scan the peaks for bighorn sheep (borrego in Spanish) and golden eagles. Stop by Galleta Meadows, where life-size metal sculptures depict a menagerie of creatures that lived in the desert millions of years ago. By now the sun is probably setting, so head south on S3 to your hotel, La Casa del Zorro, a former ranch house (consider splurging on your own casita).

Devote the next day to exploring the desert’s geological phenomena. Check out Split Mountain, ruptured and contorted by earthquakes and flash floods. Squeeze into The Slot, an extremely narrow sandstone canyon, and snake your way down. Consider a picnic lunch in Coyote Canyon amid the exotic flora at Desert Gardens. Drive to Font’s Point for vistas of awesome badlands amid perfect silence. Off-roading is necessary to fully appreciate the desert, so sign up for a jeep tour with California Overland Desert Excursions. They can take you to places you can’t access in your own car—such as Vista del Malpais, for spectacular views of the Borrego Badlands.

You could spend a day or a week exploring the desertscape here. You’ll find everything from prehistoric fossils to petrified wood to ancient pictographs in sacred rocks—and, after the sun goes down, shooting stars and satellites. When you’re ready to head back to the coast, take 78 west through apple country and, in the Gold Rush mountain town of Julian, treat yourself to some of the best apple pie you’ll ever taste. (Try Julian Pie Company or Apple Alley Bakery.) Then top off your trip with a little antiquing and winetasting in the historic town of Ramona (check out Milagro Farm and Turtle Rock Ridge wineries) before reconnecting with the coast in Carlsbad, just a few miles south of where you started.

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