California Flying

Borrego Springs

March 1, 2007

The Borrego Valley Airport near Borrego Springs, located south of Palm Springs and northeast of San Diego, was built for aircraft to supply Cold War government listening posts. After the Cold War ended, the listening posts were closed and Borrego Springs went back to being what it is today: a small town with a year-round population of 3,000 souls — that swells by approximately 2,000 when snowbirds drive down from the north to enjoy the mild winters. It's a town with no stoplights and no fast-food restaurants. Borrego Springs is located smack dab in the middle of the largest state park in the continental United States.

The Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is huge. Sprawling out across more than 600,000 acres, the northern and southern boundaries are separated by a distance of 80 miles. In founding the park, the Anza-Borrego Foundation and Institute (ABFI) joined with the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and the Wildlife Health Center of the University of California at Davis in establishing a research and educational partnership. This cooperation has resulted in a wide range of educational hikes, tours, workshops, and lectures. Subjects include astronomy, American Indian culture, paleontology, archeology, and desert art. Programs include "Beginning Tracker Training," a two-day hike called "Ghost Trails of the Carrizo," and a five-day desert hostel river-rafting expedition called the "Southern Colorado Plateau and Colorado River."


Borrego Springs is located 85 miles northeast of San Diego, where San Diego County Highways S-3 and S-22 meet in Borrego Valley in southeastern California. Borrego Springs has a population of 3,000.

Some people look at the sparse, dry landscape of the desert and roll their eyes, thinking there's nothing there. Others, upon their first visit, feel drawn to the clear air, unspoiled natural terrain, and total lack of noise. There's a saying that those who have lived long in the desert live on "desert time." These folks move with a purposeful ease, and reply when they're ready. Nothing happens very fast in the desert. To help introduce first-time visitors to the desert and to give them a chance to get their own taste of desert time, there are numerous drive-to camping sites and eight backcountry camping sites located around the park.

It's nearly impossible to describe the variety of the park. The Santa Rosa Mountains rise up in the north end of the park; historic roadbeds such as the route of the 1775-to-1776 Juan Bautista de Anza trail pass through the park, as do the Southern Emigrant Trail and the Butterfield Stage Line route to San Diego.

There are more than 50 pictograph sites in the park. There are also numerous well-marked hiking trails and nature walks that branch out from various sites. Three "slot canyons," which are deep, narrow canyons that plunge to more than 100 feet in depth, are dotted around the park. Both the Carrizo and the Borrego badlands — extremely rugged, violently folded landscapes — cover hundreds of acres in the eastern and southeastern portions of the park.

Wildflower mail

The Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is renowned for its vast fields of wildflowers that blanket the desert each spring. Since this springtime floral explosion varies in accordance with temperatures and rainfall, each spring's bloom is unique in its variety, profusion, and timing. The big bloom-off usually takes place sometime between late February and the month of March. The park has established two tools to help visitors plan their visits to best experience the bloom-a-thon. The first is the Wildflower Hotline (760/767-4684). Mail notification is available by mailing a self-addressed stamped postcard to Wildflowers-A.B.D.S.P., 200 Palm Canyon Drive, Borrego Springs, California 92004. These cards will be mailed by park staff approximately two weeks prior to the peak bloom. Plus, pictures of the bloom are posted weekly online.

Flying in to Borrego Springs

The Borrego Springs airport has a single 5,011 feet long by 75 feet wide runway. It is in excellent shape and well marked. There's an RNAV approach to Runway 26 and an RNAV departure procedure. Crosswinds are not uncommon so it's a good idea to call ahead to the AWOS (760/767-3308). Tiedowns are a bargain at $3 a night. Pilots are warmly welcomed by Viki Cole and her staff. Cole has a small fleet of rental cars available. Call ahead for a reservation, especially if you're arriving during a weekend.

Patterns should be flown to the south of the runway because of an aerobatic box located one mile north of the airport, which is active most weekends. Ultralight flying machines also operate out of the Borrego Springs airport — don't make the mistake of thinking that this airport is as sleepy as it first appears.

Although most of Borrego Springs appears to be a quiet, diversion-free place that a novelist might select to complete the final draft of his work, there is an amazing variety of services for visitors ranging from bicycling, tennis camps, motor tours in Humvees and authentic military trucks, horse rentals and tours at Smoketree Arabian Ranch horse rentals, golf courses, and one very upscale resort. La Casa del Zorro is San Diego County's only four-diamond desert resort, featuring five pools, six tennis courts, the Butterfield dining room — with dress code — an Olympic-style archery range, a complete fitness center, and championship golf at the Montesoro Golf & Social Club. A complete list of services and accommodations is on the Borrego Springs Chamber of Commerce & Visitor Center Web site.


Because of the extreme midsummer temperatures in Borrego Springs, local events are scheduled in the spring and fall. Spring 2007 events include the wildflower bloom, a juried art show titled the Circle of Art, which takes place on March 24 and 25, and the Pegleg Liars' Contest, which takes place this year April 7. Legend has it that Pegleg Smith would spin tall tales of black-coated gold nuggets he had found in the Borrego Hills in exchange for a steady flow of alcoholic beverages. In commemoration of Smith's skills as a spinner of tall tales — no gold was seen nor has any been found — prevaricators of all stripes are invited to try their skills against each other in front of a big bonfire as the sun goes down. The contest takes place seven miles east of Christmas Circle, the town traffic circle just off county Highway S-22. Bring a lawn chair and a blanket. The contest usually lasts one to two hours.

For more than 30 years Borrego Springs has celebrated the beginning of the tourist season with the Borrego Days Desert Festival. This big three-day event takes place the last weekend of October. The festival features a parade, the Miss Borrego pageant, dance parties, live music, arts and crafts exhibitions and sales, and the installation of a temporary mayor of Borrego City.

The 150th anniversary of the San Antonio and San Diego Mail Line also will be celebrated in 2007.

The Sky Trail

A former Anza-Borrego Desert State Park pilot created a flying tour of the park, which permits pilots and their passengers to enjoy aerial views of the natural and historic features of the park. According to the booklet that details the tour, it's best flown during winter months. GPS coordinates and radial and distance information from the Julian VOR for each waypoint and turn are in the booklet. The booklet is available from the airport office or from the park gift shop. Cost is $4.

Borrego Springs is a friendly city with just enough attractions and diversions to satisfy those fly-in visitors who seek peace and quiet.

E-mail the author at [email protected].