Not far from the famous wildflowers of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, the community of Borrego Springs boasts treasures all its own, from an outsize art scene to a revamped resort. "It's the changing sunlight here that's so incredible," adds local architect Richard Orne. "And the skies after dark? You can see the next galaxy."
The best part? Since Borrego Springs is just 90 miles northeast of the San Diego area, it's an easy day-trip destination for loads of Southern Californians—and, we say, worth a long-weekend trip for other Westerners.
We dispatched writer Valerie Rains to scope out the scene. Here, her five picks for a perfect Borrego Springs visit.
1. A chic retreatBorrego Springs regained a touch of Palm Springs glitz in 2013, thanks to the extensive remodel and reopening of the La Casa del Zorro Resort and Spa (from $295; 3845 Yaqui Pass Rd.). The 48 luxury rooms and 19 private casitas of the 42-acre property—established in 1937 as the Desert Lodge—have been restored to their former glory, with wood-burning fireplaces and massive marble baths, plus access to two restaurants, six tennis courts, and five heated outdoor pools. Friday and Saturday nights, you can join locals and guests alike for no-cover poolside parties with live music—or snag a stool at the on-site Fox Den Bar and Cantina, just off the Desert Lodge's preserved original entrance, now part of a micro museum of hotel artifacts.
2. Grand canyonsTalk about roads not taken: Choosing among the 610 miles of dirt tracks and trails that traverse rugged Anza-Borrego Desert State Park could stall even the most decisive traveler. Cut to the chase and let marine biologist turned guide Joe Raffetto of California Overland Desert Excursions do the driving for you (tours from $65; 1233 Palm Canyon). You'll go off-road in a converted military vehicle into areas usually off-limits, such as Clark Dry Lake, a perspective-distorting moon-scape that crackles underfoot. You'll hike through slot canyons, picnic in the shade of a fan-palm grove, and slalom through sandy drifts en route to Font's Point. From there, take in the badlands' striations, formed millions of years ago by sediment carried west during the Grand Canyon's creation. The landscape is at its most striking about an hour before sunset, when the light throws every crevice into high relief and highlights the park's vibrant colors.
3. The desert, paintedIf anyone knows the transformative power of light in Borrego Springs, it's the landscape painters who arrive each year in March for the Borrego Springs Plein Air Invitational. The artists paint for a week, then present the results in a monthlong exhibition at the Borrego Art Institute (free entry; 665 Palm Canyon). "These views are always changing," says Jim Wermers, president of the BAI. "They'll be different tomorrow and the day after that." He should know: In early 2013, the BAI's gallery moved to a new location that features perfectly framed floor-to-ceiling vistas of the Colorado Desert and Santa Rosa Mountains.
4. Flower powerSpring brings the possibility of an especially inspiring phenomenon to the desert: the flourishing of more than 200 species of wildflowers and blooming cactus, an event so spectacular, its announcement on SoCal newscasts brings coastal dwellers over the hills in droves. (It's extra-special because the ideal conditions don't always arise—you need just the right amount of rain and the right temperatures at just the right time of year.) Head to Hawk Canyon and Buttes Pass in Anza-Borrego to spot the elusive desert lily, the freckled milkvetch, and blankets of yellow dandelion and bluish lupine.
5. Pleistocene pedaling"Start small" is not a phrase that has much meaning for Ricardo Breceda, the Temecula-based metal sculptor whose larger-than-life figures of local fauna, prehistoric beasts, and fantastical creatures have become indelible features of the Borrego Valley landscape. After all, his first attempt at turning sheet metal into art yielded a 45-foot-long tyrannosaur, a gift for his then-6-year-old daughter. He's created dozens of pieces since, many of which are scattered around town. Download a Sky Art sculpture map and rent a set of wheels at Bike Borrego for a DIY tour (half-day rentals $20; 583 Palm Canyon).