“Hiking? In the desert? For fun? Go to the village in Nigeria, we had to walk around the desert to hunt food.” – My dad after telling him that the boyfriend and I spent the weekend hiking in 90 degrees of desert heat.
Since we were here for fun and not survival, hiking in the desert for the first time was a beautiful, humbling experience.
Being out in the middle of nowhere with no running water and less wildlife than the coast made for some completely silent moments. Like other worldly silent, catching you by surprise but helping you unpack whatever worries you had before. I think this was my favorite part- it was the ultimate in disconnecting from everything. Not relaxing beaches, yoga, or copious amounts of alcohol, but being in this desert is what made me truly feel “unwound”.
Despite the positives, it was also an experience we were totally NOT prepared for. Our hikes have historically been in tree covered mountains, or along tree covered lakes, or generally with trees that cover you. Sure, it’s still walking around for miles, but it’s way easier in terms of environment.
If this is also your first time hiking in Anza Borrego, or any desert, here are some of the desert hiking tips we learned. Hopefully you they help you stay prepared!
Did you know that this is the largest state park in California?!
The name partially comes from the Spanish word for bighorn sheep (borrego). These sheep live in the park, along with rattlesnakes, mountain lions, and a few other animals. We didn’t run into anything until the Palm Canyon hike, where we saw many sheep relaxing a distance away from the trail.
If you go to the park the spring after a rainy winter, you’ll see a lot of blooming cacti (their website will tell you if this is the case the year you go). If you want more info on the park, check out their official website as the best source of primary information.
To decide which hike to do, Google brought me to this site which describes five of the best hikes in the park, and then we used alltrails to finally decide based on difficulty (aka easy) and length. Then you’ll probably want to park at whichever lot is closest to the trailhead, and don’t forget to bring cash for the park fees!
And now, a few quick desert hiking tips:
Follow their water directions
Once you enter the park, there are signs everywhere recommending that you bring a gallon of water per person. They also recommend that once your water supplies are half full/empty, you should turn around.
We definitely did not have this amount of water but luckily and randomly had empty water bottles, so filled up at the free water fountains at the park entrance. If you’re reading this while you’re already in town, there’s a water fill up station outside of Village Liquor in Borrego Springs that cost $0.25 per gallon (at least when we were there in 2018).
Hike in the morning to avoid hot temperatures
We went towards the end of May, and the high for the day was 97°F (36°C). With this in mind, we decided to hike as early as possible in the morning to avoid the hottest parts of the day. Really for us this meant 9 AM, but hey, it still worked! Plus, we weren’t the only people with this idea. We ran into people coming down when we started and did not run into people starting the hike on the way back.
Avoid hiking in the summer also to avoid hot temperatures
Being in the desert, it can get really hot (duh). Rumor from people who lived here longer than me is that they used to actually close the park in the summers because of the heat! I couldn’t immediately find something backing this up on Google. But, I could see why hiking here in the summers isn’t ideal for everyone because they can get up to 104°F (40°C)!! So if possible, I would recommend hiking outside of the summer season for cooler temperatures. In fact, winter/spring are the most popular seasons for visitors (see the note above on blooming spring cacti).
Prepare for very little shade
“Oh I like the heat, I’ll be fine.”
Okay, but do you still like the heat when the sun is beating down on you and you’re walking around with potential elevation changes?!? This experience taught me that the presence of shade makes a huge difference in what temperatures I actually like. You still may be fine and used to this (but then this post is not really for you).
Hats weren’t uncommon, and honestly there were a couple of groups we saw who brought umbrellas (on the easier hikes). If you need more shade, consider bringing or wearing something to keep you covered. Something I learned in Vietnam is sometimes when it’s this hot, you actually want to wear light long sleeves clothes rather than short sleeves, to reduce how much of your skin is exposed to the sun, and there’s a ton of clothing marketed towards high heat hiking.
People literally die from ignoring the above
“Yeah, yeah, it’s hot and bring water. DUH! It’s a desert.”
Sure, it seems obvious, but there are signs everywhere that people die here regularly from not being prepared. I personally have never seen a sign like this in my (short, inexperience) lifespan. So while it may seem obvious, don’t let your holier-than-thou attitude get in the way of being prepared!
Bonus: DO NOT BRING YOUR ANIMALS!!
Okay, I guess the above is not really a tip, so here’s the real last one. Another common sign once you reach the park is that dogs aren’t allowed. If humans have to be this prepared to not die, our fur covered friends probably want something less heat intense (and with less pointy cacti and bitey rattlesnakes). So as fun as it usually is hiking with dogs, leave them at home for this one!
And those are the key desert hiking tips we learned that hopefully will keep other people safe and prepared. Do you have other important tips? Let me know in the comments below! Did I accidentally scare you from hiking in the desert? It really is beautiful and totally worth it, but check out Torrey Pines if you want something closer to San Diego and with less heat.