About Anza-Borrego Desert State Park: In area, this park encompasses ½ the total land of all 280 parks in the California State Park system. It is huge – about 60 miles from the north to the south boundary – with few direct, paved roads to travel on. The initial parcel of land was granted to the state in 1932. Its initial mission was to preserve its viewshed from encroachment by development and to protect the habitat of the endangered Peninsular Bighorn Sheep (el borrego). As more was discovered within the park boundaries and nearby, more land was acquired to preserve cultural areas, fossil finds and the dark skies overhead and to provide interesting high-clearance vehicle roads to explore remote sites (The park is adjacent to the Ocotillo Wells State Vehicular Recreational Area where off-roading is permitted). Being only 100 miles from San Diego, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is a popular family vacation/weekend destination.
A portion of the 1200-mile Historic Anza Trail cuts through the northern section of the State Park. In 1775 Juan Bautista de Anza led 240 settlers on this trail from Sonora, Mexico (New Spain) to San Francisco, California (Alta California) to develop a Spanish settlement there. In 1990 the US Congress designated it as a National Historic Trail. Some of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park looks much like it did when those Spanish settlers saw it back in the 1770s.
The park's modern underground Visitor Center demonstrates good desert conservation practices. It is a cool, shady place to pass several hot afternoon hours studying the informative displays. The labels in the desert garden near the main entrance are helpful in identifying the native plants seen throughout the park. The garden is also an easy way to enjoy the native plants without hiking into the desert to search for them. If any outdoor activity is on the agenda, plan your trip early in the year while the wildflowers are blooming and before the temperatures become unbearable. By May, normal highs are in the 90sF.
About Tamarisk Grove Campground: There are 2 developed and 9 primitive campgrounds in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, not including the county and private RV parks within the park boundaries. Of the two developed campgrounds only Borrego Palm Canyon had RV hookups. The best features of Tamarisk Grove were that it had a lot of cool shade and was centrally located within the park. The campsites were big with a new-ish ramada over a new-ish standard wooden picnic table but many of the sites had only sloping or small flat areas for a tent. Some sites had cabins with additional space for a big tent. Sites at the end of the loop were more private, with some bushes between them. Sites near the shower house at the beginning of the loop were open with no vegetation. The frequent water sources along the paved loop only provided non-potable water. Potable water could be purchased at the campground entrance hut or brought from the Visitor Center 14 miles away. When we asked if boiling the water would render it safe to drink the Ranger told us the water was contaminated with metals so boiling it would only concentrate the toxicity. The campground sits between two major roadways, S3 and US-78, with constant and fast traffic and also has noisy, small planes flying overhead regularly. Even if this campground did have drinking water and pay showers we thought it was quite overpriced at $25.00/night, especially considering the “temporary” closure of the flush toilets and sinks. We were told that the modern toilet facilities had to be shut down due to drought and California water shortage issues but there was no explanation for why the showers were not shut down as well. (Our preference would have been to keep the bathrooms open and shut down the showers.) The modern bathroom facilities were replaced by five poorly-maintained chemical port-a-johns which were almost full already by Friday evening.
Update: the Ranger explained to me that the Tamarisk Grove well dried up last year. In an attempt to restore the ground water several tamarisk trees (non-native invasives) growing around the well were cut down. Since then the park was waiting to see if the water would return to the well but there was no plan to make any other changes, like replacing the modern toilets with vault toilets. The temporary port-a-johns were decided upon because more water is wasted by volumes of people flushing after each use than by having a pay shower (a valid point). The port-a-johns were cleaned today but are almost full again.