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Some Like It Hot: Lost in San Diego’s Deserts

The city's many deserts are about to have a moment, but for now, these charming destinations are still off the radar

By Seth Combs

Ram's Hill

House on the Hill at Ram’s Hill


“I don’t see a lot of people out here.” So said a gentleman who introduced himself as “Sailor,” rationalizing to me why he’s been coming to Lake Morena over the decades. “It’s wonderful here.” Sailor has been pedaling his bike around San Diego County’s most remote manmade lake, taking in the myriad photogenic sights: diving birds, behemoth boulders, and a bluish body of water that, while perfect for fly fishing, might not be ideal for swimming.

When I point out that I got lost on my way to Lake Morena and Google Maps was of no help, Sailor points out that this is a good thing. “It keeps the crowds away.”

San Diego’s many deserts are about to have a moment. I know this because I’m now a resident of one. Historically popular places such as Pioneertown, the High Desert and, yes, even Joshua Tree, are at a saturation point when it comes to tourists and influencers. It’s only a matter of time before the artists and influencers look elsewhere, and said elsewhere will likely be our own backyard, in places like Borrego Springs and the towns and valleys that make up the southeastern desert areas of SD County.


Lake Morena, landscape

Desert View Tower near Jacumba Hot Springs

Ariana Drehsler

This fact is evident on the drive out to Lake Morena and, later, a stop at Desert View Tower near Jacumba Hot Springs. Straddling the border of Imperial and San Diego counties, the five-story stone tower, looking like some medieval fortress, offers a grand view of the In-Ko-Pah mountain range. The items in the ground-floor gift and consignment shop skew odd and kitsch, but also offer artisanal art and beauty products from local crafters with names like Your Mom Is a Hippie Soap Company. I bought a bar of their vegan cold process citronella/fennel soap and can confirm that it does, indeed, smell like a hippie.

The Desert Tower has hosted music festivals and recently started offering on-site Airbnb options next to its artsy Boulder Park (rocks painted in a style respectful of the area’s Indigenous petroglyphs). It’s not glamorous, but like many activities in the desert, I’m here for the scenery and the seemingly endless sporadicness of it all. Roadside installations, random museums—like the Imperial Valley Desert Museum—and bizarre outsider art with names like “Coyote’s Flying Saucer Retrievals and Repairs Service” pop up on side roads on the way up to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.


Highway 78

Highway 78 on the way into Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

Ariana Drehsler

I won’t mince words here: Come to the area to camp. The hotel scene in Anza-Borrego is rustic, sometimes rundown, but charming in a way that the Rosebud Hotel from Schitt’s Creek was, pre-renovation. For those looking for a slightly more luxurious experience, head just a bit out of town to The Palms at Indian Head, a midcentury-modern boutique gem, or to La Casa del Zorro Resort & Spa, which sports a spa, a golf course, and (say what?) bocce ball and pickleball courts. For more of an intimate experience or one with friends, I’d recommend renting out the more isolated, less light-polluted House on the Hill at Ram’s Hill, which sports a rooftop deck for stargazing galore.

The same logic extends to the dining scene. It just isn’t there yet. Yes, I had one of the best diner burgers I’ve ever had in my life (the “Smitty,” topped with barbecue sauce and onion rings) at the motocross-themed Red Feather Offroad Market & Café in Ocotillo. That and the Borrego Art Institute–adjoined Kesling’s Kitchen, with its rotating menu and respectable buttermilk fried chicken plate, are a nice start, but like many things in this area of the desert, it’s a work in progress. That’s part of the charm—the idea that we’re visiting a place that is still off the radar, but won’t be for long.


Art Installation

Desert art installation near the Imperial Valley Desert Museum

Ariana Drehsler

On the way to the town of Borrego Springs, stop at trails and lookouts like Carrizo Badlands Overlook, the Moonlight Canyon hiking trail, and the uber-rustic Vallecito Regional Park ( All offer visitors a chance to take in the majesty of the area before heading into town. The Anza-Borrego Wildflower spring blooming fields are all but dry this time of year, but still offer a nice hike in the area. (Bring water. Better yet, plan a trip for mid-to-late March.) Once in Borrego Springs proper, stop by the sprawling sculpture garden that is Galleta Meadows Estate before heading to the impressive Borrego Art Institute, which stands out like a modern-designed beacon of the area’s burgeoning art scene. Maybe even pick up an “I ❤ B.S.” bumper sticker from the neighboring convenience store.

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