San Diego’s East County offers truly diverse attractions within an hour or so of downtown. Interstate 8 passes casinos and the vintage trains at Campo, with a turnoff to Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. Scenic backroad State Route 78 hits the gold-rush mountain village of Julian. Both roads take in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.
Borrego Springs Chamber of Commerce: 786 Palm Canyon Dr; Borrego Springs; 760 767 5555; www.borregospringschamber.com
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park Visitor Center: 200 Palm Canyon Dr, Borrego Springs; 760 767 5311; open 9am–5pm daily (park open throughout the year); adm (Borrego Palm Canyon Campground) $8 per vehicle Oct–early May, $6 rest of the year; reservations can be made up to 7 months in advance (800 444 7275)
Just 5 miles (8 km) north of I-8, Cuyamaca has more than 100 miles (160 km) of hiking, biking, and horse trails, with desert and coast views along the way. A creek meanders through Green Valley.
Native American communities have more than a dozen 24-hour casinos in the county. Only those over 21 and with valid identification are allowed in gaming areas.
After the gold rush of the 1870s, some stayed on in this charming community surrounded by forests in the Cuyamaca Mountains. Filled with B&Bs, this Historical District is a popular weekend getaway and known for its apple orchards.
On first glimpse, this desert may look like a gigantic expanse of nothingness, but it is rife with life, notably wildflowers and bird species. Between February and April, weather permitting, it erupts into a vibrant palette of colorful blooms.
Venturing into the desert by car, other than on the main roads, is not advisable for the inexperienced. Roads can be impassable and unpredictable. A variety of tour operators can safely escort you on everything from a short day tour to an off-road overnight adventure.
Operated by the Railway Museum of San Diego, the Golden State Limited departs twice daily on weekends from the historic Campo train depot for a 12-mile (20-km) round trip to Miller Creek.
After a good storm, this 5,738-ft- (1,750-m-) high hamlet at the eastern edge of the Cleveland National Forest becomes a winter playground for San Diegans, who come here to sled, cross-country ski, and generally marvel at the chillier climes.
San Diego County’s desert community has lodging, restaurants, tours, and the Park Headquarters, where you can view exhibits, an informative film, and a desert garden.
California’s largest state park at 938 sq miles (2,430 sq km), it offers cacti and posies, rough trails, historic roads, mountainous dunes, extreme temperatures, other-worldly skies – plus peace and quiet.
This Mexican border town is about 20 minutes west via State Route 94. Check with the Border Patrol for any up-to-the-minute safety issues, as well as any needed re-entry visa. If possible, simply park your car in the little lot by the border (someone will come out to take a few dollars) and walk across.
Mexico native and California resident, sculptor Ricardo Breceda made the metal “dinosaurs” that pop out of the desert-scape. Breceda created more than 130 full-sized replicas of creatures that once roamed these lands, including desert tortoises, saber-toothed cats, wild horses, and a 350-ft (106-m) serpent.