Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is just a 2-hour drive from San Diego’s suburbia, but might as well be on a different planet. The climate is hot and dry, the sun is blinding, and the rangers sternly advise hikers to turn back if half of their water is gone. The Palm Canyon Trail starts in a barren, rocky area, but quickly enters a valley full of cacti, ocotillo plants, and palm trees leading to an oasis of tiny waterfalls. Sitting in the shade of giant palms with fellow hikers, trying to spot the bighorn sheep hiding on the surrounding hillsides is a great reward for the not-too-strenous hike.
Highway 78 leading back to San Diego has great views over the Salton Sea, the Colorado Desert, and the distant mountain range hiding Joshua Tree National Park. We stopped in Julian to eat and pick up their famous apple pie. Even though the town is tiny, it has a great cowboy boot shop and some funky buildings.