Blake Walsh

20 Best Things to Do in El Centro, CA

  • Published 2023/02/23

Founded in 1906 by W. F. Holt and C. A. Barker, the city of El Centro is one of the areas belonging to Imperial County.

The modern city is home to several industries, including transportation, retail, agriculture, and wholesale.

As the southernmost desert city in California, El Centro is known to have scorching summers and mild winters.

The geographical placement of El Centro makes it a popular destination for driving buggies while exploring the dunes.

But aside from that, there are several things you can still do while in this city.

Check out the 20 best things to do while in El Centro, California.

Experience the Adventure of a Lifetime at Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area

Off road dune buggy on Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area

Grossinger /

Experience an outdoor recreational activity that you’ll never forget by marching to Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area at S 4th St.

The Imperial Sand Dunes are the largest mass of sand dunes in California.

Welcome sign of Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area

LI_Droneshots /

The dune system was formed by windblown sands from the ancient Lake Cahuilla, extending for more than 40 miles.

Get some much-needed off-road action and rent out a couple of ATVs to ride around the dunes.

You’ll also be treated to fabulous scenery, a serene environment, and rare sightings of exotic plants and animals.

A dun buggy driving along Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area

Grossinger /

Visit Bucklin Park

Enjoy the calm and serene environment of Bucklin Park on S 8th St.

Go on a short walk, lounge on the grass, or have a quiet picnic in this park that’s surrounded by the desert.

Get a much-needed exercise by jogging around, exploring the small hills, and catching a great view of the lake and picturesque water fountain.

The entire Bucklin Park loop spans a total of 1.3 kilometers, which makes the perfect walking trail for those who simply want to calm their minds and enjoy nature’s finest views.

Aside from having a scenic trail, you’ll also see a memorial dedicated to the fallen soldiers who fought for the United States.

Attend the Imperial Valley Arts and Film Festivals

If there’s one place to check out world-class artwork, it’s definitely El Centro.

Spend an entire day hanging out in downtown El Centro to attend the Imperial Arts Festival.

You’ll get to see over a thousand art pieces, with most of them coming from school children who have discovered their passion for creativity.

If you’re planning to visit El Centro sometime in March, you might also see artworks in the old post office pavilion.

Check out paintings, charcoal drawings, caricatures, and more from El Centro’s budding talents.

El Centro also hosts a two-day festival for motion pictures.

The event usually takes place during the month of May, highlighting the filmmaking prowess of the people of El Centro.

During this event, local filmmakers compete for title prizes by submitting their works in the form of short films and documentaries.

Enroll in Music Lessons at El Centro Music & Arts

Shop for name-brand instruments and music accessories at El Centro Music & Arts along W State St. Suite 3.

The shop originated from Bethesda, Maryland, home in 1952 and has continued its tradition of shaping a successful music industry for over 65 years.

But aside from having a great selection of top-of-the-line instruments, the family-owned shop at the heart of the city also offers music lessons for all instruments.

Take private music lessons in-store or online, and learn from some of the best instructors in the industry.

There are over 23 instruments to choose from, but you can also enroll in voice lessons.

El Centro Music & Arts also has a rent-to-own program for musicians looking to build a lifelong relationship with their instruments.

Explore the North Algodones Dunes Wilderness

Scenic sunrise over north Algodones Dunes Wilderness

Danita Delimont /

El Centro is surrounded by deserts, so it’s no surprise that one of the city’s attractions is a dunes system.

The Algodones Sand Dunes system spans approximately eight miles wide and 40 miles long.

It is one of the largest dune complexes in North America.

The North Algodones Dunes is divided into two zones一the primary dunes on the west side and the secondary dunes on the east.

As you explore the primary dunes, you’ll notice that they’re taller and larger and are made up of coarse sand.

Head over to the eastern zone, and you’ll see smaller dunes made up of fine sand.

You’ll also find mesquite, smoke tree, ironwood, palovered, and desert willows on the secondary dunes.

Hit the Driver at Desert Trails RV Park and Golf Course

Desert Trails RV Park and Golf Course is the best place to practice your swings while in the beautiful city of El Centro.

Desert Trails RV Park and Golf Course is a 404 site RV park surrounding a nine-hole golf course decorated with four lakes.

It is the only lighted driving range in the Imperial Valley.

If you’re planning to stay at El Centro for a while, you can avail yourself of golf packages that can last anywhere from a month to a year.

The golf course also has everything you need for a whole day of fun, including cart rentals and punch cards.

After spending a day at the course, hang out by the snack bar and enjoy a glass of beer or wine.

You can also explore other amenities in the area, such as a heated pool, hot tub, pickleball courts, horseshoes, shuffleboard court, and a billiard hall.

Ride the Island Carousel at Imperial Valley Mall

Head over to Imperial Valley Mall and have your kids一or yourself ride the Island Carousel.

Feel the excitement as you ride this giant double-decker carousel that’s been hand-painted and crafted by Venetian artists.

And to further add to your excitement, this carousel was actually built in Venice, sporting an 1800s fashion.

So, you might want to grab the opportunity while you can and board the carousel and marvel at its authenticity and intricate artwork.

The mall’s carousel is operated by Island Carousel Inc., a company specializing in carousels operation in regional malls and festival marketplaces.

Drop By the El Centro Public Library

Drop by the El Centro Public Library and get a hold of a wide selection of books about dozens of genres and topics.

Situated along N Imperial Ave., the public library brands itself as a center for meeting the community’s educational, informational, cultural, and recreational needs.

Browse the library’s catalog, e-books and media, and other resources.

The library also hosts several programs for kids, like the after-school program and preschool storytime sessions.

You can also participate in other events, such as bingo Thursdays and board games Mondays.

Go on a Shopping Spree at the Imperial Valley Mall

Situated along S Dogwood Ave. is the Imperial Valley Mall一your one-stop shop for great finds and good food.

Whether you’re looking for fine jewelry, a new pair of shoes, or gearing up to get a set of new clothes for your wardrobe, Imperial Valley Mall has it all.

Shop from stores like Vans, Valencia Jewelers, Perfumania, Macy’s, Victoria’s Secret, and a whole lot more.

Take a detour from your shopping spree and head over to At the Pier Arcade for some family bonding over classic arcade games and other attractions.

Finally, take a break and dig into something delicious and check out the mall’s restaurants and other food stalls.

Grab a bite of Auntie Anne’s pretzels, enjoy a cup of coffee from Starbucks, or satisfy your cravings for Mexican food at San Diego-Style Sombrero.

Dine at Johnny Carino’s

Name sign of Johnny Carino’s

Idealphotographer /

At Johnny Carino’s along Dogwood Rd., you’ll find a great selection of authentic Italian cuisine that you can’t find anywhere else.

Indulge in favorites like Johnny Carino’s famous lasagna, spicy shrimp and chicken, and family platters.

You’ll also enjoy Johnny Carino’s happy hour in the form of drinks, daily specials, pizzas, and a load of wings.

Aside from indulging in restaurant specials, you’ll also want to check out other dishes like the classic fettuccine alfredo, Johnny’s BBQ bacon cheeseburger, and the Italian wedge.

For dessert, enjoy a slice of strawberry cheesecake and indulge in the explosion of flavors of smooth, vanilla New York cheesecake topped with strawberry sauce and whipped cream.

Shoot Your Shot at Border Tactical

Feel the thrill of firing a gun and shooting your shot at Border Tactical along N Imperial Ave.

Established in 1991, Border Tactical is a uniform and tactical supplier for first responders, DHS, military personnel, and the active lifestyle public.

Visitors are welcome to check out the indoor firing range to practice their gun-aiming skills.

Border Tactical is also equipped with an FFL firearms dealer and offers in-house alteration and embroidery services.

They also have an extensive catalog of activewear, belts, duty gear and holsters, footwear, patches, and uniforms.

Visit the Alford Auto Museum

Car enthusiasts will surely have a great time exploring the Alford Auto Museum along E Main St.

Fords and Franklins decorate most of the spaces in the museum, highlighting successful American creations in the automotive industry.

Begin your tour from the far left side of the museum to check out the “Era Galleries,” which display various vehicles from the 1910s all the way to the 1950s.

One of the most significant vehicles you’ll find in the museum is an original Model “A” Ford, which Rich Alford bought when he was in high school.

Another great thing about the exhibits is that all the cars inside the museum are in running condition and have been restored from the ground up to their current states.

You’ll also see these cars parading the streets for community events and promotional activities.

Catch Live Performances from Mostly Theater Company

Catch a couple of great shows headlined by young artists from the Mostly Theater Company.

Mostly, Theater Company performs at various locations across El Centro, so you might want to keep your eyes peeled for nearby performances.

Everything about the theater company is community-based, from directors and producers all the way to the entire board.

Expect a season of straight and musical productions, readings, and other events.

Mostly Theater Company also hosts a Summer Arts Camp for kids, helping young talents work on their art, dance, music, and theater skills.

Swing By the El Centro Music Festival

Planning to visit El Centro sometime in April?

If you are, then you might want to consider rocking out during the El Centro Music Festival.

The annual musical celebration is usually held at Stark Field, a minor league baseball stadium.

The stadium can seat up to 5,000 guests, so you’re sure to book enough seats for you and your friends.

Sing along and have a good time during the festival, get to know the lineup of performers, and discover their talent for music.

You’ll also get to visit dozens of booths for food and beverages while jamming to reggae, rock, and tribute music.

But don’t leave yet once the encore ends.

Ending the music festival is a grand fireworks display, so you’ll definitely want to stay awhile and catch the real encore.

Have a Pleasant Stay at Rio Bend RV and Golf Resort

More than a place to stay in El Centro, Rio Bend RV and Golf Resort offers lots of activities for adult guests.

Located on Drew Road, this 120-acre resort property is surrounded by wetlands and includes a bird sanctuary and an 80-acre lagoon.

Park your RV and stay for the night or even for a few days.

Enjoy hours of tee-off at the 9-hole par 33 golf course; likewise, you can go for catch-and-release fishing by the lake for some catfish and striped bass.

Saturday Pub Nites are always fun with live music you can dance to, snacks, and drinks all night; it’s the perfect place to mingle and meet other guests.

Pools are available for swimming, Water Aerobics, and Water Volleyball; you can also enjoy sports like basketball, join the yoga and fitness sessions or play pickleball.

If you’re looking for something laidback, they offer activities like Lapidary-Jewelry Making, Quilting, and cards and games like billiards, Cribbage, darts, Texas Hold ‘Em, and more.

Can’t get enough of fun outdoor games? They have lots you can enjoy like Shuffleboard, Bocce, Corn Hole, Horseshoes, Ladder Golf, and more.

Book your stay and relax at Rio Bend RV and Golf Resort.

Take Time to Visit the Old Post Office

Exterior of the Old Post Office

Cbl62, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Old Post Office is one of the historic sites you can visit in the city.

You’ll easily find the building on South 5th Street.

The structure was built in 1932 and served as the main local post office until it was converted into a cultural center and museum during the 1970s.

Through the efforts of the City of El Centro and the Imperial Arts Council, it’s now a frequent venue for various exhibits and local artists to display their works and passion for arts.

From the outside, you’ll appreciate its Beaux Arts features particularly the huge loggia typical of the Second Renaissance Revival style.

Take snapshots of this historic structure or you might even catch a show or event happening at the auditorium.

The Old Post Office was designed by James Wetmore and Louis Simon and was included in the National Register of Historic Places in 1985.

Spend a Relaxing Day at Swarthout Park

Bring the family and spend the day at Swarthout Park, one of the city’s larger public parks.

The area spans 15.5 acres with plenty of opportunities to enjoy sports and outdoor activities.

Throw a pitch at the softball fields or run and score goals at the soccer fields.

You can also practice or shoot some hoops at the basketball courts or have a friendly game of sand volleyball.

Bring packed lunch or buy snacks to enjoy at the picnic area, likewise, little ones can run, jump and have fun at the playgrounds.

Stroll around and you’ll easily find Swarthout Park on 4th and Euclid Avenue.

Join the Locals for the El Grito de Independencia Celebration

El Grito de Independencia is an annual celebration in remembrance of Mexico City’s Shout for Independence to overthrow the Spanish rule in 1810.

The City of El Centro and the Consulate of Mexico in Calexico are hosts of this event to invite the community to commemorate Mexican Independence.

Attractions are held at Bucklin Park every 16th or 17th of September.

It’s also a free family-friendly event, so your family will surely enjoy the different activities and shows in the evening.

Join the crowd and scream “Viva México!” at the emcee’s cue.

Watch the graceful folklorico dancers and talented mariachi musicians, or try to dance along and follow their steps.

You’ll also catch the food vendors selling Mexican specialties while enjoying the contests and shows.

Have fun at the El Grito de Independencia event.

Try Delicious Meals at Junior’s Café

For deliciously satisfying breakfast and lunch fares, dine in or get a take-out at Junior’s Café.

This family-owned local restaurant sits on Adams Avenue and is open from Tuesday to Friday.

They serve breakfast all day, daily specials, and all-time favorite comfort foods that any hungry customer would delight in.

Their breakfast menu includes Plate Combos & Omelettes like Egg Plate, Eggs & Chicken Fried Chicken, Cheese, or Denver Omelette, all served with your choice of hashbrowns, homefries, beans, and more.

They also have Specialty Plates like the Country Breakfast and Lite Fare, and Mexican Plates which include Machaca & Eggs, Huevos Rancheros, Chorizo & Eggs, and Chilaquiles.

Try other items like Off The Griddle treats, oatmeal, homemade biscuits, and assorted burrito flavors.

For lunch, start with bowls of healthy salads drizzled with your choice of homemade dressing, and served with freshly baked corn muffins.

Order and enjoy hefty Lunch Plate servings like Roast Turkey, Grilled Lemon Herb Chicken, and Chicken Fried Steak Plate with tasty side dishes included.

Other delicious items on Junior’s Café’s menu include burgers, Old School Lunches, Sandwiches, Cold or Hot Lunch Treats, sides, and beverages.

Final Thoughts

El Centro is arguably one of the best places to visit while in California.

And with the many things you can do in this city, it’s not enough to spend a few days.

So, why not stay a bit longer at El Centro?

Book your trip today!

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