Desolate, Dramatic Anza Borrego Desert State Park, CA

I find the desert intoxicating in the spring, like experiencing a fine wine for the first time.  If you have ever done a wine tasting away from the crowds, your entire focus is on the depth of colors, the aroma of flowers, leaves, herbs and spices, the tastes you experience as you roll that first sip around your tongue.  A good wine seems to dance in your mouth.  I believe the desert in spring in many ways is synonymous to this.  There is a harmonious balance amidst the complexity of all the desert sights and smells.  It speaks to us on a cellular level, engaging all of our senses.  On a cool, clear morning, standing at a trailhead not often traversed, looking out over the vastness of an open desert or a winding canyon, the colors and textures dance before your eyes and if you take a deep breath, the sweet smell of sage, acacia, and palo verde beckon you to move deeper into the wilderness. Hover near a creosote bush and you will remember why you love the smell of rain in the desert.

Recently we returned to Anza Borrego Desert State Park to spend five days with the Jojoba Hills hiking club.  You could spend five weeks here and not experience everything this park has to offer.  Covering 600,000 acres, with 500 miles of dirt roads and 110 miles of hiking trails (many only available with high-clearance, 4-wheel drive vehicles), this park draws you back time and again.  It even has a Sky Trail, which has been described in the Pilots Getaway magazine, and 50 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail meander in and out of the park.

We had been here a few weeks back when the desert was just beginning to awaken from its winter slumber and although the wildflowers were lovely, they were not yet at their peak.  This visit they were beyond their peak in many areas we visited, thanks to the hot desert winds and this big fella.

Soon to be a lovely moth.  Photo credit Doris Potter at
Soon to be a lovely moth. Photo credit Doris Potter at

Like an army on the move, he and tens of thousands of his best buddies have chomped through entire fields of wildflowers these past few weeks, leaving barren desert in their wake.  These colorful but rather creepy (at least to me) caterpillars are the white-lined sphinx moth, aka hummingbird moth, who lay their eggs on the leaves of young plants.  When the eggs hatch, the larvae burrow underground, where they pupate and emerge as moths and the cycle continues.

While the desert wildflowers were vanishing the cacti decided to step up and create beautiful splashes of color across the landscape.  Here are just a few of the lovelies that we found while hiking:

Each day was filled with hiking and gatherings at the end of the day to share our adventures with the rest of the group.  Some of the hikes that we tackled during our stay were:

L-R, Cj, Art, Nancy, Frank, Terry & Margee on the Borrego Palm Canyon Trail
L-R, Cj, Art, Nancy, Frank, Terry & Margee on the Borrego Palm Canyon Trail

Borrego Palm Canyon Trail

Nancy heading into the mud cave, flashlight at the ready.
Nancy heading into the mud cave, flashlight at the ready.

Mud Caves at Arroyo Tapiado

Margee and Terry in the slots
Margee and Terry in the slots
Big Mud Cave, now a slot canyon after part of the roof collapsed.
Big Mud Cave, now a slot canyon after part of the roof collapsed.

Big Mud Cave (now a slot canyon) at Arroyo Tapiado

The gang ready to head into Glorietta Canyon, where we found many of our flowering cacti.
The gang ready to head into Glorietta Canyon, where we found many of our flowering cacti.

Glorietta Canyon

Frank getting cozy with a barrel cactus while the teddy bear cholla close in.
Frank getting cozy with a barrel cactus while the teddy bear cholla close in.

Cactus Loop Nature Trail

The Slot at West Butte was enjoyed by the rest of the group while I headed back to Jojoba Hills to attend an art journaling workshop.  Someone (who will remain nameless) was responsible for photos but forgot the camera.  Hmmm, wonder who that could be? 😉

Anza Borrego is a hiker’s paradise and a photographer’s dream.  The topography can change at a moment’s notice, from soaring mountains, to barren desert, claustrophobic slot canyons, rippling badlands, to fields of wildflowers and brilliant blooming cacti.  For those who love the desert there can be few better.  I can think of no other place an hour away from our winter base to better spend time with our Jojoba friends.

A barren yet dramatic landscape
A barren yet dramatic landscape

Wildflowers, Desert Vistas, & New Friends ~ Anza Borrego Desert State Park, CA

The desert is waking from her deep winter slumber, the time of year when Mother Nature playfully splashes every color in her palette across the barren landscape. Winter is not quite ready to relinquish her hold, as cold winds and rain still find their way down the mountains, scuttling across the desert floor of Anza Borrego State Park.  But spring is gaining ground and the colors, textures and smells of the desert are wonderful!

We would find it shameful if we did not experience Anza’s wildflowers, given we are just an hour away from California’s largest state park.  Actually they are just now beginning to burst open from their underground rest, so the next few weeks should prove to be quite spectacular.

Just a few of the wildflowers making their colorful debut:

We had only a few days to spend so we wasted no time in setting up camp near Coyote Mountain, at Clark’s Dry Lake, one of the more popular boondocking spots in Anza Borrego.  We ventured down Rockhouse Road until we found a spot away from everyone else, with nothing to break the silence except the howling wind and coyotes late at night.  Once settled we headed over to the trailhead for our first hike.

Hellhole Canyon

Anza Borrego is known as one of the hottest and driest deserts in the U.S., so it might be surprising to learn that there is a place where palm trees, sycamores, and cottonwoods flourish.   And if you are persistent, don’t mind a bit of boulder-hopping and bushwhacking, and listen intently, you might stumble upon the tiny cascading waterfall known as Maidenhair Falls, for the lush ferns and moss lining the canyon wall. Welcome to Hellhole Canyon, a 5-mile trail out-and-back that keeps you on your toes as you try to determine which way the trail went, as it has a tendency to disappear within the vegetation-choked canyon floor.

Beyond the tantalizing images of the desert awash with color, we were looking forward to our visit with the birders Raven and Chickadeebetter known as Eric and Laurel. One of the perks of following other RV bloggers is finding out who is circling in the area. These two little birdies were not only circling but they had landed and we feel grateful to have spent two fun-filled days with them and their Ashland friends.  And, of course, another hike was on the agenda, this time an afternoon trek into Palm Canyon in search of the bighorn sheep.

Palm Canyon

Palm Canyon was once the most beautiful and lushest of the 25 palm canyons within Anza Borrego but a freak summer thunderstorm in 2004 brought a 20-foot wall of water rushing down the canyon, carrying with it hundreds of uprooted fan palm trees. These displaced palms, carried along by a massive mudflow, hit the state park campground, causing considerable damage and what some have dubbed a “thousand-year flash flood”.  This 3-mile out-and-back trail is still quite lovely, despite what she has endured.  We did not find the elusive bighorn sheep on our hike but when we returned to camp the Ashland crowd who stayed behind had seen them on the ridge above the campground…bummer for the hikers!

Although our time at Anza Borrego was short, our days and nights were packed with interesting conversation, lovely hikes, great food and drink, and entertainment.  It seems this Ashland bunch are very talented.  We can’t thank them enough for including us in their intimate group.  We had a blast and look forward to meeting up with them again later this summer. 🙂

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park ~ Land of Slot Canyons and Prehistoric Creatures

We felt like parolees being given a short release so we decided to make the most of it and head inland for a very quick trip.  This is not our preferred way to tour but I think we both feel a sense of urgency to see a few more sights before we leave the San Diego area.  Time is flying and we have only three weeks remaining before we make our trek up north to Yellowstone.

We had heard about Anza-Borrego Desert State Park from friends Nina and Paul of Wheeling It.  To be honest, our destination was to be The Slabs but the park was on our way so we decided to take a quick tour.  Given that this is the largest state park in California and the second largest in the country, there was no way to do it justice as it covers over 600,000 acres, with 500 miles of dirt roads and 100 miles of hiking trails.  It will just have to stay on our bucket list to explore in-depth at a later date but it seemed like a crime to bypass it altogether given how close we were.

Anza-Borrego was named after the Spanish explorer Juan Batista de Anza, known for his discovery of an overland trail across California, and the Spanish word borrego, meaning bighorn sheep, which inhabit the park but are rarely seen by visitors .  The park sits in a bowl surrounded by the Santa Rosa and Vallecito Mountain ranges.

As is our normal custom when we visit parks, we stopped at the visitor center, which was small but very nice.  A lovely volunteer from the state of Washington gave us some literature and the lay of the land.  We wanted to see about taking a sunset/moonlight hike with an interpretive guide, given a nearly full-moon was forecast.  As you might expect, this hike had been filled some time ago.  We settled for a visit to one of the slot canyons instead, with the promise of seeing the moon rise over the desert.  However, if you enjoy hiking as we do and have the time, the 6-mile Hellhole Canyon Trail, with some boulder-hopping and bushwhacking, looked interesting.

Hopes for seeing any wildflowers on our drive out were slim due to the lower than average rainfall this season and sadly we saw none.  Not a huge disappointment as we had been desert rats for years, living in Arizona, and had seen these beautiful floral displays pushing up through the arid desert floors before.  If you haven’t seen spring in the desert, when there is adequate rainfall and the floor is carpeted in vibrant colors among the prickly cacti, you really owe it to yourself to take a hike!

Ricardo Breceda metal sculpturesWhat we did see which was highly unusual and may not be seen anywhere else was a scattering of life-size and oversized metal art sculptures dotting the sandy desert.  These works of art were the brainchild of Ricardo Breceda, of which the book Ricardo Breceda, Accidental Artist by Diana Lindsay, has been written.   With over 500 plant and animal fossils having been uncovered in the park, Breceda set about to recreate some of these creatures that roamed this desert millions of years ago. Prehistoric mammals, wild horses and a 350′ long serpent (not seen but we had heard) have been deposited over three miles of this arid landscape.  We glimpsed a giant scorpion and grasshopper staged for battle as we drove out to the slots.

Ricardo Breceda metal scuptures

We arrived at the Palm Slot late afternoon and if you didn’t have even a rudimentary map, as we did, I’m not sure you could find it.  It was a short one mile trek to the mouth of the canyon and, as we approached, my heart rate quickened a bit.  I must admit to being claustrophobic and I was having flashbacks to the slots in Utah we had traversed some years back.  This was not nearly as intimidating, so piece of cake.  The only worry at all was that of snakes, as we had been warned that several had been spotted recently.

Here’s Terry, appearing to hold up the archway near the entrance, beckoning me to join him.  Hmm, do I really want to do this?

Come on Lu, no need to be afraid.

Ok, I can do this.  Time to overcome my fear of tight spaces.  The deeper into the slot I go the more I enjoy it.  See, I’m even smiling.

Terry decides to jump right in and join me, not be to outdone by his wife.

This really was an easy slot canyon to negotiate, even if you are a teensy bit claustrophobic.  And on our way out, we were rewarded with the rising moon. Although not the most spectacular we have seen, we were promised a moon and that’s what we got!

For those who like to boondock, there is such a wide expanse of desert, with broad sweeping vistas everywhere you look.  No need to feel cramped out here. We are still weighing the whole solar panel issue ourselves and would love to hear from some of you who have elected to install them.  Tell us what you think.

By the way, if you find yourself going through Julian to get to Anza-Borrego, we are told it is a must to stop at the Julian Pie Company.  We did stop in, eyed the great-looking pies in the display cases, but resisted.

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