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Awesome Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

Originally Published in Trailer Life Magazine

California’s Anza-Borrego is a must-see anytime you’re in the area — anytime, that is, except for summer, when temperatures frequently reach triple digits. Yet visits to this desert state park in the late winter/early spring are ideal, when the wildflowers are in bloom.

My husband Mike and I made a recent visit to Anza-Borrego, and we were in awe of the beautiful colors from the blooms. Joining others who were searching for the same flowers, we arrived on a Sunday and got one of the last campsites available. Fortunately, things quieted down on Monday and Tuesday, as we drove the park roads and hiked its trails in search of barrel cactus, California primrose, monkey flowers and other beauties.

Anza-Borrego attracts a crowd during wildflower season, but being that it is California’s largest state park, visitors can still find plenty of room for spreading out and enjoying some solitude. Encompassing 600,000 acres, the park is a land of deep, palm-filled canyons, endless panoramas, badlands and soaring crags. And in the spring, there are the wildflowers, a potpourri of color and variety.

There’s no charge for entering the park, but you must pay a day-use fee upon exploring the realms of Borrego Palm Canyon and the Vern Whitaker Horse Camp. The park boasts of developed campgrounds with drinking water, toilets, showers and picnic tables; some sites even sport a shade ramada. All of the developed campgrounds charge a camping fee. If you want to camp in the backcountry, you can for no charge. Anza-Borrego remains one of the few places in the country where open camping is permitted. If you choose to camp in the backcountry, be sure to stay 100 feet away from any water source, bring a metal container to hold your fire (no wood-gathering is permitted), park on the side of the road so others may pass, and do not trample vegetation or drive over geological formations. Of course, you must also pack out what you pack in.

The visitor center is a good resource to learn more about this vast park. Volunteer naturalists give talks, most of which last about 40 minutes and are held outdoors or inside an air-conditioned classroom, depending on the temperature. Unique programs provide information on the park’s plants, wildlife, fossils, geology and much more. Nature walks often begin at the visitor center. The walks are easy (about a half mile) and last about 45 minutes. Campground campers can attend free evening programs. Campfire programs are held primarily on weekends at Borrego Palm Canyon and Bow Willow campgrounds.

Some of the park’s many roads to explore are paved, but about 500 miles of road are not. We traveled both paved and unpaved roads, happening upon carpets of wildflowers, ocotillo with red flowers blazing, roadrunners racing and black-tailed jackrabbits bounding across the desert. We hoped to see Peninsular Bighorn Sheep, to no avail. An endangered mammal and the park’s namesake (borrego), we searched for them on rocky slopes above the desert floor.

One morning we made the side trip out to Font’s Point. Here we watched the golden rays of light embracing the Borrego Badlands. We felt the magic of the park; the silence of solitude, the sweet whisper of a gentle breeze, the squeaking of wings as a lone raven flapped by. We were a mere 75 miles east of San Diego, but a world away from rush-hour traffic and the millions of inhabitants who ply the nearby land.

As we traveled the scattered segments of the park, hopscotching through both private and state lands, we found isolated pockets where hardy souls live year-round. Although the land has been inhabited for more than 4,500 years, relatively few choose to make the desert their year-round home.

While not the most popular place to live, each year more than one million visitors are drawn to the park — one of the richest living museums in the country. The landscape in the area today is much different than that of 4,500 years ago, when the first inhabitants arrived. Then it was lush, well-wooded, well-watered and probably teeming with animal life. The first Spanish explorers, however, found a drier climate, much like that of today, when Pedro Fages first surveyed the new kingdom, Alta California, in 1772.

As in many parts of the West, gold seekers made their claim with thousands of immigrants traveling the Southern Emigrant Trail in search of enough gold nuggets to last a lifetime. Soon after, the Butterfield Overland Stageline carved a piece of history, one that would extend to San Francisco. Later still, cattlemen and prospectors tried to master a land too rugged and savage to control.

Today’s visitors can enter the park from several directions, but the best place to begin is at the visitor center, located less than two miles west of Borrego Springs on Palm Canyon Drive. The center is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., October through May, and on weekends from June through September, but contact the park for possible changes.

In addition to wildflowers, Mike and I searched for a variety of bird and plant life. There are 225 species of birds, 60 reptiles and amphibians, and more than 60 different mammals in the park. Plant life is varied as well. In addition, Borrego Canyon harbors one of the 25 native groves of California fan palms found in the park. The largest palm in North America, these palms require a continual supply of water and are found in desert oases from Death Valley to Baja California. The oases attract a variety of birds, reptiles and mammals, making them a pleasant spot for human visitors as well.

Another must is a stop at Carrizo Badlands Overlook, located at the south end of the park, just a few yards off paved Highway S-2. From here a carpet of yellow and purple wildflowers painted the foreground, while the badlands held untold secrets of the saber-toothed cats, mastodons, zebras and camels who roamed the region more than a million years ago.

In addition to driving quiet roads, we hiked many trails during our stay. Ask if we had a favorite, and I’d have to say no. We enjoyed them all, mostly because they were so very different. We hiked up the Borrego Palm Canyon Nature Trail on a hot spring day. Along the way we found Gambel’s Quail, house wrens, and at the end of the trail we found a native palm grove with shade, small waterfalls and cascades and plenty of water for cooling off. We also hiked around Coyote Canyon and found wildflowers, as well as White-lined Sphinx caterpillars, and the friendliest of lark sparrows and Costa’s hummingbirds, too. One day we visited Blair Valley, where we hiked the Morteros Trail. We also found Indian grinding holes in the boulders along the easy trail and discovered a pictograph-covered boulder, where we marveled at ancient artwork.

We visited Elephant Tree Discovery Trail on the hottest of our days at Anza-Borrego, but it was worth enduring the heat to see the rare elephant tree as well as wildflowers galore and some interesting insects called blister beetles. What fun we had sitting and watching the beetles collect pollen and mate.

The Tamarisk Grove area offers up two lovely trails. The first trail lead us to Yaqui Well. The well was dry and is suppose to remain so, but the walk there was laden with wildflowers as well as flowering Century plants. Near the dry well we also saw a pair of nesting Phainopeplas. The second hike is on Cactus Loop Trail, which offered many varieties of flowering cacti, most of which were blooming and in full glory.

Visitors often ask the park employees about when the wildflowers will be bloom, but that is a difficult question to answer. A distinctive blend of sun, wind, water and temperature sets the stage for the springtime bloom. Winter rains in small doses are needed. Too little rain means poor seed germination; too much rain and the seeds may rot or wash away. Temperature is critical as well. Warm days are good. Hot days means parched and scorched seeds and seedlings. Desert winds matter, too. No one really knows the prime time for wildflowers from year to year, as each wildflower season is unique, but typically you’ll see them start to bloom from late February through March.

Visit Anza-Borrego when the wildflowers are in bloom and you’ll find the park as awesome as we did.

For the latest in wildflower news, call the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park Wildflower Hotline at (760) 767-4684. You can also check out the Web at www.parks.ca.gov and click on Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

Ask at the visitor center for driving tour guides as well as nature trail guides. For more information contact Anza-Borrego Desert State Park at (760) 767-4205. Campground reservations may be made at (800) 444-7275 or www.reserveamerica.com. Dogs are welcome in the campgrounds and on the many dirt roads in the park, but they must be on at least a 6-foot leash. Dogs are not allowed on trails.

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