ANZA BORREGO—Not just your ordinary desert park

After nearly two months of working our way west to the Pacific Ocean, once we departed San Diego it was time to make a dramatic course change—from now on the general direction of our route would be to the east.  With several weeks of travel still ahead of us, nevertheless the writing was on the wall . . . the proverbial bullet would have to be bitten . . . we were working our way back east towards Indiana.

It was somewhat of an adventure just to get here.  Driving inland after leaving San Diego, we traded ocean views for a bucolic landscape of rolling hills and the occasional orchard.    A soothing, pleasant little country drive, it was hard to believe we were just an easy hour’s drive out of the bustling metro area of San Diego.  But the pastoral scenery didn’t last long.

A few turns in the highway later, the avenue of shade trees with their overhanging branches became a  road edged with cascading boulders.  What had been soft-curved and green-draped hills turned to mounds of rocky, arid ground.  Hard-edged and stark, this drive had taken one dramatic turn.  The prelude of scenes to come.

With two routes leading into Anza Borrego State Park, one involved great scenery but with many more miles to drive.  While the other and more recently constructed one offered the same great views but with more thrills along the way.  Would there be a doubt as to which one I would direct my husband to take?

The Montezuma Valley Road (aka—S-22) opened up access into the Borrego Valley for those people living in the San Ysidro Mountains.  Construction on the highway began in 1954 and once you drive it, you’ll soon understand why it took nearly 10 years to complete.  It would require 160,000 tons of dynamite for the prisoners from the Montezuma Honor Camp to carve a way down San Ysidro Mountain to the valley floor.  When it was completed, the mayor of Borrego Springs declared June 24th, 1964 as a holiday for all the residents.  The road was and still is a big deal .  .  . and without a doubt it is one huge adventurous drive to take.

Coming down the grade you’ll have tantalizing views as you swing around the flanks of the mountains to the Borrego Valley far below—but don’t look if you’re the driver!

Dropping more than 3,000 feet in elevation, the route passes through several different climate zones along the way.  Massive rock formations, rugged canyons, a view of the Salton Sea . . . but keep your eyes on the road as you navigate the twists and turns along the road (and engage the Jake brake if you have one!).

And then, perhaps with a sigh of relief or an unclenching of fingers, you take the one and only scenic pullout of the drive.  A time to regain your composure or perhaps to soak in the view .  .  .  the scenic overlook is THE place to capture an eagle’s view of the layout of Borrego Valley.

The little town of Borrego Springs is back-dropped by the huge expanse of the Santa Rosa Mountains.

Once out of the San Ysidro Mountains, it’s clear-sailing into the park.  The S-22 will take you into the small town of Borrego Springs—think of its location as being the hole in the Anza Borrego “donut”.

With tourism and snow birding as its economic base, Borrego Springs is a quaint little village, whose heart is a grassy green commons area, appropriately named “Christmas Circle.”

Just outside the western edge of town, hang a left off the S-22 and you’ll be pulling into the main campground of Anza Borrego— Borrego Palm Canyon.  Lady Luck was surely shining down on me when months ago I was able to snag one of their full hookup sites.  You can find a couple other RV Resorts in Borrego Springs, but this is the only full hookup one you’ll find within the park.  If you’re looking to set up camp smack in the scenery and adjacent to the park’s most popular trail, then this is the one for you!  (Early reservations are a MUST).

So, maybe you’re wondering what enticed us to select this desert park jewel for our week’s stay.  Or how in the world did it ever appear on our radar screen?  Suffice it to say I had come across the park in my photo magazines, coming to learn how it was an area full of scenic potential.  Say no more!  I liked what I read.  Being in the neighborhood just sealed the deal.  Years ago, I added Anza Borrego to my bucket list of destinations.

Yet little did I know of the riches that were waiting.  Similar to our experiences with Death Valley, at first glance when surveying the big picture, one is left wondering what could possibly be of much interest .  .  .  much less a whole week of our time.  From a far-off perspective, the park appears to be just dry desert wasteland.  But wait, stay awhile, wander around and open yourself to possibilities.  At least, that was our approach.  That’s when we discovered Anza Borrego’s vastly different looks.  And so we began . . .

The park is framed by mountains, rugged and rocky pinnacles. The common denominator is the desert landscape, but within its boundaries you can find fascinating rock formations, wondrous slot canyons, remote spring oases, and—the drawing card for me—the earliest spring wildflowers in California.  And so my quest began.

A road trip to the Pumpkin Patch was a good introduction to the park.  A paved road led into the mountain flanks before turning off on a sandy wash.

Oh yes, driving down those ubiquitous washes became a common mode of travel in the coming days.  A landlubber from the Midwest, Chris soon was driving through them like a pro.

There are more than 500 miles of roads in the park, many of them dirt or sand.  There are routes up rocky hills, through deep sand, along scenic streams and down steep hills.  It’s a park that attracts OHV fanatics, but fortunately the park is big enough for everyone to share.Several palm oases exist throughout the park.  Thanks to underground springs, the state’s only native palm, the California fan palm, flourishes around these water holes.  On this first foray into the ‘back country’, an added feature would be stopping at what’s known as Seventeen Palms.  An aerial view coming into the oasis (courtesy of Chris’ drone) gives an accurate scene of how these green islands of trees stand out in such contrast to the stark and barren desert that surrounds them.

With 2,500 species of palms worldwide, only 11 are native to North America.  The largest of these and the only palm tree native to western North America, is the California fan palm.  Anza Borrego is a good place to see them.

And then it was on to the Pumpkin Patch .  .  . plowing on through those desert washes!! A 4wd trip for sure.

It is a fascinating geologic feature—a field of concretions that spread over an area the size of a city block.  This unique landscape is the result of wind and water continuously eroding the surface soil and revealing globular sandstone concretions that look much like pumpkins in size and shape. The nucleus for these concretions probably formed millions of years ago by the natural cementing of sand particles to small objects such as a piece of shell, a grain of sand or even an insect.  On the nearby ridges, new pumpkin-sized concretions continue to grow and become exposed.  A really unique sight!

Yes, it’s a real attention-getter and you’ll be amazed to see them in person (but not an easy drive to get there).

There’s plenty of historical background to describe how people lived here years before it became a park.  Native Americans called this home for thousands of years, leaving evidence of their way of living.  In more recent times, there were explorers, and travelers, some coming to ranch or try their hand at farming.  Perhaps the most captivating story of human habitation occurred in more recent times and there’s even a short film at the Visitor Center describing the life of the family that lived up on Ghost Mountain in the Blair Valley area of the park.

The Anza-Borrego Desert is a beautiful place to visit, but a tough place to live. The areas inhabitants usually built homes near water, trees, and roads, but not Marshal South, who traded utility for scenery when he built a homestead in the 1930s atop Ghost Mountain (Yaquitepec to the native Indians) near Blair Valley.  From 1931 until the mid-1940s, Marshal and his poet wife, Tanya, lived atop this rock-strewn, remote mountaintop in a brutal, hostile environment.  They built an adobe cabin that they called Yaquitepec, fashioned an ingenious rainwater collection system, lived off the land (as much as they could), made their own clothing (but nudity was the preferred style), birthed three children, and tried to emulate, to one degree or another, the life of the prehistoric American Indians.  The tough life eventually caused Tanya to take the kids and file for divorce (never to speak of her life on the mountain) and for the home to be abandoned.  Marshal would die a year after leaving.

Over a period of nine of those years, South chronicled his family’s controversial primitive lifestyle through popular monthly articles written for Desert Magazine.  His writings tended to romanticize their way of living, illustrating a life in total harmony with nature (who was he kidding???).  But his writings found an enthusiastic audience, which continued throughout their stay.

Today the South’s home lies in ruins—crumbling adobe walls, the frame for an arched doorway, a rusted bed frame, and cement and barrel cisterns once used to catch seasonal rainfall. A one-mile trail at the foot of Ghost Mountain climbs 1,200 feet to the site. The Souths had named the mountain for the “thin, ghostly trails” that led to the obscure ridge where they built their home.

Cutting off the main paved road, we drove across Blair Valley on a dirt road leading to Ghost Mountain.

On a beautiful, sun-drenched morning we made a pilgrimage out to the site.  Trudging up the well-worn path was a good opportunity to imagine how many times the family traced this trail, carrying needed supplies up to their home.  For us it was a hike in the park . . . for them it was a way of life.

Lest you begin to think this was some kind of utopian life here on the mountain, let me assure you that even on a pleasant winter day, you can understand this was no easy way of living.

These were the days of the Great Depression and life wouldn’t have been easy under most ‘normal’ conditions.  People in general were more self-sufficient, so it’s not fair to hold this family’s lifestyle to ours of today.  And yet . . . it does have an extreme aspect to it.

The view from their mountaintop looks out over the Blair Valley. At least they had a room with a view, and maybe that was what they were looking for . .  . a desert view, that is.

Sometimes you just need a change of scenery and that’s something Anza Borrego can offer.  Just when you might be thinking it’s all about rocks, boulders, and dry, barren landscapes,  you need look no farther than a good hike through an amazing slot canyon.

Instead of slogging up, we headed down . . . where flash floods through the ages have carved a trench through the rocky, sedimentary terrain.

With no ‘official’ trail to guide us, Chris scans the area to find the most desirable route to take.

Simply named The Slot, you make your way down into the ravine to begin the adventure winding your way through narrow rock walls.  Why it’s not listed as an official park trail remains a mystery—but fortunately for us, we had it all to ourselves.

Once down, we soon left the bright morning sunlight behind and entered a different world—totally different.  Diffuse light brought out the warm tones of the rocky siltstone walls, sometimes reaching 40 feet high.  As the walls went higher, the passageway becomes more narrow .  .  .  this is not a trail for—er, how do I put this?—‘wide’ people!

As the walls made for a tight, circuitous route, the experience can be surreal, it not slightly claustrophic.  For us, it was a marvel and we felt like kids exploring a labyrinth.

I’m sure Chris is glad he didn’t overindulge on his breakfast!

If the experience of passing through a narrow slot canyon isn’t amazing enough .  .  .  how about finding a highlight at the end?  Although not a formal trail, somehow many a photographer has captured this sight and that’s how I managed to track it down.  Near the far end of the canyon you’ll need to look up (or easily miss it).  High above, a slanted rock slab bridges the arrow gap in the canyon.  Apparently broken off from one wall, the scepter-shaped block was caught in mid-fall and now rests between the two walls.  Lodged overhead, you wouldn’t be advised to remain long just below it.  Still, I got Chris to hang in there.

After nearly a mile of winding through the passageway, the canyon begins to widen.  Then suddenly you exit into brilliant sunlight as the rocky cliffs pull away.  The heat returns along with the world we’re more accustomed to, but wait!  There still remains the return trip.  Like most trails you’ll take, whether above or below ground level, it always looks totally different when you back track.

And the fun wasn’t over just yet.

The trip to Font’s Point isn’t for the faint-hearted.  Everyone will tell you the drive is definitely worth the effort.  Park rangers will advise you to take a shovel along (just in case). Definitely don’t try to drive it after a rain. If in doubt, caravan with others.  But do it, if you can.  The reward at the end makes you forget about the drive.

First, though, you must navigate a sandy wash—uphill.  With some soft, deep places along the route.  Keep a slow but steady speed and stay in the tire tracks of those having gone before you.

Despite some awesome scenery you’ll find along the way, pulling over for a photo op might just be your downfall—move on and shoot on the fly!

Be prepared for some sharp turns—remember not to stop—and never ever hit the gas pedal too hard.  Four miles later and with a ‘whew!’ we had made it!  Now you hoof it the last 100 yards or so.  Uphill, of course.

And then you’re standing on a high promontory overlooking the Borrego Badlands.  Before you lies a spectacular landscape of the most rugged desert landscape you’ll ever imagine.  Millennia ago the delta-marine waters of the northern Gulf of California covered this area. Local mountains were uplifted while the waters dried up, leaving sedimentary layers of rock behind.  Now, all that remains is arid rocky geography, sunken mesas and corrugated hills of dry mud. The forces of erosion gently soften contour lines through wind, rain and generations of flash flooding. Thousands of acres of sedimentary rock contain enough side canyons and dry washes for a lifetime of adventurous exploring.

With more than a 180° view, every direction has an incredible view.  Difficult to wrap your mind around, you can’t help but stand in awe.

Some might describe the scene as breathtaking; others might say there are no words for what you’re seeing.  Grasping no good words of exclamation, I just stood silently soaking in the scene.  Every report was true—Font’s Point is THE highlight of the park.   But first, you need to navigate those four miles to get to this point (or choose to hoof it in on foot).

A beautiful ending to an adventurous day, the drive back out actually went smoother—with familiarity surely comes capability.  An added asset for the drive was the sunset color illuminating our route.

A somewhat rare event was scheduled to move in.  Late that night rain was due to fall.  Blowing in from the Pacific, it was forecasted to hang around.  At least a full day.  Maybe another night.  Possibly substantial amounts.  A very welcome occurrence for the desert environment.

As it turned out, it rained cats and dogs.  Constantly.  No breaks.  With intermittent downpours. The skies opened up.  Dry washes ran wild.  Water puddled and ran like small streams through the road.  We huddled inside our camper, giving up hopes to salvage the day.

Nevertheless, the next day made up for all we had lost.  A clear blue and brilliant sky was the harbinger of a dry day.  I was out to greet its beginning, camera in my hand.  Ah freshness! Beautiful light!  Pure fragrant air.

Just down the road from the campground, a stand of fan palms glowed in the rising sun.

Another bonus to the torrential rains (besides stimulating a wildflower crop), the peaks of nearby mountains were now crowned with a blanket of snow.  Desert fauna with an alpine backdrop . . . talk about a Kodak moment!  And it’s all here at Anza Borrego—one VERY special park!

From  an oasis in the desert,

Airstream Travelers, Melinda & Chris

    (stayed tuned for the coming part 2!)


About AirstreamTravelers

A 2016 Pendleton Airstream suits our lifestyle perfectly. It's a commemorative edition celebrating the 100th anniversary of our national parks. In our efforts to see as many of those parks as we can, the two of us are now spending several months each year on the road. We hope our posts and accompanying photos give a vivid description of where we travel, illustrating to our followers what's out there, just over the next horizon.
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