Park employees and locals alike were ecstatic after the day-and-night-long rain had subsided. Already having a winter season with above average precipitation (as had all of southern California), Anza Borrego had just received over an inch of rain in the last 36 hours. An incredible amount of rain for a single event in this desert environment. Water filled the washes . . . ran down the streets . . . pooled outside our trailer. What I saw from our campsite sure didn’t look much like a desert scenario—I could swear the landscape was bursting out green right before my eyes. Park volunteers were all talking about this one rainfall could signal a banner wildflower bloom. But could it happen in the next 3 days—the length of the remainder of our stay?
It was a great day to go climb a mountain . . . cool temps, clear skies, and a full day of rest behind us. We headed out for Coyote Canyon where we would find the trailhead for Alcoholic Pass.
The fragrance began soon after I left the northern village limits of Borrego Springs . . . that’s where a large majority of the fruit orchards can be found.
Yes, you read it right—here in the environs of Anza Borrego Desert you’ll find orchards of oranges, limes and lemons, along with plenty of grapefruits. Over two thousand acres to be exact. Turns out that with perfect citrus-growing weather and thanks to Borrego Valley’s aquifer, the area can produce “table-quality” citrus that is shipped all over the world. And oooooh, what a perfumed fragrance permeates the air!
Driving past the orchards, the pavement soon ends. Once again, Chris would be applying his newly-acquired sandy wash driving skills. Piece of cake. A three-mile drive would take us to the trailhead.
But roadside attractions have a way of altering the best laid of plans. No sooner had we hit the wash that I noticed the delicate blooms of desert flowers. Clumps of color were popping up! Could it be??? So soon after? It was no mirage . . . there were more than a few! Holy moley!!! With some now-forgotten blurts of exclamation from my mouth, Chris got the idea he should be pulling over.
Miracle of miracles . . . wonder of wonders. . . I was in 7th heaven! And yes, I’m here to tell you, with just a little searching ALL these species were found in a small area of desert along the Coyote Canyon Road. (Later revealed to be one of the best hotspots in all of the park for early wildflower sightings—referred to as Desert Gardens, for good reason).
We were slightly delayed for our hike of the day.
The trail to Alcoholic Pass has been around for a long time—a reeeeally long time. At least a thousand years. Probably more like two thousand. That’s how long ago the native Indians known as the Cahuilla called this area home. Living on the east side of Coyote Mountain in what is now called Clark Valley, evidence of artifacts indicates that they made regular trips over the Pass in order to access the bounty growing in Coyote Canyon. Here they would find “a veritable harvest field” from the desert plants. Moreover, the mountain itself was prime hunting ground for large game like sheep and deer.
So here we were, ready to embark on another mountain hike with an interesting story behind it. That’s what I like about this park . . . it’s full of history too. And just like the trail up Ghost Mountain . . . it was short, but oh so steep. Something like 700 feet in less than a mile. But the views would surely be worth it (so said a park ranger).
Residents of valley settlements chose to go over the Pass into Borrego Springs, rather than take the longer route that encircled the mountain. Although trips would be made for purchasing goods and food, probably some imbibing of drink was also involved, to the extent that they might be staggering back home. A more probable source of the trail’s name refers to the layout of the route—full of switchbacks, twists and turns in a relatively short distance in length.
Steep, zig-zaggy and rocky—that about sizes up the trail to Alcoholic Pass.
The good part of taking a steep hiking trail is the opportunities afforded when you’re compelled to stop and breathe at certain intervals. That’s when you look all around, take in the sights, and get a great bird’s-eye view of the landscape.
The rewards of the hike are the views from the saddle of Coyote Mountain. Both to the east and the west , what you’ll see makes it worth the effort expended. Looking toward distant peaks it seems fitting to sit and reflect on wherever your mind takes you . . . of lives spent here over countless generations or of your life in the here and now. The scene spread out over miles of desert to the distant peaks beyond is a typical Anza Borrego landscape. We take time to sit on a comfortable rock, appreciating our time spent here.
Anza Borrego is a magnificent place, encompassing more than 600,000 acres. It is the largest state park in California and the second largest in the contiguous United States. But, much more than just the statistics, it is a desert wonderland encompassing eons of geologic history, deep canyons and towering mountains, and enough space to find your haven of solitude.
Along with the natural attractions of Anza Borrego Desert, there’s another equally fascinating aspect—albeit manmade. Standing in front of the Borrego Springs Visitor Center you’ll see a statue of Juan Bautista de Anza, the partial namesake for this park. Probably the first Anglo to pass through this desert, de Anza was commissioned by the King of Spain to discover an overland route from New Spain to California. In 1774 with an expedition consisting of 240 people and 1,000 animals he passed through this area, continuing northward through Coyote Canyon, eventually reaching the area around San Francisco. A big accomplishment at that time, he was suitably rewarded by being appointed first governor of what is now the state of New Mexico.
But the story that I find even more remarkable concerns the man that created this romanticized statue of de Anza—Ricardo Breceda. While this welded scrap metal, rust red sculpture stands in a prominent location along the town’s main thoroughfare, if you drive out of town along main arteries, you’ll soon see more metal sculptures scattered across the landscape, both to the north and south of town. Giant-sized replicas of creatures that once roamed Borrego Valley when it was once a lush forest millions of years ago—mammoths, sabertooth tigers, wild horses, ancient camels, giant sloths and battling raptors stand in the desert, compelling you to pull off for a closer look. If you don’t already know the background story, you will surely be searching it out. Head to the Visitor Center for more information as well as a driving guide to where they all are located.
The creator of this menagerie, spread out over three square miles of non-contiguous desert land surrounding Borrego Springs, is Ricardo Breceda, a gifted artist who ten years ago never knew that one day he would have the talent and skill to build these remarkable sculptures. His talent grew out of a devastating accident on a construction job that changed his life.
Ten years or so ago, he was selling exotic boots when he traded a pair for a welding machine and began to experiment with what he could fashion from metal. When his 7-year-old daughter requested he try constructing a life-size dinosaur, the results gave him inspiration to go further.
From that beginning, Breceda’s sculptures are now found across the world, from Canada to Australia. The highest concentration of sculptures are found in Borrego Valley and were all commissioned by Borrego landowner, Dennis Avery, who has scattered the sculptures on lands that he has held for years in conservation. The private property, called Galleta Meadows, is open to the public for viewing. Just pull off the road and follow tracks through the sand if you want a closer look (maybe a photo or two).
The original sculptures were inspired by animals that lived millions of years ago in the Anza-Borrego area during the Plio-Pleistocene age. Later sculptures were inspired by local history and then by pure whim and fantasy. Breceda brings his sculptures to life by portraying the creatures in motion. There is even a full-size Willys Jeep with a driver and a passenger scaling the rocks.
But there is another person integral to this story, the man who envisioned all this in the first place.. Avery, truly a deep-pocketed philanthropist, had the original idea to create a gallery in the wilderness, thinking that if the early animals of the area could be recreated in 3-dimensional form, it would give greater understanding to visitors of what the area may have been like millions of years ago. Consequently, he has been very generous with his support and funding of the project.
Moreover, and maybe most significantly, Avery grants public access to his private museum. The sign on his property indicates the visitors may hike, bike, horseback ride, and camp for up to three days on Galleta Meadows amidst the statues, for free. How cool is that???
And the word is spreading. People come from both here and abroad to take in the sight of these 130 full-sized metal sculptures. It’s a big draw for Borrego Springs, so reported by the Visitor Center.
And just when you don’t think you could be more astounded, you’ll encounter Breceda’s latest creation which could easily leave you speechless. A serpent (some call it a dragon) rising from the desert sand takes Breceda’s art to yet another level of awesomeness.
With the head of a dragon, the body of a sea serpent, and the tail of a rattlesnake, the sculpture is 350-feet long and actually stretches across the road, appearing to dive under the pavement. With each of Breceda’s creatures becoming more complex, his serpent is made up of literally thousands of individual scales that had to be welded onto a frame, one at a time. The head itself is incredibly detailed and that is what makes it such a show-stopper. That, and its immense size.
It took Breceda four months to make the serpent in his studio and three months to transport and erect it in the desert with the help of 12 workers. Between the materials, labor, and transportation costs, Avery (of the Avery Label fortune) estimates the total cost of the serpent to be about $40,000. When asked if this creature is his favorite of all, Breceda replied that it was too early to say. “Time will tell if it holds up to the high winds that sweep across the valley floor.” If it holds up and doesn’t give him headaches, it probably will be.
One of our last evenings in Anza Borrego found us winding up yet another mountain trail near Yaqui Pass. Bill Kenyon Overlook was a great place to be around sunset, so I’d read. Not exactly off the beaten route, I was amazed we had it to ourselves. What a great place to bring this park altogether! With a diversity of scenery spread out below us, it was Anza Borrego Desert in a microcosm. At the end of day with twilight hues, the land was warmed in a rich palette of colors . . . subtle shades on the distant mountains while shadows drifted across the bajadas. A picture that gave even Chris pause for reflection. I need say no more.
With a mixture of emotions . . . we’re leaving too soon . . . the weather’s too perfect . . . we did make every moment count . . . but the wildflowers are soon to peak!! we were pulling away with commitments waiting. Anza Borrego surely deserves a return trip.
Heading back on the road and streaming away,
Melinda & Chris