Field Notes #5: Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

Adventure: Camp/Hiking
Location: Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
Date: February 18-20, 2017
Adventurers: Ryan & Trina

Day 1: The forecast said rain so we headed for the desert. 15 minutes into a two-hour drive the rain started. 90 minutes later it was still raining and while winding through East San Diego County towards Anza-Borrego Desert State Park we wondered if we had made a mistake. Not even a stop for pie could quell our nerves. We pushed on.

Ten miles from the park and 20 to our intended destination of Yaqui Well Primitive Camp the sky cleared, and we breathed a sigh of relief. It was our first time heading to the desert without a plan or a reservation, merely a list of free primitive campsites in the desert. The desert is a different kind of animal for native MidWesterners, and bad weather might have been a stressor too many. “There are still motels in the desert right?” was said at least once.

There were three campsites on the same stretch. The middle was a pay site, and crowded. The second no more than empty parking lot at the pass just past the Yaqui Well. We backtracked towards the first spot we had missed on the way in. Yaqui Well Primitive Camp was perfect. Clean vault toilets, easy access to hiking trails, only one other set of campers off in the distance and a wide open view of the sky. We pulled our off-road vehicle, a Toyota Prius with all-weather tires, off the battened-down, sandy road into a partial clearing. The only negative was full 4g service on our phones. So much digital detoxing.

Our home for the next few days was in the back of the Prius with our custom car tent. It slips over the raised hatch to create a “room” at the back of the car, and with the seats folded flat there was plenty of room to sleep or lounge. Other essential gear: a tri-fold metal table to set up a camp kitchen, RinseKit for showering & dishes & obviously a home-made door mat for our shoes when we were in the tent.

We took a leisurely walk around camp, and set-up for dinner. Darkness hit about 5:40 PM and by 6:00 we were eating sun-dried tomato & goat cheese ravioli with marinara and a side of cerveza. By 6:30 we had hot tea from the kettle and a night sky so black yet vivid it felt like being in the planetarium. That cell tower service came in handy when we used an app to identify Venus as the brightest star in the sky, Mars just over it’s shoulder and Gemini when neither of us could remember the names of it’s brightest starts-Castor and Pollux. A shooting star sent us to bed early.

Day 2: Suns out and plenty of time for a leisurely coffee. We spent our morning on the Cactus Loop Trail, a leisurely loop up with a view of the valley, and more cactus & Ocotillo than we could count. 5 minutes into the hike I stepped on a Cholla, then in an attempt to scrape it out of my hiking boot I backed into another and caught one in the calf. It dug it’s hooks through my jeans and into the skin. It was like getting hit with 50 tattoo needles at once. Trina used two flat rocks to perform surgery on my leg and my shoe.

With the rainy winter the desert was as colorful and green as we’ve ever seen. Wildflowers were blooming early, ground cover was lush and green. The only reminder that we were in the desert was the sun, burning hotter than the temperature and the gritty sand getting into every nook and cranny of our bodies as we hiked.

We moved from trail one right onto trail two, the Yaqui Well Trail which started off with more of the same rock and sand and cactus. But right away the sound of birds and bees permeated the air. Half way along the Ocotillo gave way to trees and we descended an alluvial fan into the Yaqui Well Spring area all the way back to the primitive campgrounds dirt road.

Anza-Borrego posts flyers at trailheads and markers along the way so you can act as your own guide which is pretty cool. We read every one, and came away a lot more educated about the Cahuilla & Kumeyaay peoples who settled the land long before it was a state park, the birds and wildlife in the area and the identities of more cacti than we’d probably remember. All that was left of day two was a leisurely afternoon reading, dinner and another epic sky show (along with some buffeting wind that made for a nice excuse to lounge).

Day 3: We had copious amounts of coffee, packed up camp and took off for Borrego Springs. The trail at Palm Canyon leaving the Borrego Springs Campground is the only one in the park that requires a day-use pass ($10), and is also the most popular hike due to it’s proximity to town, the camp and undoubtably the waterfall oasis at the end of it.

The first 1/4 mile we were packed in tight with other hikers who bottle-necked all trying to get the right snapshot of a herd of Big Horn Sheep grazing just off trail. They seemed to be undisturbed by gawkers. We took a quick photo and moved off the trail into the creek bed that had just a bit of water still trickling down. The valley is usually dry short of flash floods but the recent rains had raised the water levels. It was only a mile and half to the payoff oasis but we made it count spending almost two hours observing rocks, wildflowers and taking the self-guided tour. Plus, we managed to rid ourselves of the crowd.

As we got closer and closer to the oasis the landscape got bigger. Bigger rocks to clamber over. Wider waterways to cross without getting wet. Strategically placed logs and boulders were a lifesaver at first but eventually the promise of cool water was too great. I took off my shoes and waded upstream towards the California Palms in the distance (the only native palm tree in California!) while Trina continued to maneuver along the trail. It was lush and green. The closer to the oasis we got the more it felt like we were in some desert version of Jurassic Park.

There was a clearing in the palms at the oasis where we found the rest of the hikers from the morning. It’s a pretty great lunch spot, and it seemed like all the hikers had the same idea. We didn’t last long there preferring to eschew the masses for some solitude on a boulder overlooking a side waterfall some distance away. Seeing the chip bags being tossed on the ground or parents leading their kids into areas of the park blocked off for restorations just to get a selfie was disheartening, and not worth ruining our hike over.

On the way back we saw a sign for an “Alternative Trail.” That seemed like a good idea and we made our way back along the edge of the alluvial fan overlooking the valley. It was significantly more difficult (tho still fairly hiker friendly) with lots of up and downs over rock beds that sometimes made the trail less identifiable. The sun was just past high-noon so we made quick work of our return trip and finishing our water cache almost simultaneously with our hike ending.

Unlike past visits, the spring desert after a rainy California winter was teeming with life. Wildflowers in yellow, purple, red and white dotted the landscape. Cactus and ground plants were green and full. Birds, lizards and wildlife were everywhere. We’ll be back soon. There is another two months before the summer and temperatures consistently close or above 100 degrees. It’s time for a visit to the desert.

If you do head to the desert be prepared. Learn more about the Anza-Borrego State Park, camping, hiking and staying alive, I mean “safe” in the desert.