Anza-Borrego Desert SP


2017.03.30. - 2017.04.01.

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Panorama of Coyote Canyon in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

Panorama of Coyote Canyon in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Taken from Monkey Hill, looking south.

Intro

Well, if you’re stupid enough to dig yourself in, you have to dig yourself out. I learned that the hard way.

The winter of 2016-2017 brought record-smashing rainfall to California, ending (at least temporarily) the drought we’ve had for many years. I don’t think I have to explain too much about one great side effect: all the wildflowers went crazy. With all that rain and then the weather changing to warm and sunny at the exact right moment, we had a bloom not seen in 50 years or so. If big blooms every 10 years can be called super-blooms, let’s call this a hyper-bloom. And how hyper it was!

One of the places to experience this was Anza-Borrego. This is a vast state park in the desert south-east of L.A., featuring bighorn sheep, cacti, a native palm oasis, and miles and miles of dirt roads and trails. The town of Borrego Springs sits right outside the main entrance of the park.

We kept wanting to visit for a few years, but something always came up. Now there was no excuse not to go. Well, there was. The crowds. Of course, news of the bloom made its way into the media and social networks, so hordes of people descended on the place every weekend. A friend of ours had a continuing education biology class scheduled there for the middle of March, and she was told to count on huge traffic on the way, not being able to find parking once there, and even having trouble with getting a table in a restaurant. Also, cell service in town was completely overwhelmed by all the users trying to post their bloom pictures on Instagram. When she came back from the trip, she confirmed all the above conditions. People were walking 3-plus miles just to get to the trailhead of Palm Canyon, the main attraction.

Regardless, we made up our mind to go two weeks later. The weather forecast looked great and we heard a reports of the crowds slowly diminishing a bit. There was still no chance of finding a spot in the only developed campground, but that wasn’t even necessary. The park is really friendly to dispersed camping. If you obey a few simple rules, you can camp almost anywhere.

From all the recommendations, Coyote Canyon stood out. It's a large valley north of town, a dirt road leading all the way into it. It’s really popular with off-road people, but according to all reports, the first few miles are easily drivable with a low-clearance car, there's plenty of space for camping, and most importantly, it's a prime spot for viewing the wildflowers.

The creek next to our site in Coyote Canyon

The creek next to our site in Coyote Canyon

Ocotillo bloom

Ocotillo bloom

Day 1 - L.A. to Coyote Canyon

Our plan was to go there Thursday evening, drive up as far as we can into the canyon and sleep there. Em had to work late, and I was pretty busy during the day, too, so by the time she got home and we packed everything, it was almost 10pm. We got to Borrego Springs at 1am. Finding Coyote Canyon was easy, and we slowly drove about 3 miles into it on the well-graded dirt road. Quite a few cars were parked here and there, some with tents nearby. We heard we can go as far as the first creek crossing (yes, the creek was still flowing), and it was true. It looked like our car could even make the crossing if in an emergency, but there was no reason to push it. Two parties were already camped here, so we backtracked a hundred yards and stopped in a nice place between the road and the creek.

It was really windy, so we decided not to pitch the tent, but sleep in the car instead. Out little Mitsubishi Lancer can be very comfortable for two people if set up right. We also put some sun shades on the windows to protect us from the morning light.

Day 2 – Coyote Canyon

I was sure I'll be up early, but was pleasantly surprised when I woke up around 8:30. Em was still sleeping, slowly waking up a bit later.

It was a sparkling, sunny morning with no clouds and only light winds. Now we could finally see our surroundings and started taking pictures of the nearby flowers even before breakfast.

Our immediate vicinity was teeming with sunflowers, ocotillos, creosote and others. A giant moth caterpillar was already having its first meal of the day.

Finally, around 11am, we got going. Our backpacks had almost four liters of water each, lunch, and emergency clothing. We walked up the canyon, stopping every few minutes to take pictures.

For a while, we kept on the main dirt road, then switched to the trail that runs parallel to it, circling that hill above Lower Willow on the west side. The trail was almost non-existent, and at one point we had to crawl on our hands and knees, but it was fun. Then we followed the dry riverbed, tracking north. The trail petered out completely, but the general northward direction was easy to follow.

The flora and fauna were mind-blowing. It’s hard to describe how alive the desert was. Flowers, bushes, trees, cacti – all in bloom. Caterpillars, birds, lizards, iguanas, spiders...

Wildflowers and some more wildflowers...

Wildflowers and some more wildflowers...

We kept going generally north, just wandering around, taking pictures of the details and the scenery. Finally, at a small hill marked on my map as Monkey Hill, we sat down in the sparse shade and had a very long lunch break. We just sat there for a almost two hours, munching on food and enjoying the view.

The dirt road was east of us, and we wanted to return via that, but first we made a big detour to the west, to a huge forest of ocotillos. It was magnificent. Besides the ocotillos, countless cacti (mostly beavertail and barrel) populated the area. We found a few barrels standing taller than us, meaning they must have been many hundreds of years old as they grow very slowly.

...and some more ocotillos.

...and some more ocotillos.

Up to this point, we haven’t seen a single human being since leaving the road. Of course, after circling back to it, we encountered the first 4WD within minutes, and then a few more afterwards, but it wasn’t bad.

The afternoon was slowly turning into evening, with the light becoming more and more beautiful by the minute.

It was dark by the time we got back to the car, but we didn’t mind terribly. The wind picked up again, though it wasn’t as bad as the previous night. We had dinner, then decided against pitching the tent and set up for sleep in the car again. Before going to bed, Em found a beautiful scorpion, who was kind enough to pose for a few photos. Looking it up later, it turns out it was an Anza-Borrego hairy scorpion, a species endemic to this region. Before you ask: it's sting is supposedly not very bad, as painful as a bee sting. I would not want to test that, however.

Nighttime visitor: the Anza-Borrego hairy scorpion (Hadrurus anzaborrego)

Nighttime visitor: the Anza-Borrego hairy scorpion (Hadrurus anzaborrego)

Day 3 – Coyote Canyon – Palm Canyon – L.A.

It was Saturday, and we knew there will be thousands of people descending on the park, so we got up very early – 5:30am – to get going, find parking at the visitor center, then explore Palm Canyon before the crowds.

The first part worked out fine. We woke up, arranged the stuff in the car, then started driving.

This is where I did something super-foolish: I was too tired, and it was also still pretty dark. While driving back on the dirt road towards Borrego Springs, for some stupid reason I got convinced what we had to veer to the left, so I drove off the main track, right into a sandtrap. To make thing worse, I tried to back out of it, digging in the front wheel.

Yours truly, diggin' and diggin'.

Yours truly, diggin' and diggin'.

This was a bit past 6am. We surveyed the situation: the front wheels were both deep in the sand, especially the right one, with most of the car’s weight resting on the undercarriage. Behind us was about 30 feet of loose sand. We somehow needed to back up that much to find proper purchase again.

The main good thing was that Em didn’t give me too much grief, she just wanted to help. We were right next to the road, so were knew for sure that soon, many cars would be driving this way, most of them serious off-roaders with the means to yank us out of there in a second. Also, with Borrego Springs in view, our phones had a full signal – meaning we could call for help any time.

I decided to try and dig ourselves out, at least as much as I could. We always have a shovel in the car, so I started removing all the sand from underneath the car to slowly make a grade. Luckily, the sand was a bit moist, so it could be shoveled easily. In the meantime, Em unpacked most of the weight from the car to make it as light as possible.

This took a long time, and one single car drove by all that time, some tourist with a rental who didn’t have the ability to help us out.

I kept digging and digging, then we built a “ramp”. You know that carpet-like thingy that’s on the bottom of most car trunks, hiding the spare wheel underneath? Our carpet also had separate cardboard underneath that disintegrated over the years. A few months before this adventure, we went to a hardware store, bought a piece of thin plywood, cut it to size, and replaced the old cardboard with that.

Now we removed this plywood and placed it under the right wheel.

Em drove the car, I was pushing from the front, and to our greatest delight, the car moved out of the hole. Of course, it got stuck again right away, but we were much closer to firm ground, and we were’t dug in. Plus, in a stroke of luck, the plywood split right in the middle, making two equal pieces. With only a bit of digging, I placed them under each wheel. Then we repeated the same procedure, and a minute later, we were on the road again.

This debacle cost us almost an hour and a half, and I was very tired from all that digging, but even Em admitted that at least I got us out of there. She said she would have never thought of using the plywood as a ramp.

Of course, from this moment, cars started driving by us, including serious 4WD’s with all the rescue gear you can imagine.

Serpent sculpture around Borrego Springs

Serpent sculpture around Borrego Springs

Anyway, we drove back into Borrego Springs, stopping briefly to take some pictures of the metal artwork populating the desert around town. There are 130 steel sculptures, depicting anything from prehistoric animals to horses and cowboys. The artistic merit is up for debate, but there are a few cool ones, that’s sure.

We arrived at the visitor center at around 8:00am. It was already getting crowded, us taking one of the few remaining parking spots. First, we had a nice big breakfast at one of the picnic tables, then took off on the “nature trail” towards the entrance of Palm Canyon about a mile away.

Waling up Palm Canyon.

Waling up Palm Canyon. The oasis is hidden behind the bend.

As I mentioned before, this is the main attraction here. The 1.5 mile-long canyon is truly spectacular. Creek in the middle, mind-bending rock formations, dozens of plant species all around. Most importantly, it dead ends in a palm grove. In earlier times, these native palms were much more abundant, but retreated to a few lonely oases.

Most of the time, bighorn sheep can be spotted in the area, though we got out of luck and didn’t see any. We kept our eyes open, even asked a ranger whether they seen any, and she said they were around a day before.

Eventually, we walked back to the car. Of course, it got way more crowded in the meantime. When we drove off towards town, we could see that hundreds of cars were indeed parked on the side of the road, forcing visitors to take a long walk to the trailhead of Palm Canyon. It was not as bad as was reported two weeks before, though.

Driving home was spectacular, too, with wildflowers blooming everywhere. Later we ran into some traffic, especially on the 210 with all the people returning from Vegas. Despite all this, however, we were home and happy by 4pm.

Notes

If you want to get an idea how much snow there was in 2017, take a look at our trip from March when we snow-camped in Mineral King, then the pictures from the same area in July when we went over Farewell Gap.

A few more pictures of this trip in the full gallery.

Coyote Canyon and the Mily Way at dawn.

Coyote Canyon and the Mily Way at dawn. The lights of Borrego Springs in the distance.