Hot Fun in the Summertime: Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

Amidst the spectrum of traveling experiences, road trips reign supreme.  It is rare, when we travel, that we don’t take at least one good, long drive exploring the life and terrain of the place we are visiting.  Rambling drives enable us to balance the touristy spots with a more intimate experience of place and culture.  Our time in San Diego was no exception.  The last Saturday of our stay, we both felt the need to move beyond the boundaries of the city and its wealthy suburbs.

Provisioned with several bottles of water and one very large grapefruit, we pried ourselves away from the coast and headed east into the unknown.  Our final destination? Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.  Thanks to our trusty GPS, we easily navigated our way to Rte. 78, a two-lane ribbon of pavement that meandered through the ranchlands of Ramona and the more mountainous town of historic Julian.  The two-hour drive that finally brought us to the edge of Anza-Borrego Desert was stunning and an antidote to wanderlust in its own right.  Little did we know it was just the prelude to a  remarkable day graced with serendipity.

This is what I knew about Anza-Borrego Desert State Park before we left:  1) It was a must-see,  if you were in the area and had time to visit;  2) It was approximately two hours from San Diego;  and 3) It would be hot at the end of June.  This is what I quickly came to understand:  1) The park is a must-see, period.  Its vast desolation and stark beauty are a singular experience.  I so wish conditions would have been different for us to see and do more;  2) The edge of the park is about two hours from San Diego.  The Visitor’s Center is another 20+ miles farther in Borrego Springs;  and 3) Hot in June means 113º with a wind that turns mucous membranes to parchment in a matter of minutes.

{ Taking a break before driving another twenty miles to the Visitor’s Center }

{ Ocotillo ravaged by the elements }

We had our first serendipitous moment driving into Borrego Springs.   In the middle of endless desert nothingness, I spotted several large metal sculptures of animals native to this area in prehistoric times – mammoths, wild horses, saber-toothed tigers, etc.  Curiosity got the best of us so we stopped and had a look around.  A plaque near the side of the road informed us we’d stumbled upon Galleta Meadows Estate, a privately owned property opened to the public for picnicking, horseback riding, biking, and even short-term camping.   After doing some research on the Internet when we returned home, I realized we only saw a very small portion of the grounds and the sculptures.

The desert made a striking background for these conceptual art pieces.  The eagle was particularly impressive.

Borrego Springs is a postage stamp of green in the middle of the desert park.  It reminded me of Radiatior Springs, the little Route 66 town in the Disney/Pixar film Cars.  The similarities were so striking, in fact, that I might have called it Radiator Springs a time or two.  The visitor’s center for Anza-Borrego sits on the edge of Borrego Springs and contains a wealth of information about the park.  It was here that we began to understand exactly what we’d gotten ourselves into.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park derives its name from Juan Bautista de Anza, a Spanish explorer who first arrived in 1774, and the Spanish word for lamb, borrego,  referring to the 270+ bighorn sheep that call the park home.  At 600,000 acres (or 900 square miles), Anza-Borrego is a huge space filled with desert flora and fauna, canyons, badlands, oases of palm trees, and Native American petroglyphs.  Five hundred miles of dirt roads crisscross the park, many accessible only to 4-wheel drive vehicles (of which our Chevy Malibu rental most definitely was not).

While we looked at the displays in the visitor’s center, I overheard a group of young guys talking to a park ranger about a slot canyon – something I have wanted to experience for a long time.  My ears perked up and I filed the information away for future reference.  That little piece of eavesdropping turned out to be the second bit of blessing in our day.

Our own discussion with the park ranger began on a disappointing note.  When we asked his advice on the best things to see in the park, he recommended that we stay in our car with the air conditioning cranked.    Not an option, we said.  We wanted to get out and experience the desert.  When we explained that we didn’t have a 4-wheel drive vehicle, he just looked sad.  Needless to say, things were looking bleak.  In desperation, I mentioned the slot canyon.  The ranger perked right up and happily told us what he knew.  There are two slot canyons in the park and the one on a dirt road just off Rte. 78 that was accessible by regular car was one of his favorite spots in the park.  Yeah!  After getting more detailed directions, we thanked Mr. Ranger and headed toward The Slot.

{ The Visitor’s Center }

{ Door handles at the Visitor’s Center }

{ The dirt road took us a mile or so into the middle of nowhere. }

The relentless sun had bleached the color from everything – mountain, earth, plant, even the sky.  Ocotillo were dried up twigs and the teddy bear chollo were burnt a crispy black.  How do they ever recover from the oppressive desert summer?  The heat was dry but heavy, leaning hard on my strength and my will.  The wind was worse – just as hot and more dangerous.  I could  feel it drawing every drop of moisture from my body.  Stepping out of the car into the open desert was a shock, like stepping from a fridge into a pre-heated oven, and I began to think that driving around in air-conditioned comfort wasn’t such a bad idea after all.  I instantly understood how a person might go mad or die in these conditions of endlessly monotonous landscape and unbearable, inescapable heat.

Were we being foolish? Probably.  But we are fairly experienced hikers and also knew that once we made it into the slot canyon, there would be shade and most likely some reprieve from the wind.  After a brief discussion about the dangers, we decided to go for it.  We packed up our bottles of water and the single life-saving grapefruit and began our descent in to the canyon.  I won’t lie.  The first 15 minutes were rough.  The heat was exhausting and the sun reflecting from every surface was blinding.  As we made our way along the dusty trail, the walls of the canyon grew taller and taller.  In no time, we were enjoying the shade and marveling at the isolated beauty of The Slot.

The rock formations at the end of the canyon were interesting – totems of spirit-faces etched by wind and water.  The trail opened up and once again we were assaulted by the heat and wind.  Instead of continuing on, we turned around and made our way back through the canyon, enjoying the trail from a different perspective.

{ A view of The Slot from the desert’s edge }

After we climbed out of the canyon, we hightailed it back to the car and cranked the AC, thanking God for unbelievable experiences and modern conveniences.  Originally, we thought we might also do a few other very short trails before we left the Anza-Borrego portion of the Colorado desert.  Having had quite enough of the heat and wind, we decided to call it a day.  Instead, we leisurely drove back to San Diego by way of Julian and the Cleveland National Forest (a post for another day).  Amazingly, during all of our driving and adventuring, we never left San Diego county.

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