We’ve been in the desert for two months, spending most of December in the Chihuahuan Desert in New Mexico, and January in the Sonoran Desert in Arizona and California.
And we arrived at what we think is one of the most beautiful deserts we’ve seen so far during our journey, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, the largest state park in California, located in the Colorado Desert, one of six sub-regions of the Sonoran Desert.
The park is named for Juan Bautista de Anza, who, in 1776, led about 300 people over 1600 miles from New Spain (Mexico) to colonize Alta California (San Francisco) for the Spanish. Since they started in Nogales, Arizona, it seems that we’ve been crossing their path (actually a 1200 mile National Historic Trail) a number of times since we arrived in Tucson. And seeing his name many times along the way.
And borrego is the Spanish word for bighorn sheep. Rocky slopes just above the desert floor here are habitat for peninsular bighorn sheep, also known as desert bighorn sheep, an endangered species which has declined from human overpopulation encroachment. Alas, we didn’t see any during our brief stay here.
Boondocking is very popular here, and there are a several areas that allow RVs to boondock for free. In the state park, the main rule is that the RV needs to be no further than one car length from the nearest road (paved or dirt) although this rule appeared to be subject to multiple interpretations.
And one area is apparently in contention as to whether it’s public or private, and RVs have been boondocking there for a number of years, ignoring a couple of no trespassing signs.
We noticed that the areas where RVs boondocked had less plants than the rest of the desert. So it’s important to be mindful of the vegetation; drive on established paths and camp in areas that are already cleared of vegetation so as to minimize impact on the remaining plants. Many of these “campsites” have fire rings which makes them easier to locate.
Many other plants that we first learned about in Tucson are found here as well. The most predominant are the creosote bushes, but we also saw palo verde trees, and those other iconic desert plants, the ocotillo and, of course, lots of cacti.
There are lots of cholla cacti here, seven varieties in fact, of which my favorite are the teddybear cholla. But beware the spines of these adorable cacti. There is also one type of prickly pear cactus in this region as well as barrel cactus. And a couple of varieties of short, “clumpy” (my scientific description) cacti known as hedgehog. And there are others that we’re still learning about.
The town of Borrego Springs also has several farms around its perimeter. A couple are tree farms, with palms growing all around them. There are a few remaining native palms, which are accessible via short hikes, but we didn’t get a chance to go see them. And, this being California, there are several citrus farms.
So we bought fabulous pink grapefruit as well as extra juicy tangelos at a couple of fruit stands. One of the stands was not manned but had an honor system; you picked up a bag (or more) of grapefruit and left your money in a metal box. Love it!
And we made the most delicious vodka and toronja (spanish for grapefruit) drinks with fresh grapefruit juice, a perfect drink for the desert. A shout-out to our friend Bob (Bob-A-Lu), who introduced us to vodka and toronja while we were living in Puerto Rico.
As for the animals, we’ve not had much luck spotting animals in these parts, except for some hawks and lots of jackrabbits (to Angel’s delight). But we’ve heard the coyotes often, many times at dusk, and, in fact, we’ve been hearing them pretty consistently since the Chihuahuan Desert in New Mexico.
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is surrounded by mountains. To the east are the badlands, dry areas with very little vegetation and rocks and soil that have been eroded by wind and water, forming steep slopes and other interesting formations. If you were trying to cross this area in a wagon or a horse you would certainly describe it as “bad”.
There are many fossils buried here and volunteer paleontologists regularly help to collect and preserve them.
As we drove to the badlands for a hike, we noticed some RVs boondocking near the main road right by the cliffs, an interesting option for those that really want to be in a remote place (except for the slight traffic during the day).
We also noticed the State Vehicle Recreation Area with tons of trails for specialized off-highway vehicles and the Truckhaven 4×4 Training Area, a frightening looking obstacle course for street legal 4x4s.
But we were searching for Palm Slot, a slot canyon we’d read about on Nina’s blog and in the park brochure. The state park doesn’t get a lot of points for signage, as we missed the turnoff for the trail and had to stop and ask state park staff for directions.
What exactly are slot canyons? They are deep, narrow canyons in areas with low rainfall which are formed by specific patterns of rainfall that create rushing water in particular types of rock, most commonly sandstone and limestone. There are a number of well-known slot canyons in the Southwestern United States.
And we ultimately found the entrance to the four-wheel high clearance road that led to our trail and also happens to access the Calcite Mine trail. This mine was the only site in the United States where optical-grade calcite crystals were extracted for use in gunsights during World War II – in fact the marker highlighting this was the only way we found the road to Palm Slot. The mine was later owned by Polaroid.
It was a cloudy day and we were keeping a close eye on the weather, as a slot canyon is not a place you want to be in when it rains. But the clouds were pretty light and we continued. I had a nagging feeling that this wasn’t the Palm Slot (it didn’t look like the photos I’d seen). So we turned back to the road after awhile.
Even though it was still cloudy, we walked a bit further down the road and found a sign! An actual Anza-Borrego Desert State Park sign. This was the Palm Slot. We hiked in and it was amazing. The rock had a pinkish hue and was much smoother than in the previous slot canyon. But it was getting cloudier so we only hiked for a short while.
After the fact I found a pretty good description of how to get to Palm Slot here.
As we drove back to our boondocking spot, however, we noticed sand blowing in the distance. The winds had started up and were blowing some big dust clouds in particular areas of the desert (fortunately not directly over Island Girl).
The winds continued to blow and increased during the night, so I didn’t exactly get a good night’s sleep (Hector sleeps like a rock no matter what). Island Girl was shaking around a bit and I wondered about those RVers boondocking by the cliffs in the badlands.
Fortunately, the next morning the winds stopped. And we left this beautiful place vowing to return again next winter.