By Michele Bigley
A common theme in literature is the hero who goes on a search and returns with the gifts of the unexpected. It was March – typically the optimal time for wildflower shows in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park — and California faced one of the direst droughts in recent history. Yet I was convinced that desert blooms, species so strong they combat the elements, would materialize, even this year.
What I didn’t foresee were the gifts of another kind of treasure scattered throughout the cactus- and shrub-dotted meadows surrounding Borrego Springs; these ones man-made, metallic, spectacularly massive: the prehistoric and fantastic sculptures of Ricardo Breceda.
Even in a year when the park’s flowers don’t show up for the spring fiesta, Anza-Borrego’s desert inspires. Before the sweltering heat of summer, travelers can soak up the warm (but not too hot) sun; hike palm-shaded canyons in search of endangered bighorn sheep; camp under a tableau of stars; and be dwarfed by the staggering collection of public art.
Why Now? The Lyrids meteor shower happens through Friday, promising to put on quite the show over the desert. Plus spring temperatures are ideal for camping. During the day, keep your eyes to the sky for a peek at the Swainson’s hawk’s annual migration from Argentina to the far north to breed. And if you’re lucky, the cactus blooms will be in full effect.
Back story: Pictographs through the park prove that this region was long the domain of the Kumeyaay and the Cahuilla Indians. When Juan Bautista de Anza was making his pilgrimage to colonize San Francisco, he passed through Anza Borrego twice.
Today Anza-Borrego is the largest state park in the Lower 48, stretching 600,000 acres. This desert wilderness spreads from the valley floor up through canyons blanketed with ocotillo, cotton top cactus, desert lavender and lupines.
The closest community to the park is Borrego Springs, a small artists’ village with a handful of restaurants and shops, as well as home to the giant prehistoric sculptures of Ricardo Breceda — there are about 130 scattered throughout the park and surrounding areas.
Checking in: Car campers love the Palm Canyon tent site, which offers access to one desert’s most popular trails as well as campfire events to learn about the night sky. Those wanting a roof over their heads can line up for the new rustic cabins at Tamarisk Grove, which sleep four and are available at a first-come, first-served basis. If you prefer fine bedding, a bathtub, a private casita with its own pool and resort services, La Casa Del Zorro caters to the golf crowd and Sunday hikers.
Spend your day: Start your morning at the Anza-Borrego State Park Visitor Center, staffed by knowledgeable rangers ready to point you in the direction of blossoms, bighorn sheep and brow-wiping trails. For those uninterested in hiking, the area around the center showcases most of the region’s desert plants, many of them in bloom.
The most popular hike is the three-mile Palm Canyon Trail, a palm-shaded, reasonably easy hike that leads to an oasis, frequented by bighorn sheep. You can access the trailhead from the Visitor Center. For a shorter, less visited hike, use your four-wheel drive to access Glorietta Canyon, a lovely (and quiet) trail, ideal for those wanting to escape crowds, spot blooming shrubs and commune with the silence.
After lunch and an afternoon swim, take advantage of the evening light to capture images of the sculptures of Galleta Meadows. The meadow hugs Borrego Springs, so you’ll have to drive between the two main locations. After dark, keep your eyes to the sky – the celestial show is epic.
Don’t miss: Be sure to visit the jaw-dropping serpent sculpture that guards the north end of Borrego Springs, diving up and under the land and the street.
Don’t bother: Trying to access the remote trails without four-wheel drive. Many of the roads out here are dirt, sand and rock.
Word to the wise: Cell phone reception is spotty, so print out directions before you leave home.