On our route between Temecula and the Salton Sea lay Anza-Borrego State Park. At 916 square miles in size, it is an enormous expanse of protected desert. The park takes its name from 18th century Spanish explorer Juan Batista de Anza (whose name seems to appear frequently in these parts) and borrego, the Spanish word for bighorn sheep. I had heard about Anza-Borrego through reports on the park from other RV bloggers, and based on the glowing reviews I was hoping we’d be able to stay there as we headed back east. But I was expecting to be disappointed: it was going to be peak season for wildflowers during the time we were there, and of course the park was booked up. I was resigned to spending the week in one of the commercial RV parks in the town of Borrego Springs.
But while at the San Mateo campground, on a whim I set up an alert on reserveamerica.com to let me know if a spot opened up for at least three days during the next two weeks. A few days later, an email was waiting on my iPhone when I awoke: a site had become available for five days right after our stay at Jojoba Hills. Bonus! I booked it immediately. This was the first time I had used the alert feature, and with our new mode of trying to be more spontaneous with our plans, I’m now a big fan. It goes to show that sometimes it’s easier to get what you want on the spur of the moment than by planning months in advance.
Getting to Anza-Borrego from the west is a challenge when driving an RV: no matter which route you take, your elevation is going to drop from 4000’ to 600’ in a handful of miles. I was concerned about whether my brakes would hold up during the descent. Serendipitously while I was puzzling this over, one of my Facebook RV groups was discussing mountain route planning tools and a few people suggested flattestroute.com. I fired it up on my iPhone, and it’s awesome! It gives three views: the satellite (map) view, the profile view (showing elevation at each point along the route), and the percent grade view. By tapping anywhere on the route, it shows the elevation and percent grade at that point, allowing you to “inspect” the route. You can drag on any point of the route to change it. And it works great on a smartphone.
Using flattestroute I compared the most direct route, taking S2 to S22 (the “Montezuma Grade”, which I must admit sounds pretty badass) and compared it to taking CA-79 to CA-78. I decided that since the two routes were essentially equivalent in terms of steepness, and the more direct route saved about an hour, to just go ahead and take the shorter route. In the event, the steepest, curviest sections had advisory speed limits as low as 25 mph, so if you paid attention it was unlikely your brakes would overheat or your speed would run away. That said, I would probably not take this route back west. It would be a steady, steep climb, with no descents or pullovers to let the Jeep’s engine cool off.
We made it to the bottom of the hill comfortably, turned left and entered the park. After setting up camp, we decided to explore for the much-rumored desert wildflowers by driving up to Coyote Canyon on the north side of Borrego Springs. We saw Sand Verbena, Desert Lilies, some of the healthiest looking Ocotillo we have seen yet, and many others that we didn’t yet know the names of. We were also overwhelmed by the fragrance of citrus blossoms from the nearby orange, grapefruit and tangelo trees. But this was just a prelude.
The next day we stepped onto the park’s signature Borrego Palm Canyon trail. Without question this is one of the most beautiful hikes we have ever been on. Around every corner was a different flowering bush or cactus: beavertail, chuparosa, brittlebush, mesquite, smoke tree, ocotillo and many others were resplendent. On subsequent days more flowers emerged seemingly overnight, especially the Desert Dandelion (it’s much prettier than the kind that used to infest my lawn back home).
At the top of the canyon is a real palm oasis with a running spring. It was surreal to see an oasis in the desert – it seemed like something out of the Arabian Nights – but it was in fact a real thing, and a nice shady spot at which to cool off after our climb.
The highlight of our hikes was seeing the somewhat elusive borrego – the peninsular bighorn sheep. This is one of the few places in the world where these endangered animals live, so we returned every morning to see if we could catch a glimpse, and we were happy to see between 5 and 15 every day. A census is taken every year, and of the 875 estimated to be living in the United States, about 350 have recently been counted in this canyon. While their situation is precarious, their numbers have been growing recently, and hopefully this trend continues. We had to rely on binoculars to see them, although they don’t seem too afraid of people, and it’s not unusual for them to be walk very nearby. They are well camouflaged, looking a lot like the rocks that surround them until they start moving, so we consider ourselves lucky to have spotted them.
On one of our other days in the area we took the road down to Blair Valley, where poet, artist and author (and free spirit, and maybe a bit of a hippie too?) Marshal South built a house on Ghost Mountain in 1930 and lived off the desert, raising a family until 1947 as an “experiment in primitive living.” While it was impressive to live alone in the desert for this long of a time, the experiment ended in failure, with an acrimonious divorce from his wife. The State Park runs a video in the visitor center describing the Ghost Mountain experiment that glosses over some of these unpleasant details, but nevertheless it’s an interesting story.
Also in Blair Valley we took hikes to places where ancient native people lived, where you can see morteros (mortars), or holes worn into the stone for grinding and preparing food, along with some pictographs. The valley was also filled with blooming yucca and agave. During our drive back from Blair Valley, we found and Maureen briefly stepped onto the Pacific Crest Trail, which crosses the highway in this area, so now she can claim to have “hiked the Pacific Crest Trail.”
At night we enjoyed some of the darkest skies we’ve seen yet, easily picking out the Andromeda galaxy and Orion nebula with our binoculars. Later in the week we took a hike down into a slot canyon. It is a genuinely tight fit in a few places, requiring me to turn sideways and pass my camera forward to get through. Good thing I haven’t put on weight during our trip!
And on our last day we also spotted a small rattlesnake curled up under a rock on the side of the trail. It appeared to be sleeping, which as a good thing as far as I’m concerned.
While in the area I wanted to check out a few boondocking areas that other RVers talk about frequently: Peg Leg Road and Rockhouse Road. We drove east of Borrego Springs to investigate. Peg Leg is BLM land that appears to be a few acres in size. A monument to Peg Leg Smith invites those who “seek his gold” to add ten rocks to a pile there. I doubt how effective this mining strategy is, but it’s gotten to be a fairly good-sized stack of rocks. When we visited, there were maybe half a dozen rigs parked at Peg Leg. Across the highway were a few RVs parked on what is apparently private land; we weren’t sure whether that was with permission or not.
The area on either side of Rockhouse Road has long been used for dry camping, but was recently purchased by the State Park. The only issue with this is that the State Park has different rules than the Bureau of Land Management: they have posted signs stating that vehicles can only park within one vehicle length of the road. This is bad news for boondockers. When the signs first went up I read that this restriction was being enforced, but during our visit it clearly was being ignored. There were maybe 40 rigs scattered on either side of the road, some thousands of feet from the road. I myself see no reason for the parking restriction – there’s nothing here but rocks and some creosote bushes. But I guess the State Park has a one-size-fits-all approach to regulation.
In any case we’re not sure how much we want do this sort of very remote boondocking – in these places there’s not much to do besides walk through the rocks, and it can feel a little spooky to be out there by yourself. But some day it might be worth a try, and at least now I have a visual idea of what these sites look like for future reference, should we decide to stay there or for an emergency backup. I’ll be watching to see how this situation evolves.
After five days at Anza-Borrego, we packed up and headed east to the Salton Sea on a very rough CA-78, passing what seemed like a raucous Mad Max convention, with thousands of “four wheeler” trucks and ATVs marauding up and down the washes and canyons, whipping up huge clouds of dust. Apparently this gathering was a weekend event put on by the Four Wheel Drive Club of San Diego. We were happy to leave that behind as we drove up through huge date palm orchards and then through the eerie badlands of the Painted Canyons and up to the BLM boondocking area outside the east entrance of Joshua Tree National Park.
We had scouted this spot when we visited Joshua Tree three weeks earlier, and upon our return it was even more wide open than before. After filling up with water at the Cottonwood Springs campground, we had no problem finding a private site just off the access road, with great views of the surrounding mountains amid a now-blooming garden of desert wildflowers, cactus and palo verde. There was a fifth wheel and a tent camper set up across the wash from us, but otherwise nobody for thousands of feet.
During the days we ventured into the Coachella Valley several times: Palm Springs, to see Maureen’s friends Kim and Roger again; Palm Desert, for groceries, laundry and a much-needed haircut for me; and Indian Wells to take in some professional tennis at the BNP Paribas Open. Thanks to a friendly grocery store cashier, we found out that the first day of qualifying was free to attend (except for a parking fee), so we decided to check it out. Neither one of us is a big tennis fan, but the matches we saw were highly entertaining, one even going into a tiebreaker. It was fun and a bit surreal to be camping in the wilderness at night, but going to an urban sporting event during the day.
Every night was quiet and dark, and it was generally peaceful, with one exception. The morning of our departure huge dump trucks began rumbling up and down the dirt access road, which I had earlier deduced exists for one reason: to facilitate the maintenance of a pipeline that takes water hundreds of miles from somewhere east of here all the way to Los Angeles. Apparently heavy rains last year had washed out some of the berm protecting the pipeline, and these trucks were tasked with dropping tons of rocks alongside the wash to prevent future erosion. I didn’t mind: it’s always entertaining to watch people working, and fortunately they didn’t accidentally block our path out.
After four days near Joshua Tree we drove back east to Quartzsite, passing through for the third time (all roads seem to lead to Quartzsite!) This time we boondocked at the Dome Rock BLM area. We had scouted Dome Rock during our stay at the La Posa LTVA in January, and it seemed to have the right balance of beauty, accessibility, distance from the highway, and privacy. Back then it was filled with RVs, but now, in early March, it was almost empty. We found a flat spot to park near the hills, once again thousands of feet from the nearest camper. Parking: $0, Private Sunset: Priceless.
We had spent exactly a month in California, much longer than we had planned, but much more enjoyable than we had expected.