Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

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The Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is located a couple hours east of Escondido, California. This expansive natural playground extends thousands of acres in all directions from Borrego Springs, a struggling community that hosts the park’s visitor’s center, ranger station, and markets for campers and its few residents.

We arrived on a Thursday afternoon after having first lunched with Sooney’s long-time family friend, Joan Peachman, and then having a couple beers and laughs with my long-time friend Bill Michalsky. Our visit with Joanie was neatly sandwiched into her busy lunch break. She’s a reading specialist at a largely Hispanic elementary school in central Escondido, and after 30 years Sooney and she made the best of their hour. We hoped somehow to visit with Bill before heading east, and when he suggested meeting at the Stone Brewery in Escondido, a short drive from his home in Del Mar, we thirstily agreed. Stone is renowned for several tasty beers (Arrogant Bastard, a creamy Pale Ale, and its famous IPA), and is predominantly a local brewery since it doesn’t bottle any preservatives in its product which, due to refrigeration demands, limits its distribution. Oregon is near enough to have its tasty products available locally, but there’s nothing quite like visiting the source. In addition to listing over 30 different regional and international brews on tap or bottles on their informative menu, they also serve delicious entrees and salads in a park-like atmosphere. This was the perfect place to catch up with “the Chairman” for a couple hours.

From Escondido it’s a curvy drive on Highway 78 to the cute community of Julian. We’d driven through here a couple years earlier after a terrible wildfire that burned thousands of acres and homes. Nature has a way of healing nicely, and Julian is no exception. Continuing on Highway 78, we opted against visiting Borrego Springs and headed south on county road S2 toward Aqua Caliente. I-8, our route to Tucson, is accessible further down S2, and would be our exit strategy in a few days.

Our destination, Blair Valley, is only 5 miles south of Highway 78 on the S2 road. Our friend and desert advisor Phil Miller highly recommended this area’s extreme beauty so, before leaving Ashland, we downloaded the park map from their website. But we’re novices to desert camping and were completely unprepared for the starkness of the area. Aside from the ubiquitous park sign just off the road and a couple RVs here and there, there were no other helpful landmarks to guide us. Posted instructions merely said camp anywhere unless posted otherwise, and have fun. It was about 6 pm, the sun was slowly setting, and we saw its reflection on a camper a mile or so away to the east. So, on a hunch, we headed off in that direction. The road was soft granitic sand (which would make cycling problematic the following day), and our pickup had no trouble leading us to a private notch in the canyon walls. We leveled ourselves, set up our table and a couple chairs, and enjoyed the remaining sunset before a zillion stars greeted us to their secret hideout. Aside from some coyotes yelping somewhere off in the darkness, it was remarkably quiet and comfortable sitting outside as heat stored in adjacent rocks radiated gently in our direction. It was now clear why Phil suggested us visiting this place.

We awoke with the sun and were surprised how chilly it was in the shade. We have some desert camping lore to master, and shade in the afternoon is not the same as shade in the morning. Nevertheless, it wasn’t long before we were on our bikes heading to some trailheads farther down the road. What we didn’t know is how far, and discovered them a mile or so beyond our serene camp site. The route was the same well-trafficked sandy road that, in some places, made cycling quite difficult. In some spots, it was necessary to leave the road and ride the firmer ground among the sporadic Teddy-bear choya, ocotillo, yucca, bushy creosote, juniper, and beaver-tail and spiny agave cacti. This proved far easier and reminded me of skiing the trees down our local mountain. We were careful, however, to keep the road in sight as we didn’t have a clue where we were going. We gained some elevation and the location of plants became more dense so we returned to the road and mastered (somewhat) the trick of avoiding the soft spots. Having wide tires also helped Nick as Sooney’s hybrid bike features narrower tires. Nothing stops intrepid travelers, however, and after an hour or so, we came to the first trailhead.

If there’s one thing travelers to the dessert have been reminded constantly, it’s making sure you’re carrying enough water. After an hour of cycling uphill on a technically-difficult surface, we happily sat in the shade of the informative display at the “Matoros” trailhead, rationing our remaining water and wondering if an hour-long hike to an ancient village was what we needed. Instead, we returned to our camper (all downhill and far easier dealing with sand due to increased speed), packed our gear, and moved our campsite to the trailheads where we’d just scouted. The wonderful thing about four-wheel-campers is how easy it is to set ‘em up and take ‘em down. In no time we were on the same road we’d just cycled, returned to the trailhead, and proceeded farther to the end of the line. That’s the trailhead of the 1-mile walk to several pictographs made by ancients that have survived over the years.

We set up camp near the trailhead, took a well-deserved nap, and then sat in some shade, listening to the silence while luxuriating with the knowledge that we had plenty of water to lubricate our sedentary activities. Later, with the sun lower and colors richer, we walked the mile to the ancient paintings and strolled leisurely back to our campsite, fully aware that our pace was determined solely by how long we wanted to sit on rocks, munch on snacks, and savor the back-lit brilliance of spiny cactuses. No difficult bike-rides for us; especially after discovering that Sooney’s rear tire was flat. Ah, the rewards of careful planning!

Photos from this leg of our trip may be viewed at