A dozen of us had just gotten back from an off-road adventure to see the so-called “super bloom” wildflowers of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, and this was the first time much of our group had ever been out this way.
Just then, I heard one woman say, “If there’s one thing I’ve learned today, it’s that the desert is never the same.”
A record amount of attention has been focused this year on this area of northeastern San Diego County, and although it’s California’s largest state park – about the size of Rhode Island – it’s otherwise a well-kept secret.
At least, the rest of the year.
Actually, wildflower season is often good at Anza-Borrego. In fact, it’s one of the best places in Southern California to reliably see a good burst of color in March and April, when the visitor’s center and certain easy trails (like the Borrego Palm Canyon trail) are particularly popular.
But this year, the heavy rains of winter have brought a particularly spectacular bloom to the areas of Anza-Borrego – and the town at its center, Borrego Springs – that are easily accessible by car and on foot.
Like any spring bloom (super or not), different areas peak at different times; and different species flower at different times. And these blossoms live a precarious and all-too-brief life in the desert, where they can be burned out by high temperatures and eaten up by ravenous caterpillars.
So, while the “super bloom” at Anza-Borrego has been in effect for about a week now, there’s no point in waiting to explore what Anza-Borrego Desert State Park has to offer this spring, whether you’ve been here before or this will be your first time. After all, recent daily highs have been in the 90s, at least 20 degrees hotter than the normal for this time of year. And the caterpillars – a larval version of not a butterfly but the sphinx moth – are starting to invade.
Some areas have already peaked, others are peaking right now, and there’s still more yet to come.
There are three main ways to access Anza-Borrego: from the Salton Sea to the east along the Borrego Salton Seaway, from either Julian (to the west) or the Salton Sea (to the east) along Highway 78, or from Warner Springs and Ranchita coming down the Montezuma Grade (a.k.a. S22). Expect traffic on all routes – but this may be a mixed blessing, because even if you find yourself in gridlock, particularly coming down from Ranchita, you’ll be treated to a spectacular display of yellow along both sides of the road as you look down upon the grid of Borrego Springs.
You’ll find lots of ocotillo here, too, which are just starting to sprout some red tips – but expect lots more to come from those.
As you head into town, expect the parking lot of the park’s visitor’s center to be at capacity. You can also get in-person wildflower information from the Borrego Springs Library at The Mall, the Anza-Borrego Foundation, and pretty much anyone you meet who lives in the area or who has been exploring locally for more than a day.
If you’re looking for desert lilies, hit the links over at Club Circle Resort’s golf course. Along its border, you’ll find an interesting transition from the irrigated, manicured green to the sandy wash of the desert – a perfect habitat for the desert lily, whose peak blooming season is typically February through April. Because there’s quite a bit of water (including a pond) and vegetation at the golf course, it’s also a good place to spot some great desert birds (like the iridescent, red and green Anna’s hummingbird) perching on the creosote bushes and hanging out in the palm trees.
For a good route to take in a passenger car, head north on Borrego Springs Road from the center of town (a.k.a. Christmas Circle) and do some exploring in the area known as “Galleta Meadows,” which features a number of larger-than-life metal creatures crafted by metal sculptor Ricardo Breceda. The surrounding area has been blessed with thick patches of wildflowers in mostly blue, yellow, white, and purple – and there are plenty of places to pull over to explore the blossoms up close.
Borrego Springs Road eventually ends at Henderson Canyon, where you’ll find more of those rusted metal sculptures and even more flowers. And if you’re looking more for carpets rather than clusters of flowers, you’ll find a nice, scenic ground cover heading east along Henderson Canyon Road.
Pretty much wherever you go, you’ll see creosote bushes in some stage of flowering, with their yellow petals – some having already transformed into the little white puffballs (the “fruit capsule”) that you usually see in the summer.
One of the real treats of this particular bloom is the concurrent flowering of both wildflowers on the desert floor and off the top of beavertail and barrel cactus. The latter two, the most noticeable from afar in their explosions of bright pink and yellow, are probably thanks to those recent high temperatures, since they usually don’t flower until June or so.
It may be worth renting a car with 4WD (and getting the insurance) to explore a little deeper in the desert, where you’ll be treated to some more unusual and diverse displays of brown-eyed primrose, evening primrose, desert lavender, Arizona lupine, Bigelow’s monkeyflower, desert five-spot, heliotrope, apricot mallow, desert dandelions, desert pincushion, and yellow desert poppies.
Since this part of the Colorado Desert is so sprawling – and I have a tendency to get my car stuck in sand and on rocks – I opted to take a guided excursion offered by California Overland, a concessionaire that’s permitted to operate vehicular tours in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Their excursions can be pretty exciting – especially when your driver / guide kicks it into high gear with “10-wheel drive” – but you’ve got to commit at least two hours to rumbling along mostly dirt roads that you’d probably never find on your own.
If you’d rather walk through the wildflowers, you can take one of the guided hikes offered by the ABF as well as the Anza-Borrego Desert Natural History Association. Guided bike rides (as well as bike rentals) are offered by Bike Borrego.
Some final tips for your trip:
- Even if you live close enough to Anza-Borrego to make it a day trip, you’ll want to find a place to stay overnight so you’ll have two good days to explore. Unfortunately, the desert park’s campsites have been fully booked, as have the motels, B&Bs, hotels and resorts in Borrego Springs. Instead, try Julian or the other small mountain towns nearby, which are under an hour away and about 20 degrees cooler.
- You’ll find less traffic (both vehicular and foot) very early in the morning and earlier in the week, as well as a little farther away from the center of Borrego Springs.
- Pack a cooler so you don’t have to waste time waiting out the lunch rush at all the Borrego eateries. (There are no “fast food” restaurants in town.)
- Bring – and drink – LOTS of water! There is little-to-no shade pretty much wherever you go, and even just a couple of hours out in the hot sun in this heat can dehydrate you.
And if you don’t catch this year’s “super bloom” at its peak, it’s still worth a visit for the rest of this season, as well as the wildflower displays in future years.
After all, you’ll rarely see the same thing twice. And some areas in Anza-Borrego might actually be more spectacular than they were this year, since every year has got a bloom that’s pretty super.