A favorite route for March and April visits
Updated 8-09-2020—Note: This post is under construction as additional text and photos are being added. Thank you for visiting!
Intro: For a region as expansive as the Anza-Borrego State Park, it can be a challenge to see as much as possible in a given day. If more than one day is available, one strategy is to catch the colors at the lower elevations first, then on a return visit to catch the colors at higher elevations. 2019’s Anza-Borrego bloom was one of the best in twenty years but there was only one day available for a visit. We think we optimized the day by picking a route that offers a lot of variety and interest. The route begins from the Kumeyaay cultural site on Mine Wash Road, located in the Mescal Bajada, and heads west along Highway 78, past Tamarisk Grove Campground and Plum Canyon to County Road S2, also known as the mouthful, “Great Southern Overland Stage Route of 1849”; the route then proceeds south along S2 through Earthquake Valley, Blair Valley, Mason Valley, Vallecitos and Agua Caliente Hot Springs to a quiet and much less-visited area in the park called Indian Valley.
Over the course of any rain season, we’ve found that every plant species takes its turn to germinate and eventually flower. Timing with the rain is the most important thing, but elevation plays a role within the timing. It’s worth remembering that if it’s late in a rain season, try the higher elevations of the park for more of the bloom, especially cactus. The highest elevation along the S2 south of Scissors Crossing is in Blair Valley at 2,656′. Snowfall here occurs about once a year and is treat for campers, however ephemeral it may be. Storms move through very quickly and snow is usually melted by noon.Photo left: Snowfall in Earthquake Valley. Click for full size in lightbox.
Blair Valley, with its associated higher valley, Little Blair Valley, feature spread-out camping spots, the former especially for RVs. There is a chemical restroom in Blair Valley near the S2 and visible from it. Little Blair Valley is best accessed from the south via the road that hugs and wraps around the rugged, boulder-strewn mountains between the valleys. Along the way are turnouts for Ghost Mountain (The South homesite), the Morteros Trail and the pictograph site which is an easy hike from its trailhead at the end of the road at the eastern edge of Little Blair Valley. The Morteros Trail and the Pictographs Trailhead are labeled in the interactive map below by zooming into Blair Valley.
Our route for viewing the desert color on March 23 is plotted by the entries in the georeferenced map below. Beginning near The Narrows, the chasm in San Felipe Creek, a few miles east of Tamarisk Grove Campground on Highway 78, we caught peak-bloom for the season. We decided not to go further east, to drop in elevation toward Ocotillo Wells, a past-peak stretch in mid-wildflower season. Elevation plays a role in a weekend decision like that because, as a general rule, the best bloom years have seen the earliest color coming up around sea-level, in Ocotillo Wells somewhere around Split Mountain or even the Blu Inn, a cleverly-named RV park suggesting that the wind can get pretty fierce on its way to the Salton Sea (and yes, this is true). By the way, the Elephant Tree Discovery Trail in the southern Ocotillo Wells area near Split Mountain is where you might catch the first color, perhaps in February.
The Narrows is some 1,000 feet higher than the elephant trees, and there we began seeing a most spectacular desert dandelion show. This is also the area where you can drive up the best bajadas in the park, but not too far unless you have good clearance and four wheel drive. The road into Mescal Bajada, where you will find the Kumeyaay cultural site, is very near a geological place name called Round Granite Hill, the only significance being that it was noted on the earliest government survey maps back in the day when exploration of a road route into San Diego was given high priority. The Mescal Bajada, named after the agave plant, is broad and beautiful, once criss-crossed by Indian trails as ancient peoples moved back and forth between the bounty of the ocean and the bounty of the Salton Sink area, which periodically filled from the Colorado River to become a freshwater inland sea.
Climbing to higher elevations, Plum Canyon at 2,000 feet offered spectacular beavertail cactus and of course many other things to appreciate like poppies and brittle brush painting the hills everywhere in various bright yellows. To stay in the park, you must turn left at Scissors Crossing, once a stage stop for people travelling to Los Angeles in the 1850s and where you may occasionally see running water. Some of the best prickly pear cactus is found here, in the south-facing hills to the immediate north and through which the Pacific Crest Trail runs.
Driving south along County Road S2 on any day is nice, but during winter storms one may see uncommon “blue sky” rainbows, or rainbows pitched against the blue sky with sparse clouds. This is the “rain shadow” of the western periphery of the Sonoran Desert and odd atmospheric phenomena can be seen here. There are lenticular clouds, for instance, carried aloft by the jet stream and often portend a season of storms, and the truly dark skies on moonless nights bring out the artificial satellites teeming everywhere. Shelter Valley lies within Earthquake Valley, the valley between Granite and Whale peaks, and is a rural subdivision featuring broadly scattered homes before you get to Blair Valley, some 12 miles south of Scissors Crossing, where the elevation reaches some 2,600 feet. It snows in Shelter Valley and Blair Valley on occasion; the area is suspected of reaching the coldest temperatures in San Diego County, around zero degrees. Wildflowers do not carpet Blair Valley, even in superblooms, but there is much more diversity to be found in the little stands of color that pop up everywhere through the valley and on into Vallecitos some 20 miles further. But there, having dropped about 1,000 feet to Vallecitos, the environment has changed to favor forests of cholla cactus and many more ocotillo trees and all that they bring to the color and wildlife (see georeferential map below for location).
One of the best turns beyond the forests of cholla in Vallecitos is the entrance to Indian Gorge. Signage for this turn is not prominent, so the geographic coordinates are: 32°52’46.55″N, 116°12’40.51″W. At 710 feet of elevation, the color is not spectacular at the turn, but wait until you have crossed the bajada to reach the gorge entrance. It is three-quarters of a mile of one-lane rocky desert road, but you will need high clearance in many places and the ability to veer to the soft shoulders to allow the occasional oncoming vehicle to pass. The worst of the drive tends to be over upon reaching the gorge entrance, and from there climbing into the canyon is not particularly steep but the road remains narrow. You can see the great landslides that have occurred in the north-facing canyon walls. The side canyon entering the main gorge from the north, Torote Canyon ( 32°52’13.85″N, 116°14’4.39″W), is a worthy stop where ghost flowers immediately greet you. Bu this is one of the few areas where you will see them. Beyond here are the few primitive campsites to be found and beyond the campsites two branches of the Indian Valley open up. There is a north branch and a south branch and at the westerly ends of the access roads through these branches are native palm groves.
Another trail performer spotted!
On March 23, 2019, after the best rains, Indian Valley’s sheltering hills provided for a more sustained bloom due to higher elevation, greater water availability in the bajada, and less wind to dry out the flowers. A jack rabbit offered a pose, or seemed to. This rabbit had actually just appeared on the narrow desert road, facing us as we approached in our vehicle. Then, turning and hippity-hopping ahead of us a few hundred feet, it paused and waited for us to stop and get out of the vehicle, remaining only a few yards away. We suspected this rabbit was giving us a trail performance and we wanted to miss it.
The rabbit stared at us motionless behind a mesquite shrub, pensively studying our movements next to our stopped vehicle. We fumbled for our cameras as he or she seemed to relax, and began to primp and scratch, as if we and this bunny were old friends. Realizing the moment was actually fleeting and wondering what the rabbit might expect for this photography session, we lamented not having at least a carrot as an offering. But seeing no carrot coming its way, it hopped nonchalantly out of our sight. These cwazy wabbits only give you a few seconds for photos. By then, they’ve assessed if the situation is going to be worth their time.
We’re seeing more trail performers these days. We suspect it’s all about learned behavior and just about any species seems to be able perform it—deer, squirrels, lizards, birds, coyotes. More often than once, we suspect, previous visitors have left offerings to reward this kind of “experience with wildness,” of course reinforcing the behavior. More recently, along a hiking trail on the California coast, a scrub jay swooped onto a steel fence post directly in front of us, holding a tantalizing red acorn in its beak (←link to the blog). The jay turned repeatedly to face us, seeming to offer a trade. Did we have anything yummier in our back packs? This handsome bird was patient, giving us several minutes to dig into our trail bars, but all we had were camera shutters. It eventually saw better sales opportunities in the nearby backyards and finally took flight with its precious acorn currency.
Point and shoot photos above by Lee, 2011-2019.
Visit of March 23, 2019 photos below. To enter the gallery, click on any image. Photos by Barbara Swanson.
Waypoints along the route. Click on the icons in the map below for photo thumbnails of the feature found there. Click on thumbnail photos for larger image; use back button to return. The georeferenced photos are repeated in the gallery below the map window.
Additional photos visit of March 23, 2019. To enter the gallery, click on any image.