by Betsy Herbert, email@example.com
published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel 03/30/17
It was March 14. For weeks California State Park botanists had been predicting a “super bloom” of wildflowers — the best in twenty years — to peak across southern California deserts sometime in the middle of March, and the best would be in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, east of San Diego. After record winter rains, Anza-Borrego was already experiencing 80 to 90 degree temperatures — perfect conditions for a super bloom. I’ve lived in California most of my life and missed these gorgeous blooms in the past. This time I was determined to witness the show.
I set out in my hybrid SUV from Santa Cruz to hike and photograph in Anza-Borrego and then head northeast to Joshua Tree National Park, where I could expect to see those signature Joshua trees in full bloom.
When I arrived at park headquarters in Borrego Springs on a Wednesday afternoon, there were so many cars entering the park that the visitor center parking lot was closed. Police directed traffic to a booth in the shopping mall, where volunteers distributed maps of the best places to view some 200 species of wildflowers, including evening primrose, desert lily, sand verbena, yellow brittlebush, purple desert lavender and ocotillo.
Anza-Borrego is California’s largest state park, comprising more than 940,000 acres. It seemed absurd that everybody flocked to the same spot in this enormous place. After grabbing a wildflower map, I drove — in what seemed like rush hour traffic — to a few of the recommended nearby sites; not exactly the experience I had hoped for.
That afternoon, I drove back to my hotel in the little town of Julian and decided to start early the next day to beat the crowds and hike the park’s most famous trail through Borrego Palm Canyon.
The next morning, I arrived at the trailhead just before sunrise to start the 1.5-mile hike. There were only a few cars in the parking lot.
As I began walking, I could see desert shrubs in full bloom and expansive drifts of wildflowers, but the colors were still muted in the twilight. As the sun rose over a distant ridge, the sides of the canyon turned brilliant vermilion against a deep blue morning sky, where a nearly full moon was still visible. In the morning sunlight, the wildflowers exploded into bright yellow, red and blue. The light was great for taking photos.
As it gains elevation, the trail twists around boulders, following the stream that runs through the heart of the canyon. Draining 22 square miles of high desert, the stream begins at the top of Hot Springs Mountain, which at 6,407 feet is the highest point in San Diego County. On the way down the mountain, the stream feeds an oasis ringed by a grove of glorious, towering native fan palms.
This stream can quickly become a torrent as it channels down the mountain. In 2004, heavy rains inundated the stream bed and the oasis, creating a flash flood that uprooted some of the big fan palms, carrying them down to the valley floor. As I hiked up the canyon, I saw the trunks of uprooted palms stuck in crevices between the boulders.
As I reached the oasis at the end of the Borrego Palm Canyon trail, I was surrounded by the iconic grove of fan palms, which huddle like a group of bearded elders watching over the canyon. I sat beneath them in solitude for a few precious minutes, drank deeply from my water bottle and headed back down the trail. On the way out, I passed hundreds of hikers, so I congratulated myself for starting early.
The next morning I drove south to a less visited area of the park to find the Pictograph trailhead, at the end of a 5-mile dirt road in the park’s Little Blair Valley. Remarkably, my cellphone GPS directed me right to it. As I turned off the main road, I could see the entire valley carpeted with countless tiny purple flowers of the native geranium, Herons Bill.
By 8:30 a.m., I had parked my car and started hiking the 2.6 mile Pictograph trail, which leads to ancient symbols painted on a large boulder by the prehistoric Kumeyaay tribe. Then I continued another 1/4 mile down a wash to the cool shade of Smuggler Canyon and an expansive view of the Vallecito Valley below.
During this 1 1/2-hour hike, I saw nobody else on the trail. By 9:30 a.m., as I neared the end of the hike, it was already 85 degrees. I was glad I had parked my car in the shade of a huge boulder.
From Blair Valley, I took Highway 78 east through Anza-Borrego toward Joshua Tree National Park. Near Anza-Borrego’s eastern boundary, the flaming red blooms of the ocotillos were just popping out.
I checked into my Joshua Tree lodging later that afternoon. The next morning I drove into the park. Once again, early is the key; at 7 a.m. there were only a few cars ahead of me at the entrance gate. The Joshua trees were in full bloom. The huge white flowers look like cauliflowers on steroids.
Wrapping up my trip in Joshua Tree, I drove south towards Cholla Gardens, where I found marvelous spreads of wildflowers — mostly around desert washes — including the bright pink flowers of beaver-tail cactus.
If you plan to visit Anza-Borrego Desert State Park or Joshua Tree National Park, be sure to check out their websites first for wildflower updates.
You don’t have to make that long haul to see wildflowers, you can enjoy a later bloom here in Santa Cruz County. During Wildflower Weekend, April 22-23, at Rancho del Oso Nature Center, Waddell Creek, you will see buttercups, shooting stars, western wake robins and many others on park trails (www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=26539).
Betsy Herbert is a freelance writer. You can read her articles and travel blog at www.betsyherbert.com.