The rain cycle of the first months of 2020 has left us with little recourse but fondly remember last year’s better bounty that was provided by a few well-timed storms. We continue to stack up memories of some great bloom years in the last decade, perhaps more than we would expect given climate change. Last year’s bloom wasn’t a “great” year, but appropriately called by some the “Poppy Apocalypse” for its sudden onset and its enjoyable, albeit brief, span. Originally posted in mid-March of 2019…
This page was updated on 8-20-2020.
What some have called “The Poppy Apocalypse” has come to the Anza-Borrego, along with other spring wildflowers commonly seen in wet years.
Poppies don’t arrive in every area in every superbloom, having their own idiosyncrasies particular to their valleys and hillsides, as could be seen the weekend of March 16 along the foothills of Wilson Peak near San Felipe Wash. The Tamarisk Grove Campground was a busy spot, as the poppies seen along Yaqui Pass Road and the nature trail to the west were the brightest in ten years.
The primrose and verbena carpets in Borrego Valley drew the majority of visitors, as every superbloom does, creating traffic issues in the valley and long waits at restaurants.
All photos this page taken March 17, 2019. Blog as of March 19, 2019. Banner photo above: Poppy fields in foothills above Yaqui Well, Tamarisk Grove Campground.
Invasive mustard has impacted a few popular areas, like Henderson Canyon Road, but for the time being the mustard is a complement in green and was certainly no problem on St. Patrick’s Day. The wildflowers of the next weekend, the 23rd-24th, may be refreshed by the unexpected gift rains received in this mid-week, perhaps also lending new growth in new places in Borrego Valley but more likely at higher elevations in the park where just one more good little soaker would be the ticket.
The south area of the park, which reaches accessible elevations of around 3,000 feet, is only now beginning its cactus blooms with the barrel cactus underway, and the hedgehog and cholla just beginning (March 17, 2019). Within a couple of weeks the beavertail cactus should shine. Some areas in the south park are rich in sporadic, diverse patches of wildflowers like Indian Gorge, where lupin, primrose, sand blazing star, ghost flower, monkey flower (mimulus), lacy phacelia, desert lavender and canterbury bells are in abundance. A high-clearance vehicle will be needed for the gentle climb up Indian Gorge, due to a few projecting rocks from the roadbed, to see its splashes of wildflowers.
Some recommended venues: Try Plum Canyon, about three miles west of Tamarisk Grove Campground and five miles east of Scissors Crossing. Indian Valley is another less-traveled area, but you’ll need a high clearance vehicle and a bit more patience to navigate slowly through the gorge.
Plum Canyon’s gently climbing roads from the the entrance kiosk on Highway 78 offer plenty of turnouts for close encounters with the side hills and vistas of Wilson Peak to the north, where poppies adorn miles of south-facing mountainside.
The desert dandelions have truly taken over the Mine Wash bajada, from the entrance along Highway 78 between Tamarisk Grove Campground to the west and The Narrows to the east. The display may be somewhat grander than the poppies in some areas. There is also an enclosed restroom (no running water) about 1/3 mile from the highway along the south-running, gently climbing road toward the Kwaaymii village.
The Clark Valley area, about five miles east of Peg Leg Monument along County S‑12, aka Salton Seaway, is rich in swaths of bright pink sand verbena and the big white flowers of dune evening primrose which give off an incredible perfume-like fragrance at dusk. Clark Dry Lake will be visible to the northwest, with its gleaming salt deposits giving the lake bed a sheen easily mistaken for water. The recent heavy rains in Borrego Valley did in fact fill the lake to the extent of supporting some canoers and kayakers for a time. The lake bed is quite porous and percolation begins immediately after such a rare event. If you ever see water in Clark Dry Lake, you may count yourself a very uncommon observer of phenomena in Borrego Valley.
Also recommended: The south area of the park is largely overlooked, mainly because of its distance from Borrego Valley and without the popular tourist resources; certainly, the convenience of the valley cannot be denied: a well-stocked supermarket, mall shops, hotel and RV accomodations, the Palm Canyon Visitor’s Center, excellent restaurants, art galleries and a performing arts center.
On the other hand, the south area can be accessed about as quickly as Borrego Valley from either Julian or Warner Springs/Lake Henshaw by taking County Road S‑2 at Scissors Crossing and proceeding south into Blair Valley (including Upper Blair Valley), Mason Valley (with Butterfield Ranch), Vallecitos (with Vallecitos county park) with its nearby explosion of desert dandelions, and into the long Carrizo Valley where you will find Agua Caliente Hot Springs (a county park) along with unimproved roads into Indian Gorge and the many native palm groves in the Bow Willow camping areas. The attraction of the very low crowd content in the south area is of course the main trade-off against the populated resource-easy Borrego Valley.
The south area of the Anza-Borrego State park is not entirely without human amenities. In fact, there are a few little oases (see interactive Google map). Stagecoach Trails RV Resort in Shelter Valley (named Earthquake Valley on some maps) and Butterfield Ranch Resort in Mason Valley have small convenience stores, including a small deli kitchen at Stagecoach, but no gas is available at either, or anywhere for that matter along the S‑2, also known as the Great Southern Overland Stage Route. Beyond Carrizo Valley, another 15 miles or so, is the small town of Ocotillo at Interstate 8, where there is a convenience store and where gas is available. There is (or was) a small convenience store at the entrance to Agua Caliente Hot Springs. Also, there is (or was) a very small convenience store in Banner, some five miles west of Scissors Crossing on Highway 78 toward Julian.
Cell service is very limited along the S2 with some availability at Scissors Crossing and possibly at places in Vallecitos. The situation may have improved as of summer, 2020. Given that motorists are few on the S2, even during daytime hours (at night there may be but one or two passing by in an hour), it could be of considerable value to carry a charged Iridium or other network device for SOS purposes or at least a texting device to communicate with someone aware of your trip (and who may be monitoring it). (Eds. note: We use a Garmin InReach Explorer unit for just-in-case purposes which could be as innocuous as being stuck in the soft sand down to the axles with no success of digging out. It’s never been needed, but again if you’re traveling across the Australia outback or canoeing down the Green River in Utah, it may just save your life. The new Garmin Montana 700i (with Inreach technology) one of the newest models and of course these receivers are otherwise great geo-loggers for complete trip data via the software that comes with the physical hardware. This isn’t an ad for Garmin, as there are many excellent GPS solutions available).
The dramatic vistas in the sprawling valleys and bajadas in the south area of the park are enclosed by high mountains to the west, the 6000’ Laguna Range, and pinyon-covered Whale Peak to the east. These mountains direct the rainfall that produces the surprising diversity of life in this most westerly periphery of the Sonoran Desert. Almost any bajada offers springtime activity, but only Coyote Creek in the northern reaches of Borrego Valley has any flowing water.
Sphinx moth caterpillars were seen in abundance in Bisnaga Wash, one mile north of Agua Caliente Hot Springs, going about their dining on what appeared to be fine stems of brown-eyed primrose. So populous were they that it was difficult to hike anywhere in the broad wash without stepping on one, but all were avoided. The barrel cactus is in furious bloom in the wash, which is now a veritable desert garden of plants, animals and birds. To reach the best of the bajada, hike a half mile or so from the small parking area on the east side of the S‑2. Bisnaga Wash is home to finches and cactus wrens, the former flitting quickly away in little flocks upon approach; you will likely find the latter subtly retreated into cleverly designed nests hidden in the protective cover of cholla cactus.
Indian Valley may be a rough ride to get through Indian Gorge but it’s very rewarding once you’ve climbed the little grade in the gorge to reach the valley entrance. It’s about a mile from the inconspicuous turnoff on the S2 (lat/long: 32°52’46“N,116°12’41“W) to the narrowing gorge, which at its narrowest retains some 130′ of width between its abrupt slopes. In another half-mile, on the right, look for Torote Canyon sweeping down from the north. There are good pullouts along the road here with immediate carpets of wildflowers in the springtime. Farther up the valley over the next half-mile and to the left are some of the best primitive campsites to be found in the Anza-Borrego State Park. You are now at the broad entrance to Indian Valley, having traveled some two miles from the S2 over some occasional bottom-out rocks in the roadway. The road forks in another half-mile, the north branch taking you 2.5 miles along a gradual 825′ climb to a parking turnout, beyond which another 400 feet along a wel-established hiking trail will take you to first of the palms.
(Eds note: it was at this palm grove that the 2010 Baja California Earthquake (Easter Sunday Earthquake) of intensity 7.2 was felt and seen. The 500 ton boulders lining the ridge 100 feet above our heads could be heard cracking and crunching, visibly tipping with the long duration of the quake, about a minute and a half. Although the quake began as a curiosity, as it proceeded the expectation that the boulders crashing into the canyon became greater and greater until it seemed terrifyingly likely. One of a trio of German tourists just ahead of us on the trail said after the quake settled down, said to his friends, “You wanted to come to California!” We chuckled with them, but levity was short-lived because in a few seconds a loud rumbling was heard and getting louder. The main quake had passed, but this was a landslide occurring around the bend in the canyon. Realizing the boulders in our section of the canyon were possibly unstable, we returned to our vehicle as joggers. The German tourists raced past us as we did.)
The southerly fork is a slightly longer (2.8 miles) trek up the bajada, where you will climb 1,025 feet to a dead-end turnaround where, again, it is an additional hike of 400 feet to reach the first of a group of palms. Hiking another few hundred feet, the sense of native surroundings grows. Birds abound here, including the phainopepla, which were seen flycatching about their nests in both the live and the dead palms, undoubtedly guarding them, and monitoring the presence of anything potentially dangerous in the little canyon. One worried female was stressed by our presence, repeating the strategy of distraction by flying off to a perch some twenty feet away from her nest in a hollowed out fan palm and quite the condo. We chose to make our visit short. Phainopeplas, whom we have seen by example of other vigilant mothers of the species, are quite concerned when their fragile world is disturbed.
Atop one large boulder next to the running stream is a flat polished surface, called a slick. It was an indispensable table once used by the indigenous families here as they prepared food or sharpened tools for hunting. It is not very well oriented for sitting, but does appears to have been quite useful for someone of small stature standing over it.
Back in Borrego Valley, with some extremely good luck on carefully chosen days, you may be able to witness the arrival of some many dozens, or possibly even some thousands, of Swainson’s hawks that visit the valley in the wildflower season to feast largely on the sphinx moth caterpillars. These migrating hawks, whose ultimate destination remains unknown, are usually spotted in the northeastern area of the valley. A dedicated group of local birders keep a vigilant eye out for this dramatic yearly phenomenon and attract increasing media attention.
Painted lady butterflies also made the scene this past week in the millions with kaleidoscopic ferver (a kaleidoscope being the word for a large swarm of butterflies). The “ladies” went through a massively successful metamorphoses this year from an initial army of caterpillars numbering in the millions (an army is the word for an explosive production of caterpillars on the move).