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.

Verbena Photographer
Pho­tograph­ing the ver­be­na, Salton Sea­way, March 2019

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.

Drape of the north­ern hills at Yaqui Well March 17, 2019.

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. 

Mam­mil­lar­ia in the rocky apron just west of Tamarisk Camp­ground March 17, 2019.

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.

Sphinx Caterpillars
Two vora­cious sphinx moth cater­pil­lars vie for the same stalk in Bis­na­ga Wash.

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. 

An intent-look­ing female phain­ope­pla near Yaqui Well.

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.

Desert mis­tel­to, San Felipe Creek.

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.

A sun-soak­ing lizard strikes a pose on a sawed-off pow­er pole, Bis­na­ga Wash March 17, 2019.

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. 

Moonrise from Indian Gorge
Moon­rise from Indi­an Gorge.

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).

Ghost flow­ers are not com­mon­ly seen. This one was among a bed of them in Indi­an Gorge. 

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.

Fresh buds are ready to add to the crown of blos­soms atop a bar­rel cac­tus in Bis­na­ga Wash.

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.

A burn­ing bush? Actu­al­ly, a faint cloud aligned with an ocotil­lo, as seen on the rim of Indi­an Val­ley from the val­ley floor.

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.)

Phainopepla nest in fan palm
A phain­ope­pla nest in a hol­lowed out fan palm.

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.

A paint­ed lady but­ter­fly draws nec­tar from a flow­er­ing span­ish needle.

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).