Part 1 of 3
For more than two decades, MontaraManDan has tried to convince GeekSlacker to vacation in the desert.
M-Man developed a taste for desert adventure while camping with “The Kid” as part of a father/daughter group back in the day. He has walked the half-mile length of Burro Schmidt’s tunnel in the Mojave; guided the youngsters through the crumbling ruins of Rhyolite, NV; and watched the plastic soles of his buddy’s sandals peel away in scorching heat amplified by Death Valley’s Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. The Geek did once join a family camp out at Joshua Tree National Park – but that was the weekend that the 7.3 magnitude Landers quake rocked the park.
Structurally suspect mining tunnels? Shoes melted by the sun? Earthquakes? Children in peril? Like Olympic gymnast McKayla Maroney, The Geek was not impressed.
So earlier this month, when The Geek suggested visiting Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, the epicenter of the California wildflower super bloom, she was kinda surprised when M-Man balked. But after getting his head wrapped around the prospect of 530 miles of bad traffic to the extreme southeastern corner of the state, he shrugged and climbed on board the super bloom train.
In fact, M-Man and The Geek mapped a journey that would take them to three stunning but very different super blooms across three days, March 22-24:
- Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, to the west of California’s Salton Sea;
- The Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve, at the northern fringe of metro Los Angeles;
- And Carrizo Plain National Monument, a lonely grassland nestled amid the rugged Temblor Range east of San Luis Obispo.
Here’s what we found:
Superbloom Part 1 – Anza-Borrego Wildflowers Defy Expectations, But We Are Impressed Anyway
The drive south to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park from the Coastside absolutely met expectations. It sucked.
We did find hope in brilliant splashes of yellow and orange blossoms mid-drive as we ascended from the floor of the San Joaquin Valley up the Grapevine into the Angeles National Forest. But the most brilliant color we spotted wending our way through the next four hours of L.A. rush hour traffic was the red in M-Man’s face as he parried with Southern California’s notoriously aggressive drivers. OK. The clouds were nice.
Our accommodations in Indio – a desert retirement community east of the Palm Springs windmill farms — were as worn as your road-weary bloggers. We hoped for a quick bite at the hotel restaurant but cringed at the sound of an SNL-worthy lounge act serenading a crowd brimming with geriatric enthusiasm, so drove into a nearby neighborhood for an adequate dinner at Cactus Jack’s Bar & Grill, an old-school steak-house. And there was enough left over for steak sandwiches for breakfast!
The next morning, still recovering from our anaphylactic reaction to the retirement resort, we were good with getting up and out of Indio early for the 90-minute trek to the park.
The morning drive took us past the Salton Sea, the 350-square-mile consequence of an epic engineering error more than 100 years ago that sent the Colorado River tumbling into the desert basin for nearly two years. Land developers in the 1950s marketed the sea as a fisherman’s paradise and attracted retirees and vacationers. But by the 1970s the shrinking sea, increasingly fouled by agricultural chemicals, rising salt content and massive fish kills, had lost its allure. Today you can buy a 3-bedroom 2-bath malodorous seaside home for $69,000 with $5,000 down. Or you can squat on the decommissioned Marine base known as The Slabs – a little slice of desert anarchy.
Unmoved by the charms of the devil’s infinity pool, we looped east into the Borrego Badlands. The brilliant red-orange blooms atop the spindly branches of the ocotillo cactus and occasional patches of purple sand verbena in the Badlands were nice, but not the vast floral blanket we were anticipating. We pressed on through the charming desert community of Borrego Springs and into the park. Again, nice. But still no carpet of posies.
A ranger suggested the best spot in our vicinity for viewing the flora was a short drive up a bed of talcum fine sand to Desert Garden. It sounded promising. We found more ocotillo, more verbena, some yellow agave blossoms and lots of blossom-free teddy bear cholla (not as cuddly as it sounds), but little other color amid the Restoration Hardware grays of the sand and mountains. “That’s it?” we shrugged. “Gah!”
After 530 miles of bad traffic, this would not do!
Determined to locate a super bloom experience, we had headed back toward pavement and looped back toward town when we spotted a telltale clot of cars lining the shoulder. Occupants were “froggering” excitedly back and forth across the asphalt. Could it be? It had to be! A sea of tiny dusty-yellow sun flowers – our first floral carpet!
We enjoyed the moment. We took some pictures. We got back in the car. We wanted more.
About a mile up the road we hung a right. Another clot of cars. More froggering. Paydirt! A tapestry of blooms — acres of purple verbena, white dune primrose and yellow desert sunflowers — thickly yet tasetfully arranged by nature amid desert greenery, like a massive FTD bouquet of desert blooms. Amazing. Beneath our feet, colorful hornworms (aka hawk tapas) humped vigorously from flower to flower across the soft sand, enjoying the bounty nearly as much as the tourists.
Satisfied that we had wrung all the floral fun out of our little corner of Anza-Borrego, we stopped for enchiladas and chile reyano at Pablito’s Mexican Bar & Grill in Borrego Springs – did we mention it was charming – and headed to the high desert north of Los Angeles.
Up Next: Super Bloom Part 2 – We Encounter Urban Anthophiles at the California Poppy Reserve; the Flowers are Quite Orange