January 31. We are camped at Arroyo Salado Campground on the eastern edge of Anza Borrego Desert State Park. Arroyo Salado is a primitive camp. Pit toilets and that’s about it. No water although we’re well provisioned with our camper. Our campsite, while in the middle of the badlands of the Anza Borrego Desert, is a garden of wildflowers. It’s unusual to see so many wildflowers this early in the year and given the rains of mid-January the expectation is for a spectacular display in March and April. I had been following the DesertUSA wildflower report and came here hoping to find desert lilies. Some years ago when we were living in San Diego we would come out to the desert with hopes of finding desert lilies. They can be elusive, and the blooms depend on rain. I find the lilies to be quite striking, sending up stalks of white lily flowers that just seem out of place in the desert. This year the lilies are everywhere. Hundreds of plants in bloom and hundreds of new buds popping up.
We were up at 6:30 before sunrise. The sky was showing some signs of sunrise color and having gone to bed early it was easy to get up, although even with the mild weather it’s a challenge to climb out of a warm cozy sleeping bag. Temperature was about 54 F when we got up. At 9:30 it’s 60. You can see more photos of Arroyo Salado here. Once we had finished our wildflower explorations it was time to hit the road for Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, a 300 mile drive.
January 30. With two of us and our dog Carson, we decided we’d take turns hiking. Dogs are not permitted on the trails in Anza Borrego Desert State Park. Many of the trails run through canyons that are home to wildlife. Joann hiked the trail the previous evening and reported seeing sheep. I opted for a morning hike thinking I’d be more likely to see sheep then, and I thought the soft morning light might be conducive to photographing wildlife. Once the sun was over the canyon I imagined the lighting would be harsh.
It’s a mile and a half from the trail head at the campground to the palm oasis. Along the trail there are numbered post that correspond to descriptions in a printed guide. I had picked up a guide at the visitor center the previous day and I used the guide to learn more about the desert environment.
For this hike I decided to carry my Nikon D800 and a 28-300mm lens. For day hikes I usually carry a little Sony RX 100 which is a great camera for travel and hiking. For this hike I thought the opportunity to photograph wildlife warranted the bigger camera.
I wasn’t too far down the trail before I heard rock falling which I interpreted to mean sheep were near. Sure enough, scouting the cliffs above the trail I could see sheep cavorting in the rocks. Then I rounded a bend in the trail and I could see a ram ahead hidden partially through the bushes. I stopped and slowly brought my camera up to my face and started taking photos. The ram didn’t seem to take much notice of me. Then I spied a ewe with a baby lamb making way down the hill side. I found a palm log to sit while I took a few photos, trying to be quiet and still so as not to startle the animals. After a few minutes I could hear breathing behind me, almost down my neck, I turned slowly and there were two rams munching on the grass just five feet away. I was in awe. These animals are supposed to be shy and reclusive, but it seems here they have become habituated to people. They just seemed to go about their business munching the lush grass while people walked up and down the trail taking photos.
After watching the sheep for some time, I decided I better continue to the palm grove. If I were ever going to get back to camp at a reasonable time I needed to get moving. At the end of the trail is a lush oasis of palm trees.
On the evening of January 29 I decided I wanted to check out some of Ricardo Breceda’s sculptures, While Borrego Springs is notable for spring wildflowers in the surrounding desert, it’s also home to a collection of amazing sculptures, called the Metal Sky Art Sculptures. There are more than 130 sculptures here that represent everything from a 350 foot serpent that crosses the road, to dinosaurs and historical figures. I was hoping to find an opportunity to photograph a few of these on this trip. After a quick visit to a few of the sculptures the previous morning, I decided that afternoon or night time might afford some interesting photo opportunities. Our timing was a bit off though since we reached the serpent just as the shadows from the mountains were creeping across the valley floor. We only needed to wait a few minutes for sunset though which lit up the sky with color that seemed appropriate for a fiery serpent.
The sculptures were part of the vision of the late Dennis Avery, heir to the Avery Dennison label fortune and a self-made success on his own. Mr. Avery envisioned ‘free standing art’ on his property, Galleta Meadows Estates,. The steel welded sculptures were created by ‘Perris Jurassic Park’ owner/artist/welder Ricardo Breceda.
The sculptures are spread out around the north end of Borrego Springs. I had to search on-line for a map to help me locate them. They are all easily accessible and there is no fee to view them.
We noticed that bikes seemed to be quite popular in Borrego and I discovered a couple of places you can rent bikes including electric fat-tire bikes you can ride up the some of the sandy dirt roads. There are also tour operators that will take you on an off-road adventure.
January 28 marked our first day in Anza Borrego Desert State Park, having arrived the previous evening. We thought it would be fun to take a drive up Sheep Canyon. I had been following the wildflower reports and it looked like we might find Ocotillo in bloom in the canyon. We were thinking it would be a short drive and we would be back in camp for lunch. The park maps shows the road as a “Primitive Road,” and the road was in good shape for the most part. A few miles in we stopped at Desert Garden where the ocotillo were putting on a display. The Ocotillo, Fouquieria splendens, is large shrub with long spiny stems. Like most desert plants it is uniquely adapted to heat and drought. In the heat of the summer it looks like a bunch of dead thorny sticks. Following a rain, if there is sufficient moisture it will sprout leaves., sometimes the leaves will appear within 48 hours of rain. It will then drop it’s leaves when conditions warrant conservation of water. The flowers look like flames bursting from the tips of the stems. I was happy to discover that a number of ocotillo were in bloom. Usually they bloom later in the year.
As far as Desert Garden the road is smooth and easy to manage. A few miles further we stopped to scout a stream crossing. We had some question about whether we could manage the crossing. We were informed by a woman that seemed to know the route quite well that we should have no problem with this stream crossing, as well as two additional crossings. She also told us that there was a section of road that required a good clearance and bit of rock-climbing. So undaunted we continued on. When we got to the rocky section we put the truck in four-wheel low and crawled up the rocks and continued on to the end of the road in Sheep Canyon. There we found a primitive camp with pit toilets. We had half a mind to simply pop up the camper and spend the night. It was a lovely spot with a trail heading further up the canyon into a palm grove. Dogs are not permitted on most of the trails in Anza Borrego, and since we had our dog Carson, and we had already paid for camping in the Borrego Palm Canyon Campground, we ate lunch took a walk around the bottom of the canyon and headed back down the canyon. It was late afternoon when we returned to our campsite. Like so many adventures, there’s just so much to see along the journey. You can see more photos of Sheep Canyon here.
Here’s a clip from the dashcam showing some clips we captured on the drive back down the canyon.