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Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California

Myths and cactus in California: A life-filled land of sand and mountains.

Little-Known Fact: Recent discoveries in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park include a previously unknown grove of 200 elephant trees in the Santa Rosa Mountains.

I was remembering my original apprehensions about traveling solo in the center of a 1,000-square-mile desert. A familiar voice snapped me out of my reverie. To my surprise, it turned out to be Lynn Emerick, a friend and ranger I’d met in Glacier National Park. Each delighted to see a face we recognized, we talked each other into a hike. I had been in Blair Valley in 1984 and had marveled at the trail cut by the Mormon Battalion during the Mexican-American War a century and a half before. But I hadn’t seen the pictographs Lynn described, or the amazing view of the Vallecito Mountains, which she promised at hike’s end. We set off.

A primitive road, quite sandy in places, wound for about 4 miles toward one of the area’s major pictographs ~ a large, colorful geometric pattern. Lynn pointed out the Indian grinding holes in the nearby granite boulders. These morteros were used to pound mesquite beans, pods, and seeds, which then were shaped into flat, round cakes and dried in the sun. Beyond the pictograph, the trail became a pure hiking trail veiled in shades of red and green flora, all glowing in the scarlet light of the setting winter sun.

On my first visit to Anza-Borrego, the “state park” designation had fooled me into thinking the place was small, but it’s huge. And don’t let the “desert” label fool you either; elevation variations of nearly a mile ensure cool spots even during hot summer months.

Located just east of San Ysidro and Laguna Mountains, Anza-Borrego receives dry Pacific air that leaves its moisture on the southern extension of the peninsular range west of the park. To the north lie the Santa Rosa Mountains; to the south rise a number of ranges ~ Vallecito, Fish Creek ~ that open at the east toward the 40-mile-long Salton Sea. In the middle of these ranges is Borrego Valley, a low, flat region housing the small resort town of Borrego Springs and, 1 mile west, the park visitor center.

Offering far horizons that can spell solitude, it’s hard to believe that more than 17 million people live within a few hours’ drive. Who knows, you may even decide to stay ~ like one park volunteer from the Midwest who visited on a whim 16 years ago, returning home only to sell his house and pick up his car.

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