In case you didn’t know, there are precious few places in the USA to stay reasonably warm in the winter. Maybe the Florida Keys (expensive). Maybe Yuma (ugly).
I may have overlooked the Anza Borrego because I couldn’t pronounce it. Or maybe I had no idea what it was. Then I heard someone casually mention that he had stayed at the Culp Valley campground and that it was beautiful, remote, and free. Was this the desert haven I sought?
It was that and more. Culp Valley is only one of many primitive campgrounds in the Anza Borrego Desert State Park in southern California. At 600,000 acres the Anza Borrego is the largest state park in California and second largest (behind the Adirondacks) in the country. The park occupies a chunk of southeastern San Diego county; its headquarters and main campground is in Borrego Springs—a small town in a broad valley in the center of the park where the library is excellent; the gas is expensive; ditto for the very small grocery store, and the laundromat sucks.
I finally figured out that the park’s name is a hybrid: Anza is from Juan Bautista de Anza, the Spanish explorer who led the first party of settlers through the region to establish a Spanish colony in San Francisco. (It took them a year, but they made it.) On Christmas Eve, 1775, a baby boy was born in Coyote Canyon near Borrego Springs. Borrego is the Spanish word for sheep because the bighorn variety live on the park’s mountain slopes.
I camped throughout the park for six weeks, and I did manage to stay warm most of the time. Unlike most state parks, this one allows “dispersed camping,” which means you can pull off and camp anywhere (with some limitations). Several primitive campgrounds scattered throughout the park also allow free camping, and I stayed at most of them, from Fish Creek, a low wash between high cliffs to Culp Valley, a high desert campground with magnificent views all the way to the Salton Sea. And yet, I barely scratched the surface of what the park has to offer.
As I wandered through the park, I became increasingly entranced by its diversity and solitude—I had so much to see, and each place had a different character. Blair Valley, a broad bowl surounded by low mountains, was my favorite. Nearby Agua Caliente is a regional park with a “therapeutic” pool fed by a natural hot spring. $5 gets you in for the day. When I was there, a flock of Yugoslavian grandmas circled the edge of the pool twittering away in their native language.
I recently learned that Eden literally means pleasure park. That describes the Anza Borrego perfectly. For me, it was a haven, a refuge, and an Eden.
To view a slideshow, click on any photo. (They look MUCH better.)