Day Trip Into Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

Anza Borrego Desert State Park — Saturday (2/16/13) I went to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.  I had wanted to see if there was any indication that as Spring advances this might be a good year for desert wildflowers.  After all, there has been a lot of rain here on the coast and quite a bit of snow in the local hills they call mountains.  But was there any indication that any serious moisture had made it to the desert and might create a good crop of flowers?  If so then this would be a good short field trip for my Landscape class when it happens.

I had initially thought of just blasting out in the Jag but my friend Cynthia was also game to go and she has a 4WD vehicle she was willing to take.  Hmmmmmm…

I hadn’t been into the back country since I stupidly sold my Land Cruiser and got the little 2WD SUV.  Major mistake, that!  But here was a chance.  To be honest I had no idea how good an off-road vehicle her little Ford Escape was or, for that matter how good she would be at piloting it back there off the highway.  But this was a great chance and it seemed worth a go.  And since this is a holiday weekend even if we got stuck there should be plenty of desert rats out and about to help if necessary.

So as we headed out I had two destinations in mind.  The first was “Vista Del Malpais,” an overlook of the badlands I think is far better than Font’s Point, and then, around to 17-Palms, an Oasis that once was the sight of an intermittent spring and the so-called “Prospector’s Post Office,” a common place in the “old days” to leave messages and water.  Neither should be a heart-stopping drive but certainly requiinga  4WD vehicle.

We had a very nice lunch in Borrego Springs at The Palms. Then it was back to the highway toward Salton Sea and headed east.  Following the map at one wash past the sign to Thimble Trail we turned South off of the Salton Sea highway — and pavement — at Palo Verde Wash and were now off into the bush.

Very quickly the two questions were answered: the little Ford Escape was no Land Cruiser but it was more than up to the task for this section of the park.  And more importantly, since off-road success is often more a factor of driver skill than vehicle, Cynthia was a very competent off-road driver.   She danced the little Ford around and over obstacles like a pro.  Consequently I was able to relax and assume the unusual role for me of navigator, relying on one of my detailed but old maps of the area and a ten-year-old memory of the last time I was here.

My memory told me that the last time I went to this overlook there were trail markers at the myriad side washes along the way… but this time most of them seemed missing.  Either my memory was faulty (is that the first thing to go? I can never remember…) or they were knocked over.  In some places it was evident some major water had been through there and fairly recently at that; so they might have been knocked down by a flash flood.  But whatever accounted for lack of trail markers, it was not all that hard to count washes, follow the map contours, and make the correct turns.

At “Short Wash” we turned west toward the spur to the vista.  On the way we stopped for some photos of one of the eroded cliff areas.

South wall of "Short Wash" on the way to Vista del Malpais.  Canon 5D MkII with 45mm TS-E lens.

South wall of “Short Wash” on the way to Vista del Malpais. Canon 5D MkII with 45mm TS-E lens.  Click on image to enlarge.

Water flow marks in bed of wash.

Water flow marks in bed of wash.

Walking over to find the shot I wanted, the wash had signs that some water had flowed through there recently with some remaining flow marks…  By the way, the lines in the wash bed above (in the middle of the shot) are not tire tracks, they are lines of water flow down the wash.

In the same area were some areas of cracked surface crust of mud now baking in the sun.  It reminded me of a shot taken long ago on a similar trip but then the sky was aflame and the shiny mud reflected it in a stunning way.  This time we were through here in early afternoon so the color was drab.  I decided to do the cracked mud shot below as a split toned black and white.

Pattern of mud crust cracked and baking in the sun.

Pattern of mud crust cracked and baking in the sun.  Click on image to enlarge.

I’ve always preferred the view of the badlands from here to the more famous Font’s Point to the west but it has been quite a while since I was able to visit it.  It did not let me down.  Here is a shot taken with a 15mm full frame fish eye.

Full-frame fisheye view of Vista del Malpais.  A trail leads from this overlook down into the badlands but one slip and you would fall and roll down hundreds of feet of rocks to the bottom.  Canon 5D MkII w/ 8-15mm set at 15mm.

Full-frame fisheye view of Vista del Malpais. A trail leads from this overlook down into the badlands but one slip and you would fall and roll down hundreds of feet of rocks to the bottom. Canon 5D MkII w/ 8-15mm set at 15mm.  Click on image to enlarge.

The edge is steep and crumbly.  A false step would send you careening down the very steep sides over the rocks, cactus and other unpleasantries.  By the time you hit bottom you likely would not have enough hide left to close your eyes.

Ocotillo branches in new spring growth reach toward the swirling clouds near the Vista del Malpais overlook.

Ocotillo branches in new spring growth reach toward the swirling clouds near the Vista del Malpais overlook.  Click on image to enlarge.

There must have been some moisture here since the ocotillo bushes were rich with new leaves even though the brilliant red flowers were not yet budding.

From there the plan was to backtrack and pick up the wash to 17 Palms.  But I missed seeing the turn and soon it was obvious we were going south and had gone too far to follow the original plan.  A quick check of the map showed that we could actually make a big circle… assuming I did not miss any more turns.

Things went well until we decided to take a side trek to see the “Pumpkin Patch,” an area of pumpkin sized rocks.  In the ensuing ten years much has changed especially that creation of new “roads” and even rest stops along the way.  And sure enough it was not long until we were sailing along nicely, viewing and commenting on the scenery and how much more you can see when you are not focussed on driving, and suddenly it just dawned on me what i was seeing… THE SUN WAS ON THE WRONG SIDE!

Maps can be wrong, navigators can blunder, trail signs can go missing, but you can pretty much rely on the idea that in late afternoon the sun will be on the west side of the road.  Somehow, we were no longer headed north back toward our destination, we were going south and deeper into the badlands.  Oops…

We stopped at a cross-roads.  I got out a compass, took a quick bearing on some peaks I knew and checked our position.  The map did not show a cross roads anywhere near where the quick triangulation suggested we were… but it did show one arm of it.  The other arm, not shown on my older map, was, however, very well travelled and going in the direction we needed to head.  So, being sure it was headed in the right direction and hoping it was a new cross cut trail, we were off.

Sure enough it took us exactly where we needed to be and soon we were travelling in the right direction in the right wash and rolled up to the “parking lot” around 17 Palms.

17 Palms Oasis.  Canon 5D MkII w/ 8-15mm lens.

17 Palms Oasis. Canon 5D MkII w/ 8-15mm lens.  Click on image to enlarge.

Palm trees can only grow where there is a good supply of water so this was a spot of major importance to old time travelers and prospectors.  But the water supply was somewhat intermittent so when it was running it became the habit to fill and cache large jars of water there.  And with that came a habit of leaving messages and notes.

Another stand of palm trees at 17 Palms Oasis.  Click on image to enlarge.

Another stand of palm trees at 17 Palms Oasis. Click on image to enlarge.

The message cache is still there and now used for travelers to leave thoughts and notes.  Over the years I’ve left several and now Cynthia left one to mark the occasion.

But now the sun was getting lower and lower and finding one’s way out through the labyrinth of washes in the dark can be an adventure all of its own so we headed back.

This part of the road was mostly sand but a few large washouts and rocks in the road kept the driver on her toes. I was looking out my side when suddenly the car slid to a stop.  I wasn’t sure what had just happpened to cause Cynthia to stop so suddenly.

But there on the driver’s side, the western wall of the wash was now in shadow but growing along it were what looked to me to be alien seed pods; tiny versions of the ones growing new bodies for the “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”

Is this where the Bodysnatchers grow the new bodies to host them and their evil intent to take over the planet?  Click on image to enlarge.

Is this where the Bodysnatchers grow the new bodies to host them and their evil intent to take over the planet? Click on image to enlarge.

I am still amazed by some of the plants out here and these were no exception so a shot was virtually mandatory.

Back in the car and a little farther down the track were light colored things imbedded in the rock that looked at first like large oyster or abalone shells.  Another stop was obviously called for.  Close examination however showed them to be what looked like agate extrusions ranging from leg sized to finger sized.  They followed the strata lines but somehow they had gotten sheared off near the surface of the arroyo wall.  It was so strange it demanded at least a shot.

What looked like shells turned out to be mineral extrusions all along one strata of the sediment forming the wall of the wash.  Canon 5D MkII, 70-200 mm f4L at 200 mm.

What looked like shells turned out to be mineral extrusions all along one strata of the sediment forming the wall of the wash. Canon 5D MkII, 70-200 mm f4L at 200 mm.  Click on image to enlarge.

Well, now we did need to head for the main highway and back toward the coast.  It was a great day for me, getting to go off into the back country I love for the first time in years and, better yet, I did not have to drive!

And yes, it just might turn out to be a pretty good year for flowers in a few weeks.

About ndking

Commercial Photographer and Professor of Photography at San Diego City College
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