Staking a quiet corner of stark Anza-Borrego

Anza-Borrego Desert

State Park, Calif.

"We're in the middle of nowhere," my husband said as we scouted for a decent spot to pitch our tent.

"Nowhere" was a barren wash surrounded by crumbling ridges, a remote part of southern Anza-Borrego Desert State Park that was 295 miles from our Topanga home. The last few miles on our circuitous route were on a sandy, unpaved road that was badly rutted and strewn with boulders, forcing us to stop our Subaru Forester to clear a path.

Barry and I hadn't seen another person for at least half a mile. Leafless plants poked out of the ground. Winds whipped the sand into miniature tornadoes. Not that we were complaining. Barren was beautiful. And part of the beauty was in the fact that, in a year when California State Parks campgrounds are filling fast, we could stake out our own corner of the wilderness -- during Anza-Borrego's peak visitor season, no less.

That's because Anza-Borrego is one of the few state parks that allows backcountry camping without permits. We could pull over almost anywhere and pitch a tent, though we had to haul our own water.

Barry and I had camped in the 600,000-acre park two years earlier in a developed campground at Tamarisk Grove. Noisy neighbors kept us awake most of the night, and we vowed we would leave the crowds behind next time. So on a Saturday morning in late February we drove east on Interstate 10 past Palm Springs, stopped at In-N-Out for burgers and veered south onto California 86 toward Anza-Borrego's eastern edge.

Park boundaries resemble an elongated triangle with a hollow center where the town of Borrego Springs lies. Anza-Borrego's visitor center, a stone structure carved into a hillside, is near here. Midday Saturday it teemed with families, toddlers and seniors, among the 8,000 or so visitors who shared the park with us and filled the two developed campgrounds that weekend. Like us, many came for the spring blooms, but we had arrived a couple of weeks too early.

"The park is primed for a pretty good flower season," said Brian Cahill, Anza-Borrego's information officer. Park officials said they expect blooms to peak this weekend. (Updates are at www.anzaborrego.statepark .org/wildflowers.html.)

We moseyed toward a campsite. Our first choice was Little Blair Valley, a greening swath in the south-central part of the park where I thought we would see blooming beavertail or desert star. But as we drove south on County Highway S2, a hand-lettered sign caught my eye: "Y camp," with an arrow pointing toward Little Blair Valley.

Groaning at the thought of hordes of kids, I pulled over and whipped out "The Anza-Borrego Desert Region," a comprehensive guide by Lowell and Diana Lindsay. It offered an alternative, Palm Spring, a stop on the Butterfield Overland stage route in the 1800s. The spring's role in the settlement of California and the thought of sleeping with the ghosts of pioneers touched a romantic nerve in me.

S2 sliced south, weaving in and out of the park's western side, an area punctuated with rusting pickups, tattered ranches and weathered houses. The two-lane road led past ochre mountains brightened by the yellow blooms of brittlebush, past flatlands whose monochrome monotony was broken by the arching spines of ocotillo.

Exploring 'our' wilderness

After 15 miles we turned left onto a barely discernible dirt road. So intent were we on avoiding ruts and boulders that we missed the small brown sign that said "June Wash." We stopped where canyon walls closed in and unfurled our tent in the lee of a sandstone ridge. Then we busied ourselves setting up camp, pulling out the cooler, 10 gallons of water and the grill. (Backcountry campfires must be lighted in metal containers.)

As the late afternoon sun lowered in the sky, we explored our wilderness, dodging prickly cactus and sharp rocks on a scramble to the top of a ridge. It was a revealing look at the tortured geologic forces at work in the water-carved ridges and ravines of the Carrizo Badlands.

We returned to our campsite at cocktail hour. Barry uncorked a bottle of Chardonnay, I pulled out a bag of vegetable chips and we climbed to a sunny spot to catch the last warming rays of the sun. In the stark landscape my mind went quiet, and for a while I was content to do nothing but watch shadows play across the desert.

I had ambitious plans for dinner: salmon en papillote roasted over an open flame with vegetables, and s'mores for dessert. But someone -- me -- had forgotten to pack the vegetables. And someone -- me -- left the salmon on the grill too long. The filets were burned on the bottom and barely edible. But dessert, graham crackers oozing with chocolate and gooey marshmallows toasted over the fire, made up for our sorry main course.

The day's highs had reached the low 80s, but as soon as the sun disappeared the temperature dropped by 20 degrees. Barry and I huddled around the fire. By 8 p.m. I was zipped in a sleeping bag and dead to the world.

Dawn arrived in a blink, and it was birdsong that nudged me awake. Cocooned in the tent, I savored the silence.

But we had places to go. Barry made a fine breakfast of eggs, bacon and instant coffee, and we loaded up the car and went off to find Palm Spring.

It was a few miles south on a well-marked road. A sign said Palm Spring was a rest stop on the Butterfield Overland stage line, which transported mail and passengers from Missouri to California. Amid the barren beige washes, the mesquite-shaded spring must have been a lifesaver for parched 19th century pioneers.

But one look at the murky, stone-enclosed pool trickling water to a stand of California fan palms, and we realized we wouldn't have wanted to camp here. The detritus of modern human encampments -- strewn paper, pieces of a burst pink balloon -- deflated my romantic notions of pitching a tent where 49ers had roughed it.

Our next stop took us north on the trail of pictographs in Little Blair Valley, where RVs littered the desert floor. I counted 17 cars in the parking lot by a trail head. Four twentysomethings emerged from a neighboring SUV as we sat on our bumper and ate sandwiches.

"Is it hard?" asked one young woman. "We're not hikers."

In fact, it was an easy, mostly level 1 1/2-mile walk, made more pleasant by a cool breeze and a smattering of delicate, tiny purple blossoms of alfilaria, also known as filaree.

Midway down the trail hikers gathered around childlike red-and-yellow drawings painted at eye level on a large boulder. Scientists believe Kumeyaay Indians painted them 200 to 300 years ago. Some symbols (a sun, a man) were recognizable, but others, such as a crosshatched diamond pattern, were hieroglyphics to me.

Storm clouds were rolling in, pushed by a strengthening wind. So we moved out, watching two coyotes watch us as we climbed into the car for the drive home.

Budget for two
Expenses for this trip:
Lunch  In-N-Out Burger $9.00
Groceries $39.91
Wildflower brochure $2.00
Other meal $29.04
Gas $40.00
Final tab $119.95

CONTACT:

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, 200 Palm Canyon Drive, Borrego Springs, CA 92004; (760) 767-5311, www.abdsp.org  .