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Exploring Anza-Borrego

Running on the Pacific Coast Trail in southern California, I looked up to see a herd of cows staring at me. I stopped in my tracks. One cow may be cute, but fifty can be a little intimidating. I walked carefully around them and continued on. As I passed, the cows returned to their grazing.

My trip started in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, about two hours east of San Diego. A desert flanked by occasional palm groves with windswept mountains as its backdrop, Anza-Borrego is perhaps one of the most rugged and beautiful areas of the US (besides Maine and Montana).

Upon visiting last spring, my boyfriend and I explored dirt roads, hiked through canyons, saw Indian ruins, pictographs, wind caves, and a variety of animals along the way.

If you go, you will be awed by the vast stretches of golden twinkling desert valleys, tall and majestic palms, cacti, and the violet, yellow, and red patches of wildflowers that dot the countryside.

Stopping by the Anza-Borrego Visitor Center, the ranger suggested nearby trails for hiking—and dirt roads for driving to out-of-the-way places. (The best kind.) In the summer Anza-Borrego’s scorching temperatures make it practically uninhabitable. We opted for a short, modest hike up the Palm Canyon Trail. A sign at the beginning of the trail reads, “Trail is hot—Dry. Carry 1 Gallon of Water Minimum Per Person,” echoing the ranger’s earlier sentiments: “In the summer, you must take a gallon of water or you will die.” It was springtime and only 65 degrees for us, but we carried multiple water bottles and made sure there was food and water in the back of our Subaru at all times. As we soon found out, this was lonely country.

The trail led us up a gentle path, spotting five bighorn sheep (a rarity to actually see in the area) on the way up to the palms. Walking through a shallow canyon strewn with boulders, we came to a small palm grove where we sat for a while and reveled at the vast expanse of desert silence.

The next day we ventured out to Blair Valley, hiking up to Smuggler’s Overlook. Pictographs were visible on boulders and the views from the Overlook were fantastic. Getting there was equally fun; the car fishtailed down narrow, pot-holed and dusty dirt roads through shallow canyons. Around dusk we headed back, jackrabbits leaping in front of our path and leaving behind a chorus of birds. I was hoping to see some desert iguanas, roadrunners, or kit foxes, but it didn’t happen.

We drove to the Salton Sea the next day, mostly out of my own curiosity. It’s not in the tour books. It was a lonely, strange down-and-out place, and might not be worth the drive for most. But for me this mysterious place with the manmade lake the size of a sea in the middle of the desert was intriguing. We drove back on deserted windy highway through parts of the Carrizo Badlands; then through Fish Creek Mountains via deep narrow canyons past an old mine, and on to the mysterious Wind Caves. (I won’t spoil the surprise.)

At Sandstone Canyon, we stopped and turned around, as it was getting dark. Be careful if you venture out in any of these areas, but especially during the week when weekend hikers, mountain bikers, and off-road enthusiasts are not around. Carry plenty of water and a map. Distances can be deceiving and if you take too long getting back before dark, you’ll find yourself contending with unmarked and unlit roads. Flash floods are also common.

The next day it drizzled in the morning, so we relaxed in the hot springs at the ranch. The weather is sunny most days here and within a few hours it had cleared.

We ventured out for a short hike on the Pacific Coast Trail that cuts through the ranch and surrounding area of Warner Springs, where I first saw the cows. The 2,650-mile trail runs from Mexico to Canada through California, Oregon, and Washington. Perhaps someday we’ll walk other parts of the trail. I’d be happy to start near Warner Springs again. I’m quite sure the cows will still be there.