Thursday, January 25, 2018

Anza-Borrego Desert (Palm Oasis, Dinosaurs and the Salton Sea)

Tori and I like to go on short getaways for our Wedding Anniversaries. After traveling across North America to visit Montreal last year, we stayed close and visited Borrego Springs, the small resort town surrounded by the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Even though it is within the Eastern border of San Diego County, it still took two hours to drive there since it sits on the far side of the Laguna Mountains. We arrived at La Casa del Zorro (The House of the Fox) around 8pm where we checked into a really nice room with a fireplace overlooking the pool. On the bed sat a little Desert Fox so we took turns pretending to base the stuffed animal in different AcroYoga poses. (It was my first time basing a Mono-Limb Free Star. Ha!) After eating dinner at the bar, we walked over to the resort's Stargazing Theater. Since the isolated town is a designated "Dark-Sky Community", we had great views of the stars within the high wooden walls blocking the lights of the surrounding buildings.

After breakfast, we explored the grounds of the resort. In the light of day, the Stargazing Theater looked exactly like a former gun range with a tall earthen berm down range of the divided shooting stands. Outside the theater was a small vineyard and climbing rock. We walked the maze of the Labyrinth, moved some pieces around the Giant Chess Board and played a little Shuffle Board. I managed to slide a disk onto the 10 spot with my very first attempt.

At 10am, we drove over to the Anza-Borrego Visitor Center, a nice underground building that blended in with the landscape. Anza-Borrego Desert is named after the Spanish explorer Juan Bautista de Anza and borrego, the Spanish word for bighorn sheep which live in the surrounding mountains. It is the largest state park in California and second largest in the lower 48. Anza-Borrego sits within the Colorado Desert which is part of the greater Sonoran Desert which extends into Arizona and Mexico. The volunteer at the desk suggested we visit the nearby Borrego Palm Canyon Trail, a 3 mile hike up to a shady oasis filled with palm trees. At the trail head, we had a beautiful view of the San Ysidro Mountains and the sharp peak of Indianhead on either side of Borrego Palm Canyon. We kept an eye out for the Big Horn Sheep on the steep walls but we didn't see any as we followed the numbered markers up the canyon and read about the local flora and fauna from the nature guide.

One mile up, after passing many scattered palm trunks uprooted during past flash floods, we heard flowing water for the first time. I was expecting only a trickle in the dry desert but it was nice size stream forming pools and small waterfalls among the rocks as we hiked our way to the large cluster of palm trees. Geological faults in the region force the groundwater up to the surface at the oasis which is filled with California Fan Palms, the only palm trees native to the state. The shaggy hanging skirts help conserve water and protect the trees from insects. Leaving the shady oasis, Tori managed to find a suitable willow branch to hang from to continue her wedding anniversary tradition.

On the hike back, we took the Alternate Trail which crossed the mountain slope instead following the canyon floor down. I think it provided prettier views of the surrounding valley than the main route as we hiked in and out of the shadows cast by the ridge line. We had to be careful of the numerous Cholla Cacti lining the trail. The tall and spiny Ocotillo Plants were sprouting shiny green leaves and the occasional red flowers all around us. The temperature was perfect on a beautiful January day.

After our hike, we drove over to Galleta Meadows Estate on the north side of Borrego Springs.  Before the owner, Dennis Avery, passed away in 2012, he commissioned Ricardo Breceda to place several of his signature metal sculptures on the large tracts of empty conservation lands he owned in the desert. Over time the number has grown to over 130 art pieces spread out around the town. Many of the metal sculptures are representations of fossils found in the region. At our first stop, we found extinct Camels, Tortoises and Gomphotheres, an elephant-like animal sporting four huge tusks. Nearby was the more fantastical sculptures of the giant Scorpion and Grasshopper facing off.

Further down the road, we found several representations of the Harlan's Ground Sloth. These life-sized sculptures captured the enormity of these extinct animals that grew up to 10 feet and over a 1,000 pounds. Scattered across the landscape were smaller sculptures of boars and saber-tooth cats. The most famous sculpture is the awesome Sand Serpent that spans 350 feet and crosses over to the far side of Borrego Springs Road with the distinctive tail of a rattlesnake. Tori had plenty of room to handstand within the giant serpent's coils. After the sun disappeared behind the San Ysidro Mountains, we came across the metal representations of more modern animals like Elephants and Bighorn Sheep.

After checking out of our resort the next morning, we went to visit the rest of the metal art pieces on the south side of town. While most of the sculptures are close to the main roads, we had to drive out pretty far on a dirt road to reach the dinosaurs. While our Subaru has all-wheel drive, I still had to be careful driving over the rough uneven road due to its low to the ground profile. Our first encounter was with a fearsome Spinosaurus. It must be fairly new since it was not completely covered with red rust yet. I had fun running for my life from a pair of hungry dinosaurs, an Allosaurus and Carnosaurus. I had make sure I didn't stumble into a cactus. Look closely in the picture below to spot the Tyrannosaurus Rex lurking among the blooming Ocotillo branches.

Leaving town toward the Salton Sea, we headed east through the Borrego Badlands on the 21 mile Erosion Road Tour. Starting just past the small airport, we had a good view of Font's Point from the highway, but if our all-wheel Subaru had a higher profile, I would have wanted to take the dirt road out to the edge of the plateau. Supposedly it has the best view of the entire state park, especially when the sun is setting over the badlands. Driving on, we stopped at all the mile markers to read about the different geological features of the landscape, the desert arroyos that drain into Clark's Dry Lake, Lute Ridge lifted up by the Clark Fault that runs underneath it and the young Coyote Mountain with the rest of the still-rising Santa Rosa Mountains. While we didn't get the best view from Font's Point, we still got a decent view of the Badlands near Mile Marker 34. From the turn-off at Truckhaven Rocks we got our first view of the Salton Sea beyond the steep gorges and slot canyons of the Barrancas. Our last stop on the road tour was the former World War II Calcite Mine. It was the largest in North America and the clear crystals were processed by the Polaroid Company into the most accurate optical ring sights for the military.

Arriving at the Salton Sea from the West, we circled clock-wise over the top to reach the Salton Sea State Recreation Area along the inland sea's North Shore. The Visitor Center stood at 236 feet below sea level where it was a short walk to reach the slowly shrinking shoreline. The sea (15 by 35 miles) was formed when the Colorado River broke a levee in 1905 and flooded the desert for two years before it was brought under control. Beautiful from a distance, up close the murky water was lined with barnacle shells and the occasional fish carcass. As a valuable stopping point along their seasonal migrations, the water was filled with floating birds. As we walked along the shallow harbor, several military jets flew past at low-altitude with loud sonic booms.

While the western shore of the Salton Sea was lined with houses and palm tree groves, the protected eastern shore was undeveloped with pretty views of the shining sea as we drove down the coast. Just before the highway turned inland we reached Bombay Beach. This small resort town was popular in the 50's and 60's before the shrinking Salton Sea became too salty and polluted and now the population has dropped to under 300 residents. Driving down the perfectly straight streets of this planned community, we saw a mixture of occupied and abandoned homes sitting side by side with empty lots and art installations created from the Bombay Beach Biennale art festival. One of the most clever art works by Stefan Ashkenazy and Sean Dale Taylor is the cool Bombay Beach Drive-In with junkyard cars arranged in neat rows to face the projection screen created from a white-painted semi-trailer.

Due to occasional flooding, a tall berm now lines the mostly deserted street closest to the beach. Driving up through a cut in the berm, we passed though the empty foundations and ruins of the former waterfront to park next to the abandoned boat sitting up on dry land. The water stood about 100 yards away from the original shoreline so I wondered if they still needed the dike at all but I guess the sea can rise rapidly during heavy rains. Bombay Beach's other claims to fame are that it sits at the southern end of the San Andreas Fault and is also one of the lowest settlements by elevation in North America.

Driving south, we turned East at the town of Niland to head toward Slab City, named for the concrete slabs remaining from abandoned Camp Dunlap, a former World War II Marine Base. Now it is mostly populated by RVs and squatters who live off-grid during the cooler winter months with no electricity, water, toilets or trash pickup. There is population of about 150 who live there year-round. Our main destination in Slab City was Salvation Mountain, a man-made hill covered in thick layers of paint that sits at the entrance. Leonard Knight, who passed away in 2014, started building this version of the mountain after his first attempt collapsed in 1989. Two volunteers were adding a fresh coat of paint to the Sea of Galilee at the base when we arrived.

We climbed the Yellow Brick Road to the large cross sitting on the 50 foot summit where we could see the rest of Slab City extending off behind the mountain. Beyond the unfinished dome of the Museum, a fire burned among the farm fields surrounding Brawley. We explored the twisty passages of the Museum where interlocking branches held up the painted walls made of hay bales and scavenged window panes. The elderly Leonard passed away before he could enclose the dome completely. On the ground outside were hundreds of empty paint cans. Over the years, he estimated he used over 100,000 gallons of paint on his mountain. Next to the Museum was a small domed hogan that Leonard planned to live in to escape the heat but he never moved out of his trailer.

It was 3pm by the time we headed home from our Anniversary getaway, driving South through the farmlands of Brawley and El Centro before jumping on the I-8 Freeway back to the coast of San Diego.