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Desert east of San Diego offers spectacular sights


Whether you're into wildflowers, fascinating geologic history or quaint old mountain villages, the early spring is the perfect time to head for the Anza-Borrego desert area east of San Diego and the interesting attractions nearby.

Wildflower season is expected to be better than usual this year because of the heavy Southern California rains. This desert is area about 90 miles east of San Diego is known for a colorful wildflower display that usually gets under way in late February as well as many nearby points of interest.

How about an inland "sea" that was once promoted as a major water recreational area only to fall into near oblivion because of the water's increased salinity and a major die-off of fish and birds? The Salton Sea is just one of the interesting sights in this area, and worth going an extra 30 miles east of Borrego Springs to see what remains.

Anyone flying over the desert east of San Diego will remember this vast body of water that stands out in stark contrast to the surrounding California desert. Drive up-close and it seems almost like a Great Lake — in fact it is the largest lake in the state measured at 376 square miles. Unfortunately, the water here is even saltier than the ocean and is so toxic that most species of fish have died. High levels of selenium also have been found in the sea which is thought to have contributed to the mortality of the local bird populations.

While this may not sound like the recipe for a fun vacation experience, the area is fascinating to explore as you walk on beaches made of barnacles and see where major beach developments of the 1960's have rotted away, giving portions of the small waterfront community of Salton City almost a ghost town look and feel. One sign we saw was advertising a three-bedroom home for $30,000 and conversation with locals revealed that, while a dying sea may not seem all that attractive for recreation, it sure reduces the local cost of living.

Our visit was just a quick look at the sea along the Salton City shoreline — the closest point to Borrego Springs -- but there are in fact several recreational opportunities on the northern and eastern shorelines of the sea. Some state park beaches have been closed for budgetary reasons, but there still are good access points for kayaking, boating and other forms of water recreation.

Visiting on a weekend, we also were struck by the enormous influx of off-roaders who set up virtual cities of RV's on many open camping areas on the outskirts of Salton City and on the way back to Borrego Springs. Visit the local AM/PM on a weekend and you'll be completely immersed in this culture with 75 percent of the customers dressed in protective riding gear.

About 30 miles back toward San Diego is Borrego Springs, an area that looks a lot like Palm Springs did before it was fully developed. A couple of resorts and a handful of lodgings cater to warm-weather lovers and golfers but, for all intents and purposes, Borrego Springs still seems like a backwater town with more acreage devoted to golf courses than commercial buildings. The area attracts seniors who have found affordable winter homes as well as boomers who want an inexpensive vacation.

When you think about it, this really is Palm Springs — minus, of course, the fancy resorts and upscale shopping. But the views are the same, the blue skies are the same, and the sizzling summer weather is the same. The prices, however, are lower.

If you have the inclination, there actually is plenty to do in the Borrego Springs area. Many people will choose just to stay close to the resort, especially during summer, but others will find there is a myriad of trails and sights to see in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. The town of Borrego Springs is, in fact, surrounded by this 600,000-acre state park, the largest in the state system. In fact, about one-fifth of San Diego County's land is within the park's boundaries.

As you drive to various locations within the park, you'll marvel at the desert vistas and enjoy observing the plant and animal life so prevalent in the park. Colorful wildflowers are in bloom in early spring; at other times, plants like the Ocotillo plant or the Cholla cactus fill in the desert landscape to create an other-worldly feel. Roadrunners skip across roads, black-tailed jackrabbits hop along golf greens as well as the desert and, up on the craggy rock mountain ledges you may even spot some bighorn sheep.

Bits of history are around every corner. The Anza Borrego Park includes geography where stagecoaches drove the first intercontinental mail. Visitors can see old wagon roads as well as stations where the stagecoaches stopped and replenished horses and supplies. Hiking trails take you to these and other sites such as waterfalls (which can be dry depending on the season), historic monuments and old settler houses such as the hike up to Ghost Mountain where you can enjoy great views and poke around a house once occupied by a family that seemed to be living alone on top of the world.

These Borrego adventures are all outlined in maps and materials available at the Anza-Borrego Park Visitor Center, just a couple miles from downtown Borrego Springs. Inside, dioramas depict the park's various types of vegetation and wildlife, while naturalists stand by to answer your questions. Outside, short interpretive trails take you through a small part of the nearby desert so that you can identify the various plant species you'll be seeing in the desert. (But one note of caution: plan your bathroom stops elsewhere because the day we visited, four of six bathrooms were not open, and the other two were plugged to the point they were not useable).

On our way out of Borrego Springs, headed back toward San Diego, we stopped by nearby Julian, a small historic mountain town that is a popular day or weekend trip for not only San Diego residents, but Southern California motorcycle and sports car clubs who find these curvy, scenic roads especially well-suited for their frequent excursions. As soon as you gain elevation from the desert you enter the forests and then, suddenly, you're on Julian's tiny Main Street. The business district, in fact, is only about three blocks long and four blocks wide, although you'll find sporadic businesses outside of the downtown area. On a weekend, about the only place to park will be a tourist parking lot on the southwest edge of the downtown area. On weekdays, street parking is usually plentiful.

Most of the buildings downtown are historical in some sense — many dating back to the post-Civil War period when the town was founded. Today, the town of Julian is known for its apples and a tourist ritual is to enjoy a fresh-baked apple pie

and ice cream at one of several local eateries. For a town with just a few hundred souls, Julian has an unusual number of bakeries and pie shops such as Mom's Pie House, where visitors stop for their obligatory treat.

The other shops in Julian run the gamut from tacky tourist shops to crafts of all types to the normal small-town fixtures like hardware and general stores. While the women folk are enjoying this western town's shopping diversity, the men folk and the youngin's probably will get a kick out of the historic comedy skits that are staged three times each weekend afternoon during the summer out on the town's Main Street.

All of this is in keeping with the rich history you'll also find in the Anza-Borrego Desert — a destination that offers many rewards no matter what the time of year.


WHERE: The Anza-Borrego desert area is about 90 miles northeast of San Diego and about 150 miles from Los Angeles. The Salton Sea is another 30 miles east.

WHAT: This area is famous for early spring wildflowers and Borrego Springs is like an undeveloped Palm Springs. There are a couple of resorts and some other lodgings and golf courses, but the valley is mostly open and surrounded by the Borrego-Anza State Park.

WHEN: Any time of year. Especially in summer, be sure to bring lots of water, sunscreen and a hat, and time your outdoor adventures for early morning or early evening.

WHY: Lots of natural beauty and interesting attractions.

HOW: For more information on Anza-Borrego State Park, visit or phone 760-767-5311.

Photos, from top: Salton Sea; Anza-Borrego Desert, Visitor Center at Anza-Borrego State Park; springtime wildflowers

Photos by Cary and Sandi Ordway

OTHER DESTINATIONS: Be sure to check out other California Weekend articles on Laguna Beach, La Jolla and Coronado.

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