Desert Travel Feature: Can You Keep a Secret? Borrego Springs & Anza-Borrego Desert State Park View the entire Desert Travel Issue at:
DESERT TRAVEL 26 The Sun Runner
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hey call Anza-Borrego the “secret” desert. I can vouch for how well that secret has been kept too. For several years, I worked in the Coachella Valley media, and I never once heard the words “Anza-Borrego” or “Borrego Springs” uttered by anyone. On one level, that may have been a good thing, helping preserve the stunning vistas of these southern California desert lands. But for anyone who connects with the desert and has developed an appreciation of its history, culture, lifestyle, and subtle yet expansive natural beauty, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, and Borrego Springs, the small but vibrant community that lies in the middle of California’s largest state park, is a mandatory destination. And like our other desert parks, this is one destination that calls out for you to return, again and again. Once you’ve experienced Anza-Borrego, this will be one secret you’ll keep close to your heart. There’s something different about the desert down here. Maybe it has something to do with the light (my wife says the desert sparkles in Anza-Borrego), the geology, the mountains, or the ghosts of those who have lived or traveled through here at one time or another.
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Whatever it is, Anza-Borrego keeps drawing you back. Like our other fantastic desert parks, it offers the visitor a lifetime of choices of what and where to explore. And Borrego Springs complements the raw natural beauty of this desert with the best of what civilization has to offer. The combination of natural and man-made offerings here comes as close as we’ve seen to providing visitors with a perfect desert experience. The (not-so) Secret Desert Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is the largest park in California’s embattled and underfunded state park system (the lack of support for our state parks and historic sites by state government is disgraceful, but we’ll leave that topic for another story). Anza-Borrego has a well organized network of support that speaks well of the residents of Borrego Springs and park supporters elsewhere (other desert parks could likely learn from this model). The Anza-Borrego Foundation & Institute, along with the Anza-Borrego Desert Natural History Association, the Borrego Springs Chamber of Commerce, and a wealth of arts and cultural organizations, all weave a web of support for the park that helps cover for inadequate state support for the park. All of this broad spectrum of support for the park makes for excellent visitor opportunities. The Anza-Borrego Foundation & Institute, as well as the Anza-Borrego Desert Natural History Association host a variety of adult and youth courses, hikes, and presentations covering everything from desert botany to geology, paleontology, birding, photography, astronomy, history, and more. Educational opportunities abound, including the PORTS program (Parks Online Resources for Teachers and Students), a program that now connects around 8,000 California students a year with the park through a live interactive online video-conferencing program and virtual field trips. If all that sounds too much like school to you, don’t fret—this park serves up great road trips, back road trips (some suitable for only 4X4 high clearance vehicles), and hikes ranging from easy to, well, let’s just put it this way, they don’t name it “Alcoholic Pass” for nothing (evidently it originally was an Indian trail, and they were in good shape). One popular trail leaves from the Borrego Palm Canyon Campground (there is a small day use fee). This three mile (round trip) trail leads up a canyon to a beautiful palm oasis (see photo to the left). Keep a lookout for bighorn sheep on the mountains above you as you walk. We’ve seen groups of a dozen or more, high on the slopes above, and whenever we’re not there, the sheep are reputed to walk down to the springs at the trailhead parking lot en masse to get a drink and pose for photos (we’ve seen impressive photos of dozens of bighorns gathered there at once, but whenever we go, all we get is sheep poop). Hikers should also keep an eye out
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for a massive bee hive on the right as you hike up the canyon. The hike is moderately easy, but bring plenty of water and sunscreen (shade is nigh on non-existent until you reach the oasis itself). Note the sign for an alternate return route, and take it. The main trail can get fairly busy during season, but most visitors, not being familiar with the area, don’t try the alternate route, which offers great views and covers beautiful territory, winding its way back to the trailhead (it takes about the same time as the main trail does). The alternate trail can be a little easier to lose, so take your time and you’ll find your way. Hellhole Canyon, with its promise of Maidenhair Falls, is a little more difficult, and twice as long, but very popular. If you’re up for a more varied experience, combining a beautiful drive, a little dirt road driving (nothing too bad), with some short hikes, quirky desert history, Native American sites, and stunning desert vistas, then it’s time to drive south on S3, then the S2, down to the Blair Valley region of the park. We love the trail up to Yaquitepec, on top of Ghost Mountain, where you can still see the remains of the home of Marshal South and his family. South was a poet, artist, and author, who became legendary through his columns in the old Desert
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magazine. (Diana Lindsay has compiled a fantastic collection of South’s columns and related materials in her book, Marshal South and the Ghost Mountain Chronicles, An Experiment in Primitive Living. Lowell & Diana Lindsay also have authored the guidebook to have when visiting, The Anza-Borrego Desert Region.) South’s columns on the family’s experiment in primitive desert living on top of Ghost Mountain began running in 1939, and became the magazine’s most popular features. The experiment came to an end in 1947 when Marshal and his wife Tanya seperated. Their experiences in raising three children on top of a waterless mountain, removed from most of civilization, is an incredible story. It’s a mile up to the top of the mountain, and a mile back, and the views from Ghost Mountain are stunning. Nearby you can take the Morteros Trail, a very short stroll to an area once heavily used by Kumeyaay women. Look for both morteros (a mortar in boulders and bedrock), and metates (a place where seeds or dried plants were ground into flour on the rock), in this village area. Imagine life for the people who once lived here. From here you can head over to the nearby trail that takes you up into Smuggler Canyon with its pictographs, Kumeyaay morteros, and yet another stunning view overlooking the Carrizo Valley that awaits if you go to the end of the trail. Don’t try to climb down the dry waterfall at trail’s end unless you are an experienced climber. But leave time to head back to S3 and the cut-off on Highway 78, where you can take Mine Wash road (dirt) to a Kumeyaay village site that is our favorite. You can drive it, but we enjoy parking right off the paved road and walking to the village. Driving often means missing things, from tiny wildflowers to blooming ocotillo, curious flitting hummingbirds to loping jackrabbits. This village site is not only beautiful (see photo to the left), but had a most wonderful energy and feel to it. We didn’t want to leave. We’re not getting all new-agey on you, it’s just that this place was welcoming, and its beauty was more than skin deep. That village must have been greatly loved, and since we love being able to spend time in these places, we strongly urge you to treat them with respect. With pictographs, take pictures of them, but don’t touch them. It’s nothing personal, it’s just that the oils from your fingers can destroy the pigments. Don’t chalk over them to try to make better pictures either. Just admire them. Of course, the big off-road drive folks are always told they have to make is the trip up to Font’s Point. From S22, you ramble up a wash, on up to an overlook that offers a spectacular view of the Borrego Badlands. The point is named for Fray Pedro Font, the Spanish priest and curmudgeon who accompanied Juan Bautista de Anza on his second expedition through this area in 1775. If you decide to go to Font’s Point,
either drive a high clearance, preferably 4X4 vehicle (you can get away without the 4X4 capability, and even the high clearance really, if you’re an experienced desert back roads driver. But since we don’t want you to get stuck and block our way to the overlook, be careful. If you’re not sure, get California Overland Desert Excursions to take you). From Font’s Point you can see the town of Borrego Springs, which offers its own enticing selection of things to do. First stop in town should be the Borrego Springs Chamber of Commerce where you can gather up information and pester the friendly volunteers. The park’s visitors center is the other font of invaluable information dished up by friendly folks. After going to both of these places, you’ll wonder if everyone in town (it’s a small town of just over 3,000 people), had to get a college degree focusing on the park just to live here, they’re so knowledgeable. On your way through town, notice the absence of any stop lights whatsoever. Commuter heaven! And at night, look up and you won’t want to stop. Remember the Milky Way? Well, you can recharge your childhood imagination here, since Borrego Springs is California’s only official International Dark-Sky Community. In Borrego Springs, there is everything you can desire in a desert community, from golf and resorts, to a lively arts scene with a performing arts center, art galleries, and a roster of cultural events to deepen your experience here. (Our favorite annual event is the Peg Leg Smith Liar’s Contest, every April 1—honest!) Come for a day, a long weekend, or longer. Discover this magical desert park, and enjoy one of California’s best small towns at its center. There’s an incredible mixture of natural beauty, history, culture, art, and inspiration to be found in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and Borrego Springs. Just don’t tell anyone, OK? It’s a secret. Sunset at the Borrego Springs Resort (right) where guests can enjoy golf, spa services, and relaxing accommodations in the center of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Try The Arches, the resort’s restaurant, for breakfast overlooking their three nine-hole golf courses with the Santa Rosa Mountains as a backdrop, or relax at the Fireside Lounge with cocktails by the fire. Don’t be surprised by the arrival of celebrities or Rolls Royces, just take it all in stride and enjoy...
Wildflower season sends visitors out to AnzaBorrego in droves during the spring. But for those willing to hike and look carefully, you can find everything from blooming ocotillo to chuparosa at various times of the year. Want to know what’s in bloom? Try the wildflower page at www.borregospringschamber.com where you can download a full color brochure on the park’s wildflowers and blooming cacti, or check the current wildflower reports at www. california-desert.org, the fantastic site run by the Anza-Borrego Desert Natural History Association (a great guide to the area). Visitors can even call the wildflower hotline at (760)767-4684.
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ne of the things Borrego Springs does exceptionally well for a town its size, is offer visitors a broad variety of quality dining experiences. Whether you’re looking for a hearty breakfast before hiking to the top of Ghost Mountain, lunch after your drive up to Font’s Point, or dinner and drinks after a hike up Palm Canyon, Borrego Springs serves up a selection of dining options that rivals much larger communities.
Carlee’s Bar & Grill
It’s not unusual to hear Carlee’s referred to as the “Cheers” of Borrego Springs (they even claim to have their own “Norm” there). Walk inside and you’ll no doubt immediately notice why. The bar is smack dab in the middle of everything, running the full length of the restaurant, conversations in progress from stools on all three sides. With booths on one side of the bar for diners, and casual tables, a pool table, and raised seating they refer to as “the bleachers,” on the other side, you can be as sociable, or private, as you want. Don’t come here expecting a quiet, subdued restaurant. Dinner entrees trend toward relaxed fine dining, while the atmosphere is strictly sociable and casual. Carlee’s is not only a great place to get a burger or steak, or to linger over one of their signature drinks, but it is also arguably the social hub of life in Borrego Springs—the lively, vibrant heart of this community. This is where you’ll find visitors, snow birds, and locals, all mixing it up in Carlee’s welcoming atmosphere. After a couple visits, you get treated almost like a local, and in the back of your mind, you may just start wishing you were one. Canadian seniors down in Borrego Springs to escape the blizzards back home, bikers and hikers, tourists, golfers, off32 The Sun Runner – December 2011/January 2012
roaders from nearby Ocotillo Wells (think of a high octane, family-friendly town in “Road Warrior”), retirees, and a colorful assortment of locals, all find their way to Carlee’s. Whether it’s lunch or dinner you’re hungry for, Carlee’s provides a good selection of menu items, and plenty on the plate. Don’t let the laid back casual atmosphere fool you though, owner Andy Macuga keeps his eye on ensuring Carlee’s provides consistently high quality dining, desert style, and the staff comes across as professional when it comes to what matters—your satisfaction. Andy is outgoing, friendly, and an experienced restauranteur who worked as general manager of Carlee’s for a decade before buying the restaurant a little over a year ago. He takes pride in his restaurant, and it is apparently quite contagious— all the staff at Carlee’s seem to have taken his lead. His own personal hospitality, enthusiasm, and community spirit (Andy coaches youth sports teams in town) shines through, making
After a couple visits, you get treated almost like a local, and in the back of your mind, you may just start wishing you were one. Carlee’s a welcoming spot for visitors and locals alike. Carlee’s burgers are popular for both lunch and dinner, with their homemade potato chips a tasty addition. Their steak sandwich is a winner, and their salads are a good choice too. It seems everything here is house-made—a welcome discovery. Dinner serves up everything from tequila chicken fettuccini to ribs that just about fall off the bone, and a huge, succulent ribeye steak from nearby Brawley Beef. The steak and ribs were delicious, with generous portions (Andy says they don’t want anyone to go away hungry—a highly unlikely possibility if you visit Carlee’s). If your day hike has left you ravenous, consider opting for the Mixed Grill Combo, at $36, and suitable for at least two. Featuring chicken breast, top sirloin steak, and tiger prawns in Chino’s blend of citrus and seasonings, served with green onion on a sizzling skillet, I guarantee you will not go away hungry. One tip—ask your server about any specials that may not be listed on the menu. Carlee’s sometimes prepares specialties not listed, or really mentioned, unless you know to ask (the locals do). Their secret stuffed mushrooms in a garlic reduction were quite tasty. Carlee’s drinks are as mouthwatering as their entrees, whether you thirst for some of their desert-inspired original cocktails like the Cactus Cooler or Borrego Breeze, or their famed Lemon Drop Martini. They sometimes have live entertainment at night, though expect Borrego Springs to wind down fairly early when compared to most urban areas. We were lucky enough to catch the father and sons band, Lucky Tongue, a great cover trio from the Salton Sea area (I think they said they were from Truckhaven, but they occasionally play up in Palm Springs too), performing at Andy’s celebration of his first year as owner of Carlee’s. The place was packed, and the party—with a large spread of complimentary appetizers and two cakes to mark the first “birthday” (they really don’t want you to leave hungry), was heartwarming, and a great end to a desert day spent getting rained out (a highly unusual occurance). Around midnight, as more CCR cover tunes got partygoers up dancing at Carlee’s, we slipped outside into a cool, moonlit autumn night, feeling more like we were leaving a good friend’s home than a restaurant. We departed with hugs and handshakes all around, already looking forward to our next visit. December 2011/January 2012 – The Sun Runner 33
magine driving over a rocky desert track, then hiking out to find the elusive elephant tree with its blood red sap, across a broad, seemingly endless wash, with the mysterious looking Split Mountain in the distance, and returning to a fine French dinner in a quaint, relaxed setting. OK, don’t imagine it—just do it, like we did, and enjoy every minute of it.
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Borrego Springs is full of surprises, and the French Corner, run by the delightful Yves Moureau (right, in the photo), and Elyan Reboul (left), is one of the most welcome. Combining French and Belgian influences, this little bistro serves up delicious continental fare that will leave your appetite sated in a state of complete and utter bliss. Try the crepes, homemade pate, Belgian meatballs, coq au vin, or a fabulous pot of mussels with bleu cheese. Superb! Their desserts are sumptuous, and their wine list is well selected and purposefully kept inexpensive. This is no snobby ultraexpensive French restaurant, but a perfectly relaxed and charming bistro where you can wind down and share stories of the day’s adventures surrounded by art and antiques (all for sale), looked after by your two personable (and brilliantly funny), hosts. The French Corner is open for lunch and dinner, Wednesday through Sunday, from October to April. Come for lunch, relax, and stay for dinner. We hear their New Year’s Eve dinner is great—dancing to French disco music under the starry skies of Borrego Springs. (760)767-5713/www.thefrenchcorner.biz.
ssaggio Ristorante Italiano, located at the Borrego Springs airport and filled with scenes of aviation in murals around the restaurant and bar, is so good that fans from San Diego fly in for lunch or dinner in private planes. Most everything is house-made, and everything from the Osso Buco to the Chicken Assaggio gets—and deserves—rave reviews. They even make their own sausage here. Assaggio closes during summer, but the rest of the year is open Tuesday through Sunday, right on your way into Borrego Springs. (760)767-3388/www.assaggioitalian.com. Our thanks to Linda Haddock, executive director of the Borrego Springs Chamber of Commerce; Robert Arends, public relations manager for the San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau; Andy Macuga and the folks at Carlee’s Bar & Grill; Joe Raffetto of California Overland; Diana Lindsay; Kim Daniel, director of sales & marketing for Borrego Springs Resort & Spa; the rangers and volunteers at the ABDSP Visitor Center (below), a great place to get hiking and road trip ideas; and the volunteers at the Borrego Springs Chamber of Commerce where you can get oriented in friendly fashion while picking up a copy of The Sun Runner Magazine.
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f you ever find yourself needing a break from mundane reality, from all the weighty responsibilities of adulthood, and you don’t know where to turn, I have the answer: Borrego Springs. For in Borrego Springs, scattered widely about the landscape as natural as can be, are 129 of the most incredible works of art you can imagine, representing everything from the actual creatures who once roamed this desert, to representations of the human history and presence here, as well as real dinosaurs (that have not been found here), and beings of pure fantasy, such as the enormous sand dragon (longer than a football field), whose coils dive under a road in a vision worthy of Frank Herbert’s science fiction epic, Dune. These inspired, detailed creations, the works of master metal artist, Ricardo Breceda, supported by the patron of Galleta Meadows (the private property where these works of art are sited), Dennis Avery, are captivating, and delightfully touch the imaginations of young and old alike.
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Thanks to Ricardo and Dennis and all the volunteers and folks who helped give these magnificent creations a home here, Borrego Springs is now the only place in the desert, and possibly anywhere, where you may roam freely among giant tortoises, tapirs, extinct horses, sabertooth cats, giant sloths, gomphotheres, mammoths, Peninsular bighorn sheep, velociraptors, and my personal favorite, the “incredible wind god,” Aiolornis incredibilis,” the largest flight-capable bird in North America, with a wingspan of up to 17 feet. Only six fossil specimens of this rather large bird have been found so far, with half of them coming from Anza-Borrego (getting buzzed by one of those on the golf course in Borrego Springs could be interesting). The installations of these metal sculptures are nothing short of brilliant, world-class works of art, all natural looking and almost dreamlike in their desert setting. You see a lot of people driving by doing a double-take on their first visit to Borrego Springs. Get your map of the artwork at the Borrego Springs Chamber of Commerce offices (note the metal sculpture of de Anza out front), right on Palm Canyon Drive near Christmas Circle at the center of town, and prepare for an adventure into a world of beauty, imagination, and inspiration. You’ll love it, the kids will love it, it’s free, and you can even camp there if you want (check at the chamber for details). Visit it online at: www.galletameadows.com.
n 10 short years following a life-changing accident, Ricardo Breceda has become a master sculptor turning a primitive welding art form of Mexico into life-size sculptures of imposing outdoor beauty. Placed against the backdrop of the stunning Anza-Borrego desert in southern California, Breceda’s “Sky Art” is the perfect blend of stunning craftsmanship and placement in the open desert landscape. Over 125 metallic sculptures are scattered over three noncontiguous square miles of Borrego Valley, on private property open for the public’s enjoyment. The inspiration for the initial installations was the now extinct Plio-Pleistocene animals that once roamed these lands as evidenced in the rich fossilbearing beds of the Borrego Badlands. Like a living museum, elephant-like gomphotheres, giant ground sloths, sabertooth cats, tapirs, mammoths, and an incredible bird of prey with a 17-foot wingspan once again inhabit these desert lands. Anza-Borrego Desert State Park’s rich cultural history is also represented by the sculptures. Spanish explorer and trailblazer Juan Bautista de Anza marches across the desert with his Indian guide and padre. A miner searches for elusive desert gold and migrant farm workers pick grapes from the Borrego fields and the first non-military Jeep makes its inroads into the park. From science to history and nature, the sculptures have evolved into whim and fantasy—something for everyone on this large desert palette. Borrego’s own “Jurassic Park” boasts fighting dinosaurs and families of Tyrannosaurus rex and Spinosaurus. Giant raptors dart through the landscape, and off by itself is the 350-foot long mythological serpent that dives under the roadway with a rattlesnake tail and a spectacular dragon head.
Startling and stunning as these fantastic sculptures are, they beg a story of how they came to be. Ricardo Breceda: Accidental Artist is the story of the artist’s journey from Durango, Mexico, to California, where Breceda’s Perris Jurassic Park emerged. In April 2008, the first of many primitive rustic sculptures was installed at Galleta Meadows in Borrego Springs. Each sculpture since that first installation has become more and more artistically detailed, part of Breceda’s never-ending quest to produce “the best.” Ricardo Breceda: Accidental Artist is a full-color coffeetable book with 280 photographs retailing for $24.95 with maps and a complete guide to all the sculptures found in Borrego Valley. It is available through www.thesunrunner.com and bookstores in Borrego Springs. Editor’s Note: Diana has crafted another superb book, this time telling the tale of a fascinating artist, Ricardo Breceda, whose 129 metal sculptures roam about Borrego Springs, and his patron, Dennis Avery, who provided resources and the vision for this magnificent artistic adventure to succeed. This is an excellent book, well told, with abundant photos, making the Sky Art experience come vividly to life for readers. Highly recommended. December 2011/January 2012 – The Sun Runner 37