Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is the largest state park in California. It lies on the eastern edge of San Diego County, with parts of it extending into Riverside and Imperial Counties. The park is well known for its wild flowers in the spring, hiking trails, camping, diverse animal population, and unique beauty. For now, the park is closed, like so many others across the country, due to CONVID-19.
It has only been in the past couple years that I discovered the beauty of the desert. I was born a mountain lover and used to turn my nose up at the seemingly barren, uninteresting landscape of the desert. A couple recent desert visits changed my view forever. The desert—Anza-Borrego, specifically—is anything but barren and uninteresting.
From a distance, the desert looks drab. From the inside, it is a colorful place. Flowering desert plants, patches of flowering ground cover, reddish sand, striated cliffs and boulders, and minerals of red, white, and black are just some of nature’s swatches this desert hides from those who don’t venture in. In the spring, Anza-Borrego explodes in color in the form of wildflowers, giving even the most desert-averse the gift of its underappreciated beauty.
This is a gorgeous example of spring in Anza-Borrego. This is not my photo. Attribution is given in the caption below.
If I had to choose between the mountains and the desert, I would still choose the mountains, for that is where my soul is bonded. Without the mountains, the Anza-Borrego Desert might be very different from the one I’ve learned to love. In this way, they are tied together, an attachment only nature can form.
These photos are from a recent winter excursion. I was hoping to go out in the spring to see the wild flowers, but social distancing happened. Hopefully next year.
I mentioned a couple of posts ago that my twelve-year-old son is into photography and cameras—so much so that he goes by the name of CameraKid online. Since my photos of the Wilderness Gardens Preserve aren’t nearly as good as his, I thought I would dedicate a post to his photos from our hike.
If you’ve driven through Pala on Highway 76 (in north east San Diego County), you may have seen signs for the Wilderness Gardens Preserve. The signs don’t look like they would lead to anything special; all I ever saw was the side of the road.
A couple of weeks ago, we decided to drive the ten minutes or so from our house to see what the place was all about. I’m glad we did.
The Wilderness Gardens Preserve is a surprisingly beautiful area. The reason I could never see the preserve from the road is because it is tucked away, in a tree-covered stretch of land to the west of the highway.
According to San Diego County Parks and Recreation, the Wilderness Gardens Preserve was acquired in 1973 and is the oldest County Parks and Recreation open space preserve. Its 737 acres offers four miles of trails, ranging from easy to moderate. It looked to me as though most of the trails would fall into the “easy” category. The trail that we took, the Upper Meadow Trail, might be considered moderate by some, but I’m willing to bet most hikers would find it easy to traverse.
The views from the Upper Meadow Trail are nice. From near the top, we were able to see much of the Pala area and the San Luis Rey River corridor. Palomar Mountain and the Boucher Hill Fire Tower are visible in the east.
My favorite part of the Upper Meadow Trail was flora. Everything was green, thanks to the large amount of rain we’ve been getting this season. The ferns were thriving, moss clung to the rocks in the shade, and lichen had settled onto the trunks of many of the oak trees along the trail. Parts of it reminded me of being in the Pacific Northwest.
After cresting the trail, we looped down toward the pond, where we connected with a wide trail that forked off in three directions. I have to admit that the road-like trail took away from the whole hiking atmosphere. It looks like it might be there solely for the use of the rangers’ utility vehicles.
I was pleasantly surprised to discover some history in the park. Not too far from the pond, and off of the rangers’ trail sits the remnants of an old grist mill. The sign at the site tells the story of the Sickler brothers, who came from Kansas in 1868 and built a state-of-the-art grist mill.
The mill was the first in north San Diego County. Local farmers brought their grains to the mill then camped out on the land while they waited for their grains to be ground. This could take a couple of weeks, so the families who congregated at the mill used the time to socialize and trade goods.
It was designated a county historical site in 2006. Visit the links below to learn more about the Sickler brothers, the mill, and the history of the area.
I will visit the Wilderness Gardens Preserve again. My son and I tried to explore the river bed, which was dry while we were there. We didn’t get far because we had to leave. I want to look for the grinding rocks made by the Luiseño Indians that can supposedly be found in the park.
A couple of things to keep in mind if you decide to visit the preserve … it costs three dollars to park (at the time of this post), the park is closed in the month of August because of the heat, and it’s not open every day of the week. Check the San Diego County Parks and Recreation website for details.
I know, I know … how does anyone get lost anymore? I do have navigation on my phone, but two things were working against me. First, once I hit the back roads, my cell connection gets pretty sketchy. Second, Kanaka Flat is within the Santa Ysabel Wilderness Preserve; it’s not its own preserve. I was looking for “Kanaka Flat Something Something Preserve.” It’s hard to find something that doesn’t exist.
I read about Kanaka Flat on Modern Hiker’s website, and by read, I really mean skimmed over the important stuff … important stuff like how to find the hike.
It was late in the afternoon so rather than spend more time looking for the elusive “Kanaka Flat Preserve,” we parked at the entrance to Volcan Mountain and decided to give it a try. My hiking partner for the day was my twelve-year-old son, CameraKid. I call him CameraKid because he’s been into cameras since he was seven and he’s freakishly good at photography.
Parking was easy to find along the road that leads to the preserve. For being Martin Luther King Day, the area wasn’t crowded. We passed a few hikers as they returned to their cars and a handful on the trail, but other than that, it was very quiet.
The hike started off easy as it followed a wide path up the first part of the mountain. Before long we came across a set of stone steps to the right of the path. This is where the Five Oaks Trail begins. I couldn’t resist the pretty steps, nor could I not take a trail that has “oaks” in its name. So this was the path we chose.
The Five Oaks Trail is a nice little hike. The sign behind me in this picture describes it as a 1.2-mile “hikers only” trail that was built in 2003. As you might expect, there are oak trees along the path. But there are also beautiful Manzanitas and plenty of chaparral.
The views alone are worth hiking Five Oaks Trail. To the south, hikers can see the Cuyamaca and the Laguna Mountains. To the northwest, Palomar Mountain lies in the distance … and beyond that, the San Jacinto mountains. Furthermore, the recent rains have turned the hillsides and meadows a beautiful Irish green, making the spectacular even more so.
This photo shows part of the view looking north. CameraKid tells me I need to use a real camera, not just my cell phone. Seeing how this photo does no justice for the real-life view, I think he might be right. He’s offered to teach me how to take good pictures and I’m going to take him up on it. He’s also giving me his “old” Nikon D5000. Did I mention he collects cameras? Birthdays and Christmases have been good to him.
Anyway, back to the hike. The trail gets pretty steep in a few places, but it’s well-maintained, making the going pretty smooth—unless you’re like me and had a few too many eggnog lattes and pieces of fudge over Christmas. I didn’t realize how out-of-shape my two weeks off of work and exercise made me until I found myself having to stop to catch my breath more times than I care to admit.
I’m not sure if we hiked the whole 1.2 miles of the Five Oaks Trail. It sure felt like it, but if there was any indication that it had ended, I missed it. We could have kept going and would have eventually reached the top of Volcan Mountain, but we didn’t. We turned around at about the halfway mark because we didn’t want to get stuck in the preserve after dusk, when it closes … and all the mountain lions come out to make supper of stranded hikers.
At least that’s what I told CameraKid. But he’s smart enough to know that I couldn’t have dragged my butt another 100 feet up that trail.
The hike down was just as beautiful. The clouds were building in the south of the county and it started to get chilly. Camera Kid and I had just enough daylight and energy left to stop and take advantage of a climb-ready oak tree off the side of the main trail.
In spite of my out-of-shape lungs and sore butt the next day, I would do this hike again. Next time, however, I want to give myself enough time to get to the top of the mountain.
Side note: With Volcan Mountain Preserve being so close to Julian, of course we had to make a detour to get some apple pie. It’s practically a crime to not stop for fresh-made Dutch apple pie … especially after a beautiful hike on a gorgeous day.
Here are a few more pictures from our hike.
Manzanitas grace the Five Oaks Trail along with oaks, chaparral, and amazing views.
Palomar Mountain in San Diego County has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. Camping, fishing, hiking, winter camp … these activities have been the source of most of my favorite childhood memories.
A couple of years ago, I discovered a new-to-me mountain treasure—the Boucher Hill Lookout Tower. There has been a tower located on the site since 1921, so why I had never been there nor heard of it before then, I don’t know.
One day when I brought my boys to the lookout site, there were a couple of people working in the tower who called down to us that we could come up and take a look around.
I was amazed. Really? We’re allowed to go to the top of the tower and maybe even walk along the catwalk? Heck, yeah! I pushed aside my natural reluctance to make small talk with people and dragged my boys up the three flights of stairs to the cab of the lookout tower.
I was smitten. The view, the history, the location … does it get much better than this? I knew we’d be back.
On our next visit, we waited to be invited up by the tower lookouts. This time, I was in a more talkative mood. When I found out that the lookouts were married to each other, I had to ask: Are you both rangers?
They said people often mistake them for park rangers because of their uniforms, but they are actually volunteers. Wait—volunteers? Yep. And the organization was always looking for more. I knew from that moment that I wanted—needed—to be a volunteer forest fire lookout. So the couple gave me a phone number and email address and I went went down the mountain, head filled with visions of dressing up like a forest ranger and spending time in the fire tower.
I had to wait almost a full year; the training for the season had just ended and the next session wouldn’t be held until the following April. I was disappointed, but I didn’t lose interest.
I began my training this past April and I learned pretty quickly that there is a lot more to being a volunteer fire lookout than the uniform and sitting in a tower, looking for smoke. But I’ll have to save all that for another post.
Smokey the Bear photo by Forest Service, United States Department of Agriculture, in cooperation with the Association of State Foresters and the Advertising Council [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons