"You know," one clerk said, "the flowers."
Let Japan flaunt its cherry blossoms and the Netherlands boast about its tulips. Here in California, we have a months-long flower festival that rolls slowly northward 400 miles through our deserts. As early as February, after record-setting rainfall, floraphiles were creating waiting lists for rooms near Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, the southernmost park and first to bloom.
"Oh, my God, it's unbelievable," said Mike Gaffney, manager at the Hacienda del Sol motel — and it was unclear for a moment whether he meant the flowers or the demand for rooms. It was the latter. Requests seem to have tripled. "My wife and I want to turn the phone off," he said. "You can get 14 calls in five minutes."
For the record, the flowers are also unbelievable.
Along Highway 78 the muddy flats around the Salton Sea crumbled into the rocky badlands of the park. Brittlebush squeezed up against the roadside, bouquets of yellow flowers shooting out on 10-inch stems from the silvery green shrub.
Farther down the road was evidence of more subtle flowers: Distant hikers were examining the earth as if someone had lost a contact lens.
It's hard to know what routes will be best day-to-day or year-to-year, said Jim Bremner, who runs DesertUSA.com, a site that posts wildflower reports, including digital photos, from parks around the Southwest. In mid-February, for instance, Joshua Tree hadn't blossomed. But just 25 miles south in Anza-Borrego, traffic was stopping all along Henderson Canyon Road, where a carpet of yellow dune sunflowers rolled out from the hills. "Henderson Canyon didn't really bloom well in the last few years, or even in 1998," the year of El Niño rains, Bremner said. "That display of sunflowers — that hadn't happened in 15 years."
But the storms that hit Feb. 18 knocked the petals off much of that display.
Stepping into Eden
As I drove out Interstate 10 a week later with my consort, she was worried that February was too early for wildflowers. I was worried that we were too late.
Borrego Springs, a town of 2,800 that swells to 10,000 in the winter, is surrounded by the 600,000-acre state park. It is an easy day trip from Palm Springs or San Diego but 150 to 200 miles from central Los Angeles, depending on your route, so is best visited during an overnight stay.
With my Saturday night hotel options rivaling Ritz-Carlton expense, I shifted my weekend back a day, hoping the crowds would have thinned. I got a room, but on Sunday just before sunset, the visitor center at Anza-Borrego was still full of people buying field guides to desert flowers and checking which roads required four-wheel drive.
Anza-Borrego stretches from the San Bernardino County line to the Mexican border, and there are 500 miles of roads, paved and not, that will wind drivers past the oddly green desert hills spotted with color. But Mother Nature is an incomparable landscape architect, and to get a true sense of her work, you should lace on your hiking boots. Or at least some sturdy sneakers.
(If you want a flower-hunting shortcut, many of the plants are visible, and conveniently labeled, in the desert garden right around the visitor center. There's a quarter-mile trail through the garden or a sidewalk that stretches a half mile to one of the campgrounds. Both routes are wheelchair accessible.)
We chose our hike that night while staying at the $129 Palm Canyon Resort — "resort" in this instance translated as "serviceable motel with swimming pool and 'Pumping Iron'-era gym equipment."
Our choice, Hellhole Canyon, was Eden-like. The first mile took us twice as long as it should have because we stopped every minute or so to unfold our wildflower pamphlet ($1 at the Anza-Borrego Desert Natural History Assn. office) and identify the chia, with its small spheres of purple-blue, or the fuzzy white popcorn flower. After a mile, the thing that stopped us was not the individual plants but the way they intertwined, growing into lavish polychrome arrangements.
The ocotillos were smoldering, the tips of their long, spiny tentacles about to burst into flaming red. The new growth on the teddy bear cholla seemed to glow. The other cactuses were still shy, the white nine-pointed stars just emerging in a ring around a small fishhook cactus.
We'd covered about 1 1/2 miles when we heard the first sounds of rushing water. Since last September, Borrego Springs has received nearly 13 inches of rain — in a place that typically gets about 7 inches a year. That means a lot of flowers and new streams: We found one running from Pena Spring down through Maidenhair Falls into the canyon. The rest of the hike took us over the river and back, hopping across on river rocks and scrambling around granite boulders.