Cool Desert : Culp Valley Remains Pleasant as the Anza-Borrego Heats Up

Jerry Schad is an outdoor enthusiast, educator and author of books on hiking and cycling in San Diego County.

As the furnace breath of the desert begins to batter Anza-Borrego's desert floor with 90- and 100-degree temperatures, Culp Valley rides out the approach of summer with cool aplomb. The valley lies at an elevation of about 3,400 feet, a few miles up the Montezuma Grade from Borrego Springs.

Cool air from the west spills down the mountain slopes, bearing enough moisture to maintain a mantle of grayish green on the valley floor until sometime in May. Now is the best time to spot blooming cactus, yucca, and agave at this elevation.

Culp Valley, a part of the sprawling Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, is easily accessible from North County. Count on 80 minutes driving time from Escondido--somewhat longer if you're starting from the coast.

From Escondido, follow California 78 to Ramona. Make a left turn at the traffic light in Ramona, and continue east (staying on 78) 15 miles to the crossroads town of Santa Ysabel. Turn left onto California 79, and proceed 11 miles north to Highway S2. Turn right, drive 4 1/2 miles east, and turn left (again east) on Highway S22--Montezuma Valley Road. After passing the tiny community of Ranchita, 5 miles ahead, you'll pass over a summit offering a first view of the desert floor. The highway ahead--Montezuma Grade--dives toward Borrego Springs. Continue driving less than 3 miles to the broad, sloping flat known as Culp Valley. On your left, between mile markers 9.0 and 9.5, is the entrance to Culp Valley Primitive Campground and the northern (upper) half of the valley. On the right at mile 10.4 is Old Culp Valley Road, a dirt road traversing the valley's lower half.

The primitive campground is indeed "no frills." No amenities are here, not even restrooms--just a few flat, cleared areas where you can park you car for day or overnight use, both free of charge. But opportunities for exploring the surrounding area abound. On the perimeter of the campground, grayish granitic boulders heaped up in stacks and piles entice scramblers and climbers of all ages. (One reminder: rattlesnakes, although fairly uncommon here, are active at this time of year. Never put your hands or feet in places you cannot see.)

By walking up an old roadbed to the north of the campground, you can quickly read the California Riding and Hiking Trail. Eastward, this trail passes over a signed vista point, then heads toward Borrego Springs, 5-plus rugged miles beyond the vista point.

From the vista point itself, you can look north into the great gash of Hellhole Canyon--so named because early ranchers considered it a "hellish" place from which to retrieve stray cattle. Not far below and to the north of the vista point is a huge, weathered boulder split cleanly down the middle. Anyone with a slender build can squeeze through the slot, and those with rock-climbing experience may want to "chimney" to the top by applying pressure with back, arms, and legs against the opposing walls.

In the west direction, you can follow the California Riding and Hiking Trail about two-thirds of a mile to where it crosses an old roadbed. (Farther west, the trail ascends a steep slope, and eventually crosses Montezuma Grade just east of the road summit near Ranchita.)

A right turn on the old roadbed will take you toward Pena Spring, whose exact location is hidden from casual view by a screen of shoulder-high foliage on the left. Water gurgles from a small pipe, then it makes its way down through a miniature freshwater wetland of blooming yerba mansa. Rabbits, coyotes and occasionally bighorn sheep make use of this important oasis in the desert.

Across the highway, on the unpaved Old Culp Valley Road, you can drive--or walk, depending on the condition of your vehicle--to a pleasant picnic spot nestled against rock-strewn slopes, south of the road about 1/2 mile in; or you can visit Cottonwood Spring, marked by a lone cluster of bright-green cottonwood trees, about 1 mile up the road.

If your itinerary includes anything energetic at all, be sure that you carry food, water, sun-protective clothing and lotion, and other necessary items for your safety and comfort. Remember that park regulations prohibit the removal of any item whatsoever from the area. Specific information about camping and park regulations may be obtained by calling Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, 767-4684 or 767-5311.

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