WEEKEND GETAWAY : The Desert--Before It Gets Too Hot

Ron Eggers is a free-lance writer who occasionally contributes to The Times Orange County Edition.

Spring is the ideal time to explore the deserts of Southern California. The evenings are beginning to warm up a little, and the days aren't too hot.

It's the time for wildflowers and cactus blooms.

The blooming season actually starts in the southern deserts and moves north as spring progresses. A popular destination for early spring is Anza Borrego Desert State Park. The park consists of more than 500,000 acres of natural beauty, stretching from the Mexican border to the northern tip of the Salton Sea in eastern San Diego County.

Elevation in Anza Borrego ranges from just above sea level to over 6,000 feet, so there's an abundant variety of foliage. Lower valleys flower first, with high elevations coming into bloom a little later in the season.

During wetter years, it was possible to see whole fields of dandelions, lupines, pin cushions and desert sunflowers as you came around a bend or over a hill. Despite the recent rains, windflowers are still hard to find this year. According to a park official, the fragile flowers have to be sought out. "There aren't the massive fields that we have during wetter seasons. They're much more hidden, it will take some hiking in to see them."

Stands of trees and palm oasis generally indicate that there's moisture, which increases the variety of flowers that can be found in an area. If wildflowers are the main reason for making the trip, it's a good idea to call the visitor center first to find out conditions in various parts of the park.

There are many other interesting varieties of plants to see in Anza Borrego, though. The Elephant Tree Discovery Trail, on the west side of the park, off Split Mountain Road, is an interesting site to explore for different types of foliage. For those who don't like to hike, but still want to see examples of desert plants, there are cactus gardens along Route S2, just south of Box Canyon Monument.

Another desert destination is Joshua Tree National Monument, on the southern end of the Mojave Desert, near Twentynine Palms. According to an official there, in spite of the drought, a stronger blooming season is expected this year than last.

The Joshua trees in the Pinto Basin area are expected to be in bloom until mid-April.

Like Anza Borrego, Joshua Tree offers a myriad of hiking trails to follow and out-of-the-way places to explore. The Chollo Cactus Garden, almost dead center in the park, and Cottonwood Springs, near the southern entrance, are two easily accessible spots. A tour of the old Desert Queen Ranch also makes for an enjoyable spring morning.

For information on Anza Borrego Desert State Park, call (619) 767-4205. For Joshua Tree National Monument, call (619) 367-7511.

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