Blooms' Day

McKinney writes the Travel section's weekly Hiking column and is the author of the just-published "Day Hiker's Guide to California's State Parks" (Olympus Press)

Whoever said, "the earth laughs in flowers" wasn't kidding, I mused, as we witnessed the purple sand verbena shimmering in the desert breeze. It was the second week in March, and the wildflower spectacle along DiGiorgio Road in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park seemed to ridicule the desert's austerity.

Our family laughed along with the flowers. Sophia, 6, shucked her hiking boots and wiggled her toes in the blooms. Daniel, 1, frolicked among the desert primrose. And my wife, Cheri, turned from a brittle bush's gorgeous yellow bouquets to the heavens and murmured, "Thank you, El Nino."

Before venturing into the desert we had other words--mostly unprintable in a family newspaper--for El Nino. Thanks to EN, more than 30 inches of rain pummeled our coastal town this winter, and all the weather-casters predicted a rainy spring. Every weekend was taken up by patching roof leaks and listening to the whine of housebound children. Before monsoon season drove us adults mad, I knew I had to move us, even for just a weekend, to dry land.

I found the desert destination of our dreams via faxes from desert rat friends; with a call to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park's Wildflower Hotline, and by discovering, on the Internet, a just-opened bed and breakfast located in the heart of Anza-Borrego Desert Park in the town of Borrego Springs. (Greater Borrego Springs is an island of privately held land completely surrounded by the state park.)

The park includes virtually every feature that we visitors associate with a desert: washes, mesas, palm oases, great stands of cholla and elephant trees, slot canyons and bad-land formations. But I had never glimpsed such a heart-stirring wildflower display. Until this year.

"The best bloom in my 16 years of watching for them in this desert," declared Bob Anderson, a docent with the Anza-Borrego Desert Natural History Assn. Anderson and fellow volunteers staff a roadside Wildflower Information booth located at the east end of Borrego Springs at the junction of county roads S22 and S3. For a buck, they sold us their "Wildflowers of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park" brochure and marked a map to show us what was blooming where.

We appreciated the good directions to the floral displays because Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is not some little preserve you can drive around hoping to spot some flowering succulents. California's largest state park is huge: more than three times the size of Zion National Park in Utah. The 600,000-acre reserve extends almost the whole length of San Diego County's eastern border between Riverside County and Mexico.

Headquarters for our wildflower-watching expedition was the brand-new Borrego Valley Inn, a 14-room B&B; situated just off Palm Canyon Drive (the town's main drag). Although it just opened its doors to guests in early January, the old Santa Fe-style architecture of the buildings and its setting amid creosote and ocotillo are meant to give the impression it might have been around when explorer and park namesake Juan Bautista de Anza marched through here in 1774. The inn's long driveway, its walkways and patio are bare earth; with no asphalt in sight, guests can better appreciate the pueblo look, red-tiled roof and native desert plant landscaping.

Our room No. 1 had thick, adobe-like walls and cool terra cotta tile flooring. The room had a handmade pedestal bed with plump floral comforter, a fireplace, a tiny kitchenette and a patio for sunning. The bathroom had a dressing area and Euro-style shower.

The inn appears to add a new lodging niche in the area, positioned somewhere between family-oriented motels such as the Palm Canyon Resort just down the road, and the ultra deluxe Casa Del Zoro resort situated all by itself outside of town. To ensure their guests get out and enjoy the park's pleasures, the Robidouxs offer advice for hiking the nearby trails, and provide mountain bikes with helmets.

Before setting out on our park sojourns, we breakfasted heartily from the serve-yourself buffet (bagels, croissants, fresh fruit, coffee) on the outdoor patio, soothed by a bubbling courtyard fountain and inspired by views of the open desert and nearby mountains. A garden plaque with a quote reminded me of the philosopher who thought that the earth laughed in flowers: Ralph Waldo Emerson.


On weekends in town, the happening place is the Christmas Circle, a landscaped roundabout at Borrego Springs' south end that doubles as a popular picnic spot. We bought a roasted chicken and potato salad from the market, scooped up a sack of the local grapefruit from an open-air stand, and dined al fresco in the traffic circle.

What Borrego Springs still lacks, in my opinion, is any memorable restaurant. This honest little desert town remains a mecca for hiking and biking, not wining and dining.

Finding our way around Borrego Springs (basically a one-street town) was simple because the business establishments' names reflected exactly what each offered: The Book and Coffee Shop, The Market, Liquor, Mexican Restaurant, Gas.

This truth-in-marketing seemed to extend to the surrounding state park as well. In Borrego Palm Canyon we saw not one, but four borregos (bighorn sheep) and palms. On the Cactus Loop Trail, we saw armies of cholla and barrel cactus.

When we returned to the inn at day's end, we enjoyed cooling off in the swimming pool, and soothing body and soul in the Jacuzzi. The Borrego Valley Inn, with its te^te-a-te^te tables on the terrace from which to admire Indian Head Peak and the breathtaking sunsets, its quietude and rustic elegance, is the perfect place for adults, Cheri and I concurred.

(A last-minute baby sitter cancellation meant taking a kindergartner and a toddler to a B&B; ideally suited for a romantic just-the-two-of-us escape; however, we vowed to return for a little R&R;, sans kids.)

Perhaps we'll return in April when we should be able to see the cactus bloom.


Budget for Four

Gas: 42.00

Borrego Valley Inn, 2 nights: 190.00

State park admission: 5.00

Wildflower books, souvenirs: 26.00

Dinners: 65.00

Picnic supplies, snacks: 34.00

FINAL TAB: $362.00


Borrego Valley Inn, 405 Palm Canyon Drive, Borrego Springs, CA 92004; telephone (760) 767-0311. Recorded park information and wildflower hotline; tel. (760) 767-4684.

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