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Southern California-A Desert in Bloom
March 11th-15th, 2008
The desert was blooming—calling—so we packed our bags and left the two feet of trodden snow (fresh from Ohio’s blizzard of 2008) behind, and set our sights on southern California.
Wildflowers, historic missions, lighthouses, and coastal views drew us to the deserts and maritime communities of California’s southern border—jumping at the chance to photograph and experience the rare sight of a desert in bloom, we booked an impromptu four-day trip.
Two cancelled flights later (thanks to the blizzard) and one refund later (thanks to Travelocity) we arrived at the John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana, California—short our luggage, (thanks to Delta) I spent the first day in the desert wearing a thermal shirt and jeans, but our luggage was shipped to our hotel in Banning that night (thanks again to Delta) and everything was copasetic.
The Mission San Juan Capistrano, arguably the most famous Mission in California, was our first destination of the trip—known as “The Jewel of the California Missions,” the historical Franciscan refuge did not disappoint. Walking among the majestic ruins of the “Great Stone Church,” the arcades, sacred gardens, the refractory, and Moorish fountains, we found ourselves transported to a California state of mind—hundreds of photographs later, we left the grounds of the church and wheeled our way to the scenic highway dubbed the “Palms to Pines Scenic Byway.”
Otherwise known as Highway 74, this scenic driving tour climbs from Orange County through the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains, before descending to the desert—passing through the town of Lake Elsinore along the way. Lake Elsinore proved to be a beautiful place for an excursion—following an online tip (thanks Calphoto), we made a beeline for the hills—hills that were glowing orange with the blooms of the California poppy.
In and around Lake Elsinore, we explored two main areas that proved to be incredibly beautiful—thanks to a proliferation of blooms—the hills adjacent to Lake Street and Grape Street were ablaze with color. First, we hiked back along a dirt road off Lake Street—there we found numerous fields of wildflowers in bloom. California poppies, goldfield, lupine, and Phacelia combined to create a kaleidoscopic carpet—the farther we hiked into the hills the better the flower display became, but after a few miles, we decided to turn around and seek out other hillsides.
From I-15, we could discern a profusion of blooms on the western hillsides, and it appeared as though a road paralleling the interstate would provide perfect access to the flower fields—that road turned out to be Grape Street. The poppy fields found along Grape Street were thick with open blooms, the kind of blooms that intertwine to form a virtual sea of color—it seemed as though the color orange stretched on forever, broken only by the occasional bloom of a two-toned tidytip, yellow fiddleneck, or lavender heliotrope. We spent several hours completely captivated by the wildflowers—hiking amid the blooms, photographing their beauty, and just sitting quietly on the sun-warmed ground surrounded by their fragrant blossoms. Eventually, we had to tear ourselves away from the flowers—it was time to follow the open road to our next destination.
Morning in the Mojave Desert of Joshua Tree National Park was a beautiful thing—a warm breeze flowed over the sand and rocks, barely disturbing the cacti or the birds that were greeting the dawn with a song. The delightful weather and the combination of majestic Joshua trees that dot the landscape with their twisted and highly recognizable silhouettes and the shape-shifting boulders, such as Skull Rock, together brought the famous geology of the park to life.
Intent on seeing as much of the park as possible in only one short day, we focused our attention on the attractions found along Park Boulevard and Wilson Canyon Road. Entering the park via the West Entrance Station, we made our way to Skull Rock— this easy 1.7-mile nature trail loops through a jumbled garden of rock formations—most notably Skull Rock and Jumbo Rocks—separate parts of a spectacular collection of eroded boulders. We began our hike at the famous Skull Rock, an eerie formation easily discerned as a skull —complete with a nose and eye sockets—and ended our loop amid the towering boulders of Jumbo Rocks. Jumbo Rocks, a collection of exposed granite monoliths, appeared to be the perfect place for sunset photography, so we scouted out a spot and vowed to return later that day to watch the sun dip below the horizon.
Our next hike in the park, Arch Rock, was just a few miles down the road—located off Wilson Canyon Road. The 0.3-mile interpretive loop trail that leads to Arch Rock is located in the low desert of Joshua Tree National Park—a broad transition zone where the higher, cooler Mojave and lower, hotter Colorado Deserts meet. In this part of the desert, Joshua trees are conspicuously absent, and plants of the low desert like ocotillo, palo verde, and yucca start to appear—you can watch for these specimens along the interpretive trail. For many visitors, the Joshua trees are the essence of their park experience, but for those eager to explore the sand dunes, palm oases, and massive granite rock gardens, Joshua Tree National Park offers a rich diversity of desert environments. In order to explore this diversity firsthand, head for the Arch Rock Trailhead near campsite #9 in the White Tank Campground—set amid a jumble of bold granite rock outcrops. The boulders themselves are a scenic attraction, but your goal lies part way along the trail where weathering has created a jointed block of granite—eroded from both sides until the indentations met, creating a rock arch 25-feet long and 15-feet high. The arch, resembling the head and trunk of an earless elephant, sits perched atop a ridge that is perfect for rock scrambling—you can climb between the boulders at the base of the arch and make your way to the formation. After exploring the arch, continue hiking along the loop trail, stopping to read the interpretive signs that describe the geology and flora of the surrounding desert.
Continuing along Wilson Canyon Road towards Cottonwood Spring, we enjoyed the Cholla Cactus Garden and Ocotillo Patch before stumbling upon the highlight of our visit—dramatic fields of wildflowers in peak bloom. The blooms were predominantly in the Pinto Basin, where we enjoyed thick patches of sand verbena, purple mat, chia, and desert sunflowers.
We spent the remainder of the afternoon exploring the wildflower fields, before returning to Jumbo Rocks for sunset—just as expected, the rocks were the perfect setting to capture the last golden rays of sunlight. As the sun disappeared from the sky, the rocks began to take on the shades of alpenglow and the Joshua trees formed perfect silhouettes against the colorful horizon.
As the last light of day fell across the desert, we motored towards the city of La Quinta for a meal and some much needed sleep—early the next morning we would be on our way to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, and what we hoped would be the best wildflower showing of our four-day trip.
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, perhaps an empty environment for those new to the desert, sprawls across hundreds of square miles of sand and rock, canyons, and washes—a vast space of immeasurable beauty for those who embrace the seeming desolation. It is a place brought to life every few years by the one element of nature that defines the desert by its absence—water. The winter of 2007-2008 delivered just the right amount of soaking rain to the parched Anza-Borrego desert, unleashing a spring wildflower bloom that would make any botanist weep with joy.
The most impressive wildflower displays, during the time of our visit, were along Henderson Road and Coyote Canyon—no hiking necessary. I cannot begin to describe the abundance of blooms—dune primrose, sand verbena, and desert sunflowers literally blanketed entire hillsides. Also found among the larger displays were the delicate blooms of the desert lily—one of our favorite desert flowers.
Finding cactus in bloom required a little more effort—a quick hike along the Elephant Trees Discovery Trail put us in the right spot at the right time. The 1.5-mile trail climbs gently up a rock-lined alluvial fan, granting the hiker the opportunity to view a rare elephant tree, before eventually looping back to the parking area. The elephant tree, a rarity in the California deserts, attains a height of only ten feet and sports a peeling parchment-like bark and wrinkled limbs that vaguely resemble the skin of an elephant—it’s a bit of a stretch, but the tree is still much admired by park visitors. Elephant trees are common to Baja California and the Mexican state of Sonora, but are scarcely scattered amid the washes and canyons of Anza-Borrego, one of the northernmost extents of their range. Follow the self-guided nature trail (brochures usually available at the trailhead) until you reach signpost #10, where you will see the trail’s signature elephant tree, but for those hikers that arrive during the spring wildflower season, your attention will most likely be overtaken by the amazing colors and fragrances of a desert in bloom. While hiking this easy, educational loop, we were amazed by the incredible blooms found along the trail—yellow cactus barrel blooms, magenta beavertail cactus blooms, and the greenish cholla cactus blooms catch the eye immediately, while the smaller blooms of chuparosa, chicory, desert dandelion, ocotillo, pincushion, ghost flowers, desert five-spot, wild heliotrope, and Bigelow’s monkey flowers take a little more effort to find.
Needless to say, Anza-Borrego did not disappoint, and it was indeed the most phenomenal wildflower display of the entire trip—we spent hours enjoying the incredible landscape before leaving for the coast.
We arrived at San Diego late in the evening and checked into the Dolphin Motel—the next morning we walked to the marina and explored Old Town. After a brief tour of the city, we were bound for Cabrillo National Monument, a seaside park perfect for enjoying the coastline and all it has to offer.
From Ocean Beach south to Point Loma, an area encompassing a 4-mile stretch of land separating San Diego Bay from the Pacific Ocean, there exists an incredibly diverse ecosystem—crowning the southern terminus of this promontory is Cabrillo National Monument. Within the park you will find exhibits, a museum, a statue commemorating Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo (the first European to set foot on the west coast), a restored New England-style lighthouse, and several hiking trails—one being the 2-mile roundtrip Bayside Trail. To access the trail, begin at the Visitor Center—taking in the views of the statue first—and then hike uphill along the paved sidewalk to the Old Point Loma Lighthouse. The crest where the lighthouse was built, rises over 400 feet above sea level—a seemingly ideal spot for a lighthouse with a serious flaw—fog. The light was abandoned in 1891, but the historic building is a highlight of the hike, especially when the wildflowers are blooming. After visiting the lighthouse, head back down the hillside to the signed Bayside Trail, following the road downhill where you will locate a sitting bench—then bear left on the graveled trail. You have now descended 370 feet through native coastal sage scrub—passing military remnants, interpretive panels, and sandstone caves. The trail ends at the barbed-wire fence guarding military land at the 1.1-mile mark—return along the same route.
Another excellent trail within Cabrillo’s boundaries leads to the intertidal zone—the bluffs and tidepools of California’s southern coast combine to create a spectacular landscape, and one of the easiest places to access this scenery is along the 1.2 mile Point Loma Tidepools and Bluff Trail at Cabrillo National Monument. The hike explores the western shore of the promontory—passing rock outcrops, crashing waves, rocky bluffs, and tidepools. From the parking area at the end of Cabrillo Road, follow the signed path along the upper route—skirting the edge of the 400-foot cliffs. As you make your way down towards the seashore, enjoy the plant communities of Point Loma—coastal sage succulent scrub, southern coastal bluff scrub, southern maritime chaparral, and southern foredune scrub are all represented—some of the few remaining protected stands of this ecotype. Descending from the bluffs, take note of the scalloped coastline—a marvel of erosion—that creates a beautiful backdrop to the abundant stands of sea purslane and sea figs. After viewing the wildflower blooms, we made our way to the terraced rock shelves that provide access to the tidepools at low tide—do not attempt to explore the pools at any time other than low tide. Trails descend from the wave-carved cliffs to the rocky intertidal zone, where you can investigate the coves, inlets, and tidepool inhabitants—look for sea anemone, bat stars, limpets, barnacles, shore crabs, and sea hares. Remember, the survival of this rare community depends on you—do not disturb or remove any plants or animals. As you retrace your steps back to your car, watch for gray whales—their spouts are often spotted offshore as they migrate to their Arctic summer feeding grounds during January and February.
Our last coastal excursion found us in La Jolla, where we strolled along the Coast Walk at a leisurely pace. This easy 0.5-mile cliff-side walk offers incredible views of resident sea lions, seabirds, and the dramatic La Jolla coastline. The path, a mix of sidewalk and dirt trails, starts to the left of the parking area on Coast Walk, a narrow street (if they are full, drive to Cave Street and park along the curb) where the trail is lined by thick stands of lemonadeberry bushes. We opted to park curbside on Cave Street near La Jolla Cove, beginning our hike near an overlook where you can watch seabirds, sea lions, kayakers, and swimmers—a pungent smell of ammonia often fills the air here. Seabirds such as pelicans, gulls, and cormorants are responsible—an indiscretion soon forgiven when you see the glorious birds gathered on the cliffs and rock outcroppings. To the left of the path’s end at Cave Street, or in our case the trail’s beginning, you will find a viewing platform (located behind the La Jolla Cave and Curio Shop) where you can get excellent views of sea lions basking on the rocks and frolicking in the surf—bring binoculars and/or a telephoto lens for close-up views. Take your time exploring the coastline along this pleasant stroll, which can be hiked in any direction—the two trailheads are only 0.25-mile apart.
Left with just a few hours to explore southern California and faced with a dreary cold front that had settled on the coast, we decided to leave San Diego a little early in order to visit the poppies at Lake Elsinore one last time before driving back to Santa Ana. We were pleased to see that the poppies were still blooming, although the blooms were not fully open because of the wind that came in with the cold front—poppies only fully open when the sun is bright and the wind is calm. Despite the unfurled flowers, we once again were amazed by the beautiful poppy fields—watching the sunset deepen the orange color to an almost golden hue was the perfect way to end our holiday.
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