SoCal desert camping offers stark beauty in winter

By Solvej Schou

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Jan. 5 2012 12:40 p.m. MST

"Our visitors enjoy the stark landscape of winter. It's almost surrealistic," said Spearing. "We get many migratory birds in the winter. You don't expect to see a mountain bluebird in the desert, but you do when they migrate down. People go down to the desert to get warm, and birds do the same thing."

Wildflowers usually start to bloom at the end of February, with moisture in the air and ground, plus the increasingly warmer climate, as factors. Joshua trees bloom as early as mid-February, depending on elevation, warmth and precipitation. Flower species include the desert five-spot, with its velvety curled purple, pink and cream petals, and the white-colored desert lily.

"We have high hopes with wildflowers blooming, because of late fall rain. Late fall rain is a key factor for spring bloom," said Spearing.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, the largest state park in California, spread out over 600,000 acres surrounding Borrego Springs, Calif., has several campgrounds. The park's most frequented one, Borrego Palm Canyon, located toward the center of Anza-Borrego, is near the popular 3-mile round-trip Borrego Palm Canyon Trail. The trail slopes into a shady, beautiful palm grove with water. In the afternoon, it's pristine. Each campsite has a fire ring and a table, and amenities include restrooms and coin operated showers. Reservations by phone or online are recommended.

"Lately people have been seeing bighorn sheep. We also get lizards that are out in winter since we're lower elevation, and warmer, than Joshua Tree," said Sally Theriault, Anza-Borrego's visitor center manager, and also a state park interpreter.

"One reason why a lot of people come here is the miles of dirt roads for Jeeps. We have a more varied terrain."

At the end of the day, said Theriault, the added appeal of desert winter camping lies not in the dusty ground, colorful wildflowers or lengthy trails, but in the night sky above, clear and wide.

"For me, the stars are one of the best things about being here during winter. The winter stars are really, really something. The Milky Way is really visible. There are lots and lots of stars," said Theriault.

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If You Go...

JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK: http://www.nps.gov/jotr/ or 760-367-5500. There are three park entrances: West entrance five miles south of Highway 62 and Park Boulevard at Joshua Tree Village; North entrance in Twentynine Palms, three miles south of Highway 62 and Utah Trail; South entrance at Cottonwood Spring, 25 miles east of Indio, by Interstate 10.

BLACK ROCK CANYON CAMPGROUND AT JOSHUA TREE: http://www.nps.gov/jotr/planyourvisit/blackrock.htm . Sites at Black Rock may be reserved Oct. 1-May 31. Reservations can be made up to six months in advance at http://www.recreation.gov/ or 877-444-6777.

HIDDEN VALLEY CAMPGROUND AT JOSHUA TREE: http://www.nps.gov/jotr/planyourvisit/camping.htm . Hidden Valley is one of several Joshua Tree campgrounds that are first-come, first-served year-round.

ANZA-BORREGO DESERT STATE PARK: http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=638 or 760-767-5311. Entrance on eastern side of San Diego County is from Highway S2 south off Interstate 8. Reserve camping sites online at http://www.reserveamerica.com/ . Reservations for Borrego Palm Canyon campground are required Oct. 1-April 30.

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