Thousands head to desert blooms after winter rains

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If the Israelites of the Bible would have done anything to find their way out of the desert, it appears that Californians are predisposed once a year to take the opposite route and are flocking in record numbers on all the backwards exodus roads to see the desert blooms this Spring.

If the Israelites of the Bible would have done anything to find their way out of the desert, it appears that Californians are predisposed once a year to take the opposite route and are flocking in record numbers on all the backwards exodus roads to see the desert blooms this Spring.

Many photographers, hikers and regular tourists were headed to the desert these past couple of weeks trying to capture a yearly floral phenomena, when the fields and the hills are exploding with the myriads of colorful flowers after the heavy winter rains. 

For the thousands of people who made it, it is common knowledge that the traffic was insufferable for miles, with people stuck on the road for hours. In the middle of the day last Sunday, the line of cars stretched from the intersection CA-79 N with Montezuma Valley Road all the way up to where it turns into Montezuma Valley Highway.

Although I picked a time when I thought it would be less crowded last Sunday, I could have taken a nap on the Montezuma switchback for almost two hours that is how long it took me to cover the three miles. The silver lining of that experience was that I was able to roll down the windows and take pictures of the flowers along the road, barely budding many of them, which means the exodus to the desert is going to continue full force for at least a couple more weeks, if not a month.

The local police closed the road to the Visitor Center, which made me want to keep driving out of the swamped town until I was able to find a spot without the pilgrimage of thousands of cars flanking the roads and more people than flowers on the trails. I was rewarded with magnificent views of an otherwise thirsty and cracked up land that now was musty, vibrant and magic. The fields were covered in brilliant sunflowers and desert stars, playful sand verbenas, majestic lupines and purple mats, immaculate primroses and sunny California poppies, blooming beavertail cactuses, monkey flowers or the precious wild Canterbury bells. The desert lily stands up, so expansive and delicate, pure white with golden pistils and stretched out leaves of a washed out green. I did not see any bighorn sheep, but luckier photographers did and I asked several of them to share their experience.

Thomas Gartner from Lakeside is a featured landscape photographer in many of the San Diego publications and he joined two other fellow photographers, Heidi Short and Joseph Gaines, on a road trip to Anza Borrego on March 18. Gartner was shocked to see how many people wore flip-flops, knowing snakes come out during hot days in the desert. He was surprised by the “general public’s obsession with poppy flowers,” that caused the roadways to move at snail pace.

“Our intent was to go early, photograph the sunrise and desert bloom before the crowds and heat became unbearable,” he said. “The most interesting thing is that although we planned on a four-hour trip, we extended our stay an additional 8 hours because there were so many amazing things to see and photograph in and around Anza Borrego. “

Ryan Rubino, a Ramona based wildlife photographer, who did not miss the opportunity to travel to the desert this past week, is less than thrilled with the experience of record number of people making the whole route look “like a queue line at Disneyland. This in turn prevents animals like the bighorn sheep I photographed the opportunity to cross the trail and reach the water in the creek easily and they have young lambs that need water more frequently then the adults.” Rubino said that “many people were poorly prepared for hiking in the heat of day and one mother with toddlers had no water at all.”

I can certify to that, as I have seen many travelers hiking while dressed improperly for the desert with small children wearing open toe shoes and no hats in the extreme heat on the trails exposed to heat strokes and snake encounters.

The local businesses in Borrego Springs are booming though, with diners being assaulted for food, and with the visitor center suddenly inaccessible, also to use the bathrooms. I timed about 45 minutes wait for the restroom and two hours for the food to arrive at one of the local Mexican restaurant in Borrego Spring where the AC was not able to provide at least a small breeze to the cohorts of exhausted, starving and sweaty people standing up elbow to elbow like breadsticks in a tight jar. 

John Zarem from Chula Vista is a retired US Navy captain and currently a volunteer with the California Sate Parks. Zarem tried to beat the crowds and headed to Anza Borrego Park on St. Patrick’s Day, but all the paved parking spots were already taken when he arrived at the Palm Canyon trailhead on early Friday morning. Zarem was enchanted to discover the stream was flowing in the canyon, but the hike was still hot and the trail slippery.

“I saw a few people slip and fall while trying to cross on a log or a series of rocks. It’s only 6 inches deep so you get a little wet (and embarrassed) if you fall, but everyone will help you up and make sure you are ok,“ he said.

When he came back from his hike, Zarem saw a park employee relocating a rattlesnake. Although the traffic was crazy, Zarem appreciated people being courteous. Was it worth to brave the crowds? Zarem believed so.

“I have seen desert wildflowers before but not on this scale, there were many, many more than on previous trips. Most of the cacti are not blooming yet, so the fun will continue for a while,” he said.

Another San Diego based professional landscape photographer, Frank Colosi, took the same journey several times already, attracted by the buzz created by the locals who claimed “this stunning event hasn’t occurred in this magnitude for over 20 years.“ Colosi went camping in the wash toward the Fonts Point, waking up at 4 a.m. one day to hike, so he could catch the “epic sunrise,” after “hiking by moonlight to the sound of the coyotes,” because “one can only truly appreciate something so stunning by taking the time to wander off the beaten path and to be in these open spaces with nothing but your own thoughts and a camera to remember them by.”

Marcie Sale, an avid hiker from Santee, went on a camping and hiking trip to Aqua Caliente, away from the Borrego Springs crowds, and was able to enjoy the blooms in peace.

“It was too hot to do more than one hike” though, but it was worth the traveling distance, because of “the beautiful sights from up the Desert Overlook trail at Aqua Caliente,“ she said.

Speaking of the incredibly heavy traffic both ways, CA-79 S is a much better choice coming back to San Diego and equally rewarding with beautiful sights and wondrous landscape.

Whether you are traveling for a day or camping for the weekend, bear in mind that the desert is a wild place, not a patrolled park and that people and animals, domestic and wild, are at risk of being seriously harmed if precautions are not taken. Dress appropriately, bring plenty of water, decide to hike early in the morning and be back before it gets too hot, take good care of the little ones and pets (and make sure pets are allowed), respect the creatures around by giving them space and leave as little traces as possible in your journey. And do not forget to smell the roses while you are at it, until next spring.

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