Giddy-Up & Go! Anza-Borrego Desert State Park

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The chill in the autumn air, the first sign of winter's inevitable return in Utah's mountains-that's our annual cue to pack up the horses for one last warm-weather adventure. This year, the cooler temperatures had our aching ol' bodies practically begging for some quality time on sun-drenched trails. And where better to warm up than Southern California's desert oasis-Anza-Borrego Desert State Park? So, with truck, camper, three horses, and bumper-pull trailer in tow, my husband and I hit the road. Next stop-Stagecoach Trails R.V. Resort, the perfect base camp for exploring the park's 600,000-plus acres.

Stagecoach Trails Resort sits about 70 miles east of San Diego in the Vallecito Mountains. It's easily accessible from County Highway S2, which is coincidentally part of the Great Southern Overland Stage Route of 1849-just one indicator of the region's rich Western heritage. This fully equipped resort-with its pens, corrals, hitch-rails, picket lines, and several water troughs-caters to riders, but it's the trail access beyond the gates that makes this resort such a coveted spot.

Anza-Borrego, the largest desert state park in the lower 48 states, welcomes riders to get lost in 12 wilderness areas that include 110 miles of riding trails, including the celebrated Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail- all in all, more than 2,600 backcountry miles extending from the deserts in Southern California to the forests in Northern Washington. Though this abundance of trails provides plenty of scenic options, some overlapping sections and confusing name changes complicate even the simplest routes. A good map is an essential companion for this region.

The park's sandy trails wind through huge rock formations and traverse cactus covered hills, delivering riders to dramatic vistas, lake beds, pictographs, and canyons. One of the more beautiful rides starts by following a stretch of the California Riding and Hiking Trail. Originally legislated and funded in 1946 as a memorial to the returning soldiers of World War II, this 3,000-mile loop trail between Mexico and Oregon remains incomplete still today. Yet the finished portions, including the stretch in Anza-Borrego, make ideal daytrips or scenic links between other trails.

The ride winds through Box Canyon, one of the park's landmark features as well as the crossroads for several trails. From there, we moved onto Oriflamme Canyon by way of the historic Mormon Battalion Trail, the same stretch of trail used by a U.S. military unit when marching through New Mexico, Arizona, and California during the mid-1800s. We couldn't help appreciating the history while admiring the desert's beautiful blend of colors and textures-the rocks and boulders, the cactus and other shrubs set against blue sky and the foothills of the Cuyamaca and Laguna Mountains. Sadly, our moment of awe ended abruptly when the trail intersected a highway and a car hurried by.

Farther up the trail, just after crossing the highway, we hooked up with Taylor Springs Trail and discovered an idyllic picnic spot-a patch of giant cottonwoods with a freshwater stream nearby. No time for dilly-dallying though. We still had a long way back to camp. This loop route takes a full day, especially with some pit-stops and picture taking. We rested for a quick spell and continued on trail, passing several abandoned mine shafts before connecting with the Pacific Crest Trail and looping back to camp. It is quite a thrill to ride on the legendary PCT, even if only for a few miles around Granite Mountain.

Back at the resort, we bumped into Tom Marshall, the president of Backcountry Horsemen's San Diego County chapter. He invited us to join his group on a few rides. One particular ride-my favorite by far- departed from the Vern Whitaker Horse Camp and Trailhead near the park headquarters in Borrego Springs. With its nine sites, 40 corrals, water, flush toilets, and a solar-heated outdoor shower, the camp is a comfort- central base for countless trails.

From camp, the Vern Whitaker Trail takes its time, slowly cutting through dense willows and past the occasional palm tree before emptying into the desert's rocky hills. It was there among the rocks that we spotted a few bighorn sheep hiding on the slopes. The rest of the group stayed down below, but Tom and I couldn't resist a closer look. We quietly navigated the loose rocks and climbed up the slope to snap some photos.

As if standing a few feet from desert bighorns wasn't enough, we turned onto another trail and stumbled upon a feast for our digital cameras-two herds of wild horses grazing in an open meadow.

Anza-Borrego, the largest desert state park in the lower 48 states, welcomes riders to get lost in 12 wilderness areas that include 110 miles of riding trails, including the celebrated Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail- all in all, more than 2,600 backcountry miles extending from the deserts in Southern California to the forests in Northern Washington.