At about 600,000 acres, the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is the largest in California and second largest in the continental USA, but in the spring of 2017, it wasn’t big enough.
This “flower-geddon” has brought traffic jams, full hotels and campgrounds to Borrego Springs, the main town in this northeastern corner of San Diego County.
For more drives in the desert — and around San Diego County — get your copy of Joyrides Around San Diego
The record rains of the 2016-17 winter brought a “mega bloom.” It’s a rare event that carpets the desert sand and hills in green and spectacular colors as seldom-seen flowers blossom in almost every corner.
With a 2017 Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk to test, I avoided the crowds up north and headed to the south end of the park, just off of Interstate 8, to find my own bloom among a forest of ocotillo and other greenery. I got just a bit lost on the sandy trails; not something I’d advise, but it was a lot of fun.
The GPS on my phone was set to a place where I though there would be flowers: the Morteros Palms, located in a canyon just northwest of the Ocotillo Wind Farm towers that are visible from Interstate 8.
I’m not sure why, but Google Maps seemed to give up about halfway through the drive, taking me a bit northeast to a road that was blocked off. Well, better to test the off-road capabilities of the Cherokee’s tough Trailhawk features.
The directions here should be the correct route, which goes to the Goat Canyon Trail Head, about as close as drivers can get to the palms and inside the Piedras Grandes Cultural Preserve. It’s a beautiful canyon on the eastern edge of the Laguna Mountains, the 6,000-foot ridge that separates San Diego from the Imperial Valley.
After taking the freeway down the spectacular Mountain Springs Grade, exit at Ocotillo, your last chance for gas, food and water, essentials when going off road. Follow the signs to the park and County Route S-2.
About 4 miles from the freeway, a tiny sign marks Dos Cabezas Road, which is shown on maps as public road. It runs through the 500-foot towers of the Ocotillo Wind Farm, 21st century high tech that uses wind to power Southern California. The road leads to 19th century tech: the tracks of San Diego and Arizona Railroad. Once a busy freight and passenger line; it’s unused today. An old water tower still stands at the ruin of the Dos Cabezas train station.
This route should take you to a graded, paved crossing of the tracks; if you end up at an unpaved crossing, try another spot. In the desert, there are a lot of things that look like roads and places where drivers jump the railroad tracks.
And what will the flowers look like when you visit? Hard to say. Chances are, they’ll be blooming somewhere through May, before the temperatures soar for the summer. Dos Cabezas Road, and the return trip over BLM Road 109, run through groves of ocotillo, spindly plants that can be as high as 7 feet; blooms cover the chutes.
Humans have been in this area for thousands of years. The Piedras Grandes Cultural Preserve includes artifacts of Kumeyaay tribe of Native Americans. Kiosks along the trail describe the Kumeyaay culture and their life in the area. Their decedents include the nearby Campo, Viejas, Sycuan tribes.
I really appreciated the legendary off-road capability of the Cherokee Trailhawk L Plus 4×4 when I got lost. Turning around at one dead-end put me on some flat rocks that weren’t so flat. I heard the bottom of the Jeep scraping on the rocks; the extra skid plates with the Trailhawk package protected the transmission and who-knows-what-else.
On another spot, between the paved grade crossing and the old railroad station, a downhill on the way north turned into a steep, sandy obstacle on the way back. The four-wheel-drive low got me to the top; I wouldn’t have made it in standard all-wheel-drive.
Prices start at $31,195. With options, the tested SUV retails for $43,180, including the optional 3.2 liter V-6 and a $995 destination charge.
Extra features included the Off-Road Group (which includes the Selec Speed Crawl Control and several extra skid plates, which I found necessary on that rock. Fuel economy is 18 city, 24 highway and 21 overall. On a warm afternoon, the Cherokee was very comfortable on the trail, with a ride that was surprisingly smooth.
There are 600,000 acres to explore, so if flower-geddon is still up north, try the south. Even without a serious off-roader like the Cherokee, you won’t be sorry.
Route and Info
From February 2017
Difficulty: Challenging, with sand, rocks and railroad tracks to cross.
Distance: About 26-mile round trip from Ocotillo exit from Interstate 8. Ocotillo is about 83 miles east of central San Diego via Interstate 8.
- Interstate 8 to Ocotillo Exit in Imperial County.
- Follow Imperial Highway (County Route S-2) through Ocotillo and north towards Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.
- Left at Dos Cabezas Road, through Ocotillo Wind facility, about 4 miles from the freeway.
- Cross railroad tracks, make a quick right, then left to Mortero Canyon Road.
- After a bit more than one mile, left where Mortero Canyon Road meets unmarked road.
- Right at Piedras Grandes Cultural Preserve kiosk to Goat Canyon Trailhead.
- Retrace route back to S-2. Alternative to S-2: Follow BLM Road 109 back to highway.
- Park map: https://www.parks.ca.gov/pages/638/files/ABDSPmap.pdf
- Official park website: http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=638
- Anza-Borrego Foundation (wildflower and other information): http://www.theabf.org/
- Google Map: https://goo.gl/45me6C Note: Google Map does not include return via BLM Road 109.