That night sickness came bubbling up in me all the way. Mucus chocked back my nose and throat exasperated by the dust kicked up by tricked out jeeps careening by our campsite, griding dirt. I woke up in the middle of the night shivering and hot. I took Dayquil at daybreak, which knocked the symptoms down some. Time to finish.
We eat slowly under a very sunny and warm morning before kicking out and jumping on dirt come pavement. Dan and I glide slightly downhill towards a bend in the pavement leading to Ocotillo Wells. Instead, we gear straight and jump on something like 10 miles of uphill deep sand - the deepest of the trip. But the glory of the desert is full so I'm loving it. Ocotillo, deposited river stone, chunky mountain rocks, sand in all its layers, and ample beavertail prickly pear line the route. We push one as a few doom buggies come and go. The sand ends and the side of a VERY busy highway starts. Luckily, it's short, and we push off into the desert dirt once more. The route is doubletrack light and flowy over small hills as we make our way down to the shoulder-lovely highway leading to Borrego Springs.
The day feels honestly hot (I'll be later amazed that it only was 68 F), so I'm absorbing it while simultaneously coughing phlegm and buckling throat. We ride up the highway and hit one of the famous parts of the route - the desert-oxidized statues of Borrego Springs. From steel elephants, velocitators, allosaurus, and a giant hawk catching a javelina, we stop and take into the glorious art sprung out of thornscrub. It was truly so cool.
And then we hit the city center, do a lap around the roundabout of Christmas Circle, and head north to the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park Visitor Center once more where we meet up with Janna, Kate, and the dogs. It was a glorious trip through a desertscape I let seep into me; there will be more riding here in the future for sure.
43.84 Miles; Agua Caliente County Park, CA to Fish Creek Canyon in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
The morning edge gave way to light, and I awoke after a deep night's sleep. My throat felt worse, my sinuses were producing mucus, but it didn't matter. I was here on this ride.
All lounging began with steadfast approach for breakfast. By 9:30, with a new day's warmth pressing down in positive reception, we set out. No sooner had we passed the Agua Caliente General Store then we threw bikes in reverse based on the glimpse of a bikepacking rig outside the business. We met Sam - Julian, CA local and six time racer of the Stagecoach 400 out on a training ride in preparation for this year's race. He spoke passionately of the area and let us know that the verbenas soon to be seen down June Wash were something he had never seen in this area in his years here. That brought appreciative mmhmms.
The road is empty and we start again. Yet, every hundred feet or so Dan or I skid to brake for mandatory flower photos. Royal purple verbenas (so unlike the darker purple lupine in the Sonoran of Arizona) spill from roadway berms and the surrounding desert. Can't stop taking photos. White sand, sepia toned-cacti, royal purple blooms. We push on again, sweep left down June Wash where the distant hillside is smattered violet - I don’t exaggerate here for the plush frequencies of mauve coating so thoroughly the white desert sands that we can see them from a mile away like a paint-spill on the verdant, orderly aridity.
Push on. The road descending lightly takes us quickly through stark, but gentle landscape on a February morning. Smooth, slow, worthwhile. The saunter carries up several hundred feet to an overlook of the Carrizo Badlands and the soon-to-be entered Sin Nombre Canyon. Overlanders beckon to us - offer us a beer. We decline, but promise to see them in the heart of Fish Creek Canyon. Push off, feel that dry warm air, and plummet down packed sand into a bowl of striated granite and sandstone. Verbena gush vibrantly, accented by yellow petals of brittlebush. Our heads swivel, bikes go down, cameras come out. The body spins to allow eyes to take it all in.
The mouth of Sin Nombre Canyon unfolds and we sweep through the labyrinthine box canyon that narrows up properly with vertical sides before crumbling to desert and doing this dance on repeat over again. I compare it to the Grand Canyon far shrunken and filled with dirt instead of Colorado snowmelt. Pockets and folds in the rock stretch out and collapse. It's sheer and magnificent.
And the wash just spills us into a larger sandstream that fills a plain of desert. The banks are silt and flowers as drapingly heavy verbena petals spill over sides. And there, distant but distinct, lights the royal face of another violet desert hillside drenched in purple and ultraviolets. Dan and I tip our bikes on their sides to stand gaping and harking the petal paint so deep and so profuse. Winter rains allowed seeds to sip deep and now a winter bloom adolescent in the spring rips color across a landscape so vividly all you can do is stand to take it in. Our pace is slow, but subtle hints of land demand attention. Loud shouts of life bursting color from the ground direct so I must give due following.
Reluctantly we move on as the wash boxes up and we enter the Mud Caves. Silt, graven, hardened, silkened, and stacked have become rounded out alcoves and slots in the adjoining rock faces. We hike up one, explore, come out, and soak sun while eating. A guy in a car pulls up and excitedly talks to us - his desire to try bikepacking is strong and I urge him to go for it. We push on, amazed by the snaking route through the land. The route rises up and crests above the washes on plateau sandy and studded with ocotillo. We race along the sand and come to the infamous Diablo Drop. Several dozen suped-up vehicles, raised, hydraulicked, and studded sit semi-circle to a serious of four, one-hundred foot drops. We watch parades of them descend, ascend, and earn their mettle. Locals chat with us and tell us the history of this highly-sought overlander challenge. Not only that, but they equally revel in the bikepacking Stagecoach 400 racers who fly down this section in April of each year.
We walk down though - no need to push past my skill. Back in a narrow ravine, we push our bikes up and around cars horizontally wedged in the canyons trying to turn around. And like that, we spill into the sandy wash of Fish Creek. Down and down in the slanting golden light of white and yellowed rock. Suddenly, it boxes up thinly and high with outcrops of branching sandstone shelves as we enter the famous narrows. Light passes beyond canyon rimrock leaving a shaded evening glow inward. The deposition picks up as sand deepens and the pedaling gets tougher. We stand to leverage power and move towards the mouth of Fish Creek Canyon. I see Janna and Kate walking the dogs in the distance. They were able to drive up the sandy wash in the cars and were parked behind some willows next to an embankment out on the spilling desert plains. Dan and I cast down bikes, grab some warm clothes, and eat food to contentment as dark night deadpans above us. I feel nothing but gratitude for being with friends and being someplace beautiful.
49.52 Miles; Borrego Springs, CA to Agua Caliente County Park, CA
When I rode the Stagecoach 400 last Spring Break, I chose to eschew the Anza-Borrego Desert due to 100 degree temps I wasn't feeling up to. That area, filled with badlands and box canyons, had been on my mind to visit for some time. So I set myself some intention: go back in the cool months and dive into the desertscape.
Thus came February. This winter has been fecund. Snow has dropped in "Top 10" amounts along northern AZ. The Grand Canyon, same as the west, desperately has needed it. But I've felt a longing for desert in the spring, which always strikes beautifully in February and March. With President's Day weekend approaching I aimed to hit up Anza-Borrego. But I wanted to see a highlight of all areas in a three-day loop that would hit highlights of the area both on pavement and off. I reviewed the Stagecoach 400, Anza-Hapaha, and Ranchita Rambler routes to pull what I wanted to see and ride from each. I then scanned maps and satellites to add in sections of personal interest to create a blend-route I referred to as Fully Anza-Borrego (at least fully for me in both interest and with what could be reached via bike).
Except Janna has had an injured ankle since early January. She's had some healing over the last few weeks but not enough to push on a bikepacking trip. We reached out to our friends Dan and Kate to see if they wanted to join us. Turns out Kate has been in a similar situation. We decide that Dan and I will ride the route; Janna and Kate will bring the dogs and car camp at our intended locations to stop each night. Everyone gets a taste of desert warmth.
School finishes at 4 pm on Thursday. Janna and I immediately jump in the car and make the seven hour drive down to southeast CA. Night speeds on, temps are low. Cold fronts have continued to wipe both low desert and high country alike - wave after wave. A scratch rests in my throat and I realize a cold is forthcoming; I'll push through on the ride. We pull into Borrego Springs close to midnight. I sleep hard.
Morning comes where leisure and the promise of four days off makes the feet move slow and the breakfast requires slow enjoyment. We metup with Dan and Kate, pull our gear out, setup bikes, and ride over to the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park Visitor Center. I had no knowledge of Borrego Springs and was stoked by the vibrancy of the small community. Verved on that, this excitement was compounded by the presence of multiple conservancies and nonprofits in town all seeking to protect, educate, and celebrate this desert area. I get hyped on the love of others for land they know so well.
The cool morning echoed the cold front only recently gone. Dan and I hit pavement for climb up the highway towards Culp Valley. The shoulder was small to nonexistent, but leaving early meant little vehicular traffic. We crested the mountains, Dan sped ahead, and I realized he missed our turn. I sat on the dirt road plunging deeper into the hills, playing Dan with texts and phone calls. About 40 minutes later, he came speeding round the corner from the highway climb, having added some bonus elevation gain.
We laughed hard and started down the dirt track into the Culp Valley Cultural Preserve. Air was crisp and sharp; jackets came on. Snow lingered from recent storms as we rode up and around 4200 feet. Pale green-orange cacti spindly thrust up from green grasses set to-grow from a wet winter. Sandy track was firm from cold and moisture. Hillsides spat boulders chunked and eye-catching among all the green. I relished it. As day wore to afternoon, we crossed the high points with Hellhole Flat and its mountains adjoining our north. The landscape was that mix of chaparral, scrub, yucca, and flowers straddling the seasons. I loved it. Then, a racing descent down Grapevine Canyon, weaving gravel and sand through arroyos becoming washes.
Reflective vests came on as we joined Highway 78 as it wound tightly with no shoulder for five miles through Box Canyon. Massive amounts of holiday traffic crammed the road as trailers, RVs, and trucks all pulling toy boxes and ATVs barreled down both lanes. We moved fast to cover the miles and get off that part. Box Canyon ended, and we sped south on State Route 2 towards Shelter Valley and Vallecito. The traffic was little and the shoulders broad. The sun sat bent in our purview with cloud and blurred light diffusing over the cacti-land. It was assuredly lush, thick with Mojave growth. Desert as vegetative density.
We descended Campbell Grade as the sun sank just beneath cloud cover to shine golden-hour light across the land. It was a spectacular smidge of oranges and greens. Signed signaled our path along the Great Southern Overland Stage Route of 1849. Ocotillos and creosote were well-leafed among smatterings of brittlebush pushing yellow blooms. As dark rolled in, we arrived at Agua Caliente County Park where we had reserved a tent site. Janna and Kate had already setup camp and were lounging with the dogs after a day spent swimming in the desert hot springs there. We ate food as dark crept on in the beautiful mouth of Moonlight Canyon.