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.