Winter destinations for warm weather, camping and hiking in California!

Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Parks and Anza Borrego State Park offer desert serenity, winter blooms and quiet exploration!

Harmony Borax Works tankers in Death Valley National Park.

In January, our nearby Sierra mountains received over 400 inches of snow, while our valley was pelted with rain like we haven’t seen in years.  If you’re suffering cabin fever and long for sunny, warm touring, you have nearby warm California destinations within a day’s drive.

Probably the iconic destination for warm February/March travels is Death Valley National Park; just eight hours away and offering warm climate and a “soon-to-burst-forth” wildflower bloom.  We were there last February and the colors were simply stunning.  The Park Service suggests that with recent rains, this year’s bloom should be spectacular!

Death Valley offers historic interest, as well. During the California Gold Rush, several wagon trains of 49ers attempted to cross the valley – after one party suffered a death, the group looked back and said “goodbye, Death Valley”, hence the name.

A profusion of wildflowers grace Death Valley last February.

From Stockton, you’ll enter at Panamint Springs, where one drops below sea level; the land continues to sink, eventually reaching its nadir at Badwater Basin, 282 feet below sea level, the lowest point in the US.  In 1873 silver was discovered in the park and Panamint City swelled to 5,000 residents. The silver played-out about four years later, leading to Death Valley’s “white gold” discovery, borax.  Stop at the Harmony Borax Works, including the old refinery which operated from 1883-88.

Gold was discovered east of the park in 1904, leading to the last great American gold rush. The gold drew thousands of people and saw several roads built to the mining district of Rhyolite – financial failure led to the end of the era by 1912.

It’s the desert bloom that draws many visitors, but the park offers many other points of interest including Golden Canyon – just a short hike off Highway 190 – with your hike best taken in late afternoon when the setting sun offers spectacular colors. A few miles south is Natural Bridge, a short drive off the main road. Explore old historic remnants of the park’s early history, such as the Ballarat ghost town on the west edge of the park, the Eureka Mine site and charcoal kilns within the park.

Author and spouse Susan at Badwater Basin, 282' below sea level, in Death Valley.

If seeking lodging inside the park, Panamint Springs, Stovepipe Wells and Furnace Creek offer lodging and camping. Additional smaller campgrounds dot the park; most are first come, first served.

Joshua Tree National Park lies several hours further south, just east of Palm Springs.  It’s home to a wild and alien assortment of plant life: 18’ tall, spindly Ocotillo plants with slender red flowers, Brittlebush, Smoketree, Mojave yucca and the strange Cholla cactus – we never imagined such creations. At elevations above 3,000’, the park features the “Mojave desert” – where stately Joshua Trees proliferate. These tall, rangy trees can reach 40’ tall and are actually a species of yucca adapted to high, arid lands.

As you venture south, the “Colorado Desert” makes its appearance – dry desert at 3,000’ elevation and below, home to the Mojave yucca, but not the Joshua Tree.

Joshua Trees are found at higher elevations in Joshua Tree National Park.

Here, see the Cholla Cactus Garden and Jumbo Rocks area (it’s also a favorite camping spot; the park offers nine campgrounds). If seeking motels, try Twenty Nine Palms on the park’s northside.

Anza Borrego Desert State Park is 90 miles south of Palm Springs, about a 10 hour journey from Stockton.  It’s huge at 634,000 acres,  larger than the other 269 California parks combined! Borrego is Spanish for “lamb”, though only about 200 of the park’s endangered Peninsular Bighorn Sheep remain inside the park.

The park’s rugged features are “Colorado Desert”; this is where, millions of years ago, the Colorado River met the Gulf of California. Today, thousands of tourists are peering into the Grand Canyon, wondering where all that dirt and rock went. To Anza-Borrego, of course!

Set off for the Palm Canyon trailhead early to beat the heat; a mile and a half up a stark, bone-dry canyon – watch for snakes and Bighorn Sheep. About a mile up the trail, having climbed about 300 vertical feet, we hear water running and come upon a pretty stream and increasing vegetation, eventually reaching a green oasis above that couldn’t be imagined, or viewed, from the dusty desert below.

A chollo cactus garden in Joshua Tree National Park.

On the trail and throughout the park, we could identify California Fan Palm, Indigo Bush, Brittle Bush. Creosote Bush, Blue Palo Verde (reaching 30 feet tall, with yellow flowers), Chollo Cactus, Barrel Cactus in bloom, Hedgehog Cactus, Mohave Yucca and our favorite, the Ocotillo, a rangy plant that shoots spindly shafts skyward 12-15 feet and blooms with spectacular red flowers right after light rains!

The park is home to a wide array of wildlife, from the Peninsular Bighorn Sheep, snakes including Rattlesnakes, Roadrunners, Black-tailed Jackrabbits, coyotes and a wide variety of lizards. Anza Borrego has a fine campground for both tents and RVs; several additional primitive and back-country camps offer options.  Motels are found in Borrego Springs.

California Fan Palms await hikers to Palm Oasis in Anza Borrego State Park.

For more information: Death Valley National Park, nps.gov/deva, (760) 786–3200: Joshua Tree National Park, nps.gov/jotr, (760) 367-5500; Anza Borrego Desert State Park, www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=638, (760) 767-5311.

Read more from Tim Viall’s travel blog, follow him on Facebook or Twitter; or, email him at tviall@msn.com. Happy travels in your world!

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  • Blog Author

    Tim Viall

    Viall is a local travel writer who retired in late 2012 after 10 years as executive director of Stockton, CA's, Emergency Food Bank and six years with the Downtown Stockton Alliance. Previously, a 21-year career in daily newspapers helped shape his ... Read Full
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