California dreamin’… warm weather touring in Death Valley, Anza Borrego

Badwater Basin, salt deposits and stagnant water, at 282 feet below sea level.

Harmony Borax Works old water tanker and borax wagons in Death Valley.
The old Rhyolite railroad station stands sentinel over this large ghost town.
Sand dunes and knarly trees grace a portion of Death Valley National Park.
Bighorn sheep, high above Anzo Borrego SP.
Spindly Ocotillo plant in bloom, following light rain.
California Fan Palm oasis at top of rocky trail, Anza Borrego SP.

A California dreamin’ tour… find warm weather in Death Valley, Anza Borrego

Already tired of chilly mornings and frosty windshields? Use the winter and early spring to visit two of California’s more scenic and spectacular destinations, the desert wonders of Death Valley National Park and Anza Borrego State Park.

Take a tour of Death Valley and Anza Borrego, just 250 miles apart and perfect for winter touring for exotic wildlife, marvelous scenery and, later in the winter and spring, wild flower blooms.

Take the scenic route, up and over Highway 88, then down Highway 395 to reach Death Valley. Hwy. 395 will take you past a number of remarkable destinations, Including unique towns like Bridgeport, Lee Vining, Mammoth Lakes, Bishop and Lonepine (offering a number of low cost motels and B&Bs). Points of interest include Bodie, one of California’s most impressively preserved gold rush towns (though the access road is off closed in Winter), Mono  Lake with its eerie Tufa towers, the June Lake loop, Mammoth Lakes and the World War II internment camp of Manzanar, where Japanese citizens were sadly detained.

Heading to Death Valley from this direction, you’ll enter through the northwest portion of the park and the town of Panamint Springs, where you begin a steady drop in elevation below sea level. In the summertime, Death Valley is one of the hottest places in the world, with temperatures frequently reaching 125°F. In winter, it’s a pleasant place with temperatures in the high 60s and low 70s (though, chilly nights); winter rains begin to bring the desert plants to life.

Death Valley was named during the 1849 California gold rush when an immigrant wagon train from the Midwest suffered a fatality cutting across the arid valley. One of the 49ers, looking back, noted “goodbye, Death Valley” and the name stuck. As you tour the park watch for desert tortoise, roadrunners, hummingbirds and bighorn sheep.

Death Valley was home to native peoples thousands of years ago, and more recent settlers brought by the gold rush. But it was silver discovered in the park in 1873, causing  Panamint City to swell to more than 5000 residents. Silver soon played out, then “white gold” was discovered, borax. A stop at the Harmony Borax Works reveals the refinery and huge 20 mule-team wagons which operated from 1883–88.

Gold was also found within the park; the Keane Wonder Mine has been reopened after safety modifications, a gold mine that boomed from 1907 to 1912, producing over $1 million in gold inside the park. In 1904, gold was discovered just east of the park, leading to the last real American gold rush. Rhyolite, on the park’s eastern edge, is one of the more interesting ghost towns in the west. The town quickly expanded with thousands of miners, several roads and a railroad built into the district; a financial failure led to the end of the era by 1912.

Some of the park’s points of interest include Badwater Basin, 282 feet below sea level and Golden Canyon – just a short hike off Highway 190. Hike the canyon late afternoon when the setting sun offers spectacular colors. South is Natural Bridge, just off the main road and another short hike takes you to this natural wonder. And, tour Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, a vast sandy desert expanse, wonderful for photo taking.

For wildflower blooms, a number of factors are at play, including rainfall, temperature, topography and elevation.  For updates on desert blooms, see desertusa.com, offering the best timing and locations to find often-stunning blooms of mimulus, encelia, poppies, verbena, evening primrose, phacelia, desert star, blazing star, desert gold and species of cacti (usually well above the valley floor). Death Valley boasts a number of campgrounds and hotel accommodations within the park.

Anza Borrego State Park, southeast of Palm Springs, is larger than the other 259 California State Parks combined. The vast park is named for Spanish explorer Juan Bautista De Anza and the Spanish word borrego, for bighorn sheep. The park is ringed by mountains and sand dunes, and, depending upon sparse rainfall, diverse wildflowers, exotic palm groves and a cacti prosper. The elusive bighorn sheep, Roadrunners, kit foxes, mule deer, chuckwallas, iguanas and rattlesnakes call the park home.

This is the Colorado Desert; millions of years ago, the Colorado River met the Gulf of California. When tourists visit today’s Grand Canyon and puzzle over where all that dirt and rock went – the answer is Anza Borrego. Park headquarters and visitor center offer insights and a developed campground is located on the edge of Borrego Springs, a city offering restaurants and motels.

For an adventure follow the Palm Canyon trailhead. The 1.5 mile hike up a bone dry canyon,  reaches a point where you’ll hear running water and find a pretty stream and increasing vegetation. At the top you’ll discover a beautiful California fan palm oasis (fan palms are California’s only native palm tree).

Sharp-eyed hikers may spot the elusive Peninsular bighorn sheep, as well as a variety of desert plants including indigo bush, brittlebush, creosote, blue palo verde (with yellow flowers), cholla, barrel and hedgehog cactus, Ocotillo and Mojave yucca. At nightfall, Borrego Springs, a Dark Sky community, provides outstanding opportunities for reveling in a wondrous star-filled night sky.

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

Read more from Tim Viall’s travel blog, follow him on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter; or, email him at tviall@msn.com. Happy skiing in the Sierra!

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    Tim Viall

    Viall is a local travel writer who retired in 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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