Monday 8 February 2016

Offroad in Anza Borrego: Coyote Canyon

The first part of our journey is here.

We arrived in Borrego Springs just in time to go to the visitor center there. By good luck we spoke to the same lady as a few years back, who has loads of offroad experience there and was very happy to give us updates about the state of all the trails. In fact the park even produces a frequently-updated summary of them. This is in sharp contrast to Death Valley, where all the visitor center will tell you is "we don't recommend the such-and-such trail" - so you're on your own to go try it, which I suppose isn't that bad.

We'd already read about many trails in the park in Backcountry Adventures: Southern California. This book, and its companions, are an incredible wealth of material - not only detailed descriptions of hundreds of trails, but masses of background information about the region, the wildlife, the people, and just about anything. There are plenty of trail guides (I have all of them!) - but these are the best.

Her advice was to start with the Coyote Trail, so we did. It leads to the north, starting past the huge orange groves, which seem out of place in the desert. At one time you could take it all the way through to the LA basin, but now there's a stretch in the middle which is closed making it into two in-and-out trails. At first it's an easy, sandy track, which we took on our first visit in an ordinary rental car, to walk up the amusingly-named Alcoholic Pass. The octotillos were just beginning to bloom. After a while the trail
crosses back and forth over a stream. Apparently it can get quite deep - I'd taken the precaution of noting exactly how deep I could  go (just up to the top of the wheel rims) - but after the dry winter it barely got FJ's tires wet.

The challenging part comes immediately after that, a steep, rocky stretch a few hundred yards long. FJ barely even noticed - I didn't even engage low gear - but it's certainly the end of the road for rental cars and regular SUVs. Once at the top, the view suddenly opens out into the huge expanse of the Collins Valley. It's one of those times when you are really glad to have FJ - there is absolutely no other way to get here other than a multi-day hike.

There is one main track through the valley, but many interconnected side trails so you can do a lot of exploring on wheels. We saw a few cars on the main trail, and a couple of parked vehicles at the trailheads, but we pretty much had the place to ourselves. Our favourite spot was Salvador Canyon, with a very luscious spring, and high up in the hillside, a cluster of palms just like the much more famous and much more visited Palm Canyon.

The last couple of miles of the valley are very rough, and we wondered whether it was worthwhile. Our doubts were removed at the end, at Middle Willows. A fence very definitely ends the drivable trail. We walked a little further upstream, in the direction that once led right through to Anza Canyon. The spring is very lush, completely hidden by dense vegetation. It's a beautiful place.

It was mid-afternoon by the time we returned. There was just time to explore the Truckhaven Trail. This is the original road from Borrego Springs to the Salton Sea, built in the 1920s by the local farmers who needed a way to get their produce out. Much of the time it goes through sandy washes, but even so it would be a challenge in a Model T or a primitive truck of the period. And from time to time it suddenly scales a canyon wall. The worst part is a recent bypass around a washout. From the description in the guide I wasn't sure I'd be able to manage this, but FJ barely noticed, chugging up the 30% grade at a walking pace. It's short but spectacular, leading over the top a ridge and then an equally steep grade back down into the next canyon.

That just left us time to get to Fonts' Point before sunset. This is a spectacular overlook which can, with care, be reached in a rental car (I know!). There is a panoramic 360 degree view, but the most intriguing part is right at your feet, the badlands, square miles of low hills and canyons made of dried mud. Each time I've been there I've wondered what it would be like to be down amongst them. This time, as I'll describe later, we had the means to find out.

That evening we went for dinner at the only "fine dining" restaurant in the area, the Butterfield Dining Room at the Casa del Zorro, a couple of miles outside the town. The food was good and so was the wine, and the service was friendly and unpretentious, which we always appreciate. The ambiance was rather spoiled, for me anyway, by what seemed to be a group of long-since retired salesmen, completely dominated by their ex-boss who was only too happy to share his old-fart, reactionary opinions on everything with the entire room. There times when it is an advantage not to be a native speaker!