Exploring the deserts, history and wild animals on the “quiet side” of Southern California

One thing I like about owning a motorhome and being semi-retired is the freedom to turn a one-day special event into a six-week road trip. When my nephew announced the date for his San Diego wedding, my husband, Jim, and I started planning all the places we could visit before and after the big event, including two weeks in Southern California.

Does the phrase “Southern California” conjure up visions of traffic jams and movie stars? Of course it does, but have I got a treat for you! Visit Joshua Tree National Park and Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in September, when the intense heat of the summer fades and the fall visitors haven’t yet arrived.

We stayed in Twentynine Palms for three nights at the TwentyNine Palms RV Resort, located 2 miles from the east entrance of Joshua Tree. The RV park has a pool, spa and fitness center, plus the 9-hole Roadrunner Dunes Golf Course is within walking distance.

A full day was devoted to Joshua Tree National Park. At the Oasis Visitor Center, we picked up a brochure to learn about the park. Joshua trees aren’t actually trees; they are a species of yucca. The park is comprised of two distinct desert ecosystems: the Mojave Desert in the west, above 3,000 feet elevation; and the Colorado Desert in the east, below 3,000 feet elevation. Joshua trees, piñon pines, scrub oaks, Mohave yuccas and prickly pears are abundant in the Mojave. Creosote, ocotillos, palo verdes and jumping cholla cacti thrive in the Colorado Desert. From the quarter-mile Cholla Cactus Garden Nature Trail, hikers get a close-up view of 10 acres of teddybear cholla. Even though they sound cuddly, don’t get too close. They are also named jumping cholla for their tendency to attach pieces of themselves to shoes and pants of passersby.

sculpture at Galleta Meadows
The serpent, which is 15 feet high and 350 feet long, is one of more than 130 metal sculptures at Galleta Meadows that are spread out over 10 square miles in Borrego Springs.

As we explored the park via our Jeep and on foot, we were impressed by the picturesque locations of the eight campgrounds dispersed throughout the park. None of them have hookups and only two have water and pit toilets. Two campgrounds have a 25-foot limit for RVs, and the others have a 35-foot limit. In the spring and fall when temperatures are pleasant, dry camping at these sites would be ideal. In mid-September with temperatures in the high 90s, we were happy to return to our air-conditioned motorhome in town.

On our second day in the area, we started at the 29 Palms Visitor Center. The helpful women there recommended several things to see around town. The “Oasis of Murals” does a colorful job of honoring the town’s founders and natural beauty with murals painted on the sides of numerous buildings. A brochure explained the stories behind the 26 murals and one sculpture.

We had no idea Twentynine Palms was a destination for art lovers. The Joshua Tree National Park Art Exposition is a juried art show featuring more than 50 artists. We had just missed two days of expo festivities, but the art was displayed for the month of September at the 29 Palms Art Gallery.

Old Schoolhouse Museum, within walking distance of the art gallery, tells the story of the determined pioneers of Twentynine Palms. San Bernardino County denied the request for funds to build a school. Homesteaders William and Elizabeth Campbell, whom we learned about on one of murals, donated 5 acres of their property. In 1927, residents donated money, material and labor to build the one-room schoolhouse. Eight students were enrolled. By 1945, the school had grown to three rooms and more than 90 students.

The Springs at Borrego RV Resort and Golf Course near Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
The Springs at Borrego RV Resort and Golf Course near Anza-Borrego Desert State Park has been rated 10/10*/10 by the Good Sam Guide Series for eight years running.

The Springs at Borrego RV Resort and Golf Course was our home for the next three nights while we explored Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. The Good Sam Guide Series has rated the RV park 10/10*/10 for eight years running. Mid-September is a nice time to visit when it’s not crowded. Of the 160 RV sites, I counted fewer than 30 RVs in the park. The summer rates are lower, and even in low season, there’s plenty to do.

After settling in, we set out for two of the top attractions in Borrego Springs. At Galleta Meadows, more than 130 metal sculptures are spread out over 10 square miles. The owner of the Galleta Meadows Estate, Dennis Avery, asked sculptor Ricardo Breceda to create these massive sculptures. While most of the collection, which began in 2008, was inspired by fossils, history and nature of the Anza-Borrego Desert, some were inspired by whim and fantasy. There were prehistoric dinosaurs, mammoths, turtles, giant insects, human figures and horses, to name a few. My favorite was a mythical serpent. Its head rises about 15 feet above the ground and its snake-like body undulates through the desert sand for 350 feet.

Font’s Point in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park
Font’s Point in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park offers a view of the Borrego Badlands, which is popular with photographers at sunrise and sunset.

Font’s Point in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park lies at the end of a 4-mile road. A four-wheel-drive vehicle is highly recommended since much of the road consists of soft sand. The view of the Borrego Badlands is popular with photographers at sunrise and sunset. When we arrived in our dinghy with our cameras and tripods, three photographers had already set up on the edge of the overlook. We snapped photos as the sand-colored arroyos took on a rosy hue.

Our next day began at the visitor center in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. When we told the volunteer at the desk we would only be here for three nights, she laughed and said, “That’s not enough. You need a week to see all that Anza-Borrego has to offer. It’s 650,000 acres — almost the size of Rhode Island.” We vowed to do our best to squeeze a week’s worth of sightseeing into one day. It’s on my bucket list for our next visit to coincide with a “super bloom” of wildflowers in the spring after a wet winter.

The volunteers recommended the “Triangle Tour,” which runs south from the visitor center to Borrego Springs Road, west on Highway 78 and then back to town on County Highway S3. We drove through the Texas Dip, a 1-mile-wide dip in the road where the San Felipe wash drains into the Salton Sea. We stopped several times to explore a slot canyon and admire the vegetation, especially the large ocotillos.

9-hole championship golf course at The Springs at Borrego RV Resort
The 9-hole championship golf course at The Springs at Borrego RV Resort has picturesque views of the mountains, palm trees and ponds.

We were too busy marveling at the rapidly changing terrain to notice we’d missed our turn on S3. Highway 78 turned into a narrow, winding road that led us to Julian, a mining town in the Cuyamaca Mountains founded during the 1870s gold rush. Just an hour east of San Diego, it’s popular with tourists. After being in Southern California for almost a week, we encountered our first “traffic jam” — it took nearly a minute to turn left off of the town’s main street. Perhaps we’d been spoiled by the lack of people we’d encountered so far. On the way out of town, we stopped at the Apple Lane Orchard to taste their sweet and hard ciders.

On our last day in Borrego Springs, we enjoyed the RV resort. The on-site 9-hole championship golf course was uncrowded, with only a handful of other golfers on the course. The enjoyable round was further enhanced by the picturesque views of the mountains, palm trees and ponds.

Desert Dark Sky
Borrego Springs is one of 22 Certified International Dark Sky Communities by the International Dark-Sky Association in the world, and the only one in California.

Borrego Springs is one of 22 Certified International Dark Sky Communities by the International Dark-Sky Association in the world, and the only one in California. We walked to a dark area in the RV park and picked out the Milky Way, the Big and Little Dippers, and other constellations with the help of an app on our smartphone. An astronomer offers Borrego Night Sky Tours, but even during the low season, his tours were sold out. If you want to learn from an expert, plan ahead.

On the morning we left Borrego Springs, our GPS indicated we’d be at our campground near San Diego in 90 minutes. I didn’t bother examining the route, trusting technology to get us to our next destination safely. Eventually we realized the GPS was taking us through Julian. When we turned on Highway 78, a sign stated, “Semis over 30 feet not advised.” We rerouted through El Centro, which added nearly two hours to our trip.

For the next eight days, we stayed at Santee Lakes Recreation Preserve in Santee, about 20 minutes from San Diego. Santee Lakes were built by the Padre Dam Municipal Water District to “demonstrate the promise of water recycling.” The 190-acre park has seven lakes with recycled water. The lakes are stocked with fish year-round. Campers can choose from 300 full-hookup sites.

Elephant Valley in the San Diego Zoo Safari Park
Elephants that live in Elephant Valley in the San Diego Zoo Safari Park can cool off in a pond and under a shade structure.

We set out to explore the preserve by bicycle. By taking every trail, stopping at every picnic site, and talking to fishermen and other happy campers, we racked up 8 miles on the odometer in two hours. Two photographers on the shore had set up their cameras with seriously long lenses on their tripods. We suspected they were capturing photos of some of the 200-plus birds species that have been spotted in the park.

One of the most famous zoos in the world is San Diego Zoo; the San Diego Zoo Safari Park is another well-known attraction. We devoted one day to each before our nephew’s wedding.

The San Diego Zoo Safari Park covers 1,800 acres near Escondido, about 30 miles north of San Diego. The park has more than 3,000 animals representing more than 300 species, everything from elephants and gorillas to lorikeets and flamingos. After watching the Frequent Flyers, a free-flight bird show, we went up in the Balloon Safari. From the tethered helium balloon 400 feet above ground, we had a view of the park that helped us plan the rest of our day. The Africa Tram took us for a 25-minute ride through an expansive habitat where we saw herds of giraffes, antelopes, rhinoceroses and other African animals.

Cheetah Run in San Diego Zoo Safari Park
At the Cheetah Run in San Diego Zoo Safari Park, visitors see a cheetah, the fastest land animal, chase a toy down a 330-foot track. Photo courtesy Ken Toler

The highlight was the Cheetah Run at 3:30 p.m. Since a crowd started gathering 20 minutes before the event was scheduled to start, we opted to pay $8 each for preferred viewing. Cheetahs are the fastest land animals, reaching speeds of up to 70 mph. There are seven cheetahs at the park and each one lives with his dog buddy. On the day we visited, the stars of the Cheetah Run were Bahati, a cheetah, and Willow, a yellow lab. Willow ran first, chasing a toy down the 330-foot track, then it was Bahati’s turn. Lots of people were taking photos as Bahati passed. Ken Toler, the man standing next to me, had one of those seriously long lenses on a fancy camera. Ken asked how my photos were, and I admitted all I got was a spotted blur. His were amazing, and he graciously allowed me to share one of his photos.

koala at the San Diego Zoo
The koalas at the San Diego Zoo are cute even when they sleep, which is something they do 18–22 hours a day.

The San Diego Zoo is smaller, covering 100 acres, but it has more than 3,700 animals representing 660 species. To start the day, we took a narrated bus tour. Our guide asked if we knew the difference between African and Asian elephants. I didn’t, but it seemed like every kid on the bus yelled, “It’s their ears!” African elephants have larger ears. The elephants at this zoo get something they don’t get in the wild: daily pedicures at the Elephant Care Center. Another fun fact is that koalas sleep 18–22 hours a day. Since their diet of eucalyptus leaves doesn’t provide much nutritional or caloric content, they sleep to conserve energy. After exploring the zoo on foot, we rode the Skyfari Aerial Tram, giving us a bird’s-eye view.

Several days before the wedding, our nephew, Ryan Barnhill and his fiancé, Heather Roberts, joined our family for dinner at the Corvette Diner. It’s a fun place for dinner or a special occasion. The DJ played “Going to the Chapel” in honor of the upcoming wedding. We were impressed by the waitstaff who not only served delicious meals, but also entertained us with their dance moves and made balloon art for the guests of honor.

Corvette Diner in San Diego
At the Corvette Diner in San Diego, the waitresses often demonstrate their dancing skills as well as serve tasty food.

Our time in Southern California was everything we’d hoped, except for a few minor traffic jams on our forays into the big city. The only celebrities we saw — pampered elephants and fast cheetahs — posed for photos but didn’t give autographs. All of this made for a trip of happily-ever-after memories.

For More Information

29 Palms Visitor Center, 760-358-6324, www.visit29.org

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. 760-767-5311, www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=638

Joshua Tree National Park, 760-367-5500, www.nps.gov/jotr

Santee Lakes Recreation Preserve, www.santeelakes.com

San Diego Zoo, https://zoo.sandiegozoo.org

San Diego Zoo Safari Park, 760-747-8702, www.sdzsafaripark.org

The Springs at Borrego RV Resort and Golf Course, 760-767-0004, www.springsatborrego.com

TwentyNine Palms RV Resort, 800-874-4548, www.twentyninepalmsresort.com

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