One of the highlights of this April’s Cactus and Succulent Society of America convention, in San Diego, was the mid-week field trip. There were various options, including garden and nursery tours, but I chose to explore the Anza-Borrego Desert by bus and on foot, with expert guides Andrew Wilson and Dr. Juergen Menzel. There was an Anza-Borrego off-road trip, as well, though it seems to have involved less walking, and more bouncing around on crumby roads, with attendant vehicle breakdowns, so I feel that I chose wisely.
Anza-Borrego is about a two-hour drive east from San Diego. We started out in coastal Mediterranean scrub (or what was left of it) near the hotel, then headed into the Cuyamaca Mountains, which are sparsely forested with oaks and poplars, with fields of yellow wildflowers on valley floors. Then came a long descent through increasingly scorched, arid landscapes to the town of Ocotillo, on the desert floor, below sea level.
Bursera microphylla at Mountain Palm Springs.
Our longest hike was to Mountain Palm Springs, near the southern edge of the park. There we saw hundreds of chollas (Cylindropuntia bigelovii and others) and barrel cacti (Ferocactus cylindraceus), including some remarkable multi-headed and crested specimens. There were also a few desert iguanas, but the lizards were about the only creatures out and about on a hot and blazingly sunny day. The reward at the end of the hike was a stop at a genuine desert oasis, where water seeps out of the ground and a grove of California Fan Palms (Washingtonia filifera) provides a shady spot for contemplating a giant old Elephant Tree (Bursera microphylla).
The next stop was Box Canyon, site of the first wagon road into Southern California. The vegetation here was slightly lusher, dominated by flowering shrubs like Brittlebush (Encelia farinosa). There were impenetrable thickets of Century Plant (Agave deserti), and clusters of Strawberry Hedgehog Cactus (Echinocereus engelmannii) in full bloom.
Other shorter stops included lunch at Tamarisk Grove, where a short nature trail featured abundant flowering specimens of California Fishhook Cactus (Mammillaria dioica) and Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens). We admired a huge plant of the locally rare beargrass, Nolina parryi, by the side of the road, and spent some time in the town of Borrego Springs, shopping for fresh organic desert grapefruit and checking out the park visitor center. I was parched and tired by the end of the day, but it was an unforgettable trip!