By Lisa Morehouse
A desert is, by definition, dry. But even a desert can have a drought, complete with impacts for native flora and fauna on the one hand and for the humans who live and visit on the other. Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California’s biggest state park by far, is in the third straight year of drier-than-usual weather. The long dry spell has had a visible impact. The lack of rain has muted Anza-Borrego’s wildflower bloom, the one event every year that brings a crowd of visitors to the community of Borrego Springs and other desert destinations.
A decline in visitors has created challenges for local businesses. But as I found during a February visit, it’s also prompted the people who really know and love Anza-Borrego to send out the message that there’s a lot more to do here than drive through the desert and look at wildflowers through car windows.
Paige Rogowski, executive director of the Anza-Borrego Foundation, says she’s targeting a different kind of visitor: “The people who are interested in learning what’s underneath this rock. How does this plant work here in the desert when it’s so dry? Or where can I find a bighorn sheep? And how do they live on the rocky slopes of the mountains?”
The idea is to attract visitors to more fully explore the park’s nearly 650,000 acres — an area roughly 20 times the size of San Francisco, more than double the size of Los Angeles.
“Everyone has to think of creative ways to get people to visit town when wildflowers are not in bloom,” Rogowski says. “Astronomy is a perfect example. Borrego Springs is a ‘dark sky community‘ certified by International Dark Sky association. That means we have some tremendously beautiful night-sky viewing. That’s a resource we promote regardless of wildflowers or time of year.”
Anza-Borrego is also suffering from another kind of drought — the long-term reduction in public funding that has afflicted the entire park system, which led state officials to make plans three years ago to close as many as 70 parks and curtail services in many others.
The Anza-Borrego Foundation is one of the many private nonprofit groups around the state that stepped in to help keep parks running.
“We fund where the state budget doesn’t, as best we can,” Rogowski says. “One of the things we’re doing this year, and the last few years, is to fund positions at the state park visitor center to keep it open open throughout the season, seven days a week.”
The foundation has been at work for nearly half a century on a much bigger project, too — completing acquisition of private land within the state park’s boundaries. When the group was formed in 1967, the park encompassed about 75,000 acres of the so-called in-holdings. It’s managed to raise funds for and buy about 52,000 acres of that land and turn it over to the state park. That’s more land for everyone in the state to enjoy, Rogowski says.
A recent purchase provided legal access to a part of Anza-Borrego, Coyote Canyon, that was virtually cut off from the rest of the park.
“Believe it or not, the park didn’t have access to its own park from the town of Borrego Springs,” Rogowski says. “So, by purchasing that land, we were able to provide a road into Coyote Canyon.”
Away from Borrego Springs, I toured the park with Ranger Steve Bier, who revels in showing visitors some of his favorite spots in the backcountry.
“There are so many directions this place can take, the wildflowers kind of take a back seat when you get immersed in Anza-Borrego,” Bier says.
Full immersion involves a trip to an “Oh, my God!” overview of the park’s badlands and a visit to The Slot, a canyon whose 40-foot walls are so close together I can just barely squeeze through. Way above our heads, a block of rock the size of a school bus leans precariously from one side of the canyon to the other.
I met a Bay Area park visitor, Barbara Kossy, as she prepared to embark on a hike in the park’s Hellhole Canyon. She says she had a pang of disappointment when she realized there’d be no wildflowers during her visit. But, she says that’s turned her on to other things happening in the landscape.
She says she was seeing lots of other plants in bloom and reading about how, in an effort to survive drought, some plants will drop their seeds, creating a seed bank just waiting for the right conditions.
“And when those conditions come, ‘Boom!’ Then they’ll bloom,” Kossy says. “So I’m happy to be here and see the plants, knowing that if they’re not in bloom, they’re waiting. And that’s important, and maybe a lesson.”
A lesson, perhaps, to be a little patient, and look for what may not be obvious in this austere landscape.
Funds for coverage of California state parks is provided by the S.D. Bechtel Jr. Foundation.