Frost -Free and Easy

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Winter Travel Guide 1996

Frost -Free and Easy

Seven sunny escapes in the Lower 48

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park | Grapevine Canyon Ranch | Big Bend National Park | Banning House | Bahia Honda Key | Grayton Beach | Ventura

When the snow piles up on the windowsill and your car's engine balks at turning over in the morning chill, your thoughts naturally turn to warmer climes. If the tropics seem too far, too expensive, or too much effort to get to, there are alternatives closer to home. From the Sunbelt beaches to the Southwestern desert, you'll find some fast, easy, and affordable antidotes to your winter funk. Here are a few of our favorites:

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, Borrego Springs, California
For all the wonders of California's desert national parks (Death Valley, Joshua Tree, Mojave), it's 600,000-acre Anza-Borrego that claims the most ardent pack of annually returning desert rats. This is classic, low, Colorado desert featuring an absurdly colorful cast of desert plants--like the spindly, red-blossomed ocotillo, the fuzzy "jumping" cholla cactus, and thick-trunked elephant trees--as well as effusions of wildflowers beginning in late February. Toss in pile-o'-rock mountains where bighorn sheep (borregos) dwell, and palm canyons that could pass for Bali Hai, and you've got an aficionado's desert that also happens to be easy to drive.

It's best to start from the west, about 40 miles east of Escondido, and drop in on paved Route S22, which winds down about 5,000 feet from the Laguna Mountains to the desert floor at park headquarters. The three-mile round-trip hike from the campground to Borrego Palm Canyon takes you to a 30-foot waterfall shaded by a forest of palms. Dozens of songbirds trill, and bumblebee-size hummingbirds flit about.

Back at park headquarters, head east through the town of Borrego Springs, then south on Route S3 through Yaqui Pass--the entire south hillside is dotted with barrel cactus--which deposits you at the park's best campground, Tamarisk Grove (shade trees and showers, $16 per night). When you get to S2, proceed south through Earthquake Valley (yes, a fault runs through it). Of the many stops along S2 as it slices through the park to the southern boundary 63 miles to the south, one of the best is Blair Valley (just beyond mile marker 22). Half a mile in on the dirt road is Foot and Walker Pass, where Butterfield Stage passengers had to push their coaches over the rocks. Three miles in there's a steep, one-mile walk to the homesite of Marshall South, who foisted his Thoreau-in-the-desert dreams on a less-than-willing family back in the 1930s; a rougher dirt road leads to some American Indian pictographs a few miles on.

Farther south on S2 is the adobe shell of Vallecito Stage Station, worth a gander, and 14 miles south is Mountain Palm Springs, worth a walk on a covey of short trails that lead to half a dozen palm groves, all of them quiet and little-visited. If you've racked a mountain bike, continue on S2 to Canyon Sin Nombre--the trailhead is at Carrizo Badlands Overlook--and ride the jeep road through an eerie rock cleft and on into the badlands: the kind of gnarled, wind-eroded country that gives deserts their ominous reputation. Go as far as you dare, then retrace your ride and your drive back to Tamarisk Grove Campground or to Palm Canyon Resort in Borrego Springs (doubles begin at $75; 800-242-0044), or continue 13 miles south to Interstate 8. Park information: 619-767-5311. Campground reservations: 800-444-7275.
By Bob Howells

Grapevine Canyon Ranch, Pearce, Arizona
Punching dogies is for real at Grapevine Canyon Ranch, a 5,000-acre spread in the winter-sun-warmed Dragoon Mountains of southeastern Arizona, adjacent to 64,000 acres of open country. As a working cattle ranch, Grapevine has an authenticity that erases the sense of playacting that sometimes plagues dude ranches. Not that you must participate in roundups, castration, or branding--but you can.

Or you can opt to just ride. Great daily trail riding on well-trained quarter horses is, for most guests, Grapevine's strongest appeal. Rides are always in small groups (even individual) with wranglers, and range from slow-paced to fast, short breakfast rides to all-day challenges--like one on steep, rocky trails into the Cochise Stronghold, where the Dragoons retain the ruggedness and solitude of the last refuge of the Chiricahua Apaches. Another all-day ride takes you through Apache Pass along the old Butterfield Stage Trail in the nearby Chiricahua Mountains, and ends up at the ruins of Fort Bowie.

Roundups are in November and May, but Cowboy Camp, the third week of each month, is nearly as exciting. Mentors teach branding, roping, basic horsemanship, even how to buy cattle at auction. ("Surprise, honey...")

Your "bunk" is likely to be a king-size bed in a casita with full bath, a well-stocked fridge, sitting room, and Dragoon vista. Tip: Ask for the Chiri-cahua Casita for a view of the corral and watch wranglers at work. Buffet-style grub is suitably hearty (roast beef with all the trimmings, homebaked bread, flapjacks for breakfast, sandwich bar for pack-your-own trail lunches), and is followed once a week by an evening of cowboy music and poetry.

Winter rates start at $130 per person for a double cabin, $150 per person for a casita, and include three squares a day and all horseback riding. Call 800-245-9202.
By B.H.

Big Bend National Park, Texas
The best thing about Chimneys Trail in Big Bend National Park in mid-January isn't the mysterious gallery of petroglyphs adorning the rock spires--it's the satisfaction of knowing you're basking in 75-degree comfort while more heralded parks out West are gripped in ice and snow. In fact, as one of the few places in the country that doesn't require thermal underwear for winter camping, Big Bend (324 miles southeast of El Paso in the northern Chihuahuan Desert) may be at its most pleasant from December through March.

Base yourself out of one of the park's three developed campsites (Cottonwood, Rio Grande Village, and Chisos Basin; $7 per night) and sample the desert through a series of day hikes (pick up maps at park headquarters, 915-477-2251). You'll find the trailhead for Chimneys (4.8 miles round-trip) just off Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, 1.2 miles south of Burro Mesa Pouroff Road. Seven miles farther south on Ross Maxwell, you can meander the length of Tuff Canyon (about two miles) and enjoy the frantic construction crews--thousands of cliff sparrows improving their adobe condos in the volcanic ash along the canyon walls. For a more riveting avian performance, hike the 13-mile loop to the South Rim in the Chisos Mountains and watch peregrine falcons dive to pick off jackrabbits. Then, at sunset, unwind with a warm soak in the thermal springs near Rio Grande Village.

Big Bend's three dramatic gorges--Santa Elena, Mariscal, and Boquillas--are best seen from a raft on the Rio Grande as it cuts its radical bend through the desert. Far Flung Adventures (800-359-4138) runs one- to three-day trips ($75-$300), as well as its Gourmet Trip, a three-day cruise ($600 per person, November 8-10) that features world-renowned chef Fran‡ois Maeder whipping up rack-of-lamb. Rio Grande Adventures (800-343-1640) and Big Bend River Tours (800-545-4240) also offer rafting trips.
By Paul Kvinta

Banning House, Santa Catalina Island, California
L.A. County's fastest commute is off-road and smog-free, and it leads to a place where the automobile is actually verboten. This ride is on the Catalina Express--a ferry that traverses 26 miles of blue Pacific, docking within walking distance of the Banning House Lodge on Santa Catalina Island.

The rustic 11-room inn sits on the isthmus between two harbors at the island's western end. From their hillside perch, guests have a sweeping view of water edged by golden hills, with the hazy mainland way off in the distance. Divers head down the hill to the West End Dive Center (310-510-2800) to rent gear and sign on for boat dives ($15-$65 per person; certification and refresher courses also available). Minutes from the dock, you'll find kelp forests teeming with brilliant orange garibaldi, huge sheephead, and harbor seals. You can also rent sea kayaks (singles, $8 per hour; doubles, $11 per hour) and slip into secluded coves and caves reachable only by boat.

Hiking trails branch out over terrain that was once farmed by the Spanish explorers who settled there. Thanks to the Catalina Island Conservancy, 86 percent of the island remains undeveloped. A few hundred bison are milling around, left behind from a movie shoot years ago. You'll see them on the hillsides on the Conservancy's Jeep Eco-Tours ($65 per person; 310-510-2595) or with Safari Bus ($15 per person; 310-510-7265).

December through March, doubles at the Banning House are $78-$140 weekends, $54-$98 midweek, including breakfast and transfers from the dock; a six-night scuba package ($489 per person) includes five two-tank boat dives. Or you can reserve a seaside campsite (from $8 per person per night) or rent a cabin ($39.50 per night). For reservations, call 310-510-2800.
By JeaN Pierce

Bahia Honda Key, Florida
Although the coral islands that make up Florida's Keys have much to recommend them, natural sand beaches are in short supply--except on Bahia Honda Key, that is. Located several islands west of Marathon in the Middle Keys, Bahia Honda claims 13,800 feet--more than two and a half miles--of blindingly white, crushed-coral sand beach. The entire island is a well-equipped state park with three campgrounds, two ocean beaches and one gulf beach, a dive shop, and a 19-slip marina. Sandspur Beach, up at the east end of the island, is a prime spot to soak up rays (winter highs average in the mid-80s). Here at low tide you can wander out for a good distance on offshore sandbars. At Sandspur camping area, sites are scattered in a tropical hardwood hammock between the ocean and tidal lagoon. Alternatively, you can camp on the bayside or book a two-bedroom cabin-with-kitchen that accommodates up to six. Campsites cost $23-$28 per night, while cabins run $97-$125 nightly. At Bahia Honda Dive Shop (305-872-3210) you can rent kayaks, dive gear, and pontoon boats, and book snorkeling, parasailing, and sportfishing charters. Anglers come to cast for bonefish and snapper in Florida Bay. In the open ocean, the best fishing for sailfish, mackerel, and kingfish is November through March. For camping (book up to 60 days in advance), cabin reservations, and park information, call Bahia Honda State Park at 305-872-2353
By Parke Puterbaugh

Grayton Beach, Florida
Spread the word--the Panhandle is back! After a devastating one-two punch of hurricanes that smashed Florida's northwest coast in 1995, homes and businesses have been rebuilt and dunes and beaches are rejuvenating nicely. The pearl of the Panhandle is Grayton Beach, where pure quartzite sand is mounded in snowy 30-foot drifts set back from the aquamarine water of the Gulf of Mexico. Some of the clifflike dunes emerged from Hurricane Opal with lower profiles, but sand fencing is helping to accelerate their return.

Grayton Beach State Recreation Area (904-231-4210) occupies a mile-long swath between the communities of Grayton Beach and Seaside. Described as "the perfect beach" by beach-rating coastal scientist Dr. Stephen Leatherman, Grayton has an adjacent fishing lake, 37 campsites, and a nature trail that explores the various habitats: salt marsh, scrub-hickory hammock, and pine forest. Nearby you can rent a New England-style cottage on the Gulf (one week, $2,200-$2,500 for a two- or three-bedroom house; 904-231-4224) or stay at Patrones Hideaway (bungalows and studios, $75-$85 per night; 904-231-1606), which rents canoes and pontoon boats in addition to bungalows and studio apartments. For a broader range of food and lodging options, most visitors drop their bags in Destin, a town 20 miles west that claims the largest charter-boat fleet and best fishing in Florida. Top choice is Sandestin (doubles, $55-$95; 800-277-0800), a beachside resort with 575 rooms and villas on 2,400 acres; rent sailboats and other watersports equipment at Baytowne Marina (904-267-7777
By P.P.

Ventura, California
Ventura is close enough to Southern California's Malibu-San Diego corridor to partake of its sun-drenched climate (winter highs average 67 degrees), and in places it even has the ambience of a classic California beach town. Yet it's geographically removed from all the southland's crowding and urban ills, thanks to the formidable buffer of the Santa Monica Mountains. A concrete beachfront promenade connects 1,500-foot Ventura Pier, the longest wooden pier in California, to Surfer's Point, where winter swells juiced by offshore storms generate powerful surf. Small beachfront parks rim Ventura Harbor, where you can book a fishing trip (Harbor Village Sportfishing, 805-658-1060), or an all-day jaunt to one of the rugged Channel Islands (Island Packers, 805-642-1393). The visitor center for Channel Islands National Park (805-658-5730) is on the harbor at the end of Spinnaker Drive. Ventura is a cyclist-friendly town, with beach-hugging bike paths that run from the harbor to the Ventura River. For 18-speed mountain bikes and in-line skates, try Cycles-4-Rent (18-21-speed bikes, $30 per day; 805-652-0462). If you want to be in the center of things, Holiday Inn Ventura Beach Resort (doubles, $100-$110; 805-648-7731) overlooks Ventura Pier. For a more rustic setting, try Pierpont Inn (doubles, $79-$189; 805-643-6144) on a bluff overlooking Pierpont Bay on the western edge of town.
By P.P.

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