Week of December 1-7, 1995
Wildlife tours of the Southwest
Q: We'd like to find wildlife, sun, and some warm weather on a Christmas two-week trip to L.A., San Diego, and across the southern parts of California and Arizona. How about spots where we can find some critters? We don't mind hiking and climbing a bit to get there on day trips.
Niel and Judy Thomas
A: Your first stop inland from the Southern California coast should be Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, an eerily beautiful landscape of petrified mud hills and sandy slopes on the Sonoran desert. The park's 600,000 acres of badlands are an easy two-hour drive northeast from San Diego and are accessible by four-wheel-drive vehicle or mountain bike along well-marked dirt roads. Off pavement, the canyon roads wind deeper into ancient strata where travelers have found dinosaur tracks and the fossilized remains of winged lizards.
Try an easy day hike from the park's visitor center to Borrego Palm Canyon, over rocks and sand into a spring-fed oasis of fan palms. Keep your eyes open here for thirsty wildlife, including rare western yellow bats, hooded orioles, badgers, coyotes, foxes, and elusive bighorn sheep. Pitch your tent at either Tamarisk Grove or Borrego Palm Canyon, the park's two drive-in campgrounds ($14 per night; call 619-767-5311 for advance reservations). Backcountry camping is permitted anywhere in the park. While you don't need a permit, it is a good idea to pick up topo maps at the visitor center (619-767-4025), one mile west of Borrego Springs, just off Route S-3. Before you go, check out "Anza-Borrego: A Desert Retrospective" in the Destinations section of our September 1991 issue.
From there, keep heading east to Petrified Forest National Park, 93,000 acres of high desert terrain about 200 miles from the Grand Canyon in southeastern Arizona. Home to the world's largest concentration of brilliantly colored petrified wood, the Painted Desert badlands offers spectacular, open-air views of red-rock mesas, cone-shaped mudstone mounds called Teepees, and Indian petroglyphs and ruins. For the best introduction to the Painted Desert backcountry and the resident wildlife--pronghorn antelope, mule deer, jack rabbits, coyotes, and the occasional elk--stretch your legs on a moderately challenging, seven-mile hike across steep clay slopes from Kachina Point to Pilot Rock. Once you're there, it's an easy scramble up the igneous rock bluff (6,235 feet), which has panoramic views of the San Francisco Peaks to the west, the Hopi mesas to the northwest, and Navajo country to the north.
The next day, follow Digger Wash four miles east to Chinde Mesa before heading south through the dark fossilized wood of the Black Forest to Onyx Bridge (a large petrified log that spans a gully) and back to Kachina Point. There are no drive-in campgrounds in the park, but you can pitch your tent anywhere in the backcountry; pick up a free camping permit and trail maps at the Painted Desert Visitor Center, just off I-40. For trail maps and information, contact park headquarters at 520-524-6228, or check out "Parkland Incognito" in the Destinations section of our August 1995 issue.