Days 5 & 6: Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, Salton Sea, Joshua Tree National Park, and Mecca Hills Wilderness

Road Miles: 85.2

Total: 496.5

Trail Miles: 2.5 (Roadwalking for help)

Total: 32.5

Sites: Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, Salton Sea, Joshua Tree National Park, Mecca Hills Wilderness

I wandered around the wash where I’d camped, hunting wildflowers. Not that hunting or any kind of sneakery was required; the desert was full of life and flowers. Using the wildflower brochure I’d been given by the Anza-Borrego Foundation, I was able to identify a dozen plants: ghost flower, spectacle pod, brown-eyed primrose, desert lily, popcorn flower, little gold poppy, phacelia, Fremont’s pincushion, sand verbena, desert sunflower, desert chicory, ocotillo. There were several others in bloom I wasn’t able to identify as well.

It was hard to leave Anza-Borrego; I could easily have spent the rest of the season there, but with miles to go, I finally headed northeast toward Joshua Tree National Park.

I stopped in Salton City for gas, a few supplies, and lunch. Foodie Tip: the bean & cheese burrito in the taqueria at the gas station is huge, delicious, and only $2.99. They have a salsa bar so you can smother whatever you order with as much hot, spicy deliciousness as you like – a great value and meal for the money.

I wanted to visit the spot on the Salton Sea where we’d begun the San Diego Trans-County Trail in 2015, but I couldn’t remember where that was. I tried to get to the shore at Salton Sea Beach, but virtually all access is closed to the public. At Desert Shores, a little further north, I was able to park right next to the “beach.” “Beach” is in quotes because despite the fact that the shore looks like any other sandy beach, it’s actually composed of tiny (and frequently sharp) shells and fish bones. Walking barefoot is not advised! Thanks to the cooler temperatures and high sea level from all of the recent rains, the Sea didn’t reek as bad as it usually does, so I relaxed for about an hour here, watching the birds and clouds

Finally I got back on the road toward Joshua Tree. Since I’m avoiding primary highways and interstates as much as possible, I took a secondary route to the south entrance of the park. In doing so, I inadvertently discovered the awesome Mecca Hills Wilderness, with its crazy cool rock formations, like something out of Land of the Lost. Of course, I had to pull over and wander around a bit to explore. A bit further down the road I saw a BLM sign describing the wilderness, and learned that it’s a hot spot for desert tortoises. What?! Awesome. Now I know I need to explore this place more. But first, Joshua Tree.

By now, it’s pretty late in the day, and I’m trying to get to the Visitor Center to pick up maps and camping info for the park before they close. My entry fee is covered by the America the Beautiful Interagency Pass, but usually camping costs extra. So, I hurried into the park, passing what looks like sales lots of RVs and campers parked on the free BLM right outside the park entrance, and headed toward the Visitor Center, and oh! Look! A bunch of wildflowers! Joshua Tree is nuts with flowers!!

So, of course I stopped, wandered around, and dawdled just enough to miss the Visitor Center open hours by 5 minutes. Oops. The map in the park guide is ok, but it’s not great, and it’s certainly not detailed. Camping in the park is only allowed in designated pay campgrounds, or in the backcountry at least one mile off the road. Since by now it’s definitely too late to pack up and hike out to who-knows-where, and I’ve been spoiled by all the free dispersed camping at Anza-Borrego, I decided to go back to Mecca Hills to van-camp and return to Joshua Tree the next morning.

Back at Mecca Hills, dispersed camping is free, as is the case with most BLM lands. However, here it’s only available in the areas adjacent to Box Canyon Road, which bisects the Wilderness. Since I’m by myself, I like to camp as stealthily as possible, out of sight of the road and other campers. I cruised up and down Box Canyon a bit before finding what looked like a pretty decent spot. Unfortunately, once I got to it, I realized that some other stealthy party had pitched a tent directly in view of my chosen spot. So, I tried to turn around to find another place. Even more unfortunately, in doing so, I got Freya stuck in the sandy wash running down the center of the canyon floor. After unsuccessfully trying to dig out and free myself in forward and reverse using the few rocks I was able to drum up for traction, my campsite for the evening was decided for me. Luckily, it was a beautiful spot!

The next morning, I had to walk about 2.5 miles down Box Canyon toward Mecca to get to catch cell service to call AAA for a tow. The driver picked me up and we drove back to the van. He took one look at it, and said, “I can’t help you; you’re too far off the road.” Well, shit. So, he drove me all the way back to Mecca, and called a couple of people he knew with 4WD tow rigs. I got two estimates: $300 and $600, neither covered by AAA. Well, I’ll take Ernie for $300, Alex.

Ernie picked me up in Mecca, and had Freya out of the wash and back on the road quickly. He told me that hell lived in this area his entire life and has never seen the desert this green and full of life, which makes me feel incredibly fortunate to have been able to see it. I’m from reclaimed desert myself, and I also don’t remember seeing so much rampant green in Southern California. It’s usually so, so brown. As unplanned $300 expenses go, Ernie made this about as quick, painless, and even pleasant as it could possibly have been. However, the tow was a little rough on Freya, and the alignment felt a little bit more off, so I decided to take her back to home base for some TLC before continuing on.