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Serenity found in California’s largest state park and largest inland sea.
By Russ Roca
The desert is vast, inhospitable and unforgiving. It is also an incredible and humbling place to travel by bicycle. During our current United States bicycle tour, Laura and I found ourselves crossing California’s largest state park, Anza-Borrego, and one of California’s most mysterious bodies of water, the Salton Sea, at the perfect time of year (November-March). Both are relatively undiscovered bicycling destinations that can provide an exciting and different experience from the more-pedaled coastal routes.
Our desert crossing began just north of San Diego. We climbed into the coastal mountains on Highway 76 and skirted the edge of Mount Palomar. We camped at Lake Henshaw, then wound our way to Montezuma Valley Road. This is a long and gradual climb, eventually leading to a tiny community called Ranchita, where a giant Abominable Snowman sculpture greets you from the only store. Grab a snack before the thrilling descent into Anza-Borrego.
As Montezuma Valley Road tips down, it reveals the desert below, and you drop 3,500 feet (1,000 meters)-worth of elevation over the course of 12 winding miles (19 kilometers), as the great, flat desert rises to meet you. At the bottom of the hill, you can turn left to head into the visitor center, or turn right to head into Borrego Springs.
The temperature at the desert floor is about five to 10 degrees warmer than at the top of the hill. During the summer, triple digit temperatures are the norm. Desert touring means coping with the challenges of vast distances and scarce services. The ability to carry a large amount of water is of utmost necessity. In addition to carrying two full water bottles, we each had a dromedary bag that can carry six liters of water (good for about a day and a half).
In exchange for these difficulties, you experience beautifully quiet roads and unearthly stillness. Oftentimes, Laura and I would ride side by side and hold a conversation, without a car in sight for miles.
Stock up on supplies in Borrego Springs before heading deep into the park. Using one of the campsites as your base, you can plan day trips into the desert to explore both the natural and manmade attractions. The Creature Desert features a series of large dinosaur sculptures. Slot canyons offer incredibly scenic hikes and the miles of dirt roads beckon you to unload your bike and play.
While the landscape seems barren, we saw roadrunners, rabbits and lizards. A lucky and alert tourist may spot the illusive borrego, or big horn sheep, for which the park was named.
From the eastern edge of Anza-Borrego, you are within a day’s ride of the Salton Sea, another of California’s hidden gems. It is the largest inland body of water in California, yet few people visit (or know it exists).
The Salton Sea has a fascinating history. During the 1950s and 1960s, it was a famous recreation destination. More popular than nearby Palm Springs, it drew celebrities like the Beach Boys and Frank Sinatra. After a series of floods decimated the shoreline businesses in the 1970s, the Salton Sea atrophied from a glorious resort area to almost a ghost town. Today, you can walk its shores, with remnants of resorts and children’s playgrounds, and watch the thousands of migrating birds.
Ride north out of Anza-Borrego on Highway 86 to the community of Mecca where you will find a market and a few restaurants. Get your food and supplies here. Then, head south on Highway 111. All campgrounds are located on the east side of the sea. The “Headquarters” campground is nicely developed and has running water, showers and even WiFi! If you arrive by bicycle, camping is only $5 USD per night.
From the State Park Headquarters, it’s a short ride to some natural oases, where you can hike through dense and lush palm trees. The temperature is noticeably cooler and you’ll see large puddles of water that have come up from the ground to support the enormous palms and animals of the desert.
The desert is usually the last place most people think to tour. However, when the temperature is mild, and if you are properly equipped, the desert can provide a great winter touring destination. You can ride for miles without seeing another vehicle, sleep beneath a canopy of stars and hear nothing but the distant howl of coyotes.