Camping · Hiking

Anza Borrego: Wildflowers & Rainbow Canyon

We took a spontaneous trip to Anza Borrego State Park to camp for a few nights and see the amazing wildflower bloom. This may not sound like much, but as a mom of three my ‘spontaneous’ is actually more like the running speed of a clumsy turtle and it rarely happens that I can successfully get things together without a little notice. However, with our combined determination, Z and I threw together all our gear, clothes and food for the weekend in a matter of hours. As the sun set, we were off to the desert!


It is a bit crazy to drive two hours in the dark with two toddlers and a baby, and expect everyone to be happy to sleep in a dark, unfamiliar tent at the end of the drive. But again, we were determined!

We hoped to find camping in Little Blair Valley in the southern part of the park, but after driving around the area for a while we realized that pretty much every available camping spot was already taken. The wildflower bloom in the desert is extremely popular this year and it looked like everyone that could be camping in the desert that night, was. 


Fortunately, Z knows the dirt roads in Anza Borrego extremely well, and he remembered where we had camped six or seven years ago near Pinyon Mountain, which was not to far from crowded Blair Valley. We made our way up to the spot…and someone was already camping there! Never fear…we had one more backup option and it looked pretty appealing at 11pm (definitely past my bedtime).

 The unexpected benefit of starting a camping trip in the dark is that our kids usually sleep most of the drive, and they keep sleeping cozily in their car seats while we set up camp in the cold & dark. The hard part is transitioning them from the warm car to their slippery sleeping bags without too much excitement. 


J woke up as soon as we stopped the car at our new camping spot. She loves her sleeping bag and was ready to jump in. I tried to get her to contain her excitement so she wouldn’t wake up her sleeping siblings . M had been asking if we could go home ever since we put him in his car seat, and I didn’t want to have to explain everything to him quite yet. 


At last, the tent was up, sleeping bags were unfurled, and we stuffed the kids into their respective bags. M didn’t seem too bothered that he was in a cold tent instead of his warm bed, but he did ask if we could watch TV before bed. Sorry little guy, no electricity means no TV.

Despite the wind, we all went to sleep quickly and seemingly the next moment, the tent was warming up with the rising sun.



After breakfast, we decided to try a nearby hike up Rainbow Canyon. This turned out to be a fantastic choice, as the wildflower bloom was incredible right outside the canyon, but no crowds in sight. As we walked into the coolness of the canyon narrows, the distant sounds of passing cars soon drifted away and were exchanged for the sound of bees and singing birds among the flowers. 


Rainbow Canyon is a small, narrow canyon with a sandy dry riverbed at its floor, and several sets of fun dry falls to clamber up. We ascended four or five falls before getting to a higher obstacle which I couldn’t climb with the baby. I sat down for a snack in the shade while Z and the toddlers explored a bit further. 



My favorite plants in the canyon were the barrel cactus with vibrant purple or yellow blooms, and the star shaped succulents that clung to shady crevices in the canyon walls. After a quick snack, we returned to the canyon mouth and headed back to camp. 



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At our campsite, there was a large pile of boulders that gave a nice backdrop to our setup. Upon returning to camp, we wandered out to the rocks for a little bit of exploring. We were excited to find that most of the boulders had the indentations of morteros.  


As I researched further at home, the alluvial fan that our camp was situated in was a major migratory route of the native people who wintered in Anza Borrego, up to as late as the 1940’s. Hundreds of people would harvest agave and other edible plants, and the boulders we were camped near were a part of their food processing operations. Further on up the valley, there is a large site at Mine Wash, which would be accessible from Pinyon Mountain Road except that it has been closed to foot traffic only, probably to help preserve the morteros and other artifacts in the area. Here is an article with some more info about the historic site at Mine Wash.


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The next morning, we packed up camp and began to make our way home. We decided to catch the Mason Valley Truck Trail from the S-2 Highway. It extends all the way up from the desert floor to Banner Grade near Julian. 


The road offered spectacular views back down towards the desert as we climbed up to 4,000 ft. It crosses the PCT in a remote area above Oriflame Canyon, where we saw a few nice dispersed campsites and also a trailer straight out of Breaking Bad (haha). Overall it was a bit bumpy but nothing too crazy for our vehicle and my expert driver. 

Here is a post with more technical information about the Mason Valley truck trail if you want to try it yourself. 

Overall, it was a fun trip and we managed to fit in a few new adventures. For baby S, it was her first time on a camping trip! I call that a success.

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