Anza-Borrego after dark

Some of the best things in San Diego County's Anza-Borrego happen after sunset
Christine Ciarmello

ANZA-BORREGO BY DAY

  • The temps: Mid-80s into the 90s
  • The town: No stoplights, but there are several restaurants and hotels.
  • Where to eat: Borrego Springs isn’t exactly a food mecca, but the French Corner ($$$; opens mid-Oct; 721 Avenida Sureste; 760/767-5713) serves traditional dishes like boeuf bourguignon. The Red Ocotillo ($) and Krazy Coyote ($$; both at the Palms at Indian Head Hotel, 2220 Hoberg Rd.; 760/767-7400) are also good, but pricier with slower service.
  • A cooling hike: The beginner-friendly Borrego Palm Canyon Nature Trail ($8 per vehicle) is a 3-mile round-trip to a palm grove with an intermittent stream running through it. Maps are available at the visitor center a mile west of town.

BY NIGHT

  • The temps: Low 60s
  • When to visit Anza-Borrego: The best time to see the nearly full moon rise dramatically around sunset is October 21–23, also good for night hikes. The best star show happens when moonlight isn’t a factor (Oct 1–9 and Oct 28–Nov 8).
  • Where to stay: There’s a crop of places to stay, but the hands-down best is Borrego Valley Inn. Breakfast and a 4 p.m. homemade-cookie hour are included, and each room has a small, sand-swept courtyard for night-sky viewing. Some have kiva-style fireplaces and kitchenettes. October is a nice time to lounge poolside too. From $185; 2-night weekend minimum

It’s after midnight on a dark and not-so-stormy night as my Prius plunges down a curvy mountain road into the hamlet of Borrego Springs. I’m only 90 miles from San Diego, but as I roll into this desert town—small enough to have a spiral-bound phone book, and swallowed up by the vast wilderness of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park—I might as well be 10,000 miles from anywhere.

Most people think to visit Anza-Borrego in the spring, when desert wildflowers blossom, but morning hikes have never been my thing. I’m here for something different: dark skies, constellations, fall’s cool night air, moonrises over the badlands, and the chance to have this wilderness to myself. As any true insomniac knows, some of the best things happen at night—especially, it turns out, in the desert.

Star school is in session

It’s dark here—one of the darkest places in the country. This is according to the Bortle Dark-Sky Scale, which measures star visibility. Low light pollution makes for crazy-clear views of the Milky Way (putting on an especially good show this month), and planets like Venus and Mars.

I buy a star wheel map to help me navigate the sky but am a bit overwhelmed by the swath of lights until my crash course with astronomer-for-hire Dennis Mammana, who shows me how to tell time by the Big Dipper, spot a meteor shower, and differentiate between a star and a satellite. Join Dennis for an evening star session, a celestial overnight camping trip, or courses like Night Sky Photography (Oct 16; $45). 

The creatures come out

When the sun goes down, the desert wakes up—a lesson I learn from an eye-opening visit to the park’s visitor center. Tarantulas, for example, can go for weeks without water in summer, burrowed underground. But they mate in fall and make desert cameos at night or in cool weather. Add to that eerie sight a nightly parade of barn owls, kit foxes, kangaroo rats, and scorpions that glow in the dark when you hold up a black light. To see this for myself, I grab a flashlight and set out on a night hike along the paved 1.2-mile round-trip Visitor Center/Campground Trail, where my search for night dwellers is set to the sound of coyotes and nighthawks.

Moonrise is even more beautiful than sunrise

I drive out County Highway S22 and lurch across a wash road to Fonts Point lookout to catch the moonrise (perfect for those of us for whom sunrise is a purely hypothetical phenomenon). With the Borrego Badlands stretching out before me, the bluish cast of the moon lights up thousands of mesas and hundreds of slot canyons. It’s the first time I’ve seen this vista without baking in the heat, and it’s nice to know that the sun can’t steal all the glory.

Campfires come with s’mores

At the beautifully eerie Clark Homestead Site, dunes and tamarisk trees are lit by a blanket of stars and the smear of the Milky Way. Joe Raffetto, who runs California Overland’s desert adventure tours, pokes tiki torches in the ground and stokes the fire for s’mores—which come after his stories about the hard-luck homesteaders who lived here in the 1900s. The stone fireplace they built pokes up from the dunes as we hear about the rough journey westward by our own fireside, watching our marshmallows melt in the flames. From $55; overnights from $195, including star lesson; californiaoverland.com or 760/767-1232.

More: Great fall trips throughout the West