The town of Borrego Springs is 90 miles northeast of San Diego, in the middle of the 600,000-acre Anza-Borrego Desert State Park (parks.ca.gov).
ANZA-BORREGO BY DAY
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.