Southern California's desert glory

Don't miss Anza-Borrego's March wildflowers

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Anza-Borrego at its peak

The nighttime serenade of coyotes fades to silence as dawn comes to the desert. We head up Coyote Canyon, a dependable area for wildflowers with access to the trailhead for Alcoholic Pass, where we had witnessed a major bloom the year before.

The display is not of the delicate desert ephemerals but of larger shrubs and cactus. When we were last here, Alcoholic Pass was filled with indigo bush and its fragrant deep blue blooms. Ocotillo, the iconic Anza-Borrego plant, dominated the slopes. Like the desert itself, the twisting, thorny stems of ocotillo can appear bare and lifeless, but given moisture they leaf out and produce gorgeous scarlet flowers.

Considering the vision of the day before, we're expecting a prime display. But the bloom is surprisingly modest, particularly the ocotillo, which almost appear to be sitting out this spring. Still, the morning has hardly been a disappointment―all along the road leading to the trailhead, Arizona lupine and desert dandelion paint the sand purple and gold.

The wind picks up, and we decide to make another visit to the dunes. Despite strong gusts, the blossoms seem to be holding up. But wandering around, I notice some less densely flowered areas before a flash of gold catches my eye. It is the almost metallic stripe on the back of a sphinx moth caterpillar, and I realize that the verbena all around me is being devoured by hordes of these binging creatures. Back down on my belly, a closer look reveals mandibles in perpetual motion as stalks, leaves, and blossoms disappear with frightening speed.

So it goes with desert wildflowers. I feel darn fortunate to have caught this rapidly vanishing display ― and so, I suspect, do the caterpillars. Just about every other time I've visited Anza-Borrego, there's been some guy who'll say, "Oh, you should have been here a few days ago" or a few years ago or whatever. Listening to such boasts, I vowed that if I ever got lucky enough to catch Anza-Borrego at its peak, I'd never taunt anyone with such what-coulda-beens. But you know what? You definitely should have been here.

Next:  Things to do at Anza Borrego

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