In Southern California, there exists a 600,000-acre desert gem awaiting exploration by enthusiastic horsemen. Located east of San Diego, the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park (760/767-5311; www.parks.ca.gov) offers 1,000 square miles of wilderness encompassing rugged canyons, lofty mountains, and open country that's wild and undisturbed.
Anza-Borrego is the largest desert state park in the lower 48 states. The wilderness portions of this park contain more than 110 miles of riding trails, including the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail and the California Riding and Hiking Trail.
Here, the best riding season is October to June. Summer can be stifling with intense heat. In March and April, the desert plants explode into a kaleidoscope of colors.
Prepare for weather extremes: searing heat and freezing nights. Condition your horse for sandy trails that can strain a tendon. Carry needle-nose pliers and a large comb to remove cactus spines that may find their way into your horse's legs. Water your horse before starting out, and carry plenty of water for yourself.
Then, let the adventures begin!
Stagecoach Trails Resort
With our two Missouri Fox Trotter geldings, Cowboy and Nate, we explored trails from two horse camps within the state park. Our first stop was at Stagecoach Trails Resort (www.stagecoachtrails.com), located southwest of the town of Borrego Springs.
Overall, there are 280 tree-lined campsites, many primitive camping spots, 39 corrals, and two large round pens, plus picnic tables and grills.
There are also three bath houses, laundry facilities, a solar-heated pool, a lodge, and a small grocery store that also sells propane.
This park is noted for stargazing, and we weren't disappointed. As darkness fell, stars slipped out, and soon there was a canopy of lights sprinkled across the sky like diamonds thrown on black velvet.
Pinyon Mountain Trail
Our first ride was out of the corral and across the highway to the Pinyon Mountain Trail. Sage-scented wind and squeaking leather were ours to enjoy as Nate and Cowboy worked their way up the sandy trail.
The first part of the trail is a soft, two-track road, which later gives way to a rough four-wheel-drive passage.
After a while, we came to the California Riding and Hiking Trail. When finished, it'll be a 3,000-mile loop between Mexico and Oregon.
The California Trail went north and south from our point of intersection, and could connect us to the North Pinyon Mountain Trail, Blair Valley, and Box Canyon. We chose the Pinyon Mountain Trail.
Other trails from camp include the North Pinyon Mountain Trail, and the short, but scenic, Cool Canyon Trail.
A good loop trail from camp is the Blair Valley Trail, which is 11 miles round trip. Ride out as before, and take the California Trail south.
Our next destination was the Vernon V. Whitaker Horse Camp (www.parks.ca.gov), located about 30 miles northeast of Stagecoach Trails Resort.
This camp is operated by the California state park system. It's located in a tranquil setting at the end of a 3.5 mile dirt road north of the town of Borrego Springs.
We counted 11 campsites with two corrals per site. The camping spots are situated along a hill providing wind protection. Ample shade trees, fire rings, and picnic tables round out great camping locations. There's also a group area and solar-heated showers.
Several trails exist right from camp. The Desert Trail makes a loop south of camp in open desert country and past citrus groves.
The other trails go northwest of camp up the main valley. We had the good fortune of meeting Glen and Diane Rick. Diane provided us with an entertaining tour of the upper trails.
After riding in buttery sunshine, we came to the confluence of the Lower Willows Trail and the By Pass Trail. From here, we rode up the Main Wash Trail past rock walls and hanging willow trees.
During our last night at horse camp, we sat around a mesquite fire and enjoyed the company of fellow campers, oncoming dusk, and a shrill chorus of coyotes.
Enjoy this bonus photo album from our trip! (For more on the region, see "Desert Gem," Postcard From … California, The Trail Rider, May '11.)
Seasoned trail riders and equine photojournalists Kent and Charlene Krone enjoy sharing their riding adventures in the United States and Canada. Reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org.