Teddy-Bear Cholla Cacti


Anza-Borrego Desert

-- click on thumbnails for larger image --

Leaving the Anza-Borrego Visitors' Center
'For there are two deserts: One is a grim desolate wasteland. It is the home of venomous reptiles and stinging insects, of vicious thorn-covered plants and trees and unbearable heat ... visualized by those children of luxury to whom any environment is intolerable which does not provide all the comforts and luxuries of a pampering civilization. ... The other desert -- the real desert -- is not for the eyes of the superficial observer or the fearful soul of the cynic. It is a land which reveals its true character only to those who come with courage, tolerance, and understanding. For those the desert holds rare gifts'. ~ Randall Henderson, On Desert Trails
The dessert floor It's not just the heat you have to worry about ...

I guess I fall into the first category ...

As colder air had arrived last night ... it had snowed in Julian ... I decided that this would be a good day to experience a ride in the desert.

Leaving Anza-Borrego Park Headquarters
The start of the climb up Montezuma Grade Road
Deserts ate flat?
Blue skies ahead Blue skies ahead

I started my ride from the Anza-Borrego State Park Visitor Centre which is on the desert floor at around 200 metres above sea level.

It was 54°F as I set out ... but I knew that it would warm up considerably during the day.

Anza-Borrego: View down to the desert floor

I had taken the guidebook's advice and left a cache of water behind a cactus at the top of Montezuma Grade on the drive in ...

Borrego Springs

... I hoped I could find it again.


I was doing an anti-clockwise loop through Ranchita, San Felipe, the Yaqui Pass and back to Borrego Springs.

Montezuma Grade: Cutting

This has the advantage that 90% of the climbing is completed in the first 18 kilometres and most of the remaining 65 kilometres are downhill. The disadvantage is that you have to climb over 1,000 metres from the start.

Sweeping bend with the desert far below
Teddy-Bear Cholla Cacti Teddy-Bear Cholla Cacti and a Desert Argave Teddy-Bear Cholla Cacti
Motorcyclists descending Montezuma Grade Road

The climb is up Montezuma Grade road, or State Highway S22, which heads west from Borrego Springs towards Ranchita. It is the longest sustained highway grade in San Diego County ... but fortunately the road is well graded ... ascending at an average slope of 6%.

Rocky slopes

The Grade Road was completed in 1964 and was designed to ease access to the Park and to encourage development.

Rocky slopes

I settled down to cycle at a steady pace ... the road snakes up the side of the bluff ... and as you climb higher the views extend further over the desert.

Hazy view over Borrego Springs

The desert floor is criss-crossed by tracks and trails. Borrego Springs' roads are laid out in geometric patterns ... interspersed with gashes of green ... golf courses and gardens.

Cyclist going faster than me

The bluff is partly formed from the remains of a batholith ... a massive intrusion of igneous rocks ... for this reason it's sometimes called 'The Edge of Creation'.

View right across the dessert from Crawford Overlook

While I was contemplating these facts I was overtaken by a couple of cyclists who were clearly much fitter than me.

View to Borrego Springs from Crawford Overlook

The road is known by some as the 'Glass Elevator' because of the similar experience of rapidly expanding views when driving up.

My speed was such that this illusion was weakened somewhat ... but it did give me plenty of time to take photos.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park King of the Hill - Peninsular Bighorn Sheep Gashes stretching out across the desert floor
Montezuma Grade Road below Crawford Overlook

About halfway up the climb I arrived at Crawford Overlook ... this turnout provides impressive views over the nearby Culp and Tubb canyons and out over the desert.

Rocky corner

Interpretive panels provide information about the native Peninsula Bighorn Sheep. Only about 700 of these sheep remain in southern California.

Recently an additional parcel of steep wilderness land alongside the Grade Road has been acquired in order to help secure the future of the sheep and other threatened species including mountain lions and the barefoot gecko.

Crawford Overlook and Culp Canyon
Looking down on Montezuma Grade Road looping up to Crawford Overlook
Roadside cacti

Watching out for mountain lions and barefoot geckos ... I continued to climb.

The vegetation changes during the climb ... at this point the vegetation was typical of the high desert.

Near the top there are fewer cacti and more grasses and bushes.

Montezuma Grade Road: 360 degree view near the top
Flowers Flowers Flowers
Approaching the top of Montezuma Grade

Eventually I reached the top of the grade at 1,280 metres (4,200 feet) above sea level ... it was to be (almost) all downhill from now.

San Diego State Highway S-22

First I had to recover the water I had deposited earlier in the day. Fortunately I found it quite easily ... but given my footprints in the dusty surface ... so could anyone else.

Clouds hiding the tops of the San Ysidro Mountains

I had drunk two litres of water on the climb and I loaded up with a similar amount again.

At the top the atmosphere changes dramatically. I found myself in a wide elevated valley dotted with oaks with the San Ysidro Mountains to the north and the San Felipe Hills to the south.

Model houses Model houses
Model houses Model houses
Model houses Model houses
Welcome to Ranchita

I then came across the first human habitation since leaving Borrego Springs. The front of the property was decorated with a long row of model houses ... what did it mean?

Oaks in front of the San Ysidro Range

The small town of Ranchita sits in the middle of the valley.

Ranchita Store ... it's open

It averages 13 inches of precipitation a year ... just over half of which falls as snow.

However Ranchita is better known as the windiest place in San Diego County ... comfortably exceeding the National Weather Service's 45-mph warning threshold on more occasions than its neighbours.

San Felipe Hills
S-2 / S-22 Junction

Much to my surprise the Ranchita Store was open ... normally stores and cafés in way-out places are invariably shut.

San Felipe Bar

From Ranchita the road descends alongside Buena Vista Creek to reach the junction with Highway S2 which is also known as the San Felipe Road.

Here I turned left to climb up through the oak studded hillside to the Teofulio Summit.

San Felipe Hills
Granite Mountain ahead in the distance Sweeping bends on the descent

From the summit Highway S2 descends steadily for some 18 kilometres to Scissors Crossing.

On the way it passes through the small settlement of San Felipe with its 'Full Liquor Bar' ... which was shut.

More bends ... with the San Felipe Hills on the left

On my left were the San Felipe Hills. The Pacific Crest Trail finds its way along these hills roughly parallel to my route.

Scissors Crossing

This hiking trail runs all the way from the Mexican to the Canadian Border ... passing through California, Oregon and Washington.

Scissors Crossing

The complete trek is some 4,300 kilometres long and takes around 4 months to complete ... thinking about it I was glad to be on a day ride.

My freewheel took me 420 metres vertically down through the high desert from the Teofulio Summit to Scissors Crossing.

Leaving Scissors Crossing and entering Sentenac Canyon Sentenac Canyon

In the 1800s San Felipe Road and its continuation along the Carrizo Corridor were on the route of the Butterfield Overland Mail Stagecoach from Saint Louis to San Francisco.

In 1857 the fare for this journey was $200 ... so it was not a cheap option.

Sentenac Canyon

This route was also part of the Southern Emigrant Trial and was used by the Pony Express. One of the stage stations was sited close to Scissors Crossing.

At the Crossing I turned to enter Sentenac Canyon.

This rocky Canyon descends 180 metres down to Yacqui Flat ... the enclosed canyon contrasted with the open aspect of San Felipe Road.

The rocky sides of the canyon were dotted with Century Plants, or Desert Agaves, which have a tall slender stem growing from a compact rosette of leaves ... these plants are members of the Amaryllis Family.

Desert Argave Desert Argave Desert Argave

Sentenac Canyon is under treat from the Sunrise Powerlink Transmission Project ... in which the San Diego Gas & Electric Company plan to route a high voltage transmission line right through the State Park.

If State Parks are to have any purpose it should be to prevent developments such as this.

Yaqui Flat and Pinyon Ridge

Sentenac Canyon spills out onto Yacqu Flat where I followed the line of San Felipe Creek downhill.

Yaqui Flat and Pinyon Ridge

Alongside the road ocotillos were in bloom. This plant has multiple, spine covered, stems which can reach 6 metres in height ... and has deep red flowers at their tips.

Yacqui Pass Road

I next reached the Tamarisk Grove Campsite where I turned onto Yacqui Pass Road.

Rocky hillside

The campsite is on the site of a prison "Honor Farm" which was established in 1929. The prisoners helped construct the roads through Sentenac Canyon and over Yacqui Pass.

Tamarisk Grove Campground

After having descended for the last 30 kilometres it was shock to find I had to start climbing again.

Climbing up to Yacqui Pass

On the climb the slopes were covered with Teddy-Bear Cholla cacti. Despite their cuddly appearance they are covered with spines.

Teddy-Bear Cholla cacti

Their branches are easily detached by passing animals or cyclists and are able to propagate where they fall.

Yacqui Pass

Just after passing the summit ... and with about 20 kilometres to go ... I heard a twang from my back wheel and the brakes started rubbing.

It sounded ominously like a spoke breaking ...

Teddy-Bear Cholla cacti

... it was a spoke breaking.

I decided to loosen the back brake and carry on cautiously ... fortunately most of the remaining distance was down hill so I didn't have to add to the strain on the back wheel by pedalling hard.

View down to Borrego Springs ... with cloud overhead
Entering Borrego Springs ... with its single lamppost

The final descent to the desert floor was across the Mescal Bajada ... bajada being Spanish for sloping plain.

Borrego Springs: Bike Lane

The plain slopes uniformly at about 1 in 20 ... and could have been designed for a cyclist with a dodgy rear wheel.

Almost back to the start

Entering Borrego Springs I was slightly surprised to find a bike lane and a single street light.

Christmas Circle

Near the center I cycled around Christmas Circle .. which is a large traffic island containing the town's well watered Municipal Park.

At the end of the ride the temperature had reached 81°F ... I was glad that I'd picked relatively cool day. In summer the desert temperatures can rise above 120°F.

Fortunately several cafés and bars were still open ...


Dan Callahan ...

After my ride I had to get my wheel fixed.

... and assistant

I was lucky to discover Action Cyclery at 9910-C Mira Mesa Boulevard in San Diego.

On a Sunday morning the owner, Dan Callahan, dropped his other jobs to sort out my broken wheel.

Action Cyclery

I also purchased a spare wheel which he centered to match my bike's set up.

Definitely recommended.


Kirby James