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SoCal desert camping offers stark beauty in winter

LOS ANGELES — In spring and fall, desert camping attracts thousands of tourists in Southern California. Joshua trees curve up out of the dry ground like spiky sculptures, and Mojave rattlesnakes sunbathe on rocks. Temperatures can peak into the triple digits.

In the winter, though, as temperatures drop down to freezing at night, travelers can find great beauty in desert campgrounds, from Joshua Tree National Park, 140 miles east of Los Angeles, to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, about 90 miles northeast of San Diego.

Wildflowers start blooming in late February in Anza-Borrego, and snow touches down in Joshua Tree. The air remains crisp, the sky blue. Campgrounds tend to be much less crowded. Bring down sleeping bags to ward off the chill. Winter desert camping can be cold at night.

In Joshua Tree National Park, stretching a massive 800,000 acres of high and low desert east of Palm Springs, couched between Interstate 10 and Highway 62, nine campgrounds are available.

“In day time, in winter, it averages 60 degrees. That’s perfect weather for hiking and rock climbing,” said Cynthia LaSala, who oversees the park’s campgrounds as a supervisory visitor use assistant. “Tent campers prepare for that cold weather at night so they can experience the beautiful days. Part of people wanting to be here during the winter is that there are no crowds. Through December and January, there’s hardly anyone here. You can get your choice of a campsite.”

One winter as a teenager, tent camping with my family at the Black Rock Canyon campground, in the hilly northwest corner of the park, we attended a ranger’s talk around a camp fire, when snow began to accumulate in small drifts. By the time we settled in our tents, squished ourselves deep into our sleeping bags and woke up the next day, snow was everywhere, a vivid rug of white on the tan desert floor, made colder by high gusty winds. It was gorgeous.

“At Black Rock, it will snow three or four times a winter, but it doesn’t last. We get flurries that don’t stick. The sun comes up the next day and it melts,” added LaSala.

Long considered a family friendly campground, Black Rock includes picnic tables, fire rings, and bathrooms, but no showers, and accommodates both tents and RVs. Hiking includes the Eureka Peak and Panorama Loop trails. Smaller, yet active, grips of animals scurry around, even in winter, from jackrabbits and coyotes to kangaroo rats and roadrunners. Snakes, tortoises and lizards stay in and hibernate. The campground requires a reservation in advance, made by phone or online, from October through May. The Black Rock Nature Center is open as well, in addition to three other visitor centers in the park.

Hidden Valley campground, with its close proximity to rock climbing and the Joshua tree-lined one-mile Hidden Valley Nature Trail, is the most popular campground in the park, said Sue Spearing, an interpretive ranger who leads walks and works at the park’s several visitor centers. Hidden Valley books up on a first-come, first-serve basis year-round.

As for prepping for desert camping during winter, “we tell people to have adequate sleeping gear, and pads underneath them, so they’re not next to the ground,” said Spearing. “With people hiking, wear multiple layers. It’s easy to take off layers, versus having to put layers back on and not have them. You don’t want to run the risk of getting hypothermia.”

The Cottonwood Springs Oasis campground, located at the southern end of the park, by one of five palm oases filled with desert palm fronds, has been closed since September due to damage from flooding caused by torrential rains. The campground may open later this winter, said LaSala. The area’s Cottonwood Visitor Center remains open, though, and it’s the park’s best spot for seeing birds and wildflowers, Spearing said.

“Our visitors enjoy the stark landscape of winter. It’s almost surrealistic,” said Spearing. “We get many migratory birds in the winter. You don’t expect to see a mountain bluebird in the desert, but you do when they migrate down. People go down to the desert to get warm, and birds do the same thing.”

Wildflowers usually start to bloom at the end of February, with moisture in the air and ground, plus the increasingly warmer climate, as factors. Joshua trees bloom as early as mid-February, depending on elevation, warmth and precipitation. Flower species include the desert five-spot, with its velvety curled purple, pink and cream petals, and the white-colored desert lily.

“We have high hopes with wildflowers blooming, because of late fall rain. Late fall rain is a key factor for spring bloom,” said Spearing.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, the largest state park in California, spread out over 600,000 acres surrounding Borrego Springs, Calif., has several campgrounds. The park’s most frequented one, Borrego Palm Canyon, located toward the center of Anza-Borrego, is near the popular 3-mile round-trip Borrego Palm Canyon Trail. The trail slopes into a shady, beautiful palm grove with water. In the afternoon, it’s pristine. Each campsite has a fire ring and a table, and amenities include restrooms and coin operated showers. Reservations by phone or online are recommended.

“Lately people have been seeing bighorn sheep. We also get lizards that are out in winter since we’re lower elevation, and warmer, than Joshua Tree,” said Sally Theriault, Anza-Borrego’s visitor center manager, and also a state park interpreter.

“One reason why a lot of people come here is the miles of dirt roads for Jeeps. We have a more varied terrain.”

At the end of the day, said Theriault, the added appeal of desert winter camping lies not in the dusty ground, colorful wildflowers or lengthy trails, but in the night sky above, clear and wide.

“For me, the stars are one of the best things about being here during winter. The winter stars are really, really something. The Milky Way is really visible. There are lots and lots of stars,” said Theriault.