Camping in the Desert

I usually camp with friends, which is always enjoyable, especially after the fire is going strong—and supper is ready. Problem is, I know some ambitious hikers. As much as I enjoy being with them, come morning, I invariably find myself facing an 8 or 9 mile hike. More than once, I’ve sat watching the day deepen as these plans were being fine-tuned, only to find myself yearning to remain in the campground to read and write—perhaps go on a short hike in the afternoon.

Lazy Day in Camp

Lazy Day in Camp (Notice the Smile)

I finally decide to take matters into my own hands, reserving a site in the Anza Borrego Campground in the Anza Borrego State Park, which surrounds Borrego Springs, California. Borrego Springs is a sleepy, unassuming sort of place, bathed in dry heat. The town once drew the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Bing Crosby, Cary Grant, Clark Gable, and other celebrities who arrived in their private planes for some R & R. That heyday appears to be over. I’ve never spotted a human star in the vicinity, though a lot more people do start showing up there about now. The off-season ends when temperatures drop into the eighties and visitors can enjoy being outside all day long in this fascinating terrain, which includes vast expanses of desert, mazes of canyons, badlands, and mountains. The spring wildflower season tends to be particularly spectacular.

My trip, however, was scheduled this fall. In the beginning, all went well. I stopped in Julian for pie—and still had plenty to time to set up camp before the sun went down. My fire did not sputter out. Dinner was easy to prepare, and I eased into the evening, watching star after star dot the sky. As temperatures were not expected to drop below the mid-fifties, some people in the campground were in a celebratory mood, which remained merely festive during the early part of the evening, but began to feel more daunting by the time most campers had retired to their tents. I was beginning to wonder if it was safe to pass this rowdiness on the way to the restroom. The party also made it difficult to sleep. I could tell other campers were struggling with the noise. Several pleas for quiet went out, loud enough for me to hear. But to no avail.

Dusk in the Anza Borrego Desert

Dusk in the Anza Borrego Desert

As I was growing up, my family often camped in California State Parks. In those days, rangers kept the peace. I don’t remember us ever having to deal with people who were too noisy—or for that matter, music being played over the sounds of nature. We kids – put to bed early – were the ones who were told to pipe down. These days, guests are on their own at night—unless they dial 911, which nobody that evening appeared willing to do. And I don’t blame them. What a depressing way to end a day in nature!

The Next Morning

Children occupying other sites wake up early, and begin busily moving about the campground. The desert light has the effect of making the place feel safe once more. I watch as two young boys – deep in discussion – head down the road. People begin riding past my site on their bikes. Some appear to be hiking toward the Palm Canyon Trail, which is my one planned activity (in the afternoon). I finally get in that down time I’d yearned for on earlier trips. The morning continues to be luxuriously slow. I am visited by birds, not to mention a lone jackrabbit that stops to look my way, remaining still for a long time—its two sensitive and very big ears pointing to the sky.

I finally grab my trekking poles and wind my way to the Palm Canyon Trail. This jaunt (1.5 miles one way) leads to an authentic palm oasis tucked deep in a canyon that often has running water. The trees up in there look like lions, big and shaggy. I head toward the grove, hiking for roughly thirty minutes before a hiker coming from the other direction stops me and says, “There are bighorn sheep up the trail.”

Bighorn Sheep

Bighorn Sheep

And I light up to say, “Thanks.”

“A family of them.”

I begin scanning the terrain. As I walk, more people tell me about the sheep—how they are really hard to see. “They crossed right in front of us!” And I begin to fear I’ve missed them.

Then I spot four females, on the other side of the creek bed, standing on the steep, rocky incline of the canyon. They are positioned at odd angles, clearly trying to blend in. I fire off a few photos, before gazing at these lady sheep that look like billy goats.

Bighorn Sheep

I want the moment to last, but this is a popular trail, and I can’t be upset at the kid who exclaims, “Oh my God! Bighorn sheep!” which ultimately makes the animals begin to trot. Next thing I know, a pack of kids are running up and down the trail, alerting everyone about the sheep. Meanwhile, the four bighorns calmly move to my side of the canyon, and then up and up and up until they reach the very top. The sky above the ridge swallows them whole.





School’s out!

Kings Canyon National Park has been billed as a smaller Yosemite. While it lacks the famous highlights people expect to see in the larger park, it has a similar feel and is much less crowded. John Muir even blessed the place by designating a large granite slab, located alongside the south fork of the Kings River, as his personal pulpit. He was known to deliver lectures about environmental concerns from this rock, and the scene probably hasn’t changed much since then. Visitors to Kings Canyon can also enjoy easy access to the adjoining Sequoia National Park.


As soon as school got out, I hit the road with another community college instructor, Pam Kersey, only to head for the Sierras. We were prepared for comfortable tent camping—we certainly didn’t skimp on the food—and the urban sprawl of Southern California quickly fell behind us. Pam was particularly eager to camp near the Kings River, because she once learned the art of camping there. In those days she was a single mother of four young children, and she had few camping skills. She’s now remarried (her children are all grown up), and she’s long since become a seasoned camper, not to mention a backpacker.

I know these things about Pam, because during our trip we exchanged stories about how we each became competent campers. From there we moved into the benefits of camping and why we loved it so much. Indeed, the great thing about camping is that it is easy to engage in meandering conversations—the sort of discussion one rarely has time for during the academic year.

We had time for other things, too. Pam read. I started two poems on trees. We both stared at the river.

I began to learn the art of camping at the age of 4 or 5. My family often frequented campgrounds in the Sierra Nevada foothills, the Mendocino area, Lassen Volcanic National Park, and Southern Oregon. We owned a canvas tent weighing at least fifty pounds—it could have doubled as a small house. As a youngster, I quickly became fond of the Coleman brand. We owned Coleman sleeping bags, a Coleman cooler, a Coleman lantern that hummed loudly until my parents finally came to bed, and a Coleman stove. For this trip I tossed my own self-starting Coleman two-burner into Pam’s Subaru, and it served us well.

photo-1Pam was dead set on finding a campsite right next to the river so that we could fall asleep to the sound of roaring waters. She assured me we’d have no trouble finding a spot, as there are four campgrounds near the Cedar Grove Visitor Center (the campsites in this area are offered on a first come/first served basis). We arrived to find her top pick, Sentinel Campground, closed. So we ended up circling the other three campgrounds—this after some 8 hours of car travel—until we finally agreed on the perfect site.

Our first day of hiking proved to be a sampler. We tramped around the Zumwalt Meadow before checking out Muir’s Rock. Then we doubled back along the other side of the meadow—and through the forest—to take in Roaring River Falls. I have hiked the loop linking the High Sierra Camps in Yosemite, and this is definitely an easier way to enjoy a similar landscape.

Unfortunately, we faced unseasonably hot temperatures. By the end of the day, lovely though it was, both of us were privately wondering if we should finish up our trip in Sequoia National Park, which we knew was bound to be cooler, as it is several thousand feet higher. And while we had a rigorous 8.5 mile round-trip hike to Mist Falls planned for the next day, an afternoon of splashing in Hume Lake was quickly becoming the more alluring substitute. It was during one of our meandering conversations that we finally confessed these thoughts to each other.


The next morning found us packing in preparation for the big trees, and we did not look back. We enjoyed our afternoon by the lake (thoroughly), and the following day we embarked on a rigorous hike in Redwood Canyon, where we padded through several Sequoia stands (free of fences and plaques) on a trail we shared with few others at the peak of the wildflower season. This setting is roughly 2 ½ hours from Fresno, yet as we walked beneath those towing giants it was impossible to imagine the valley below (wilting in 109 degree heat).