Desert Magic

When you live near the Pacific Ocean, you learn that there are times when the heat of the land and the water disagree, and you get something called “June Gloom,” lots of cloudy or foggy mornings clearing later, one hopes. In San Diego, the natural warmup for June Gloom is May Gray, and it works pretty much the same way.

On Saturday, May 12th, the forecast looked pretty miserable, so we decided to drive to the desert to find some sun. There’s a county park about 20 miles south of the huge desert park of Anza Borrego. It’s called Agua Caliente Springs for good reason: Several hot springs surface there, and it’s become a popular place to camp, except when it closes for the summer due to the heat. Interstate 8 leaves San Diego and heads pretty much due east, heading for Arizona and beyond, passing over the Laguna Pass summit at 4,055 feet.

The gray led us up and east, and as we went, we passed into thick clouds and rain, which became dense fog near two or three high points. The weather persisted until we passed the last of the coastal mountains and was replaced by bright sun, blinding after all the gloom. We turned north at Ocotillo, driving through windy conditions for about ten miles, until we crossed through a draw, and the wind magically stopped. Looking back west to the mountains, white clouds piled above them, stopping at the peaks like a cliff. Fifteen miles farther, Agua Caliente basked in lovely 80 degree sun with only light wind to cool things off.

Marsh Trail begins near the warden’s office and heads northwest for about a half mile to a small palm oasis created by another spring. Most of the trail is a dry creek bed of sand dotted with rocks, and it’s fairly level and easy going. Desert ridges reach up on either side, and it’s sometimes loaded with birds taking flies and gnats from the mesquite, creosote bush and cactus. On the 12th, the bird population is a little thin, but there are quite a few Pacific Slope Flycatchers calling out and a couple of Black-tailed Gnatcatchers to keep it interesting.

About two-thirds of the way up the trail, we met a young couple from San Diego who were spending the weekend with their young daughter. The woman told us that what they were really hoping to see was a desert bighorn sheep, which are numerous in the area but rarely seen. Ten minutes later, as if on cue, Laurel and her eagle eye spotted a ram up on the ridge to our south. He was young, but he sported two massive, curled horns. Another couple joined us, and we all watched as he sprung down the rocks towards us. He took his time, and ten minutes later disappeared into a draw.

It was our third time at Agua Caliente and our first sheep, a very exciting sight. We had seen a couple of young ones in Anza Borrego a few years before but not one here. None of the other folk had ever seen one here before either, and we were all inspired to see the young family’s wish come true.

The other couples were going back to the campground, and Laurel and I headed on to trail’s end by ourselves. The spring at the palm oasis was lackluster, and only a bit of mud was there now, barely enough for any animal to drink. We headed back on the trail and were surprised to find the same ram a little farther ahead up on the ridge again. He stayed up top, but followed along parallel to us as we hiked, grazing at times. After about twenty minutes, we reached the trailhead for the Desert Overlook trail, which is a steep climb to a view of the entire area. The ram crossed to the other side of the ridge and dropped out of sight, and we walked the last quarter mile or so back to the ranger station.

When we reached the campground, we looked back, and the ram was standing up on the nearest ridge, silhouetted against the bright blue sky. He stood there for a couple of minutes, then dropped back out of sight. So magical was his presence, that it half seemed to me that he had followed us all the way to make sure that we got back safely.

And there was a lot of excitement here, as well. One of the campers told us that 20 or 30 sheep had come down to water at one of the spring’s drainage canals. No one we talked to had seen this kind of thing happen before, and one of them had camped here seven times. Laurel and I missed the large group of sheep, but there were still eight or nine of them grazing right nearby.

There were a lot of birds in the trees around the campground, and we saw a couple that we have happily added to our year’s total, but it was the bighorn sheep that made May 12th so magical.

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