Things that scared me about camping in the desert:

  1. Snakes.
  2. Extreme Weather.
  3. The Unknown.
  4. Snakes.

Since settling in Southern California I’ve been avoiding the desert. At first I didn’t even realize it. Then I found myself turning down some opportunities to camp, hike and adventure, but not others. The common theme was that the opportunities I was turning down were all base out of the desert. That had to change.

Kelty Tent in Anza Borrego State Park Desert

So I committed myself and my wife to an overnight Culp Valley Primitive Camp in Anza Borrego State Park. Primitive refers to the lack of park services. There was space wedged out between boulders and cacti for tents, a (very clean) outhouse and sand. Lots and lots of sand. No water, fire pits, picnic tables or anything as fancy as a grill, but it is free.

We packed pretty much like we’d pack for the woods. Tent, beat up Coleman grill, lantern, wood, hammock, water, food, and sleeping bags, but with extra blankets for padding in case it got too cold at night. It was all used except for the hammock. Not many trees in the desert.

We arrived at the Anza Borrego State Park Visitor’s Center in Borrego Springs just before lunch. They had a curated desert garden, museum and knowledgeable staff. They also had several busloads of tourists taking up all the space & causing a line at the restrooms. We headed out on foot into Palm Canyon. There were paths, and washes to follow. We were desert rookies so we took it easy. I expected cacti, and had heard rumors of desert wildflowers in bloom. It was still startling to see all the color mixed into the landscape. Bright red, yellow and violet flowers dotting the tops of cactus. Brightly colored songbirds, and a sky as blue as I’ve seen.

Cactus and wild flowers in Anza Borrego State Park Desert

We had set off on our hike in jeans and t-shirts with plenty of water. I had read that wearing high hiking boots could prevent a snake bite. I was wearing mine reinforced with ankle braces just in case. Fortunately, the most terrifying thing we saw was the sign telling us what kind of reptiles you might find out there. Regardless, I stayed on high alert.

Cactus Flower in Anza Borrego State Park DesertThe sun was hot, and we had forgotten sunscreen. Luckily for us there was some cloud cover that dissipated right as we were getting back. The temperature jumped dramatically. A desert sun with unfettered access to the ground is not to be messed with. We fueled up on some bananas, and headed back up the mountain to set up camp at 3,375 feet above sea level.

At camp we discovered the first big change between desert and woods camping. Sand not dirt. The top few inches of sand were loose, unlike a hard-packed grass or dirt site. We switched from plastic to long metal stakes to get further down when staking. I made sure we were faced away from any underbrush just in case. Then we got to the business of camping.

Campers at Anza Borrego State Park DesertWe read, took a nap, then climbed on a boulder to look at the view and contemplate life for a while. Our co-campers arrived from their own hikes, and we cracked open some beers, started a fire in a metal fire pit and swapped stories of our days. They had found a desert oasis complete with palm trees and a waterfall to jump into. Finally, dinner. A modgepodge potluck of hash, noodles and fruit while we stared up at the night sky. Without the lights of a city or even too many nearby buildings it felt like we could touch constellations. Through it all a light breeze kept getting stronger.

And stronger.

By the time we went to bed it was more of a gale. Our tent swaying back and forth. The extreme weather I had feared had arrived. The wind kept getting stronger. It was as close to being buffeted as I could imagine. Our tent rattled and shook, but held. We could hear the wind coming up over the mountain ranges. The whistling sounding like the ocean waves coming in over the rocks before crashing into the cliff side. Only in this case our tent was the cliff. It never let up. There wasn’t much sleep to be had. Early in the morning one of our stakes finally pulled out, and a corner of our tent sagged in over our heads. I made my way out into the early morning dawn to re-stake it. Catastrophe avoided.

Night time photo of the sky in the Sierra Nevadas
PC: Cody Traxler, Radical Visual

We were all up early. The wind beginning to die down, and blue sky overhead. A light misting rain was settling leaving us with a full rainbow stretching from mountain peak to mountain peak behind our campsite. We made coffee. We made breakfast. We talked about the wind. We laughed. We survived.

In the end desert camping wasn’t as terrifying as I thought. Just different. The stakes a little higher, and simple precautions like checking the weather are important. There had been a wind advisory we hadn’t know about with gusts from 50-70 miles per hour. Our advice:

  1. Eliminate as many unknowns as you can.
  2. Pack versatile equipment, and clothing you apply in layers.
  3. Find good people to share stories and coffee with.
  4. Don’t let your fears stop you from an adventure.

The desert was beautiful. We’ve already begun planning our next trip. This time more hiking, more nights and we’ll definitely check the weather report.

Migration Adventure Supply Tent at campsite in Anza Borrego State Park Desert at Sunset

As a first desert experience Anza Borrego State Park was perfect. We highly recommend. In addition to being beautiful they have a host of organized experiences including hiking, stargazing and campsites with running water if you want. Worst case: the town of Borrego Springs nearby has more than one ice cream shop. 

Woman overlooking Borrego Springs in Anza Borrego State Park Desert