I've never lived in the desert, but I've spent quite a bit of time in them as an adult. I've ridden a camel around the edges of the Sahara in Egypt; spent weeks day-hiking outside Phoenix; explored the high deserts of Oregon and Montana; and have walked miles in Joshua Tree National Park and the above-ground parts of Carlsbad Caverns National Park.
So I thought I had a handle on deserts, but nothing prepared me for a recent trip to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in Southern California. I was there to check out this spring's incredible wildflower bloom, and it was as glorious in real life as it was in the media. It's hard to explain in words or even photographs how dramatically beautiful a desert super bloom is — and this was rumored to be the best in 20 years.
But the flowers weren't the only thing that led to intense delight during our visit to California's largest state park. While we were reading through exhibits in the visitor's center, we came across a diorama of a natural oasis. I was curious — I'd seen the word used in desert landscapes, usually to indicate some kind of restaurant or bar (like "Joe's Oasis"). But in this case, the park museum was referring to natural oases where underground springs came to the surface and created areas of concentrated life in the otherwise perilous landscape.
I asked a park ranger how we could find one, and she pointed us in the direction of Borrego Palm Canyon. The hike was a moderate one through a slot canyon, and as we hiked, we saw lots of wildflowers in bloom, from brilliant, bright yellow bunches to tiny purple stars. Because we were headed toward an oasis (an important water source for wildlife), we kept an eye out for big-horn sheep, which frequent the hills on the sides of the canyon, but we didn't spot them.
After walking through a sandy wash and heading uphill through the canyon (complete with blooming ocotillo) for most of the 1.5 mile-trek, we came around a bend in the trail. I heard the sound of water flowing — particularly welcoming after a hot, midday desert hike — and we spotted the palms surrounding the oasis. They were huge, and incredibly visible in the otherwise low-flora desert, and there were willows downstream from them. Our trail crossed over the vibrant stream, but even without the trail, we would have known where we were headed.
Under the giant palms was a gravel-bottomed pool of water beneath a series of small waterfalls. I had to wade right in!
If I go again, I would hike in the early morning or late afternoon to avoid the crowds and the heat — and hopefully spot more wildlife.
Like most desert oases, Borrego Palm Canyon's water comes from a natural aquifer deep below the surface, so the waterfalls are spring-fed. More than 80 species of migrating birds use the oasis as a watering stop.
Desert oases in other places are key to human survival. It's easy to see why the oasis is a key location in many ancient stories, and why they have such a mythical status. When you arrive thirsty and tired, this place feels like an incredible gift.
All too soon, we headed back out into the now-cooling-off desert, hiking downhill, watching the blue of the sky deepen as the sun began its descent.
In his book "Desert Solitaire," Edward Abbey wrote: "Standing there, gaping at this monstrous and inhuman spectacle of rock and cloud and sky and space, I feel a ridiculous greed and possessiveness come over me. I want to know it all, possess it all, embrace the entire scene intimately, deeply, totally." It's a feeling that can happen in the desert, which is so inscrutable, so magical, so different than all other ecosystems.