BORREGO SPRINGS, Calif. - Paul Johnson spotted the unusual S-shaped trail of a sidewinder in the dust and stopped the SUV on the empty road to have a look. No snake in sight, but there was another desert dweller crossing the ruts up ahead.
Johnson knelt and gently scooped the tarantula into his cupped hands, and we watched, wide-eyed, as the dark hairy spider ambled up his arm.
"That would be a male," he told his audience of four. "In October, the males crawl out of their holes and look for females, which are sedentary. They die in six months, whether they find a female or not."
Tarantulas are venomous, he said, but their toxin is weak, lethal only to the insects they eat. To a human, he said, the bite is a mild sting that may last 20 or so minutes.
"They'll rear up and show their fangs, but they're not aggressive," he said. "It's hard to get them to bite. You really have to agitate them."
Picking one up while it's out looking for love would count as agitation in my book, but this tarantula seemed amiable, although it bolted when Johnson returned it to the dust and sent it on its way.
We were in a hurry, too, to beat the fading light to Font's Point and watch the sun set over Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. With five minutes to spare, we walked out onto the edge of a cliff that overlooked the park's badlands, and the last slanting rays of the sun turned the tortured landscape lavender, then pink, then crimson.
The desert is a wondrous place, especially early and late in the day, when the creatures come out and the wildflowers, cacti and grasses bask in the golden light of dawn and dusk. At night, minimal interference from artificial light makes for optimal stargazing.
Johnson is a former naturalist at the state park, which has 640,000 acres and is 60 miles long and 30 miles wide. The tract of what is known as the Colorado Desert is the largest contiguous "single land mass" state park in the continental United States, the country's largest desert park and nearly half of all of California's state park land. Two-thirds of the park is in two wilderness areas.
With some 600 miles of dirt roads, the park is best explored in a vehicle with high clearance, maybe four-wheel-drive, although it's not unusual to spot a sedan heading out on the backroads. Desert solitude is around every turn. So may be a ranger to warn you to stick to the roads; cutting across the fragile desert is illegal.
Located a two-hour drive northeast from San Diego, the parklands include mountain peaks of more than 6,000 feet, down to the desert floor near sea level. There are jagged slot canyons carved by floodwaters, and vast expanses of desert decorated with the graceful ocotillo, a deciduous shrub that has scarlet flowers at the end of each spindly branch when blooming.
Hollywood has taken advantage of the stunning landscape. "The Young Lions," starring Marlon Brandon and Dean Martin, was filmed there, so was "Bugsy" with Warren Beatty and two segments of TV's "X-Files." A short time after we departed, Sean Penn and company showed up to begin filming Jon Krakauer's book, "Into the Wild."
December and January are the rainy months, leading to the peak visitation period of March, when water and temperatures in the 90s cause the desert to bloom. Daily temperatures can exceed the century mark in the summer months, when visitation is lowest.
While a naturalist like Johnson sees beauty in sidewinders and tarantulas and all the desert's plants and animals, he concedes that most visitors come for the wildflowers.
"Sometimes, we'll get a thousand acres of solid flowers," he said. "You'll have the yellow of knee-high sunflowers, the shocking pink of sand verbena and the white of dune evening primrose."
The park's name comes from Spanish explorer Juan Bautista de Anza and the word "borrego," which is the Spanish name for the federally endangered Peninsular bighorn sheep found here. There are thought to be 400 or so sheep, along with golden eagles, mule deer, roadrunners and four species of rattlesnake.
In 1775, Bautista de Anza crossed what became the Borrego Valley while searching for a land route from Mexico to the coast of California. He came back the next year, leading 240 soldiers and colonists, and about 1,000 head of livestock. His epic 1,600-mile march ended on the upper coast of California, where he founded a little pueblo that became San Francisco.
Font's Point, the high spot where we enjoyed our first sunset, was named for Fray Pedro Font, chaplain and recorder for the expedition. One thing the good padre recorded was the amazing diversity of fossils on the land, which includes everything from microscopic pollen and water fleas to walrus bones and mammoth skeletons. The fossils are preserved in sediment layers more than two miles thick, representing a time sequence of some 7 million years.
Kit Carson and his men passed through in 1846, and thousands of others followed two years later when gold was discovered in California. "They never found any valuable minerals here," said Johnson, the naturalist. "That's one of the reasons the park's still here."
The state park was established in the 1930s, and the valley bustled with activity during World War II. Gen. George Patton's tanks raced across its deserts and Navy planes practiced their dive-bombing runs. The first paved roads and electrical lines arrived with the military. After the war, developers subdivided the valley in hopes of developing a resort community.
Today, the permanent population of Borrego Springs is about 3,000, and there are several resorts, including the upscale La Casa del Zorro Desert Resort.
"Most of our visitors are families, and come for the desert experience," Johnson said. "We get a lot from San Diego and Los Angeles, but people come from all over the country, especially in the springtime."
Like a Spanish hacienda with palms shading the 42 manicured acres, La Casa del Zorro is a true oasis in this desert landscape. Pools are around every corner and gardeners carefully rake the flower beds each morning, leaving perfectly etched marks.
When opened in 1937 as The Desert Lodge, the resort was a simple adobe house. Four other adobe units had been added by 1960, when the late James Copley of the Copley publishing empire purchased the lodge and changed its name to La Casa Del Zorro, or "house of the fox." The family owns Copley Press Inc., which is based in La Jolla, Calif., and publishes 10 daily newspapers, including the San Diego Union-Tribune, and also owns Copley News Service, a news syndicate.
At one time, it was thought Borrego Springs might go the way of Palm Springs, becoming a vacation playground for the rich and famous. But its isolation in San Diego's East County and the difficult access by car killed that dream.
Today, the town of Borrego Springs, which sits surrounded by parklands, seems stuck in the 1950s, with no chain supermarkets or fast-food restaurants. La Casa del Zorro, however, still receives the Copley family's tender loving care - and financial support - and is a Four-Diamond resort with 63 amenity-filled rooms and an excellent restaurant with an award-winning wine list.
The resort emphasizes what can only be called "luxury eco-tourism," and has hired Johnson, the naturalist, to show small tour groups the beauty of the desert. He offers seven different tours; a half-day eco-tour in a Ford Excursion is $75, full day with lunch is $150. You can visit mountains or desert, stopping to inspect the vistas and canyons. "Usually, people don't want to just ride around," he said. "Most of the time, they want to get out and look."
One tour heads to the Salton Sea, which is California's largest lake at 40 miles long. The sea was created in 1905 when floodwaters from the Colorado River broke through an irrigation canal and flooded the Imperial Valley. The sea has a bum rap, according to Johnson, as being polluted by agricultural runoff.
"It's an unfortunate thing, because the sea is a great natural resource," he said. "It has outstanding birding, especially in wintertime. We'll see snow geese and Ross' geese from the Arctic Circle, as many as 40,000 of them. There are osprey, peregrine falcons, sandhill cranes - I've heard reports of up to 100 cranes."
Hiking with a naturalist is the best way to see all things great and small.
"This is a classic slot canyon," Johnson said as we headed up Palm Wash toward a shadow sliced in the mountain. "Probably an earthquake cracked the earth sometime ago, and water washed the slot out."
The walls of the canyon were sedimentary and displayed pebbles and other debris deposited eons ago. "From where we were at Font's Point last night, they have found mastodon tusks and mastodon skulls," Johnson said. "It's a very rich site."
On the sand below one crevice, he bent to inspect a pile of insect bodies. "Stinkbugs," he said. "Must be a black widow web around here. These have been sucked dry."
From his backpack, Johnson pulled out what became my favorite new toy, a "discovery scope." The black gizmo had a magnifying glass on one side, and what looked like a small plastic clothes pin on the other. Johnson plucked a tiny bloom and pinched it in the pin. Looking through the glass, the magnified bloom had curling purple stamens with tiny drops of nectar clinging to them. Insects viewed through the magnifier look like sci-fi monsters.
"There's a whole hidden world out there," Johnson said.
Heading back to La Casa del Zorro in time for a twilight dinner on the patio by the splashing fountain, Johnson said there are two kinds of guests at the resort. "There's the group that sits around the pool and has massages, and those who want to see the desert," he said.
With luxury eco-tourism, you can do both.
IF YOU GO
GETTING THERE: The park is about a two-hour drive from San Diego, Riverside and Palm Springs. Contact the park or its Web site for exact directions. Make sure your route entering or leaving passes through the old mining town, and current tourist destination, of Julian, which is famous for its pies. Most visitors get the apple, but the caramel pecan with a scoop of cinnamon ice cream was fabulous.
GUIDED TOURS: Two licensed companies offer park tours.
La Casa del Zorro Desert Tours uses four-wheel-drive Ford Excursions. Call 1-760-767-2882. Its brochures are in the Park Visitor Center.
California Overland Tours uses open-air military vehicles. Call 1-866-639-7567 or visit www.californiaoverland.com.
ACTIVITIES: Hiking, naturalists' talks, fossil programs, nature walks, campfire programs and guided night hikes. Hunting is prohibited. Dogs are allowed in campgrounds on a leash, but not on trails or in wilderness areas.
LA CASA DEL ZORRO DESERT RESORT: Call 1-800-824-1884, or visit www.lacasadelzorro.com. The resort has a "weekend romance" package for couples that includes Champagne and chocolate-dipped strawberries, breakfast and an eco-tourism outing for $654 for one night and $1,102 for two in a deluxe poolside room. The weekday price is $562 and $919.
LODGING AND RESTAURANTS: For a full listing of lodging and restaurants available in Borrego Springs, call the Chamber of Commerce at 1-800-559-5524.
WILDFLOWER VIEWING: The wildflower hotline is 1-760-767-4684. Send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to Wildflowers, ABDSP, 200 Palm Canyon Drive, Borrego Springs, Calif., 92004, and the park will notify you approximately two weeks in advance of the peak bloom.
FEES: The day use fee at the park is $6 per vehicle. Camping at developed campgrounds ranges from $7 for a camp site to $29 for a hookup and $53 for a group site. Reservations are required by calling 1-800-444-7275. Primitive and back-country camping is permitted and free.
FOR MORE INFORMATION: The park headquarters' number is 1-760-767-5311 and the Web site is www.anzaborrego.statepark.org. The Visitor Center, which is underground and has new exhibits, is 1-760-767-4205. The center is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., October through May, and open weekends and holidays only June through September.