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Meet the Desert

DEBORAH KNAPP WAS A SUCCESSFUL trial attorney living in downtown Seattle when she decided, after 25 years, she needed a change of pace—and setting. Her thoughts drifted to a previous visit to the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and the feeling of serenity that lingered long after. Only a two-hour drive from downtown San Diego, it seemed the perfect retreat from the trappings of contemporary life. No stoplights. No urban sprawl. No end to the sweep- ing vistas inviting exploration of the dramatic landscape.


It’s been three years since Knapp swapped the Pacific Northwest drizzle for the Anza-Borrego sizzle. As manager of the Anza-Borrego Institute, she has devoted herself to protecting and educating others about the 650,000 acres that make up the largest state park in the contiguous United States. The park is home to hundreds of miles of biking and hiking trails, 12 wilderness areas and multiple species of wildlife such as the golden eagle, kit fox, mule deer, bighorn sheep (a.k.a. the “borrego,” the park’s namesake) and enough species of rattlesnake to unsettle the most intrepid of outdoorsmen.

I meet Knapp on an early-August morning at her office in a sleepy Borrego Springs mall complex. It’s 10 o’clock, and the temperature is making its rapid ascent to triple digits. The building’s air conditioning has just blown. “Welcome to the desert!” quips Knapp, hinting at the sporadic inconveniences of desert life. Still, the mounting heat doesn’t dampen her enthusiasm as she explains the work she and her colleagues are doing to introduce San Diegans to the monumental natural resource in their backyard.

“The wildflowers are just the tip of the iceberg,” says Knapp, referring to the springtime ritual in which thousands of tourists flock to the region to snap pictures of the desert blooms.

While its parent organization, the Anza-Borrego Foundation, has focused primarily on land acquisition (it has acquired more than 35,000 acres for the park), the Anza- Borrego Institute was created in 2003 to provide year-round opportunities for research, education and interpretation of the region’s natural and cultural resources to the general public and the scientific community. The institute is a publicprivate partnership with the Colorado Desert District of California State Parks (of which Anza-Borrego is a part) and the Wildlife Health Center at the University of California, Davis. The 1,300 members of the Anza-Borrego Foundation and Institute (ABFI) fund its educational and research programs. Additional funding comes from grassroots efforts (Tshirt sales at the visitors center) and project-specific grants and donations.

Supported by a grant from the Desert Protective Council, the institute’s Fifth Grade Environmental Tent Camp introduces San Diego youth to the desert during a three-day campout. “Many of these kids come from National City and Calexico and have never been out in the wild before—or even to a city park,” says Knapp. “They’ve never seen stars like they are out here. Their little heads go up . . .” She trails off, tilting her head back, mouth agape. A fund-raising campaign to build a permanent bunkhouse facility, which will shelter up to 75 campers from the often unpredictable desert climate, was recently initiated. To date, an estimated $25,000 has been raised toward the $800,000 goal.

ABFI reaches an even greater audience of school kids through its Parks Online Resource for Teachers and Students (PORTS) program. Via video technology, rangers and park scientists present lessons about desert geology, fossils and other natural-history subjects. In its pilot year, 2006, 5,000 kids paid a virtual visit to the Anza-Borrego region through the PORTS program, housed in the Colorado Desert District Park headquarters in Borrego Springs.

“We’re reaching kids who wouldn’t otherwise have a park experience,” says Brian Cahill, technical director and state park district interpretive specialist. The institute hopes to set up satellite cameras at archaeological sites so kids can watch the unearthing of creatures that lived millions of years ago.

According to Knapp, only 20 percent of the 4,000 identified archaeological sites within the Anza-Borrego region have been surveyed. Millions of fossils dating from the past seven million years are buried in sediment that runs 2 miles beneath the surface. Remains of more than 550 types of fossil plants and animals have been found here. Sabertooth cats, sloths, giant camels and zebras have been recovered; the most complete mammoth skeleton in the Western Hemisphere was unearthed in the park.

Knapp and I wander around aisles of bones, shrouded under plastic covers at the Colorado Desert District head quarters’ paleontology lab. An 11-foot-long mammoth tusk rests beside a turtle shell that could house a small child. A recent addition to the lab’s collection: the skeleton of a horse that lived 800,000 years ago.

“We have fun opportunities to understand our past,” says Knapp. “People come here, see these amazing fossils and experience what we call the ‘Aha!’ syndrome.” Institute programs such as “Fossil Resources in Anza-Borrego” introduce visitors to the region’s rich fossil record. “Archeology Weekend” offers an in-depth tour of petroglyph and habitation sites of the area’s earliest residents. Or guests can spend “A Day in the Life of a Mountain Lion Researcher.” (A full and updated listing of Anza-Borrego Foundation and Institute programs is on-line at theabf.org.)

 WHILE THE HISTORICAL significance of the Anza-Borrego region becomes quickly apparent, its reputation as a resort destination seems a little far-fetched, at first glance. Driving into the heart of Borrego Springs, there’s little indication that one of San Diego County’s premier, four-diamond resorts is here. A single main street through town (still no stoplights) bisects a scattering of strip malls, dive bars and greasy spoons. Yet, on the edge of town, La Casa del Zorro has lured guests to its upscale desert oasis since 1937. The property has the feel of a sprawling ranch house, with adobe walls and wood ceilings that blend harmoniously with the landscape. There’s no sense of “roughing it” at this 42-acre, meticulously manicured spread. Guests can reserve an executive suite or upscale patio room in a garden setting, or a deluxe poolside room with marble bath, bar and fireplace. Nineteen private casitas, each with its own pool or spa, range from two to four bedrooms. All rooms are furnished with every modern amenity, including wireless Internet service.

After an exploration of my casita and a dip in my very own pool, I head to my massage appointment at The Salon. La Casa del Zorro offers a full menu of beauty and massage services on par with those of any four-star resort. The Butterfield, its acclaimed fine-dining restaurant, puts La Casa del Zorro firmly on the culinary map. I dine alfresco on the restaurant’s terrace overlooking the rose garden. It’s the perfect spot to enjoy a glass of chilled Sauvignon Blanc from Butterfield’s award-winning list. A post-dinner stroll around the property uncovers multiple recreational offerings: five pools (and lovely Smith & Hawken–furnished cabañas for lounging), six tennis courts and an Olympic-style archery range.

Walking back to my casita, I watch jackrabbits and roadrunners dart across the path in front of me. It’s the most hurried movement I’ve seen here yet. And that, Deborah Knapp would say, is the real beauty of our desert.

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