‘Do Not Touch the Flowers!’ One Family’s Eco-Adventure in the American Southwest

During its annual wildflower eruption, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in Southern California draws a family who has a few things to learn about the basics of camping, cactuses and ghost flowers.

Comments: 69

  1. Kids, if you eat all your supper, you can visit two deserts.

  2. This article was the only ray of light I've seen in the last several days, and gives me hope for the future, once this has all passed. Many years ago, when our children were young, we took them to the Arizona desert. We had read all of the rules about not touching cacti and prided ourselves on our awareness. We did a long, beautiful - but happily, uneventful -- hike. NO desert mishaps for us! We got to the parking lot and my then 11 year old daughter decided to take a shortcut. Pretty quickly we heard, like Danielle did, a cry of "mommy" or it may have been "Daddy" or it may have been something unprintable. Our daughter had been attacked by a Jumping Cholla, which remained embedded in her leg. I try to remove it, but it was impossible. The spines have hooks at the ends, where they attach. We took her to a Urgent Care facility, and the very patient doctor spent at least an hour removing the cactus. To her credit, our daughter was very cheerful and brave throughout. The desert is lovely, but beware of Jumping Chollas!

  3. Where did the find a bathroom?

  4. All of Palm Spring's mountain canyons, look like this. You do not have to go to Anza Borrego There are many other fields and canyons in the immediate area. Joshua Tree's lower eastern end off of highway 10 is in bloom, even before one gets to the entrance. It has pathways that meander through the flowers which are many and varied. The bloom should last through April as we have just had a strong rain. And a hint to women everywhere: tents are easy to put up these days. If you let your husband do it, you will learn nothing.

  5. Thanks for sharing, enjoy your droll sense of humor. I'm self quarantined here and needed a virtual adventure. Will put a desert hike on my life must-do list. (Frankie is a hoot!)

  6. @Bruce Haha, she really is. Thank you so much for the very kind comment.

  7. Thank you for the virtual hike and camping adventure. Visualizing the beautiful flowers, feeling the sun in our imaginations as we isolate at home. And a laugh, too, "Did you forget to inflate the air mattresses?"

  8. Fun read. Thank you.

  9. Loved your story! I am a long time resident of southern New Mexico, and have hiked and camped all over the desert southwest. I met the Teddy Bear Cholla the first time at Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, AZ. I SWEAR I was not very close to any of them...they really do "jump"! A leather glove and pliers is best for removal...those hooks are murder! Lol. BTW, best sleep pad for desert is composite foam...things that blow up tend to pop...all deserts are full of spikey sharp things! Thank you for this lovely write up and fabulous photo set...kudos. I have never been to that park and it is a great preview for me!!! Another park on my bucket list.

  10. @Beth Mott-Stenerson I highly recommend it! Thanks so much for the kind comment.

  11. Just a friendly reminder that acacia is not a cactus!

  12. I'm glad the kids had a chance to learn at a young age - from a professional - how fragile these ecologies are and how to behave respectfully in a setting that is under threat of being diminished, by humanity or by industry. The number of people who trample off trail to get selfies in our National Parks is heartbreaking. There are plenty of signs. Too many people don't understand the reasons for them and too often don't respect them.

  13. Does the writer state when her family visited the park? Was it in March?

  14. @Karen Bruno It was in late February.

  15. Thank you for the beautiful photos. This was a welcome break from all the depressing news.

  16. I always loved Borrego Hot Springs. But you really do have to stay away from jumping cholla - cholla generally. And not wear shorts. And do wear long-sleeved shirts. And then find time to stay at La Casa del Zorro.

  17. Delightful. Thank you NYT. We had been planning a trip to the desert, and then corona virus 'happened,' but there's a lot of isolation to be had in the California desert, so if we can find enough toilet paper to pack, we may still go.

  18. Thank you for this beautiful piece.

  19. I lived in the desert for 20 years and recently moved east to be among trees. This article made me highly nostalgic. There is something magical about the openness, the rare bursts of color and the endless blue skies. All the plants seem tidy and friendly until you get too close.

  20. I wonder how much longer that oasis will be there with the aquifer being quickly depleted.

  21. Thank you for a personal family story about our beautiful local park. The desert is not "tough", it is as fragile as a coral reef, although it will "bite back". It was nice to read about some newbies who stepped into the experience with a sense of responsibility. We have way too many destructive types with their "toys" who dump, drive over and damage our desert wilderness in S. California. A horrible example was the knocking over of joshua trees with off road vehicles in the National Park during last year's federal shutdown. Having myself forgotten the camp stove fuel on a backpacking trip, I had to laugh about the failure to inflate the mattresses. I loved reading about the experience of city folk like me venturing into their own backyard and learning to 'love' it with a few bumps along the way.

  22. @Michele Jacquin Yes, many bumps indeed! Thanks so much.

  23. @Michele Jacquin The TV ads produced by truck manufacturers infuriate me. They depict and encourage off-road driving, which is so detrimental to the natural environment. BTW, I first camped in Anza-Borrego in 1987. My VW Squareback was perfectly adequate.

  24. Thank you so very much for the this article that combines nature, children and parenting and the beauty of them combined along with humor (I laughed out loud) and mishaps. I call it “learning to live and teaching those who will inherit this planet how to respect life”. In the midst of this unimaginable turn on the planet, (sounds like a soap opera name, doesn’t it) your words were a breath of truly fresh air and a moment of normalizing peace.

  25. @Margaret-Ann I'm so happy to hear it. Thank you so much for your very kind and generous comment.

  26. Really great photos and I loved the descriptive writing.

  27. Beautiful photos; balm for an overwhelmed soul.

  28. This essay is a gem of a story. The photos are captivating and the prose draws the reader right through to the end, with an ever-wider smile. Thank you!

  29. @Esther Lee Thank you so much. It was a dream of an assignment and I'm thrilled it made you smile.

  30. @Danielle Pergament Thank you for bringing back so many fond memories of my visits to Anza-Borrego when I lived in the town of Ramona. It was easy for me to get to because it was so close.

  31. Anza-Borrego Desert is one of the most beautiful places on Earth when in full bloom. I visited many times while living on the coast. It should be on everyone's bucket list.

  32. Hopefully guides are able to keep almost everyone on trails and off places where the delicate soil crusts are building. Soils take decades to build and only a second for someone to destroy by stepping on them. People don't really belong in the desert drinking wine, tent camping and allowing children to run amok. Apparently some parts of these delicate ecosystems are set aside for humans to tread heavily on. At least these children are learning about desert ecology and hopefully, determine it has value enough to protect from development and destruction, when they have developed into thoughtful adults. If we don't teach young people to find any value in nature, we will end up losing it.

  33. I've visited the Anza Borrego desert a couple of times in my life. It is amazingly beautiful.

  34. Great photos, Anza-Borrego is awesome. I have done research on some of the plants there but, oddly, have never made it out for the peak of the Spring bloom. Hopefully the current situation will present a new generation of young people with the thought of getting out into nature. If they can learn to enjoy it now, they may vote to protect it in the future.

  35. Thanks so much for this light-hearted review of your recent trip to Anza Borrego. It was clearly a good, meaningful getaway with lots of lessons learned on many fronts. I am sharing with my extended family, many of whom are similarly inclined with respect to encounters with the natural world but also rather inexperienced with the nuts and bolts of overnight camping (since they didn't start learning from a young age).

  36. @James Utt Thank you so much - I hope you can enjoy many camping trips, whether you start at a young age or middle age or old age!

  37. Love this piece, perfect writing from one city dweller for the next. Also learnt a lot about flowers close to me, I’m inspired to drag my city slicker kids to the dessert too :) Thanks Danielle! “The first time in my life I had pitched a tent was the night before — in my living room, holding a glass of wine while my husband did most of the work. I love hiking and picnics and walking in the woods as much as the next city-dweller, but I don’t care for dirt, insects or proximity to animals that make noise.” Haha!

  38. @Anjalika Sharma Thank you so much, from one city dweller to another. :)

  39. Beautiful area! Thanks for writing about your adventures. We love the desert.

  40. "The world is so full of a number of things, I'm sure we should all be happy as kings." A wonderful thing to share is the absolute glory of the natural world. Your kids will remember forever.

  41. Looks like a lovely and calm atmosphere, plus we love cacti and succulents.

  42. Wonderful story about your family's camping experience--thank you for sharing this. Many thanks also to Beth Coller, who took such beautiful photographs!

  43. @Letterpress Thank you so much! And yes: such beautiful photos.

  44. I live at the Northern end of the Mojave Desert. Our bloom is just starting. The desert is a wonderful and interesting place. I hike there often even in the summer. Once the daily temperature is 76 degrees then one runs across the desert tortoise out and about after a long winter spent underground. There are also lizards, horned toads, rabbits, coyotes, foxes. The desert looks desolate and yet is filled with life.

  45. Great article - educational, humorous, and beautiful photos!

  46. Wonderful article and the photos are gorgeous. I wonder about naming “Anza-Borrego" directly for the "wildflower paradox" issue. Perhaps you could just say inland Southern California. Thank you.

  47. That sounds like a great trip, and one I'm sure the kids will remember forever. My parents were nice enough to take me fishing and we spent time outdoors, but never once did we go camping. Fast forward to college, and I'm borrowing a tent, sleeping bag, and tarp... not realizing I need something to sleep on, cold and wet. My kids are still too young to really appreciate it (oldest is 3 1/2) but I've been early anticipating our first trip overnight. I can only image the stars at night in the desert, I hope to one day see them myself.

  48. Writing as great as the glorious photos. Perfect for these days. Thank you.

  49. @joan What a generous compliment. Thank you.

  50. This is one of my favorite places in the world, and I have stood in some of those exact spots. Thank you for a breath of fresh air!

  51. A wonderful and witty article! Danielle captures the essence of the Desert and the fun of a first camping trip there. May there be many more such experiences for her own family and for the visitors of Anza Borrego Desert State Park.

  52. @Bonnie Clapp Thank you so much! Really looking forward to returning one day.

  53. Surprised to find myself with a tear in my eye after reading this narrative. Kudos to the author for embracing her novel tent camping experience and seeking to raise children who are "comfortable in nature from a young age." I can vouch that childhood camping directly influenced my love of the natural world. We have one planet. We can choose to take steps every day to try to preserve and improve our world for future generations.

  54. @CPF Thank you so much for kind words. Hoping that love of the natural world sticks with my kids as it did with you.

  55. My wife and I spent many a year RVin during the winter (from Oregon) in Anza Borrego State Park. Great place and terrific park staff who lead weekly hikes and explorations of a beautiful park area. The photos with this article are terrific. Thanks!!!

  56. My husband and I walked the Appalachian Trail three years ago. It's the animals that don't make noise that you have to be concerned about. Leave them alone and don't get to close; human contact is a death sentence for them.

  57. But where was the bloom of jackrabbits? Cavorting in the air before sunset? There are in fact self inflating air mattresses. But it makes sense to check which type you brought along.

  58. This desert is much like the desert of Southern Arizona and the delicate zone above timberline in the Rockies. Life is a struggle for the plants and animals. If it were not so, we would see heard of herbivores trapping the grounds. We don't these fragile region's plant life inhabitants have require decades if not centuries to attain the populations we observe today. Treading off the beaten path quite literally leads to new paths beating down future growth. This is the result of just waling off the trail it doesn't begin to address the long lasting effects of ranching or driving on the lands. As a nation we set aside land for the sake of preserving these rare splendors and their diversity is only as safe as the protections we afford them. Unlike a golf course or our city parks require a very hands off, not hands on approach to management. There isn't a shortage of existing grazing lands or off-road trails there is a shortage of appreciation for just how fragile much of the natural world really is,

  59. Thank you for capturing our home away from home so beautifully and humorously. During the super bloom of 2017, a mother from the LA area sat her toddler down on the desert floor to take a picture of her among the flowers. The mother was outraged that there were no signs warning of the dangers of cactus after said toddler reached out and grabbed a cholla!

  60. Sorry, but it just makes me cringe when a writer puts on the "ooh it's science-y I don't understand it" hat. No wonder this country is so scientifically illiterate when this is the kind of attitude that is presented as "cute". I can only hope that the author's children's curiosity allow them to explore and learn with a more open mind. There is no such thing as "barrel cholla". The writer must have misheard or misremembered this. The stately saguaro is alone in its genus, in fact. The various cholla species are related to prickly pear cactus. Of all the north American deserts, Anza-Borrego is most precious to me. Its many complex ecosystems are full of life, the dry clean air results in hundred-mile views, its skies are magnificent. The photos give a tiny hint of the desert's beauty. Readers will just have to imagine the soundworld (desert quail and doves, sand grains shifting, wind sighing in the canyons) and unmistakable scents (ah, the incense of brittlebush resin!). Unlike the author, I have had some of my best nights of sleep out under the stars in Anza Borrego.

  61. Re the sentence "No one camps in a desert to get a good night's sleep..." I have experienced well over a hundred good night's sleeps camped in the desert, thank you very much! Few places are as peaceful, quiet, and downright soporific, if you are comfortable. We have good equipment and we are very comfortable.

  62. My wife and I have visted and stayed in Borrego many times when we lived on the coast nearby. Visiting clients from 'back east' would time a trip so they could visit the desert when it bloomed. I enjoyed hosting these visits very much as they allowed me time to do nothing but inspect the flowers, some of which are so tiny that can only be seen when on your hands and knees and photographed using a macro lens. Spectacular and tiny at the same time. Two warnings. I swear the 'jumping' Cholla will attach to you painfully and removal is difficult. Do NOT try pulling one off with your fingers, even if wearing leather gloves. You WILL be sorry if you do. Bring needle point pliers and a pair of side cutters. The tips that hurt so much will remain in your skin and will eventually work their way out over time. Possibly weeks. The pain will remind you to never get near another jumping' Cholla. And yes, you'll swear it jumped at you. I promise. It is possible you will experience an allergic reaction if you spend much time close to the blooming flowers. They only flower briefly so they pollinate strongly. The first time I spent a whole day looking at the blooming desert I lost my voice completely for two weeks. I always took antihistamines for later visits. Borrego is a lovely place and good place to see metior showers, the stars and galaxies of our universe at night if you camp away from any lights. It can be a humbling experience that everyone should experience.

  63. Red's a common sight in outdoor equipment catalogs: red shirts, red backpacks. These are obviously not designed for Anza-Borrego, where hiking in red will ensure that you are tailed by every bee and hummingbird for a mile around. They'll all want to be your BFF, because you look like a food source.

  64. Thank you for this lovely article! We are camping & park lovers. We did raise our girls to be comfortable in nature, as you aim to do, and it’s a joy for us to continue to hike & camp with them now that they are adults. I loved your beautiful photos & narrative. Hope to visit this park some day!

  65. @Susan P Thank you so much! Sounds like your girls are very lucky.

  66. Thank you for producing such an inspirational work on Anza-Borrego. I very much enjoyed the descriptions of the cactus and wildflowers you and your family experienced. And your experiences as a novice camper were hilarious. I did want to point to one inaccuracy, wherein you referred to the park as the largest state park in the country.

  67. Just spent three wonderful days in the park, ending with watching 7 big horn sheep quietly grazing near the trail head at Palm Canyon trail. While not a genuine dessert bloom this year, it was so much fun finding and identifying all the wildflowers. What a treat.

  68. I'm assuming that the author and her family camped in a primitive area and followed all guidelines for disposal of waste. If so, heckuva way to experience camping for the first time. That state park is so vast that primitive camping is allowed all over the place, as long as you're a certain number of feet from the road. The developed campgrounds are lovely too. We have been going there for 35 years, and it is always an adventure and a balm for the soul.