Travel: Stargazing in the Anza-Borrego Desert

12/23/2012 12:00 AM

01/02/2013 1:32 PM

ANZA-BORREGO DESERT – When darkness comes here, it comes quickly and with a pupil-expanding vengeance. One minute, you see the fading sun burning pink against the jutting Santa Rosa Mountains. The next, you see nothing, not even the back of your hand inches from your face.

It is an existential darkness, the blackness of nullity.

Consider, though, this desert night as a curtain, an initial barrier setting the stage for a bedazzling show that astronomers say travels from 10 trillion miles away – give or take a few trillion – to amaze and entertain if given the proper backdrop.

The show's stars, of course, are the stars. These luminous galaxies and constellations are available nightly to all. But with the country's increasing urban and suburban sprawl, and the need to light every inch of these environs, it seems as if someone has turned the dimmer switch on the solar system.

Which is why people flock to this vast, remote desert state park in San Diego County, about 650,000 arid acres in all and flanked by the town of Borrego Springs, designated one of four International Dark Sky Communities in the world. (The town has no stoplights and only 25 street lights, most pointed discreetly downward.)

Given the reputation, tourists hanker to be immersed in utter darkness and, once their eyes adapt, to sit amid the fragrant creosote and mesquite and look skyward to perhaps grasp the infinite.

You find yourself with a dozen others who signed up for California Overland Desert Excursions' periodic "Celestial Overnight" trips, with local astronomer Dennis Mammana along to explain the cosmos with a telescope, a laser pointer and years of stargazing experience.

And what a show it is. Specks of the solar system line the firmament, as if someone had spilled a bag of shiny marbles on black linoleum. It was a van Gogh evening sky, the multihued stars – predominantly white, yes, but with tinges of light blue and violet, even a drop of green to offset the immediate blackness. I was reminded of van Gogh's artistic aphorism: "The night is even more richly colored than the day."

At Anza-Borrego, that's saying a lot. Because, during daylight hours, California Overland proprietor Joe Raffetto takes you mile after kidney-crunching mile offroad in an old army truck to explore the flora, fauna and geology of a vast terrain that's anything but a monochromatic beige.

Written in the stars

Yet, the stars are the main attraction.

It's what brought an eclectic group of tourists – including a couple of snowbirds from Calgary, Canada; a grandmother with two grandsons; a middle-aged couple that split time between Davis and Borrego Springs; a father and son armed with a telescope of their own; a transplanted Hoosier celebrating his birthday – to this outpost far from the glitz and glamour of Palm Springs east of the hills.

No one knew much about the stars – though one man was savvy enough to bring an iPad with a stargazing app – but all wanted to learn about what Carl Sagan once called man's "great enveloping cosmic dark."

The very idea of camping overnight in such tenebrous conditions, with packs of coyotes howling in the distance and kangaroo rats burrowing underneath your feet, filled some with childlike excitement or equally childlike dread.

"My idea of camping is a hotel without room service," said Sandy Ronney, a Calgary native traveling with her husband, Al. "But it was my idea to do this. We love the stars. When we were in New Mexico a few years back, we saw the night sky and said, 'We've got to see this again.' You couldn't find any place better."

After dining on salmon and tri-tip under tiki torches, after they secured their backpacks and provisions in tents provided by California Overland, and after changing from shorts and T-shirts to fleece and down for the evening chill, the group was led by Mammana away from the artificial light of torches and flashlights to a nearby spot of profound darkness so they could see skyward.

In a lull before Mammana's presentation, a hush overtook the assemblage. Gone was the nervous chit-chat of adults engaging in a grown-up version, perhaps, of whistling in the dark.

"Listen to how quiet it is, Connor," Carol Wells said.

"It's not quiet if you're talking, Grandma," 10-year-old Connor added, while older brother Ryan, 15, snickered.

Mammana, who held planetarium positions at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air & Space Museum and has written four astronomy books, scolded several people for briefly turning on their flashlights to orient themselves. That's a major stargazing faux pas, apparently.

"Do not look at bright light and expect to see anything," he said. "I'm always amused by people who'll step outside of their house after watching 'Matlock' reruns on TV and look up and say, 'I don't see anything' and go back in. It usually takes between 15 and 30 minutes to become dark-adapted.

"The second thing is to use averted vision. The center portion of our eye is not as sensitive to light as the outer portion. If you look at something really faint directly, you may not see it at all."

Given that the sky was ablaze with minuscule points of light made of the very same atoms as in humans, not seeing the stars stretched congruity. But Mammana gave a test: Pick a somewhat faint star and stare at it. "It fades away, doesn't it?"

Mammana seemed to enjoy disabusing neophytes of many cosmic misconceptions. Using his laser pointer for guidance, he reeled off the so-called "greatest hits" for lay stargazers.

"You ask, 'Where's the Big Dipper?'" he said. "Well, it's not in the sky tonight. In wintertime, from this latitude, the Big Dipper is down here (pointing to the hills beyond). You can't see it.

"The Little Dipper? A lot of people point right up here. A lot of people are wrong. That's not the Little Dipper. It's actually over in the northern part of the sky. The classical images like Ursa Minor, the Little Bear, or Cassiopeia just don't exist, so don't frustrate yourself by looking for them."

Perhaps sensing that his pupils – and their pupils – were tiring of not seeing the stars they thought they knew, Mammana pointed his laser on what looked like a partially glowing star. Looked like nothing special to untrained eyes.

"That's the North Star," he said. "I know everybody's very disappointed because the North Star is supposed to be the brightest in the sky. It's actually one of the faintest, but it's important because it sits directly over the North Pole."

He then identified and explained the most visible stars of the night – Great Orion Nebula, the Pleiades, the Double Cluster of Perseus and the Andromeda Galaxy. Checking his watch, he timed it to the minute so the group could see the passage of two satellites – Iridium 98 and the International Space Station – across the sky.

What enthralled the group most was peering at Jupiter and three of its four Galilean moons through his telescope. Even the seen-it-all Mammana's hands shook with excitement when he spotted Jupiter's volcanic moon, Io, emerging from behind the planet's disk.

Throughout his presentation, he worked to convey just how mind-boggingly vast the universe is.

"The Orion Nebula over there is 1,500 (light-) years away from us," he said. "Those little photons in Andromeda have been traveling through space since before humans walked on the face of the Earth."

On terra (sort of) firma

Earlier in the day, with the group's attention back on the surface of the Earth, Raffetto charted a course to show off some of Anza- Borrego's geologic and floral wonders, and also to impart some local history.

"Astronomy is great, you know, contemplating the cosmos," Raffetto said. "But, to me, geology is just as interesting. I just can't wrap my head around how this place was formed. Shelves and coming up, going down, forming new structures. That's what fascinates me."

Raffetto trained as a marine biologist, not a geologist. But, at 56, he's something of an autodidact. Having spent years in Anza-Borrego after careers as a tuna observer for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and later as an art director for a New York advertising agency, Raffetto has learned the expanse of this desert like a suburbanite knows his backyard.

A native of the Jersey shore, with that distinct accent to show for it, he started California Overland eight years ago and says he has enough tourist business to work year-round – yes, even in the triple-digit summer months. The best time to visit, however, is February to the end of April, when the wildflowers bloom. And because he has a business partnership with the state parks department, which takes a portion of his profits, Raffetto has permission to take tourists deep into the desert where the general public is prohibited.

The mode of transport is an '80s-era 2 1/2-ton Army- issued M35A2 cargo truck, skillfully converted to add seats and a canopy. Its diesel engine was cranking as Raffetto exited the paved road and started clattering along the Palo Verde wash.

He hopped out after a dusty mile to give a horticultural symposium. If Mammana emphasized the visual in his celestial presentation, Raffetto favored the olfactory sense.

"Go up and rub that shrub," he told 10-year-old Damian Collins. "Then tell me what it smells like."

Damian sniffed at the 2-foot-high, greenish-yellow shrub. He shrugged. Raffetto explained it's called a "cheese bush" (Latin name: hymenoclea salsola) because of its astringent aroma. Curious, former Indiana native and current Salton City resident Larry Sipso took a whiff.

"I've got a lot of friends in Wisconsin, so I've smelled a lot of cheeses," he said. "None smell like that."

Next, Raffetto instructed people to bend over a creosote bush and breathe it in. Most reported smelling very little.

"Now," Raffetto said, "cup your hands over it and exhale heavily."

"Smells like rain," Sandy Ronney said.

"That," Raffetto explained, "is the most common smell in the desert after some rain. The resin on the bush locks in the moisture."

The group was flagging at this point, but Raffetto had one more request: "Since we're doing weird smells, we might as well have a nice one to get the cheese smell off."

It was desert lavender.

A very physical cliff

Exiting the wash and heading for the Borrego Badlands on a pleasant 72-degree December afternoon, Raffetto craned his neck and shouted to the back of the truck, "I'm gonna engage all three axles and do some 10-wheeling now. Hang on."

A wild ride, indeed. Moving almost as much laterally as forward, the M35A2 jostled and clattered up bumpy and sandy hillocks that sometimes had only a rumor of a road. After the final spine-rattling 15-mph ascent to Fonts Point, a popular overlook, the group hoofed it up one last hill to reach the precipice.

"Was that the badlands we drove through?" tourist Dave Reeves asked.

Raffetto: "People always ask that. No. That's bad, but not the badlands."

No, the badlands lie on the valley floor below Fonts Point. It is a jagged, eroded series of seemingly fused sedimentary rock that stretches for miles with no clear path through it.

"People talk about Joshua Tree with its rounded rocks and great trees, but Anza-Borrego is so different," Raffetto said. "It's the size of Rhode Island and with all these different terrains.

"There are really remarkable fossil records here, Ice Age animals (like) short-faced bears and saber tooth tigers and camels. When you first see Fonts Point, you can see how earthquakes formed it. This whole place is like a cracked egg, fault lines everywhere. Where we're going to be camping is right on the San Jacinto fault."

Camp that night was at Clark Dry Lake, the original homestead of ranchers Fred and Frank Clark. Until recently, the government owned the land for military maneuvers and target practice.

Between the shooting stars, thoughts of all those military shots fired at this locale and the periodic yipping of coyotes in the inky distance, sleep came hard for some in the group.

But at least they had a nightlight of sorts – the brilliant, luminous congregation of stars. They may have been light-years away, but they seemed almost within reach.


Visitors Center: 200 Palm Canyon Drive, Borrego Springs

(760) 767-4205,

Directions from Sacramento: Take Highway 99 south to Highway 58 east. Turn right on Highway 395 south. Merge on ramp to Interstate 15 south. Take a slight left to Interstate 215 south, then back onto I-15 south to Temecula. Turn east on Highway 79 south for 41 miles. Turn left on San Felipe Road. After a mile, turn left on Montezuma Valley Road for 17 miles. Montezuma Valley turns into Hoberg. Turn left on Palm Canyon Drive to the visitors center.

Most popular hiking trail: Borrego Palm Canyon Trail (3 miles, out and back). Travel up the alluvial fan studded with interpretive markers. At 1 1/2 miles, you reach the tall fan palm trees. Turn around and retrace steps.

Desert and stargazing trips: California Overland Desert Excursions. (760) 767-1232. Cost: $55-$225 depending on length and destination.

Lodging: Borrego Valley Inn, 405 Palm Canyon Drive, Borrego Springs. (760) 767-0311.; The Palms at Indian Head: 2220 Hoberg Road Borrego Springs. (760) 767-7788. www.thepalmsatindianhead. com

Dining: The Krazy Coyote and Red Ocotillo at the Palms at Indian Head; French Corner, 721 Avenida Sureste, (760) 767-5713.


San Diego is a diverse metropolitan area, and the county at large holds many recreatonal and cultural offerings. The Bee's Sam McManis visits three different San Diego experiences.

Today: A stargazing overnight camping trip in the Anza- Borrego Desert.

Dec. 30: Whale-watching seven miles off the coast.

Jan. 6: Clubbing and sightseeing in the city's revitalized Gaslamp Quarter.


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