5-14-19 Big Bear Lake

For our second camping adventure we decided to go to Big Bear Lake, somewhere we’ve never been. It’s a complete contrast from Borrego – we went from below sea level (the Salton Sea) to 8000+ feet up the San Bernadino mountains. Big Bear is only about 100 miles from our house, but wow, what a difference.

After a stressful drive up the 15, 215 and 210 (trucks, big trucks everywhere), we reached the base of the mountain and things chilled out. Kathryn’s new Jeep did a good job towing the caravan up the mountain. The whole rig and owner pictured below.

IMG_4475We took the more direct and steeper route, route 330 out of Redlands to 18. The Jeep stays in low gears a lot, but in general it made the climb easier than expected. And the views along the way…spectacular. We crested at about 7300 feet, way above the smog of east LA and shortly came to see the lake. Hard to believe it’s only two hours from our house, and correspondingly hard to believe we’ve never been here.

Once there, we traversed the small town on the south side of the lake and went looking for our RV park. Unfortunately, when we arrived we realized that the park looked and felt nothing like the pictures in the website. Pretty rookie move on my part, and lesson learned – always look at the campground with Apple or Google maps before you commit. If I had done that, I would have seen that the “campground” was surrounded by industrial sites and right next to a busy road. I was pretty discouraged when I saw this, but given that we had prepaid (another lesson!) and that we had no idea if another campsite elsewhere was available, we pulled into our humble site and hooked up.

That experience pretty much set the tone for this entire trip. Big Bear was not what we had imagined. There was some beauty around the lake – for example, the rainbow over the lake pictured above this post, taken during a rainstorm on Thursday. But in general the area around the lake was busy, crowded and not that scenic.

We made the best of it. When the weather was bad, I spent the time writing the first content for what is now this blog, so that’s a plus. We did some nice hiking along the Town Trail – got some much-needed exercise and got outdoors. And we did have one big wilderness adventure.

Talking to a bartender in town, we learned of a scenic mountain lake – Bluff Lake. He let us know it was the more pristine experience we were looking for. So that afternoon we set out to find it.

We drove about 5 miles up a steep, rough dirt road (thanks Jeep!) and found the lake. This was how I had imagined Big Bear – wild, unspoiled and beautiful.

P1020612We did some short hikes around the lake, took a lot of pictures, and generally reveled in the place’s beauty. This what was we had hoped for.

P1020620There was a foundation from an old homestead built among the rocks – I can hardly imagine what it would have been like to build on that site decades ago. Just getting materials and labor up the mountain would’ve been challenging.


The pictures may not do Bluff Lake justice, as the light was bad – a cloudy, whitish sky. But we were very glad we had made the trip up the mountain, and seeing the extensive dirt road complexes outside of the immediate Big Bear Lake area gave us some hope that we could visit the area again and get the nature fix we expected.

While Bluff Lake was the star of the trip, we had one last adventure to recount. The weather turned bad on Thursday – snow was predicted for that night – so we decided to leave early and head down the hill. We took the less agressive route down the mountain, route 38, and we were happy about that. It was an equally scenic drive, less steep, and kept us out of the worst of the weather.

But when we reached “civilization”, we encountered some horrific traffic just outside San Bernadino on the 215 south. We crawled along at 2-3 mph for a while, then we tuned in to NPR and learned why we were in a massive traffic jam. I’m pretty good at planning and avoiding predictable traffic problems, but in my wildest dreams I couldn’t have imagined that we would be impacted by a military jet crash near the freeway. Just about 45 minutes prior to our arriving, the now-infamous F-16 crashed, police closed the freeway and we poor schmucks had to find our way out and further south. It took us two and a half hours to get past it all by routing through surface streets through beautiful Perris CA. With a couple of hundred thousand other unhappy drivers.

We arrived home about five hours after we left Big Bear, more tired than expected. But we had some adventures, conquered adversity and came away with some interesting stories to tell.

5-7-19 Borrego Springs

For the maiden voyage of K’s new Jeep and camper rig, we decided to go to Borrego Springs – somewhere we know pretty well, including the state park campground. We’ve been there a number of times visiting our friends Tracy and Pam, who seem to love the place.

So off we went out the 76, past Indian casinos and Palomar Mountain. We made a quick stop at the Lake Henshaw restaurant, and the fare was surprisingly good. A chicken taco and a BLT hit the spot.

We decided to take the less aggressive route to Borrego through SR78, as opposed to straight down Montezuma Valley Road through Ranchita. The downhill grade on that one is steep, and for a first time out we decided to be conservative.

We reached the campground with no problems, and set up for the first time away from home. Other than a sticky sway bar that I had to kick off, it all went nicely. We nestled into the camper for a quick siesta (well, we *are* retired) and then explored Borrego Springs (the town), all 4-5 blocks of it.

Anza-Borrego is a place that definitely grows on you. It’s harsh most of the year – hot, dry and windy. But it has lots of subtle beauty, and some not so subtle. Here’s a picture of the 2017 spring “superbloom”, in which the desert floor is transformed into one of the finer gardens you’ll ever see. Miles and miles of it…

The next morning we decided to take a walk up Palm Canyon, where we’ve each been many times. For the first mile or so we weren’t even sure we were in the right canyon – we’d done my usual “just dive in and we’ll figure it out” approach to the hike, but eventually we came upon trail signs that proved we were indeed walking up Palm Canyon.

We walked until I decided it was about far enough, as we had very little water and the morning was heating up. (Emily has never let me forget the time we took the entire hike in the summer with one water bottle for three of us. We survived…). And just as we turned back down the hill, the magic happened.

I saw a Bighorn standing on a hilltop, perfectly framed against the sky. He was maybe 1000 feet away. We were thrilled by that, but we had no idea how good it was going to get. Over the next 60 minutes, we sat on a log in the arroyo and watched a family of four Bighorns make their way across and down the mountainside, grazing along the way, until they finally decided to cross the arroyo right in front of us.

P1020564It was unreal. They grazed, the younger ones kicked and ran, all as if it were a show just for us. We got some amazing pictures, but the memory was the treasure. Before we left we saw another 4-5 sheep in a family group making the same trek down the hill. And then another 4-5 behind them!

I had started the hike hoping we might see a Bighorn and some nice cactus flowers. We scored on both counts, and the sheep were more than I had ever hoped. We returned to the camper quite happy and amazed.

With a little Internet research, our sighting of more than a dozen sheep that morning seemed even more fortunate. From DesertUSA  I learned:

“Anza-Borrego is one of the last refuges of the Peninsular Bighorn Sheep. Only 280 of this subspecies remain in the United States and 200 find refuge in the park.

The Desert Bighorn has lived in the Borrego Desert for thousands of years. Bighorn migrated from Siberia over 10,000 years ago, extending their range throughout western North America. Today, Bighorn still range into Baja California, but their numbers have dwindled to less than three percent of the estimated 1.5 million of the early 1800s.”

It turns out we saw a significant number of the estimated 200 sheep in the 600,000 acre park, all within that one small canyon area. Whoa.

Later that day we decided to take in a brand new sight – the Salton Sea. While we’d seen it many times from an airline seat, neither of us had even taken the short 40 minute drive from Borrego to the sea. So off we went.

The Salton Sea is fascinating and tragic. An accidental flooding of the ancient seabed in 1905, filled the desert with precious Colorado River water when a canal was breached. For the first few decades, it was a paradise – a huge freshwater lake in the middle of a hardcore desert. People and wildlife flocked to it until it began to shrink and condense into its current toxic, ultra-salty and increasingly lifeless form. The receding shores of the Sea have no flora and no fauna other than a few birds. Pretty much lifeless.

The town(s) around the Salton Sea are equally depressing. Fields of dreams, hundreds of streets with sappy seashore names, mostly empty. The homes there are classic 1960s and 70s era construction, wearily staking their claim to a receding seashore view. It’s hard to imagine that so many people still live there, but…to each her own.

After returning from the memorable but underwhelming Salton Sea, we stopped for an early evening meal at Carlee’s . Carlee’s is an unpretentious greasy spoon/bar, but is one of the only games in town and was recommended. My expectations were low, but as luck would have it, our excellent day continued. I ordered a jalapeno burger, and was treated to the best, juiciest, tastiest burger I’ve had in a long time. Maybe ever. I realize that part of it may have been situational, like wine tasting. Nonetheless, it was a memorable burger and I’ll definitely go back and try to recreate that feeling.

The following morning we went through the ritual/checklist of packing up the RV, hitching up and moving on. Our first trip was easy to call a success.