Golden rays of dawn peek over an eastern knoll warming away the early morning chill. From the west, the smell of breakfast wafts across a hard-packed dry lakebed. Gradually, the sapphire sky, with its pinholes of starlight, dissolves to deep azure. Ocotillo Wells.
Here in the Anza-Borrego Desert life is best lived from September to May, away from the searing heat of summer. Here there is the opportunity to see the ancient and the modern.
Ocotillo Airstrip, one of eight aviation facilities owned by the County of San Diego, is a great way for pilots to visit this remote area. The strip’s two runways, one 2,475 feet long and the other 4,210 feet, sit on a dry lake bed about 100 miles east of downtown San Diego. A small café, gas station and general store are directly across State Route 78. Tie-downs are available at the airstrip’s transient area.
Ocotillo Wells State Vehicular Park is due west of the airport and has more than 42,000 acres of desert landscape. Some of the most unusual terrain in the county is within hiking distance of the airport.
Devil’s Slide is a 200-foot high granite and sand island, a decomposing mountaintop. You may find old hidden mine shafts which some say are haunted. The Pumpkin Patch is a huge field of globular sandstone “concretions” formed by the natural cementing of sand particles to a small object such as a grain of sand, a piece of shell or even a bug. Dozens of other unique spots include Barrel Springs, Shell Reef, Blow Sand Hill and Gas Domes.
When you fly in to Ocotillo Airstrip for hiking or camping, make sure to bring appropriate clothing, food and plenty of water. Even on cooler days, you’ll need water in this arid area. Also, keep an eye on the weather. If heavy storms are on the way, it’s best to play it safe. The airstrip is built on a lakebed, which can sometimes turn to mud with rain.
Walking through remote areas near Ocotillo Airstrip and the adjoining Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, you may get the feeling you’re the first person to leave footprints in the sand. But archeologists found evidence of human activity in the area as long as 6,000 years ago. Nomadic groups of Native American Kumeyaay and Cahuilla left evidence of their life in the desert.
A little research in travel books or on the Internet before your trip provides insights into the history and splendor of Ocotillo Wells. It’s worth the effort.