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CALIFORNIA ALBUM : Wild for Wildflowers : Borrego Springs Desert Comes Alive With Spring Blossoms

March 17, 1995|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BORREGO SPRINGS, Calif. — Just when you think that nature has grown irredeemably angry at storm-racked and disaster-beset California, here come Spanish Needles, Desert Lavender and Sweetbush to prove you wrong.

For a few weeks each spring, this tiny community tucked in a remote and climatologically inhospitable corner of northeast San Diego County becomes a mecca for thousands of pilgrims seeking the fleeting beauty of wildflowers bursting forth on the desert floor.

Although it does not approach the drawing power of New England's changing colors, flower season in Borrego Springs is fast becoming a major horticultural lure for tourists.

One reason for the bloom boom may be the thousands of postcards that the Chamber of Commerce mails to flower aficionados just as the flowers begin to open. Another explanation may be the 24-hour Wildflower Hotline, run by the state parks system, which directs visitors to particularly piquant fields, like the Beavertail Cactus and Blue Phacelia along Elephant Trees Trail and the Monkey Flower along Texas Dip.

Whatever the reason, wildflower season is big and getting bigger in Borrego Springs and the surrounding Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

Weather permitting, the bloom begins in March and the tourists are not far behind. By early April the rising heat and aridity take their toll and the vibrant flowers quickly wither and die.

"The beauty of the wildflowers is a subtle beauty," said Joanne Hinchliff, who escorted a group of senior citizens from Hemet on a tour this week.

For Borrego Springs, which survives economically as a retirement and winter resort community, flower power means several weeks of ringing cash registers, a kind of Christmas in March, as well as a chance to convince visitors to come back again to play golf or tennis or just soak up the sun.

"The wildflowers are a driving force in our economy," said Dori Haladay, manager of the swank La Casa del Zorro Desert Resort.

Borrego Springs will have one more hurrah before the summer heat sets in. The sixth annual Grapefruit Festival--Borrego Springs is home to the pink grapefruit--is set for the weekend of April 7-9 and will feature a woodcarver's exhibition, horseshoe tournament and country-Western music.

But after that, the heat will rise, the snowbirds will return to cooler climes, and the tourists, except for dedicated desert campers, will stop coming. The population soars upward of 8,500 in the winter but drops quickly to 3,000 during the summer.

Remember--this is the place where one of the main drags is named Frying Pan Road. And unless you count the annual counting of big horn sheep in the state park, there is not much to draw outsiders to Borrego Springs in the summer.

"Life in Borrego Springs slows down during the summer," said Jack Hull, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce. "We joke that if we see two cars on Palm Canyon Drive, it's a busy day."

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During the peak of the bloom, however, it is not unusual for tourists to outnumber residents in Borrego Springs.

Residents still talk about the weekend of March 14-15, 1992. The wildflowers that season were judged by enthusiasts to be the finest in three decades.

Calls flooded the Wildflower Hotline at the rate of one a minute. The park's visitor center, three minutes west of the tiny downtown, reported a record 13,000 visitors.

"It was unbelievable," said Hal Sealund, a real estate agent with Road Runner Realty.

One delicatessen sold 1,320 sandwiches in two days and traffic was gridlocked along Palm Canyon Drive, according to an editorial last week by the Borrego Sun.

The current wildflower crop, with dozens of varieties in bloom, is judged to be a good season, maybe even a very good one, although not up to the artistic zenith of 1992. The tourists have arrived in droves, and the Sun counseled local residents to be tolerant.

Any visitor to Borrego Springs has spent a bit of time on the freeway. From Los Angeles, the trip is 170 miles, from San Diego, 90 miles.

To get here from Los Angeles, Riverside, and Orange counties, the best bet is Interstate 15 south, California 79 east from Temecula and then County S2 to County S22.

A variety of farming, ranching and tourist-related ventures have come and gone since explorer Juan Baptista de Anza made his visit in 1774 in search of an inland route from Mexico to California.

The now-closed Hoberg Resort had a heyday in the 1950s as a popular spot for the Hollywood set. La Casa del Zorro opened in 1937 and, greatly expanded, remains one of the state's premier golf and swim resorts, owned by newspaper magnate Helen K. Copley, who also owns the Borrego Sun and the San Diego Union-Tribune. Even in July, business at Casa is strong.

For most businesses, however, the tourist season begins in late October, when temperatures fall below 100. In celebration, the Chamber of Commerce sponsors Borrego Springs Days. Last year's grand marshal was a sky-diving Elvis impersonator.

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