ERNIE COWAN Outdoors
HIKE IN ANZA-BORREGO DESERT IS A GREAT WAY TO START THE YEAR
Taking a hike on New Year’s Day has become an annual tradition for me.
This year, after an evening of fun with friends to usher in the New Year, my hike would be in the peaceful quiet of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. While only 65 miles from my home in Escondido, this arid oasis is in another universe when it comes to peace and quiet, unusual scenery and the chance to connect with the natural world.
I’m not sure anyone would ever need anxiety medication if they made frequent visits to this crown jewel of California’s state parks.
As you fall into the valley coming down the spectacular Montezuma Grade on Highway S-22, you can just feel the tension release, cares vanish and the mind slipping into neutral. It didn’t hurt that daytime temperatures were in the mid-70s, with a gentle breeze and fresh air untainted by the additions of urban crowding. This was not a dawn hike, but it was early. There was no spectacular destination in mind, just a stroll along the open desert at the base of the San Ysidro Mountains where they slip into the sands of the gently sloping desert.
As I began my hike, I spotted a roadrunner perched on a rock watching me. In his typical fashion, he didn’t fly off as I approached, but instead scampered away as he darted between cacti and shrubs. This one lacked the bright blue and red markings on its face, suggesting this was a youngster. On the boulders above me, a raven was letting his peers know of my presence. It was not one of his harsh alarm calls, but first the low, gurgling croak, followed by a shriller territorial call to alert for trespassers, namely, me.
Despite the fact that not a drop of rainwater has fallen in the desert yet this winter, there were actually a few blooming plants, including a brittlebush, tipped with happy yellow flowers, and a few delicate red blossoms on chuparosa bushes.
It’s a testimony to the resilience of nature that even in such a harsh environment, these hardy plants find away to continue their cycle of reproduction while also offering beauty to the human observer.
The bouncing of a rock wren on the boulders above me caught my eye, and I paused to watch this busy little bird flit about the rocks, feeding as it went.
Another movement drew my attention to the sand on the trail ahead of me. It was a desert iguana, one of the most common lizards of the Colorado and Mojave deserts.
This stylish resident of Anza-Borrego was moving from plant to plant and crawling up to eat the delicate ends of new growth.
Desert travelers will often see the iguana dashing over the desert, lifting its body off the sand and tail curled up over its back as it scampers along.
They are medium-sized lizards, measuring from 10 to 16 inches in length, including it long tail that is nearly one-and-a-half times longer that its body.
The whitish to creamcolored body and distinctive dark bands and stripes on the back and tail make this guy easy to identify.
What makes the desert iguana so interesting is its ability to survive in this harsh, arid environment.
These lizards rarely drink, obtaining the moisture they need from their diet of flowers, buds and leaves of the desert plants.
They are especially fond of creosote.
If you sit and watch one of these guys for a while, you might get see him climb several feet up a bush to forage on the tender, new growth.
While my lizard companion was enjoying his fresh winter grass and the mild weather, as summer temperatures heat up, they will seek protection from the hot sun in burrows, frequently dug in the sand that banks up around the bases or creosote bushes.
Females will also nest in these burrows.
I love sharing the lore of the desert with first-time visitors, and sometimes that may include a slightly exaggerated tale.
When friends see their first desert iguana, I often tell them that it’s a “stick lizard.”
I explain how in the hot summer months it runs with a stick in its front paws. When it stops, it plunges the stick into the dirt and climbs up to avoid burning its feet on the hot sand.
That reminds me of the elusive hoop snake, but that’s a story for another NewYear’s hike.
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A desert iguana feeding on fresh growth.