Saved by Agua Caliente County Park in San Diego County
In case you can’t tell from our last few posts, we had been hitting a bit of a rough patch. “Confined” to the warm climate of southern California in January, we were kind of striking out at Joshua Tree National Park, Salton Sea, Yuma, AZ…we were not finding places that we liked, and we were craving a place where we could spend a few days relaxing. After a noisy night in Yuma, we made for the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, outside San Diego. Down here, near the Mexican border, you’re constantly getting stopped at immigration checkpoints. We hit our third stop of the day at the entrance to the park.
Guard: “Are you American citizens?” Me: “Yes.” Guard, pointedly looking at Paul: “And you?” Paul: “Yes.” Guard: “Where are you headed?” Me, pointing at the park sign: “The park, here.” Guard: “Your van just full of camping stuff?” Me: “Yes.” Guard: “OK, have a nice day.” Me: sigh.
Generally, when we get to a new area, we scope out a few camping options before we settle on a place. We checked out two remote camps in the desert park, but neither seemed that great for $15/night (stinky pit toilets and undesignated spaces), then drove a bit up the road to find a place called Agua Caliente. Having been disappointed in the past by places that sounded like they had hot springs, but then did not, I didn’t get my hopes up. And I was pleasantly surprised. Agua Caliente County Park has a 90 degree natural hot spring. They have three different pools: one at 90 degrees, one heated to 105 degrees, and a bigger one that is supposed to be 90 but felt much cooler. Showers, three pools, canyon trails, and a sweet camp spot, all for $19/night. Sign us up for three nights, please!
The next day, we were soaking in the 90 degree pool with another couple. This is supposed to be the children’s wading pool, but the only ten-year old in the place is doing cannonballs, over and over again, into the chilly pool, and the adults have been relegated to the kiddie pool. I joke about this to the other woman in the pool. She’s wearing a button down shirt over her suit, flaunting the rules (no clothing other than bathing suits allowed. Nudity is NOT an option), and stops in the middle of our conversation to save a bee that has fallen in the pool. “You haven’t seen anything yet,” she says. “This place will be crawling with kids by the weekend. We only come here during the week.”
One thing Agua Caliente is crawling with already is bees, thousands and thousands of them, but they’re not aggressive bees. They go about their bee business, collecting pollen and water to cool their hives, while leaving the humans alone. This is a real, thriving oasis in the middle of a harsh desert. Unlike privately owned hot springs, Agua Caliente has been left in a close to natural state. There’s a huge variety of trees and plants (most of which were flowering), birds (including hummingbirds), frogs and toads (which provide a nice soundtrack each night), rabbits, and chipmunks. There are also desert bighorn sheep — we saw two rams quietly grazing on one of our canyon hikes.
It feels wonderful to be in such a vibrant, living, breathing place after so much time in the dry desert. At night, the stars are brilliant. It’s warm during the day, the warmest we’ve been on our trip. We feel peaceful and happy. Friday morning our kiddie pool friends take off and I think they’re missing out. It’s still quiet — maybe this weekend will be different. We go for a hike and when we return, it’s like we’re coming back to a different world. There are kids EVERYWHERE. A boyscout troop is having some sort of event at the pavilion. There are probably a hundred boys, all ten or eleven, and they have scattered throughout the park. Five bikes are parked by the stream that runs out of the pools. Five boys emerge, carrying sticks, and bike off in a hurry. There are cries of “I’m king of the world” and “Daddy, look at me!” and “George, goddammit, get down off the top of that hill NOW!” Instead of scanning the hills for sheep, we’re looking to see the improbable places the kids have climbed. The sound of air mattresses being inflated and the smell of smoky fires provide a new background ambiance. We’d always wondered when the parks would start getting busy again. Is this it?
Saturday morning we wake up to the sound of heavy metal coming from a nearby campsite. The kids have been up for hours, their tired parents slouched in camp chairs (I suspect it won’t be long until they break out the wine glasses). For some reason they all seem to be avoiding the pools, content to infiltrate every other part of the park instead. The main bathroom has developed a plumbing problem and is out of commission. It’s still the same place: a desert refuge, an oasis. We see the same birds and smell the same flowering trees. But the human element has changed, and this is our cue to exit — rested and re-energized — and to think carefully about where we spend the weekends from now on!