(Above: Brad talks with Dan and Pete Van Stralen during a stop in the Colorado Desert.)
In early December 2021, I had the opportunity to spend three days overlanding with friends and family in Anza-Borrego State Park. Located in the arid terrain of Southern California’s Colorado Desert, the park is rich with geological wonders, steeped in history, and filled with more than 500 of miles of trails for off-road vehicles.
Initially, I was hesitant to go. Spending one of the few remaining weekends before Christmas and New Year’s off-grid instead of making sure everything was ready for the festivities gave me a bit of angst.
I’d also been to Anza-Borrego several times before, but only for day trips. This would be the most time I’d spent in the desert and, if I’m being honest, it has never been my favorite place. To me, the desert had always seemed desolate, barren, and harsh. I prefer the mountains, with their lush trees and cool waters.
But I said yes, and I am so glad I did—this trip turned out to be an unforgettable and unexpected adventure.
Setting Out for a Desert Off-Road Adventure
(Hitting the trail in Anza-Borrego.)
Before we left for the desert, I did a little homework to learn about more the park’s history. I’ve always loved learning about different places, but I’d never sought out information about Anza-Borrego. I thought a better understanding of the area might lead to a deeper appreciation and make the trip more fun.
Armed with my newfound knowledge of the desert and gear packed, we set out in our two Jeeps, Brad and I in one and our son Jordan driving the other. Our first stop was in Ramona, where we met up with the rest of our group in the parking lot of a local grocery store. Not the most likely place to begin an adventure, but very practical. There was space for all of our vehicles and trailers and we could grab a few last minute items.
Joining us on this adventure would be our good friends Marco and Jason, and the entire Van Stralen family from the YouTube channel “Epic Family Road Trip” (EFRT).
If you don’t know who they are—Carol and Peter, their kids Caroline, Dan and Pete, and their very energetic dog, Lando—you should definitely check out their channel. They’ve been living mostly out of their two Jeeps (they actually started with just one) for the past six-plus years while traveling around the world. As someone who is still figuring out how to overland, I’m in awe of anyone who can live out of a Jeep, let alone raise three teenagers while doing it.
After Marco and the Van Stralen’s stocked up on a few last-minute supplies, our convoy of seven Jeeps, three off-road trailers, and two adventure bikes hit the road for Anza-Borrego.
Heading into the Badlands
(Above: Anza-Borrego's badlands, canyons, and plants, Ocotillo and teddy bear cacti.)
Our goal for the first day was to explore Sandstone Canyon, an easy to moderate trail with plenty of dispersed camping and lots to see along the way. Brad has done this trail many times and thought it would be the perfect introduction to the park for the Van Stralen’s who were visiting Anza-Borrego for the first time.
Heading into the badlands, I was struck by the juxtaposition of the smooth, rounded boulders scattered across the weather-beaten earth and the jagged, crumbling mountains in the distance. They were visible reminders of the region’s dynamic, ever-changing environment—a land shaped by fierce winds, sporadic flash floods, and tectonic activity. But as ragged and rough as the land was, the muted colors of the desert—sage green, chalky brown, and dusty gold—were soft.
As we jostled down the rock-strewn trail in our four-wheel drive Jeeps, I had to wonder what it had been like hundreds of years ago for those early Spanish emigrants who traveled through this area on horseback and in wagons with explorer Juan Bautista de Anza (the park’s namesake) to settle in San Francisco. I can easily imagine it was a hard, uncomfortable journey as they battled the elements and the terrain without the benefits of climate control, cushioned seats, and suspension.
What is difficult to image is that a large portion of Anza-Borrego’s 600,000 acres was once drenched in water—a third of the park is made up of ancient sea bottom and marshland. Water has played, and continues to play, an important role in shaping this desert and creating one of the most fascinating geological features in the park—the mud caves, which is where we stopped for lunch and a little exploring.
Several of these caves can be found throughout the area and they are formed when heavy rainfalls erode the rock, carving channels in the soft mudstone.
The cave we explored had plenty of room to stand as we followed a path that curved around the smooth stone walls. It was cool and dark, and we all had flashlights or headlamps. There were a few sections where the ceiling had collapsed, which let the sun shine in but also made it tricky to walk with all the loose, broken rock covering the ground. I’m glad I wore sturdy shoes.
While it doesn’t rain often in the desert, it can be dangerous when it does due to flash flooding. It’s never a good idea to explore the caves when it’s raining and it’s always a good idea to explore with a friend (or 10, like we did).
(Above left: Exploring the mud caves. Above right: The Devil's Drop Off.)
Once we were done checking out the cave, we had a quick bite to eat before heading to the Devil’s Drop Off (also called Diablo Drop Off), a steep, rutted, sandy section of the trail. I’d done most of the driving to this point but, knowing my limits, I let Brad take the wheel. Using his vastly greater off-roading experience and skills, he easily navigated our Jeep and trailer down the precarious incline.
After everyone made it safely down, our convoy meandered through the high-walled slot canyons as we marveled at the layered and wrinkled sandstone rising up from rocky ground. The park isn't just a place, it's a story.
Ancient rivers carried the remains of creatures and plants that once inhabited this region, depositing them throughout what would become Anza-Borrego where they would eventually become part of the land itself. Within the park, there is a nearly complete geologic record covering the past 7 million years.
As much as we were all enjoying the trail, one member of our party was having a lot more fun than everyone else—Lando. He ran alongside our vehicles as we drove, never seeming to tire.
At first, I was worried that he’d run in front of us, but he was incredible around the Jeeps and did really well staying to the side of the vehicles. Sometimes he would charge ahead a short distance, stopping to sniff at a plant or rock, and at other times he’d fall back to be with his people. I have never met a dog with so much energy.
Eventually, we’d made it to the end of the trail and our campsite for the night. The sun was just starting to set as we arrived and we all took a few moments to enjoy the spectacular cotton candy sky.
(Above left: Lando, the amazing overlanding dog. Above middle: A slot canyon in Anza-Borrego. Above right: Sunset at camp in Sandstone Canyon.)
Honing My Camp Cooking Skills
One of the things I had looked forward to about this trip was improving my overlanding skills. Even though I’ve done my fair share of camping and roughing it when I was younger, I was a bit rusty. Every new adventure is an opportunity to refresh and upgrade my skills. And I needed the practice at setting up and breaking down camp and using our camp kitchen.
My husband can have everything set up within 10 minutes of getting to camp. Same with packing up in the morning—give him 15 minutes and he’s ready to roll. Me? Not so much.
That’s why I was proud of myself that first night when I set up our privacy tent and foldable commode all by myself. It may have taken me a little longer than it would have taken my husband, but that’s beside the point. I did it without any help, and that is the point.
And yes, the tent and commode are essential overlanding gear. They don’t take long to set up, they add to my personal comfort, and they make it easy to pack out everything (and I mean everything), leaving no trace.
Learning new skills has also taught me more about myself. When I was trying to learn all there was to know about overlanding, it was overwhelming. But I have realized I learn better—and get less frustrated—when I focus on mastering just one or two new skills every time we go out. With time and practice, my overlanding skills and my confidence will grow.
I also worked on my camp cooking skills, and dinner that first night really put them to the test. Despite my careful planning, I managed to forget a few key ingredients for the chili mac I was making for dinner. And, in the middle of Anza-Borrego, there’s no grocery store.
Thanks to Marco, who always overlands with a fully stocked camp kitchen—one that is probably just as well-provisioned as my home kitchen—all was not lost. With a little improvisation, I was still able to feed my guys.
I also discovered I need to organize my camp kitchen better. Every time I made a meal during the trip, I had to move the food I was prepping on the fold down counter to get to something else I needed in the storage area behind it, or I had to run to the other side of the trailer to grab ingredients while I was in the middle of cooking. Annoying at best, inefficient at worst. If I had been better organized, I might have noticed I was missing a few things before we left home.
I love our trailer because it provides space and amenities for cooking and kitchen gear that I wouldn’t have otherwise. What was missing was my ability to make the best use of that space. That’s why my next project is going to be organizing and optimizing my camp kitchen. No ingredient will ever get left behind again!
(Above: Marco and I both making use of the kitchens in our Patriot Campers off-road trailers to cook dinner as the sun went down.)
Finding Common Ground
Even with my culinary struggles, we were soon sitting around the campfire having dinner with our fellow travelers. This moment, when everyone comes together to eat and relax at the end of the day, is probably one of my favorite things about overlanding.
There’s just something magical about good food, good company, and a crackling fire as stars light up the night. Overlanding done right is an experience that allows you to slow down and soak everything in. It inspires you to dwell in the moment and appreciate the surrounding beauty, even in a seemingly forsaken desert.
Though I’d just met the Van Stralen’s and Jason, by the end of that first night, I felt like we were old friends. As everyone sat around the fire, we talked about past adventures, life experiences, and just shared our stories.
The Van Stralen’s told us about the time they were in New Zealand and worked with the local community to help save beached whales. We identified constellations and talked about space stations and satellites, and Jason spoke about his fascinating career in the aerospace industry. Marco talked about his chickens and coyote problems.
(Stars in the night sky)
We repeated this ritual over the next few nights and through conversation, we wove together common threads, creating bonds of friendship.
By the second night, our circle of friends had expanded by four humans, and three canines, and we had added two vehicles to our convoy. Our new additions included Paula and David, Marco’s daughter and her boyfriend, as well as their two pups, Anza and Sedona, who had met up with us late that first night. During our second day, we were joined by our friends Stacy, her husband Andy, and their dog, Kevin.
Larger groups can be challenging to manage when overlanding—trying to maintain communications in a convoy, finding campsites large enough to fit everyone, accommodating different driving skills. But this group was filled with experienced overlanders (myself being the exception) and I couldn’t have imagined being on the trail with better people.
Mornings at camp were relaxed with time to linger over coffee. On our first morning, we were all treated to delicious breakfast burritos Marco made on his skottle, but for the remainder of our adventure, we all fended for ourselves for our morning meals. It was interesting to see how differently everyone approached breakfast. I brought homemade zucchini bread to keep things simple and because I can be a little slow going in the mornings. Stacy and Andy made beautiful ribeye steaks for breakfast. And after going all out the day before, Marco had a slice of apple pie on our last morning.
Each day when it was time to pack up camp, I was also finding it easier to break down our privacy tent, pack away the commode, and dispose of the waste bags. And for anyone who thinks bringing a privacy tent and toilet is “glamping,” I can assure you there is nothing glamorous about packing it up. But enough about that.
(Above: Wind caves in Anza-Borrego)
Most of the places we visited didn’t have any structures or anything else to remind you of the modern world, and I could envision horses and wagons, emigrants, and soldiers, trekking across these same trails. From the 1840s until the 1870s, this area saw scores of travelers chasing gold, looking for a new start in life, marching to war, or delivering mail. They traveled what is called the Southern Emigrant Trail, also known as the Butterfield Stage Trail, which went through this stretch of desert.
(Metal sea serpent statue in Anza-Borrego)
The entire area is filled with the history of events and people who shaped our nation. And our days were spent journeying along the same paths as these intrepid adventurers who had traveled here hundreds of years ago as we discovered the unique and surprisingly diverse beauty of this wild and weather-beaten land.
(View of the badlands from Fonts Point.)
The Magic of an Unexpected Adventure