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While most of the Anza-Borrego Desert swelters, the temperature hovers as much as 10š Fahrenheit cooler at the "high desert" locale of Culp Valley, 3400 feet above sea level. Culp Valley is the only designated camping area in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park where September's heat is bearable and October's warmth is downright pleasant.

Buckhorn cholla cactus, Culp Valley

Great masses of granitic bedrock erupt from the sloping, sandy floor of the valley, forming stark structures composed of tilted slabs and rounded boulders. At times, the wind blows capriciously, whistling through apertures in the rock piles. Nearby, out of sight from the valley and sheltered from the wind, water trickles from a hillside spring and nourishes a mini-oasis of green grass and small trees. It's this kind of contrast that makes hiking around here especially rewarding.

Culp Valley is located at mile 9.2 on Montezuma Highway (County S-22), about three miles east of Ranchita and nine miles west of Borrego Springs. You'll need an Anza-Borrego parking permit for both day and overnight use. Unless you already possess a long-term permit, call 760-767-4205 or 760-767-5311 for information on how to obtain a daily permit, which costs $5.

The campground is truly no frills -- just a few nooks and crannies where you can park your car overnight. Our little hike, 1.7 miles long, starts along the spur road that forks west toward Pena Spring. Follow the road west (uphill), and continue walking on a signed footpath leading downhill and north toward Pena Spring. After 0.3 mile of steady descent, you reach a thicket of sugarbush shrubs (they look like small trees with leathery leaves). On the left, there's an obscure path across a marshy area and then through shrubby vegetation. This marginal track leads 50 yards to the hard-to-locate main spring, where crystal-clear water gushes from a raised pipe.

After visiting Pena Spring, reverse your steps 0.2 mile to the intersection of the California Riding and Hiking Trail, marked by a small sign. Go east, uphill at first, then more-or-less level along a broad ridge dotted with chaparral shrubs, juniper, and a smattering of yucca and cholla cactus.

After 0.5 mile on the ridge, you'll come to the intersection of a trail going down to the campground, 0.3 mile south. Only a stone's throw north of this point are some large boulder outcrops offering an airy view of the Hellhole Canyon gorge to the north, the shimmering Borrego Valley in the northeast, and the long crest of the Santa Rosa Mountains on the far horizon. Just east from this single vantage point, other fascinating boulder structures and panoramic viewpoints beckon. But if you've had enough already, simply descend south into the Culp Valley Campground, and return to your car.

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