As a young woman on a budget, I've found many ways to travel on the cheap, and one of my favorite destinations is Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in east county San Diego. It's close, it's cheap and it's beautiful – especially in the spring.
The best way to enjoy this expansive state park is with an adventurous attitude and group of good friends (a 4-wheel drive vehicle also comes in handy). There are over 600,000 acres to explore, from mud caves to hidden oases covered in palm trees.
During the spring, the desert is transformed into a stunning array of color, from the orange and yellow flowers of the barrel cactus to the intense deep red of the ocotillo.
So what makes Anza-Borrego so great? It can be summed up in two words – open camping. That means you and your friends can set up camp anywhere you like as long as it's safe and you follow a few easy rules: keep your car out of the way of oncoming vehicles, respect the plants around you, don't light open fires on the ground, camp 100 feet away from a water source and clean up your site when you're done. Open camping is the way to go for if you're looking to get away from it all, enjoy the silence and stare at the stars on a crystal-clear night. I highly recommend pulling off on the side of the road and picking a random camp spot.
Just one thing to keep in mind: you are in nature, in the middle of nowhere, and anything can happen – as my friends and I found out one interesting morning.
A group of us packed our cars and headed out to Anza-Borrego for a weekend camp trip to celebrate a buddy's birthday. It was the usual: we pulled off on a random dirt road, followed it until we couldn't go any further and set up camp.
We'd picked a beautiful spot nestled between high cliffs and our own little private canyon. The night was filled with laughter, jokes, star-gazing and general good times. (We had the quintessential shovel ready for use at any moment and a few women who were hesitant to use it, but everyone got into the camping mentality and had a great time.)
The next morning, as we were slowly waking and packing up the cars, we started to hear a low buzzing sound. It didn't worry us much; we just assumed there was a small beehive somewhere in the vicinity. But over the next few minutes, the buzzing got increasingly louder. A friend looked up and pointed out a small crack in the rock wall above us with about twenty bees lingering around it.
Our radar was up, but we weren't too worried until we continued to watch the crack. Hundreds upon hundreds of bees were now pouring out of the wall and forming a giant swarm above our heads. We had all heard of killer bees and seen the '90s movie My Girl where a young Macaulay Culkin dies from multiple bee stings, so we were definitely getting scared. We decided the best thing to do was stay still and calm, until suddenly the entire swarm of now thousands of bees began to descend upon us. Our campsite was completely surrounded by bees flying in every direction. The bees started running into me and I couldn't control my fear any longer. My heart was pounding, my friends were on the verge of running for their lives and the buzzing was deafening. I let out a small, almost inaudible yelp and in that moment the entire swarm began to rise. The bees slowly ascended and moved up the hill, leaving us in awe of what had just happened – approximately ten minutes of pure panic.
To this day we have no idea what sparked the swarm or what kind of bees they were, but it was an incredible moment – one that, needless to say, I was happy turned out the way it did. I was reminded that camping out in the elements can in fact be dangerous. And we were all immensely grateful for our Eagle Scout friend, who told us to remain calm and somehow kept eight young people from all running and screaming in a moment of terror. Now we have a great story to tell.
It's still incredible to me that us locals can drive just two hours from the city into a completely different world. The immense beauty of the desert provides the perfect getaway for an adventurous soul like myself.
In general, San Diego never ceases to amaze, with its vast topography and regions different as night and day. Desert, mountains, rolling hills and beautiful beaches all within one county mean that you can be experiencing a different side of the great outdoors every weekend. No need to spend money on expensive travel; you can hike through pine trees on the Pacific Crest Trail on Saturday and surf Sunset Cliffs breaks on Sunday.
It's all at your fingertips – so hop in your car already and explore the wonders of our very own San Diego County!