The snap of the plastic buckle sounds satisfying, but the webbed net door it’s attached to doesn’t provide as much comfort as it probably could. Strapped in to the back of a 4-person dune buggy, more properly called an Off Road Vehicle, we wait for final instructions as the engine idles at a low rumble.
In essence our instructions are: Don’t drive it like it’s stolen. Don’t roll it. Baby it over obstacles. Basically treat it like a Mercedes.
Where to rent a dune buggy – Anza-Borrego
We are on the edge of the Anza-Borrego Desert. It’s California’s largest state park encompassing more than 600,000 acres of badlands, palm oases, slot canyons, and cactus-caked hills. The geology here is ever changing and as barren as they come. Much of the park is inaccessible to regular vehicles, so renting a 4-wheel drive or all-terrain vehicle is the best and often the only way to take in the amazing geology, volcanic land forms, and fossils here.
Our dune buggy – a Polaris RZR – is an easy to drive, open air vehicle and it’s our chariot for the next four hours, thanks to a last minute booking with American ATV Rentals in Salton City. (I provide this link for your info. We did not receive any special treatment or discounts from American. We almost booked with Steve’s Rentals but a last minute staffing issue meant they couldn’t accommodate us and recommended American. Nice, right!?) We’re securely strapped into the passenger compartment and have views all around us thanks to the lack of side doors. After starting out in low gear and going slow, the RZR starts to feel more natural to operate, and we pick up speed.
What to see on an ATV in the desert
Anza-Borrego Desert State Park has dozens of unique and interesting features, but to see them you’ve got to work for them. We’ve plotted out a 4-hour tour to see some of the more striking features of this desert. There are no real roads out here, so we don’t know quite how long it’s going to take to get around to our stops. Instead there are trails, sort of.
Navigating the desert in an off-road vehicle
There’s even street signs marking the makeshift roads and highways carved from the shifting sands. They’re not always easy to see, since the sand of the road looks just like the sand that laps the edges. We’re in an unfamiliar, and slightly uncomfortable situation, but then again, that’s part of the lure.
We’re exploring the Ocotillo Wells SVRA, or State Vehicular Recreation Area, an entire park devoted to the off-road arts. While you can come out here and rip up the terrain just for the adrenaline, there’s also plenty to take in.
Ocotillo Wells SVRA: what to see
Ocotillo Wells SVRA sights: Gas Domes
Mud that’s superheated to the point where it bubbles from the earth? That sounds like a must see, so our first stop is the Gas Domes. Here water heated by geothermal energy bubbles through cracks in the earth’s crust and mixes with the dirt to form lightly bubbling mud pools.
Watch mud bubble from the earth – geology lesson
The pools are protected by fences, but there are openings so you can easily step through the gates to get up close. On the day we visited, the pots were very small and bubbling sporadically. The mud was whitish gray and was surprisingly cool to the touch. Though we’d heard this area was a must-see, we felt like the Gas Domes area was a bit disappointing.
The Gas Domes are on Gas Dome Trail about a mile and a half from Poleline Road.
Ocotillo Wells SVRA sights: Shell Reef
Loaded up and buckled in again, we sped westward on Gas Dome Trail towards our next stop, Shell Reef. We’ve been told that there are thousands of fossils here; layers of ancient shellfish still preserved in the dry desert sands. After turning north on Cahuilla Train then west on Tarantula Wash and then take a turn onto Shell Reef Expressway.
As we near the area, the sands start to rise up to form massive hills. BMX’ers weave their way though the trails in this area, but the hills are too large for our buggy. We park it beside a fence at the base of the hill and start to crawl up.
Find ancient fossils atop a dune
The shifting sands turn the trek into one step forward, three steps back and it takes a lot of exertion to get halfway up. we’re rewarded with shell fragments, so we claw our way higher. At the top of the dunes, there’s a rocky ridge that forms a spine along the top. Here, the layers of shells are more visible, an when the soft rock crumbles away, the outline of thousands of shells is easily visible.
Ocotillo Wells SVRA sights: Pumpkin Patch
Next it’s off to a sight I’ve been hoping to see for years. It’s a rock formation said to look like a scattering of giant marbles strewn across the sand: the Pumpkin Patch.
At first, our trip is quick and we make good time from Shell Reef along East bank Wash, but soon, rocky outcroppings begin to emerge from the sand, slowing our travel and creating an uneven trail. Soon we’re crawling over what can only be described as sandy egg cartons as we get closer to the site. The roads get harder to follow over here and although we’re aiming for a road called Lost Lizzard Trail we miss it somehow but still end up on the helpfully named Pumpkin Patch Trail.
A few years ago, we headed out to see the patch in a 4-wheel drive Suburban, but got dangerously low on gas and had to turn around without making it all the way. It’s just as well since in my beginner’s opinion, no road vehicle should attempt this section of the park. The rocks are twisted and sharp along the roadway, and they drop into wheel-size pots that look like they would swallow road tires.
Entertaining driving: egg cartons and pumpkins
Babying the RZR over rocks and around curves is challenging, but it makes the trip a really entertaining drive.
All of a sudden around a bend and onto a flat sandy plain again, there’s a large fenced off area: the Pumpkin Patch.
Strewn across the sand are giant, perfectly spherical rocks. How did they get here, and how were they formed? Helpful signs explain that the ‘pumpkins’ formed naturally, the result of grains of wet sand naturally cementing themselves to tiny pieces of shell or debris, then growing over time before being buried in sand. Eventually they’re revealed and further eroded by the wind after wind and water washed away the surface soil and left the rounded sandstone shapes.
The Pumpkin patch is pretty unique, and out here in the middle of actual nowhere, it’s a pretty amazing sight.
Ocotillo Wells SVRA sights: the Badlands
With the clock ticking on our buggy rental, we mount up again and speed northwest towards the Badlands area of Anza-Borrego State park. We’ve read about the deep canyons and pretty views here so we want to get a look before the clock runs out.
Launched through a labyrinth: Badlands canyons
At the intersection of Crossover trail and Arroyo Salado we head west and quickly enter a shallow canyon. Gradually it gets steeper and deeper and soon we’re closed in. The trails through the badlands are flat and sandy and despite their labyrinthine twists it’s easy to make good time careening among the rocks. We aim for a loop road and soon end up at the top of a rocky ridge with views over the canyons below.
The trails through the Badlands are surprisingly easy to navigate and we get a chance to stop and take some cool photos and videos.
With the clock ticking down, and still needing to fill the buggy with gas before returning it, we speed across the sand towards home base again.
We’re covered in sand, microdermabraded in places we never expected, and tired — but still high on our desert adventure.