Anza Borrego: Art in the California Desert

When I stepped out of the car into the desert sand on a warm, still January afternoon, a feeling of quiet seemed to travel up my feet and through my body. Looking out over the flat foreground to the distant hills, the cactus short and the brush scrubby, my view was interrupted only by huge prehistoric creatures.

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Yep, dinosaurs, sabertooth tigers, ground sloths and wooly mammoths have returned to the Anza Borrego Desert. This little-populated part of Southern California is home to more than 100 sculptures of the beasts who once roamed the region. And a few who didn't.

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Anza Borrego was a special place even before sculptor Ricardo Breceda started populating the desert in 2008. Unlike nearby Palm Springs, the community of Borrego Springs has remained small and quirky. Drive two hours northeast of San Diego and you're a world away from traffic jams and beach culture.

The area has managed to remain fairly low profile despite Anza-Borrego Desert State Park being California's largest state park. Visitors can hike, explore 500 miles of dirt roads, and camp in 12 wilderness areas. The park is especially popular in spring, when masses of wildflower brighten the desert. If you're lucky and quiet enough, you might see kit foxes, mule deer, bighorn sheep, roadrunners, iguanas, chuckwallas and golden eagles.

The Sculptures of Ricardo Breceda

My mother, sisters and I found winter the perfect time to visit. You avoid the heat of summer and fall and the crowds of spring. And crowds would make a difference. Part of the fun is driving through the nearly empty desert, searching for Breceda's creatures. The sculptures are spread over several miles north and south of Borrego Springs. Some are beside the road, others are a mile or two down dirt tracks.

We all peered out the car windows, trying to be the first to spot a sculpture and then debating its identity. Sure, we could agree this one was a giant scorpion fighting a giant grasshopper. But some of the creatures were more mysterious. Was that a ground sloth? A prehistoric tapir? And what were they doing out here in the desert?

Ricardo Breceda, originally from Durango, Mexico, wasn't always an artist. After a construction accident, he started fooling around making things for his daughter. Breceda crafts his creatures from scrap reinforcement bars, wire and metal, and pounds them with hammers to get the right texture. Eventually his work attracted the attention of Dennis Avery, a Borrego resident and heir to the office label fortune.

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Avery's interest in art followed in his father's footsteps -- sort of. R. Stanton Avery, who built the fortune, helped establish the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Los Angeles County Music Center, and other major cultural institutions. But the junior Avery liked his art more populist. So he commissioned Breceda to build sculptures for public display on Avery's 3,000 acres in Borrego, which is called Galleta Estates. Avery died in 2012, leaving a legacy of this prehistoric sculpture garden plus many other philanthropic works.

Galleta Estates is open to the public for hiking, horseback riding and other recreational uses. You can even camp for free for up to three days.

Perhaps Breceda's most popular sculpture is a 350-foot serpent with the head of a dragon and the tail of a rattlesnake. This one is especially well-detailed, and the spikey head and roiling tongue lend lots of life to the sculpture. I think everybody who visits wants their photo taken with the dragon. Borrego Springs

Borrego Springs

Most places I remember from my Southern California girlhood have changed drastically. But Borrego Springs looks only slightly bigger and spiffier than it did 30 years ago. Now the shopping is better. The town recently renovated a mid-century building into a gorgeous art institute. But you can still easily wander the stores in an hour or two when you want a break from the desert sun.

A few highlights: The Borrego Art Institute, a nonprofit art center, offers classes and hangs a different show every month. Top shops include Regales de Borrego, where you can buy Mexican pottery, Southwest jewelry and locally made bath products, and the Borrego Desert Nature Center. The nature center is the place to buy books on wildlife and regional history and to get a map of Breceda's sculptures.

Dark Sky Community

Borrego Springs is California's only internationally designated Dark Sky Community. This means residents adhere to lighting restrictions to preserve amazing views of the night sky. Visitors who like a little guidance and instruction with their heavenly bodies can book an astronomer-led tour with Star Gaze Borrego.

If You Go

Carlee's Bar & Grill is the biggest restaurant on the main drag. The huge menu can accommodate many diets, from burger lovers to vegans.

If your tastes run to the upscale and exclusive, the recently restored La Casa del Zorro gives you the desert retreat experience circa 1937. Freestanding casitas with one to four bedrooms boast wood-burning fireplaces, private pools and spas. The 42-acre resort has fine dining, tennis, a spa and easy access to golf.

Luxury not so important? The Borrego Springs Motel lets you walk everywhere in town. It's primarily solar-powered, and offers a respite from TV, wifi and phones.

True nature lovers can stay in the state park. Camp under the extra-bright stars, or rent a cabin at the Tamarisk Grove Campground. These new cabins opened in February 2014 and sleep up to four people.

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Teresa Bergen lives in Portland, Oregon and writes about health, fitness and travel. She's the author of Vegetarian Asia Travel Guide. In addition to writing, she teaches yoga and group fitness classes. You can learn more about Teresa at

Photo credit: Steve Bier, Teresa Bergen, and Dennis Mammana

Published: June 16th, 2014

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