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Hit the Road

Borrego hotel offers supreme stargazing experience

It’s late May, four in the afternoon and 100 degrees, but I’m cool.

Palo verde trees on the grounds of La Casa Del Zorro provide shade for people and critters alike. The historic hotel near Borrego Springs re-opened in 2013 after being shuttered for three years. Totally renovated, the hotel has designated family-friendly and adults-only areas. The most popular summer activity is stargazing. Photo by Laurie BrindleOne of several pools at La Casa Del Zorro provides cool respite from the summer sun. Room rates go down in summer when visitors come to witness meteor showers and other heavenly events that happen against a dark sky undiluted by light. Photo by Laurie BrindleThe 600,000 acres that make up Anza Borrego Desert State Park are rich with land forms like these columns created by erosion, a few miles outside of Borrego Springs. Photo by Laurie BrindleLa Casa Del Zorro had its origins in a two-room adobe called Desert Lodge. It eventually expanded and became a favorite destination for the rich and famous who wanted to escape the glitz and noise of Los Angeles and the movie industry. This photo was taken in the 1930s. (Courtesy photo) Font’s Point, due east of Borrego Springs, is “Anza Borrego’s version of Gibraltar,” says desert guide Joe Raffetto of California Overland Desert Excursions. It was named after Father Pedro Font, who served as chaplain and documentarian for an expedition across the desert in 1775 led by explorer Juan Bautista Anza.  Photo by Joe RaffettoIndianhead Peak is seen here from the top of the visitor’s center at Anza Borrego Desert State Park, which provides spectacular vistas even in the summer. Photo by Laurie Brindle

I’m floating effortlessly in a semi-private pool just outside the door of our room at La Casa Del Zorro, a historic hotel near Borrego Springs that lies fully within the 600,000-acre Anza Borrego Desert State Park.

I glance at the hummingbird hovering over a fern that sports bright orange blossoms. The bird knows a good thing when he sees it. The grounds here provide a haven for people and critters alike. The palo verde trees, so called because of their green bark, are cool and feathery despite the heat. Such flora provides a rudimentary biology lesson: you have to be pretty unique to survive the desert summer.

Nearby, in the northeast corner of the park, the Santa Rosa Mountains rise 8,700 feet above the valley. Their profiles pop against the bluest sky I’ve we’ve ever seen, but it’s the area’s nighttime sky that gives reason to visit Anza Borrego in June, July and August. My friend Laurie and I walk some of the hotel’s 42 acres after the sun is long gone, and looking skyward, are stopped in our tracks. The dome above looks like millions of diamonds on black velvet, and it occurs to me that there are also millions of people who’ve never seen the sky as we do at this moment.

This view above La Casa hopefully will be preserved for the ages, thanks to Borrego Springs’ designation as a Dark Sky Community. According to the International Dark Sky Association, this means that the town will “adhere to stringent standards that protect the natural night sky and ensure the continuation of this protection.”

La Casa takes advantage of this designation by hosting Dark Sky activities in July and August.

“We invite an astronomer to present and a musician to entertain,” explains General Manager Patrick Sampson. “They are fun events first, and very interesting and educational. It’s amazing what is happening up in the dark skies of Borrego.”

La Casa’s story begins in 1936 when the then-Desert Lodge was no more than a two-room adobe. It was expanded and soon Southern California’s elite were signing the guest book and exploring the desert.

San Diego publishing king James Copley owned the hotel from 1960 to 2007, then sold to a group of real estate investors who put $10 million into renovations but never re-opened the hotel. In 2013, another group bought La Casa and spent the year enacting improvements and hiring former employees. When Sampson arrived, “the plastic was still on the mattresses,” he says. “We did a lot of cleaning and more cleaning. You wouldn’t believe what happens in three years when you close up a property in the desert. We even had critters in the rooms.”

Today, you won’t have to share your indoor space with lizards and snakes. The 44 rooms and 19 stand-alone casitas are beautifully appointed and each is near a pool.

The Butterfield Dining Room (named in honor of the stage line that once passed through here), is supervised by Executive Chef Kurt Hauser. We enjoyed perfectly cooked mahi mahi and chicken breast, both accompanied by generous helpings of nutty brown rice and mouthwatering shitake mushrooms. (The chef readily accommodated my gluten-free needs.)

“I love mushrooms and seafood,” confesses Hauser, who grew up fishing off the La Jolla coast and among other things, spent time as the chef on the Intrepid, the America’s Cup winner in 1967 and 1970. “I like to keep the food fresh and flavorful and light.”

When he heard La Casa was re-opening, he couldn’t get here fast enough.

“I dropped my whole career to come back here,” he said.

Another unlikely desert aficionado is Joe Raffetto, owner of California Overland Desert Excursions and guide extraordinaire. Oddly enough, his professional background includes many years as a marine biologist studying dolphin populations with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and with Madison Avenue ad agencies.

“There are so many places in the desert that are secluded and unknown and that’s the point,” Raffetto explains during a Jeep tour. “When you’re cluttered with civilization, it’s nice to come someplace where you can see for a hundred miles.”

Raffetto leads visitors from all over the world on desert tours, campouts and stargazing events in the park.

“People feel relaxed and taken by the silence,” he says. “It’s toastier here in summer, but you are escaping the June gloom and the Milky Way is at its peak. Unfortunately, less and less people are able to see the Milky Way where they live. The night sky here is spectacular.”

For more information:

La Casa Del Zorro – (760) 767-0100;  HYPERLINK “”

California Overland Desert Excursions – camping, Jeep tours, stargazing events. (760) 767-1232;  HYPERLINK “”

For meteor shower dates,  HYPERLINK “”