Vallecito: A Quiet, Primitive Desert Campground
Vallecito and the Lady in White
By Gerald Burke
When the Butterfield Stage thundered out of Fort Yuma on the Colorado River headed for Los Angeles and then San Francisco from 1858 to 1861, it meandered into Mexico for a short distance, crossed back into California at the New River and aimed for Warner’s Ranch.
But before the stage got there it rumbled through the Carrizo Gorge and made a stop at a little stage station called Vallecito, in what is now eastern San Diego County.
The dusty and weary travelers got out, stretched their legs, felt the sore muscles in their backsides, maybe had a bite to eat and drink before fresh horses took them on further. The whole trip of 2700 miles took some 27 days over roads we might see as impassable now.
The stage is no more…
The Butterfield Stage is long gone, but Vallecito lives on as a delightful fall, winter and spring campground on the edge of the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, with the stage station still standing, refurbished by San Diego County after they purchased the crumbling building in 1934.
And if those hardy travelers could see the campers there enjoying the serene desert, wildflowers, animal and bird life, and the pleasant winter temperatures, they might forget their aching backs.
We’ve camped at Vallecito — Spanish for Little Valley — a number of times, and every time we pack up to leave we say we’ve got to get back again soon. It’s one of the best of the San Diego County desert campgrounds, full of wild stories from its past, stories of ghosts, of the Native Americans who lived there for many years, and stories of the Spanish who came there later, and of the gold seekers who passed through.
It’s a quiet, desert campground
More than that, it’s a quiet, primitive desert campground, with better facilities than some, with water, tables, fire rings or barbecues and grills, clean restrooms, no showers, no hookups for RVs, but level, spacious campsites, good for tents and RVs, a picnic area, a children’s play area with equipment, a caravan section and a youth group camping section.
The old stage station has been rebuilt
The old stage station is well kept up and you can walk through it. We’ve seen some interesting historical material typed up on a bulletin board in the station and a walk through the station, with its thick adobe walls and dirt floors, makes the history of the place come to life.
According to another bulletin board near the campground entrance, Native Americans lived in the area for generations but left little trace of their being there. Pedro Fages, a Spanish Army commandant discovered springs nearby, in a marshy area west of the campground in 1782.
During the Mexican-American War of 1846 General Stephen Kearny camped there and set up an army depot where the stage station stands. Later the Mormon Battalion arrived and camped there, and gold discoveries in the west brought numerous travelers through the valley.
The army left the area in 1853 and one James Lassator bought the station after that and ran it as a way station until he was murdered in 1865. For three years, 1858 to 1861, the Butterfield Overland Stage made it a regular stop on the trip to Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Vallecito was appreciated by these early immigrants and travelers because it was the first real greenery they’d seen since leaving Yuma. Much of that greenery is still there outside the western boundary of the campground.
The Lady in White
Many of the stories in the history of Vallecito come from the era of the travelers who were headed west. One is a story of a lady who died there after the arduous journey, name unknown, who lies buried in a tiny graveyard above the tent area.
She had come from her home in the east to marry her sweetheart who had struck it rich in the goldfields of California. Of frail health, she had suffered on the hard and wearing journey and died at the stop in Vallecito.
No one knew her name, and a search of her luggage revealed no name, but in it was the long, white wedding dress she was to have worn and she was buried in the little cemetery in that dress.
There are other stories of phantom stage coaches rolling along the dirt road, of a ghostly lady in a long white cloak roaming through the campground, and of a beautiful white horse pounding down the trail at night.
Watch for wildlife
We didn’t see any ghosts, but we did see many birds that make their home there because of the water nearby.Roadrunnerss race through the campground, there are crows and ravens, western bluebirds, towhees, thrashers, lots of quail, the silky flycatchers whistling from the shrubs and trees, and gnatcatchers flit through the underbrush.
You may not see them all, but several mammals live there too, including rabbits and foxes, and you’ll surely hear coyotes at night. The vegetation is mostly mesquite, greasewood, sage and catclaw, some of it growing high enough to make good shade during warm days.
When your travels take you through the Anza-Borrego Desert, keep Vallecito in mind whether you camp there or just stop to see the old stage station and take a walk up the hill to the grave of the lady in white.
Vallecito campground lies in eastern San Diego County just outside the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. It can be reached off Interstate 8 via Highway S-2 north at Ocotillo, or off Interstate 15 south toward San Diego exiting at Highway 79 to Warner Springs and south to Highway S-2.
For more information contact the San Diego County Parks Dept. at 877-565-3600, or write to them at 2454 Heritage Row, San Diego, CA 92110, or online at Co.San-Diego.CA.US/parks/
Vallecito is open from Labor Day weekend in September to Memorial Day, May 30. The weather is usually warm in the day, cool at night, and this area of the Anza-Borrego Desert gets a little rain in the winter, anytime from November through April. In the spring wildflowers are abundant.
There are no supplies at the campground. There is a store at a private campground, Butterfield Ranch, along the way on Highway S-2, and supplies are available at Warner Springs and Ocotillo.
Gerald Burke is a freelance travel and horticultural writer. He has traveled all over the world. He writes a monthly column, LET’S GO CAMPING, covering public campgrounds, mostly in Southern California, and contributes to a number of travel and RV periodicals. He is a member of the Garden Writers Association and the North American Travel Journalists Association.
Read more GoNOMAD stories about RVs
Thank you for the article on the campground at the Butterfield Stage Depot at Vallecito. My family went there in the 50s and dad told ghost stories around the campfire. One was about an Indian maiden ghost that roamed the Depot, but because of cactus on the desert floor, her ghost had to walk a couple feet off the ground. Anyway, your article came up on the Google search, and it brought back so many good memories.
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