Over the weekend, I decided to do something that on paper appeared dumb: head out to the blazing hot dessert in the heat of the summer. But I wasn't just going to for the sake of self immolation. Instead, I wanted to photograph these fantastical metal sculptures that I had recently heard about from another photographer friend, at a location where I could set these subjects against the backdrop of the Milky Way.
It turns out that out in Borrego Springs, there are over 130 metal sculptures crafted by artist Ricardo Breceda scattered throughout Galleta Meadows Estates, a widespread swath of land belonging to the late Dennis Avery (of the Avery labels company). Breceda, originally from Mexico and not trained as an artist, became one after making a dinosaur sculpture for his daughter (I don't know the exact circumstance; that's just the story from what I could find). His path eventually crossed with Avery's, who was looking for an artist who could provide artwork for a public outdoor gallery in the dessert. The result has been countless metal sculptures--all on private property but free to access--dotting the dessert landscape. The diversity of the sculptures is grand, ranging from horses to elephants to eagles to a giant serpent to insects to humans. All of them are made from sheet metal cut, shaped, and welded together to form some incredible figures, and further research revealed that many of them were popular nighttime portraits against the stars, since the minimal population of Borrego Springs meant low light pollution and much clearer skies than in the city or suburbs.
This past 4th of July weekend coincided with a new moon, meaning optimally dark skies, so on Sunday, a friend and I set out for the 2-1/2 hour drive to east San Diego County, taking the I-5 down to highway 76, then heading east and following various highway routes to Borrego. By the time we arrived, it was 7:30, which was good and bad. Bad because our daylight was rapidly fading, limiting our time to scout the sculptures we wanted to photograph later at night and to check out the other sculptures. Fortunately, we were able to see a couple dozen before we completely lost the light, including several that required off-roading to access. Here is just a small sample of the incredible art that can be found at the Borrego Springs Sky Art Gallery.
The Bird of Prey
There are actual several sculptures of birds of prey in the area, but we visited on located along the east-west running segment of Borrego Springs Road. This one shows a massive bird of prey based on species that might have existed in the area in prehistoric times. It is perched on its nest, attacking an invading serpent, with its young also present.
Nearby are multiple sculptures of horses in a multitude of positions. Some are mid-gallop, others rear up in a display of machismo. Still others are peacefully nursing. There are close to a dozen life size horse sculptures, each with amazing detail, right down to the sliced ribbons of metal composing the horses' manes and tails. They're quite incredible!
They could just be regular elephants, but I think it's more epic to describe them as mammoths. Just east of the horses are three tusked beasts--two fully grown specimen and one baby. They are life size, so the scale is quite impressive. It's not hard to imagine how they may have traversed this land many tens or hundreds of thousands of years ago!
South of the east-west running segment of Borrego Springs Road are dinosaurs--several of them appearing to be of the meat-eating variety, lurking in the desert among the cacti and sand. One group contains a mother surrounded by three offspring, prowling and on the hunt. Another contains two towering carnosaurs engaged in battle. These are quite fearsome looking, and they were fantastic to photograph!
The Scorpion and the Grasshopper
After dinner, we headed up the north-south running portion of Borrego Springs Road and turned right at Big Horn Road. Though a slight clearing, we accessed a patch of dirt that led us to a sculpture of a massive scorpion and another of a giant grasshopper. Both were beyond life-size, and set against the stars, they provided dramatic silhouettes. Of course, I had a little bit of fun light painting as well--sometimes on my own, sometimes unintentionally because someone else cast a light on the sculptures from their flashlights or even cars.
Finally, we headed a bit further north on Borrego Springs Road to the Serpent--possibly the most famous of all the sculptures. This 350-foot long creature snakes its way up and down through the dessert, undulating "through the sand" and even crossing under the road. It's an intricately detailed piece with an epic appearance, and it provided my favorite shots of the night against the Milky Way and incredible multitude of stars.
So as you can see, this is a fascinating locale. Though it is a journey to get here, the end result is definitely worth it if you can stand the heat and also appreciate this bizarre and magnificent type of artwork. I will definitely be coming back to see other sculptures and photograph more fantastic landscapes. If you decide to come, make sure you come prepared the way you would for a hike in the wilderness. Bring plenty of water, snacks, sun screen and any other sun protection, sturdy hiking shoes and socks to protect against low-lying cacti and rocks, and scout out where you want to visit. This site and this site were pretty helpful for my trip. Also be prepared for off-road conditions to access some of the sculptures and choose a 4-wheel drive vehicle (with off-road tires if practical) to drive. There have definitely been incidents of cars getting stuck in the sand. But all in all, despite the distance, this is a wonderful boon for photographers, stargazers, and people who love interesting art. If you have a chance, check it out!
Architect. Photographer. Disney nerd. Haunt enthusiast. Travel bugged. Concert fiend. Asian.