I am going to Southern CA desert and need advice
March 20, 2005 8:43 PM   Subscribe

Due to a lucky alignment of stars, I have a 5 day vacation slot appear out of nowhere. I semi-randomly picked a destination: on Tuesday night I am flying out to Los Angeles, renting a car and driving into desert. What must I see/do?

I would like to spend almost all of the time I have walking in the desert (and driving from one destination from another). I want to go see the wild flowers bloom, and word on the street in that Anza Borrego State Park is the place to be. I plan to visit this park and one other location (either Death Valley NP or Joshua Tree NP), with maybe a diversion or two along the way. I am bringing my bivvy and a sleeping bag, and intend to camp - either at campgrounds or in the wild - the whole time. I've never been to the desert before (but am an experienced enough hiker otherwise). Any advice? Amazing places to see? Things I must bring? Suggestions for scenic places for sunrise/sunset photography and wildflowers/cacti formations especially appreciated. Thanks!

P.S. I am flying to LAX and renting a car there. I will consider driving anywhere up to and including Organ Pipe NP for extraordinary scenery suggestions.
posted by blindcarboncopy to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (12 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Death Valley in Bloom!
posted by Miko at 8:51 PM on March 20, 2005


To be honest though, some of my favorite things in Death Valley are the driest, like the Devil's Golf Course.
posted by Aknaton at 8:58 PM on March 20, 2005

Mosaic Canyon, Death Valley Sand Dunes, and if you can, stay at least one night in the Desertaire Hostel.
posted by 4easypayments at 9:29 PM on March 20, 2005

I was at Joshua Tree and Anza Borego last spring and it was great, but, yes, Death Valley is the place to be right now. I saw a news story a couple weeks ago about how it is in bloom like it hasn't been in decades. It's still happening.

Also, if you go to Anza Borrego you gotta do what we did. We asked a ranger at the visitor's center about petroglyphs and she recommended some that were out a good way in the boonies. We had to get off the highway and drive a couple miles back into the hills on some pretty hairy dirt roads (in a rental) and then hike in for a mile and half or so. Once there the markings are very interesting and you can see shallow depressions in the stones that were used to grind grains. The cool thing though, and this is key, is that about a couple hundred yards past the petroglyphs is a 600 foot drop and a breathtaking view over a valley where you can see for miles to the next mountain range, but you would never know it's there. The ranger told us about it. You come around this little rock outcrop and there is a very narrow gap maybe 10 feet wide that opens on this awesome vista. I would think that any of the rangers that work there will know what you mean and direct you to it if you describe this.
posted by wsg at 9:29 PM on March 20, 2005 [1 favorite]

I've spent an aggregate of several months camping in the desert, so here are a few things I learned...

First, you're going to need lots of water. (duh) I used to drink a quart every two hours I was out in direct heat. Plan on taking a break from 1-4pm during the hottest part of the day, the heat gets really punishing then. (That is a perfect time to get in your car and drive to the next destination.) I was in places where it hit 110-120F ambient, and when you factor in the ground temperature, it was hot enough to cook food on. You'll have a car, so it will be easy to store your water in there.

Second, it gets friggin' cold at night in the desert. Bring lots of warm, layered clothes so you can adjust as the temperature changes. It is common to undergo a 60-70F change in temperature during the course of a 24 hour day.

Third, there's lots of nasty critters out in the desert. You mentioned being an experienced hiker, so I assume you already have a first aid kit, if not, you're going to want one. Shake your boots before your put them on in the morning, and a rattlesnake bite kit would be good to have just in case. I came across a rattlesnake while doing a night hike in the desert east of Oceanside, that was a pretty intense experience, mostly because it was hard to tell where the damn snake was, even with flashlights. You'll be fine as long as you stay alert, but I wouldn't get high or drunk and walk around to soak up the sights (as much fun as that can be out in the middle of the desert), since you're going to be alone. I've also run into a scorpions out in the desert, but that usually only happens if you're digging into the soil, they like places that are a little moist. A good rule of thumb is to never put limbs/hands under rocks or on places you don't have a 360 degree view of. I see you're a fellow Seattleite, so I'm assuming you've spent time in the Cascades and Olympics, so the best advice I can give you is to be alert and to give the environment more respect than you would at home.

And fourth, no matter how tempting they look, never ever eat prickly pears or any berries/fruits growing on a cactus. I made that mistake once, and didn't realize until 10 minutes later that I had hundreds of tiny spines stuck in my fingers, and all over the inside of my mouth, including the tongue. That fucking sucked.

I haven't been to Death Valley, but Joshua Tree is nice and will make for some good photos, and now is the perfect time to see all the wildflowers. Phil Greenspun has some great photos of Joshua Tree.

And lastly, unless you're super adventurous, I would sleep at campgrounds where there's going to be other folks. If you were going with a friend, sleeping out in the wilderness is fun, but I've never felt comfortable being out in the desert solo. All that said, don't be nervous, millions of people visit the desert every year (and millions more live there year round), so you'll have a good time and see some awesome scenery. There is something about hiking and camping out in the desert that just moves me, I'm not a very spirtual guy, but I always seem to contemplate life and the universe when I'm out in the middle of nowhere on a fast plain of clay and rock. Oh, and the stars at night are out of this world. You'll be able to see the Milky Way and all sorts of constellations and galaxies you'd never be able to see in Seattle.

Hope you enjoy your trip!
posted by beaverd at 9:41 PM on March 20, 2005

I (literally) just got back from going through Joshua Tree and Death Valley. If you're not used to desert (but rather, say, Nothern Rockies) floral blooms, you may be a bit underwhelmed, but I'd say go to Death Valley, as it's a once-in-a-century display out there. Would that I'd had more time. You're not gonna get a campsite *anywhere* in the desert right now, so lock your doors and kick the seat back. (if you wan more info, my email's in the profile)

I second the stars thing, too. Right now, the waxing gibbous moon kinda blows out your retinas from seeing some constellations, but you'll get a full moon (which rises later, giving you a better view overhead in the early evening.
posted by notsnot at 10:54 PM on March 20, 2005

Salton Sea! Salvation Mountain!
posted by skylar at 2:28 AM on March 21, 2005

A note: I was just at Anza-Borrego a couple of weeks ago, and while the flowers were blooming, the visitor's center was packed with the parking lot full. If you could buy your wilderness parking permit elsewhere (they're available lots of places) and plan your trip elsewhere, you won't have to brave the traffic (yes, traffic) there.
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 5:21 AM on March 21, 2005

From LAX head up the 405 to the 5 to the 14 for the fastest, most direct route out of this hellhole known as Los Angeles into the desert proper. Yeah, the 405 and the 5, and even the beginning part of the 14 are going to suck driving through. A lot. But your other option is going to be heading out the 215, 10, or 60, all the way through LA from the coast on out through the Inland Empire.

But once you get out into the desert it's actually easier to get around and lay out some serious distance. It generally takes less than 8 hours at 60-80 MPH to traverse most of the Mojave in any direction.

(Note on driving in the desert: On-road: If you're at all drowsy or sleepy, just stop wherever you are and enjoy the scenery and take a nap or a walk. The 395, which runs North-South almost in the heart of the Mojave, is apparently one of the deadliest roads in the US. It's almost entirely ramrod straight. Two lanes. And very, very boring, even on the sliding desert scale of boring. It's right in the bottom of the valley, there's few interesting things to look at. Just hundreds and hundreds of miles of creosote-covered alluvial scrubland. People fall asleep on it a lot and either drift into oncoming traffic or go off the road at high speeds.

Off road: Don't get stuck. Don't spin the wheels. If you're driving in sand - and you probably are - don't stop and start for anything until you're on solid washboarded road. Keep it slow and steady. Don't speed. Go slower than you'd want to. 5 mph can make all the difference between a flat tire punctured by a sharp pebble in the middle of nowhere, and a an easy journey with no problems at all. Know your ground clearance, and always take the high side of the trail, IE, don't drive in the ruts. Drive on the ridges of the ruts. It's surprisngly easy to get so far out into the boonies that it'll cost more than the car is worth to get someone out there with a tow truck. I know 4 people that this has happened to. As far as I know their cars are still there.)

Bring lots and lots of water. Figure about 1-2 gallons per day minimum. Always bring extra if you're car camping, as your car may need some too if it overheats and boils over. If you're hiking more than a mile from the beaten path, bring as much as you can carry if not more. If you choose the "more" option, cache it in a shady, easy to find location along your return path about halfway in.

Bring sunscreen! Bring a good hat to keep off the sun! Wear loose, long sleeved and legged clothes to keep the sun off.

Except for the whole sun and heat exposure and dehydration thing, the Mojave and related high deserts are pretty darn mellow compared to most wilderness locations.

Yeah, there's rattlers and the occasional scorpion. Both would prefer to be left alone, and not waste their venom on something they can't possibly eat. The largest animal you're likely to find out there is a group of Coyotes, and they're really not well known for being dangerous to humans. The packs of feral domestic-breed dogs that roam the settled parts of the Mojave are probably more dangerous.

But all kinds of things can happen, and they're usually human error. You could twist an ankle or break something, and it's a hell of a lot less of a challenge to crawl half a mile or so to your water cache then it is to crawl the whole way back to the trailhead.

Bring a good hiking staff and good shoes like you would for any good hiking. If you have a GPS unit, bring it. Bring your cellphone, check for access. If you're into two-way radios, even just FRS/GPRS radios, bring that too. Sometimes in the heat of the day (or black of night) the desert looks the same everywhere, and it's sometimes easy to get lost if you're used to different navigational cues like streams, trees, or well defined paths. Bring a whistle, an LED flashlight, and maybe even a signalling mirror if you're into the preparedness thing. (I lived in the deep Mojave for a couple of years, and have camped out there hundreds of times. Yeah, I bring most of this stuff on just about any short desert hike that's off of an official trail or in any way "remote" beyond a 1/4 mile of a well travelled and patrolled route. I have had to find "lost" folks who wandered off from group camping trips out there, and it's a seriously huge pain in the ass to find people out there if they're not actively trying to be found.)

Watch your step off trail or off road. Watch for snakes, watch for scorpions and vinegaroons. Don't step on them. Tread lightly - literally. Avoid going off trail or making new trails. The nearly invisible, millimeters thin "topsoil" of the desert is insanely thin and fragile. It can take hundreds or thousands of years to rebuild the topsoil layer out there, and each step that breaks through the crusty layer will be there for a long, long time. (And it's really, really sort of enlightening and disconcerting to go hike in an area that you hiked in a year before, only to find your footprints pretty much still there.) With practice you'll take soft, plodding, flat-footed elephant steps that won't dig in with the heel on impact, and then dig in with the ball of the foot on step. You'll see what I'm talking about when you're out there, especially now that the flowers and grasses are blooming and tieing the topsoil together with their shallow micro-roots and tendrils.

Anyways, places to go:

Out of all of the high desert areas in SoCal, Anza Borrego isn't really my favorite. Most of it isn't high desert, IMO, and it seems like it's just a bit harder to get off the beaten path and avoid the tourists and off-road vehicle fanatics that seem to pretty much see the desert as their personal race track. If you're dead set on going to Anza Borrego first, you're going to want to ignore my previous advice to head North instead of East from LAX, unless you feel like clicking off a few hundred miles on the odometer to traverse across the desert, down through Mojave Narrows, past Palm Springs and Indio, down to the Salton Sea area.

I strongly advise against swimming in the Salton Sea. The last time I was there a few years ago, it was experiencing fish kills. It's usually full of skiboats and jetskis. It's full of agricultural, industrial, and mining run off. It's the catchbasin for a huge, widely populated watershed. Things may have improved, and if I recall correctly it was the least full it has ever been in decades when I was there. But it's always a popular destination with the cheap domestic beer in coolers and recreational power vehicles set.

I like Jawbone Canyon, which is up just West of Death Valley where the 14 and 395 meet. There are signs for it off the 14, and it's on USGS topo maps. It's in the foothills of the Sierras south and east of the Kings Canyon and Sequoia park areas. It's near Death Valley. Part of it is an OHV area, so your mileage and locations may vary. The Mojave Narrows are cool, the area East of the Sierras, North of Palm Springs, and south of the Victorville/Apple Valley metro areas. (Johnson and Lucerne Valleys, for starters.) There's lots of weird geology, lakebeds, valleys, ridges, peaks and stuff.

Regarding the "Wilderness Parking Permits", there's a lot of local debate as to whether or not they're even legal. I personally only purchase them when I want to, or if it's a heavily touristed area that needs the funds, etc. They are not camping permits. They are not back country permits. They are not fire permits. They're day-use permits designed to raise funds for the services and programs in the area, and are hotly contested as only quasi-legal. No one who I personally know has been ticketed for not having one (it's PUBLIC land!) and those that I have heard about that have been ticketed for being permitless (on public land!) have never paid them, with no problems.

Anyways, you can camp for free on BLM land for up to two weeks at a stretch. People live out there on BLM land doing that, merely relocating before their two weeks are up. And you can pretty much camp solo wherever you want out in the desert as long as it's not inside a National Park, inside a military base, or inside privately owned land. (Figuring out where any of this is without good maps is nigh-impossible.) Your chances of getting hassled out there are pretty slim if you pick your locations well and look like a responsible and well-prepared camper. (Keep in mind that people around here throw 300-1000 person raves on BLM land, legally. With gigantic 20-cabinet sound systems and 15,000 watt generators and stuff. Sometimes 3-4 day long raves. Yeah, it's fun.)

As for camping under the stars, you're a bit late in the season. I've slept naked under the stars atop nothing more than my sleeping bag plenty of times out there, but I usually would only do that in the late, late fall and winter, on through to early spring.

The bugs are coming out right now. If you camp on the ground in an open bedroll, you will probably find scorpions or vinegaroons in bed with you and flies and other insects in your nose and mouth, and more than a few. You might also find snakes in bed with you. You're a huge sack of warm water to them, and desert life has adapted to be able to detect moisture at a distance of miles. Now, if you were camping out on the alkali flat of a dry lakebed, that's a bit different, but I don't know how many of those are dry right now. And it's generally kind of unpleasant to wake up with a face full of alkali dust, anyways.

Bring a cot. Or a mesh bivouc. Or a tent. Yeah, that's not hardcore backpacking, but no one truly backpacks in the desert. You simply can't carry enough water to survive. Sleeping on top of the car is an option. Or rent a truck and sleep in the bed, that's almost as good as sleeping on the ground. Or maybe a minivan that you can fold the seats flat in and leave the doors open on.

Anyways, the thing about the Mojave is that it's not like places like Yellowstone or Yosemite where there are "destinations" to go to. Visiting and experiencing the desert is really all about your mindset. Most of the "destinations" in the Mojave are man made. (Like mines. Ghost towns. Edwards Air Force Base.) Almost any patch of nice desert is as good as any other. It could be a mile off a main highway, or it could be a twenty mile hike in. But the Mojave is totally about the journey itself and the little details you can see all over the desert, not some macro-scale feature that you can find on a postcard.

Just find yourself a quiet little patch out of the way - preferrably on some high ground with a nice, unsullied view - find some shade behind a big Creosote bush, and have a seat. And wait quietly. The desert will come to you.

And frankly, that's my favorite "place". That place you can only find after you've been sitting still for a day or two, just sipping your water and being quiet and watching the sky change colors from dawn to dusk and back to dawn again, bathed in terrifying silence and openess to the universe above and below like some mystical cloak.

And right now is the time to go. The rolling alluvial flats and softly eroded foothills of the Northern Mojave will look like someone draped a green velvet blanket over everything as far as the eye can see, speckled with uncountable delicate and tiny flowers in an amazing array of colors.

Here's a story I wrote over at E2 about the desert, camping under the stars, and coyotes.

Have a great, safe trip. Piss clear.
posted by loquacious at 6:21 AM on March 21, 2005 [2 favorites]

Great sotory, loquacious. Now I feel like I missed something by spending so much time taking photos and not enough listening.
posted by notsnot at 7:48 AM on March 21, 2005

The peak bloom at the Antelope Valley Poppy Preserve is on it's way.
posted by euphorb at 12:33 PM on March 21, 2005

Response by poster: Folks, thanks SO MUCH for all the answers! This is incredible - I got so much more information than I'd hoped for. I will be following up with some of you by email. I hope I can repay the favor to all of you someday by answering one of your questions.

Thanks again, mefi gang!
bcc aka Alex
posted by blindcarboncopy at 1:22 PM on March 21, 2005

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