Desert backpacking adventures

May 5, 2004
Outside Magazine
Week of March 21-27, 1996
Bike touring in Provence
Desert backpacking adventures
Hiking the Blue Ridge Mountains
Camping on California's north coast
Backcountry hikes in Montana and Wyoming

Desert backpacking adventures
Question: I'm fascinated with the desert backpacking experience. I've been to Big Bend and the Guadalupe Mountains in West Texas, but I am interested in seeking other backpacking adventures in the Southwest, possibly New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, or Utah. Do you have any suggestions?

John Pitstick
Dallas, TX
[email protected]

Joshua Tree's unvisited Pinto Basin
Adventure Adviser: Luckily for you, the Southwest is chock-full of dry, hot, seemingly inhospitable desert landscapes, ripe for exploration by intrepid, water-toting, SPF-slathered travelers. Where to go, aside from the usual suspects like Big Bend and Guadalupe Mountains? We recommend heading off-the-beaten path to one of a couple choice spots in Arizona and California.

For starters, consider Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, a 860,000-acre stretch of desert along the Arizona-Mexico border and the western, lonelier neighbor of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. Because most of the refuge is trails, you can camp anywhere, as long as you pick up the required free permit at the headquarters in Ajo, on Arizona 85, 105 miles south of Phoenix. The best way to navigate the area's low mountain ranges and stands of saguaro cacti is to pick up the necessary U.S. Geographical Survey 7.5-minute topo maps before you go. Another need-to-know factoid: The refuge closes periodically during live-fire military aircraft exercise, so it's also a good idea to call headquarters at 602-387-6483 ahead of time for a schedule; they usually post it by the first of the month.

Another good bet is Pinto Basin, a 150,000-acre patch of unvisited Sonoran desert at the eastern end of Joshua Tree National Monument. Skip the monument's fabled climbing rock, and you'll avoid the throngs of chalk-happy rock rats and keep company instead with creosote, ocotillo, and cholla cactus. Overnighters must sign in (for free) at a board at Turkey Flats, Porcupine Wash, or Cottonwood Visitor Centers; all three are on the main road, which runs along the western edge of the basin. For a tough but rewarding two-day, follow 18-mile Pinto Wash from Mission Well to Pinto Wells through the harsh, barren heart of the basin, toward the gap between the Eagle and Coxcomb Mountains. Check in before you go at Cottonwood. Joshua Tree is about 150 miles east of Los Angeles on I-10. The entrance fee is $5 per car, $3 for walk-ins. Call the national monument at 619-376-7511 for more information.

As for all desert trips, go well-armed with sunblock and plenty of water (two gallons per person per day while hiking) and be sure to check clothing and gear ritually for venomous critters and reptiles. Also, and this almost goes without saying, plan your visits in early spring (i.e., now) and avoid these arid, skin-baking deserts at all costs after mid-May.

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