Desert Solitary

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, September 1996

Desert Solitary

Five moonscapes where the flora is ancient, nights are starlit, and there is always a drought of people
By Bob Howells

Nothing lives easily in the desert, least of all you. But sparseness is also the desert's great appeal. The land's beauties are stubborn and ancient: twisted cacti, howling canines, primordial vermin, and fleeting eruptions of wildflowers following sudden, infrequent rains.

Most of all, of course, deserts mean solitude. Few visitors venture past the fringes of the West's biggest waterless tracts. Fewer still leave their jeeps. But the best of the desert rarely can be seen through a windshield. It should be felt through your boots or, when possible, traversed with fat tires, the dry, golden sand swirling around you.

Obviously, though, caution is required. Deserts are among the most fragile landscapes on earth. Hammering a four-wheel-drive off road can destroy centuries-old flora, while wandering afoot off marked trails can create waffle-sole prints that may take years to be erased.

Wandering off trail also can be lethal. Before setting out, be sure to gather current, detailed maps and to fill your gas tank. Pack as much water as you can carry. Add a sturdy tent. Then you'll be ready to head into that deceptively still heart of parchedness, the great American desert.

California | Oregon | Utah | Arizona | New Mexico

Mojave National Preserve

The Big Picture: For dramatic landscape and geological oddities, the Mojave is easily the peer of desert cousins Death Valley to the north and Joshua Tree to the south. But for openness, isolation, and freedom to roam, it has no peer: 1.4 million acres of high desert (actually, the altitude ranges from 1,000 to 8,000 feet) with gnarly granitic mountain ranges, "forests" of Joshua trees, sand dunes, caverns, mining ruins, and some remnant cattle ranches. For all this, it's far better known as a political object than as a place to visit. Passage of the California Desert Protection Act in October 1994 transferred the preserve from the Bureau of Land Management to the National Park Service and established about half of it as wilderness. Now many miles of good dirt roads and many more of rougher tracks make everything reasonably accessible. Hiking along the jeep trails is acceptable and scenic, but the sun can be brutal, since most of the tracks are exposed. Bring twice as much water as you'd anticipate needing.

Tried and True Tours: Pick up maps at the information center in Baker, 63 miles east of Barstow on I-15 (four and a half hours from Los Angeles); then take paved Kelbaker Road south 35 miles to Kelso Road and the Kelso Dunes. From there, take the paved Kelso-Cima Road north to Cedar Canyon Road, head east to Black Canyon Road, and turn south. Here you can camp at Mid Hills Campground or beside Swiss-cheese rock formations at Hole in the Wall. An eight-mile hiking trail connects the two, with the easier route being the 1,000-foot descent from Hole in the Wall. The climb back up from Mid Hills can be strenuous, especially in the heat of afternoon.

Detours: Take I-15 to Nipton Road, about 86 miles east of Barstow, and then east to Ivanpah Road south, passing mining ruins and hulls of old cars. Turn west on New York Mountains Road and then north on Caruthers Canyon Road, which leads right into the canyon. No-facilities campsites sit there among coastal chaparral, a relic of flora left over from wetter Mojave days. Scramble up granite, limestone, and lava (watching for bighorn sheep doing the same) to the peak of New York Mountain (7,532 feet).

Local Oddity: Chuckwalla lizards, large to start with, are able to inflate their bodies to Brandoesque proportions to wedge themselves into rocky hiding places.

A Roof Overhead: The four-room Hotel Nipton (doubles, $50; 619-856-2335), circa 1904, is a bed-and-breakfast adjacent to a country store on Nipton Road, just northeast of the preserve.

More Information: Mojave National Preserve Information Center, 222 E. Main St., Barstow, CA 92311; 619-733-4040.

Alvord Desert

The Big Picture: Eastern Oregon is the arid alter ego to all that sogginess west of the Cascades, and the 225,000-acre, BLM-administered Alvord is its (usually) bone-dry centerpiece. Best known for a flat-as-Bonneville, 12-by-seven-mile playa, or dry lake, the Alvord is a classic rain shadow: Just to the west, 9,773-foot Steens Mountain gets 25 inches of rain a year; the Alvord, at 4,000 feet, gets five. When spring runoff quits the playa and winds blow off the mountain, weekend landsailors tack and jibe their wheeled rigs across the baked flats at 60 miles per hour. Glider pilots also love the place, using the playa as a runway to catch updrafts off Steens. Most of the time the playa is forsaken, though, but for a few wild horses on its fringes.

Tried and True Tours: Take the Steens Mountain National Back Country Byway and behold the Alvord from the startling perspective of a mile-high drop-off on the east flank of Steens. The Byway starts at Frenchglen (about six hours east of Portland). For hiking, park at the Wild Horse Overlook, 30 miles east of Frenchglen, and pick up the long, winding Desert Trail.

Detours: Approach the desert from the south in a four-wheel-drive vehicle-or, if you're hardy (and well hydrated), on a mountain bike. Follow County Road 201 north from the tiny town of Fields, on Oregon 205. After about 20 miles, beyond some ghostly ruins of settlements, spur roads lead off to the floor of the playa. The air here shimmers with afternoon heat, making the shade of the dunes at the playa's eastern edge a welcome sight. Camping is allowed in these sand hills, but avoid pitching a tent amidst any plants. Back on the county road, about 25 miles north of Fields, a tin shed marks the site of a small hot spring. Use it respectfully-it's on the private property of the Alvord Ranch-and soak in solitary bliss.

Local Oddity: No one hikes in the Alvord itself, including BLM employees, who say when afoot they prefer to see the desert from the cooler mountains nearby.

A Roof Overhead: Fields Station (541-495-2275), 25 miles south, has three motel rooms for $35 and a house for $75.

More Information: BLM Burns District Office, HC 74-12533, Highway 20 W., Hines, OR 97738; 541-573-4400.

San Rafael Swell

The Big Picture: A million acres of slickrock Utah at its weirdly sculpted wildest. Geologically speaking, the Swell is an 80-by-40-mile bulge created when subcrust pressures raised and exposed a stratified sandstone dome. Erosion has rendered it into deep canyons, narrow defiles, mesas, pinnacles, and a few rivers. Unlike the nearby Arches and Natural Bridges areas, the swell is not national parkland, meaning it continues to be mined and grazed. But it also has remained below the radar of many national-park-loving tourists. Mountain bikers, however, have begun to discover the area, forsaking trendy Moab in favor of its less-crowded routes. Today, biking is allowed on all jeep roads in the swell, but off-road riding is forbidden.

Tried and True Tours: Take I-70 to Utah 24 and drive south 24 miles to Goblin Valley State Park, a highly anthropomorphized realm of rock formations. Nearby Little Wild Horse Canyon provides the most popular hike in the swell, a short out-and-back taste of high-walled canyoneering.

Detours: Make the three-day road trip from Fuller Bottom through Virgin Springs Canyon (bringing plenty of water) to Sids Mountain and back. From I-70, take Utah 10 about 43 miles to the gravel Green River Cutoff Road, go 12.7 miles east, and then head south at the signed road 6.5 miles to Fuller Bottom (usually passable by two-wheel-drive, though high clearance is recommended). The 30-mile loop allows plenty of canyon hiking and some wading, with such sights as arches and pinnacles along the way. The route follows the San Rafael River to Virgin Springs Canyon (look for the pictograph panel at the base of a usually dry waterfall), climbs up Sids Mountain, a mesa with great views and abundant bighorn sheep, and returns via Saddle Horse Canyon and Salt Wash.

Local Oddity: A series of abandoned uranium mines from the Cold War era dots the area, particularly in the Temple Mountain region. Exploration is not recommended: Radon gas often fills the mines.

A Roof Overhead: Nine Mile Ranch, in Wellington, is a bed-and-breakfast nestled among cottonwoods. Doubles start at $40 per night; 801-637-2572.

More Information: BLM, 125 S. 600 W., Price, UT 84501; 801-636-3600. Canyoneering the San Rafael Swell, by Steve Allen (University of Utah Press, $14.95), is the bible of the region.

Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge

The Big Picture: Among the driest and most untouched 860,000 acres in North America, Cabeza Prieta, in southwestern Arizona, is also the continent's biggest chunk of virgin Sonoran Desert (think tall saguaro cactus with upturned arms). The endangered Sonoran pronghorn antelope is the refuge's celebrity species, along with the endangered lesser long-nosed bat. This is not a desert for dilettantes: The roads are rough (you will be ticketed if you don't have a four-wheel-drive), there is no water, and there are no hiking trails. Bring what you need and don't expect company-or help. As compensation, virtually all the native flora and fauna are intact; people have never lived in the area to disturb them. And the landscape is impressive, with its craggy, 3,000-foot mountains, sand dunes, and lava flows.

Tried and True Tours: Most people stop in the visitor center in Ajo, 125 miles south of Phoenix, watch the video, and leave. The well-prepared come to drive El Camino del Diablo, a portion of a Mexico-to-California trail used by Spanish missionaries as early as 1540 and later by 20,000 or so gold-rushers in the 1850s. The road's diabolical name recalls the deaths of hundreds from thirst and heat exhaustion along the way.

Pick up a permit-free but required-and a map in Ajo, and be prepared for 120 miles of rugged, unpaved driving. It's 30 miles to the refuge, 60 miles across, and another 30 to civilization in Wellton. Mountain biking parts of the route is possible but not recommended. The loose sand makes for poor traction.

Detours: Drive the camino, but get out at least once for a night under the best star-show in the Lower 48; few places on earth are as cloudless and remote from city lights. Set up camp at Papago Well-a few tables, fire rings, and a windmill (which feeds a wildlife drinking station) make up the site-and hike cross-country a few miles into the granitic Agua Dulce Mountains. You should get to see plenty of soaring raptors and bighorn or pronghorn sheep.

Local Oddity: The regal horned lizard, abundant in the refuge, squirts blood from its eye sockets when cornered. To avoid being bloodied, leave the lizards alone.

A Roof Overhead: The sky and your tent flap, unless you want a shower. In that case, try the Guest House Inn, a bed-and-breakfast in Ajo. Doubles, $69; 520-387-6133.

More Information: The Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge Information Center, 1611 N. Second Ave., Ajo, AZ 85321; 520-387-6483.

El Malpais National Monument
New Mexico

The Big Picture: "El Malpais" means "the Badlands," and while many travelers would reckon all the visible lands south of I-40 in New Mexico to be bad, El Malpais is the baddest: 130 square miles of pocked and ragged black-rock lava. While not meeting all technical definitions of a desert, the heart of El Malpais is nonetheless as forbidding a place as you'll find, suitably arid, plenty hot in summer (though at 6,000 feet it's no Death Valley), and very, very empty.

Most of El Malpais consists of boot-shredding lava formations, bordered on the east by sandstone spires and bluffs and on the west and southwest by cinder cones that reared up at various times between a thousand and a million years ago.

Tried and True Tours: Drive the periphery of the monument, first taking New Mexico 117 south from Grants, 80 miles west of Albuquerque on I-40. The Sandstone Bluff Overlook, ten miles south, offers the best perspective on the lava flow, which extends 30 miles south from the interstate and varies from two to 18 miles wide. About seven miles farther south, on BLM land, a short trail leads to La Ventana Arch, a graceful, 500-foot-high bow of ochre sandstone. New Mexico 53 runs along the west side of the lava, where on foot you'll find the start of the cairn-marked Zuni-Acoma Trail, a 7.5-mile crossing of the badlands. Any hike across this mangled lava is slow going; the ancient Indian trail takes seven hours to hike one-way. Most visitors continue down to privately owned Bandera Crater for a walk into the blown top of a cinder cone. The national monument's visitor center is on New Mexico 53 between the trailhead and the crater.

Detours: Continue past Bandera Crater on New Mexico 53 and head first for the Big Tubes Area, off County Road 42 (high clearance necessary). Follow a cairn trail to Big Skylight and Four Windows Caves, 600 feet and 1,200 feet long respectively, both part of a 17-mile lava-tube system. You're on your own here-no lighting or tours. Though both caves have "skylights" where ceilings have fallen, both also lead into absolute darkness.

Back in the daylight, continue south on the dirt road to Cerro Encierro and hike two miles into Hole in the Wall, a barrow rising above the badlands. This higher ground was skirted by the lava flows, becoming a kipuka, an island of grass and pine trees. Explore the 6,000-acre oasis and camp anywhere (pick a spot to minimize damage to plant life). You'll enjoy the splendid isolation of the badlands without the discomforts of a lava mattress.

Local Oddity: Seeping water has collected and frozen inside a lava tube near Bandera Crater, forming an ice cave, vaguely evocative of the Man of Steel's "Fortress of Solitude" in Superman II.

A Roof Overhead: Vogt Ranch Bed and Breakfast, a two-room historic landmark built in 1915, is located 53 miles south of Ramah on Route 53. Doubles cost $75 per night; 505-783-4362.

More Information: El Malpais National Monument, 11000 Ice Cave Road, Grants, NM 87020; 505-285-4641.

Bob Howells is a frequent contributor to this magazine.

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