Desert Hikes: Sweet Nothingness

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, February 1994

Desert Hikes: Sweet Nothingness
By Mike Steere

Parsimony, the natural theme of the continent's driest and hottest places, is its own kind of wealth, and those willing to brave the low deserts of the American Southwest come into inheritances of space, quiet, and light. They see vividly what a poet once called the separateness of all things. Where there's more bare rock than biomass, each plant and animal performs solo.

The contrasting geographies, climates, and biotic features of our southern deserts can be subjects for close examination and study or, for the nonscientific, just different flavors of beauty. They can also be hostile. Check clothing and gear ritually for venomous arthropods and reptiles, wear protection from sun and thorns, and drink a gallon of water a day (two if you're working hard). And visit them now: Though delightful up through early spring, they'll be searing by mid-May, murderous in summer.

Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, Arizona
During the 1849 gold rush, hundreds of pioneers crossed this stretch of Sonoran borderland to avoid hostile Indians, only to die of thirst. Their route is recapitulated in part by El Camino del Diablo, a 108-mile four-wheel-drive-only road, most of it within 860,000-acre Cabeza Prieta, the western, drier, and lonelier neighbor of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. Alluvial fans along the refuge's low mountain ranges do support picture-book Sonoran flora, including plentiful grand old saguaros.

The refuge borders Mexico for 56 trailless miles, and you can camp anywhere. It closes during live-fire military aircraft exercises, the schedule for which is usually known by the first of the month. The required free permit to enter Cabeza Prieta is available at headquarters in Ajo, on Arizona 85, 105 miles south of Phoenix. Check with the refuge (602-387-6483) to determine which U.S. Geological Survey 7.5-minute topo maps cover your plans. The most efficient way to obtain maps, at $3.50 each plus $3.95 per order for shipping, is to call Map Express at 800-627-0039.

Carrizozo Lava Flow, New Mexico
Some 1,500 years ago, the earth opened and stuck out a 44-mile-long tongue of molten rock in the Tularosa Basin, at the northern edge of what's now the White Sands Missile Range. The Spanish called the lava flow malpais, "badlands"; these days the Bureau of Land Management calls it the Carrizozo Lava Flow and Little Black Peak Wilderness Study Areas. The combined 25,000-acre parcel of proposed wilderness, almost extraterrestrial in its isolation and strangeness, encloses the 523-acre Valley of Fires Recreation Area, an oasis of dirt with campsites and water that makes a cushy jump-off point. Formations in the black, ropy pahoehoe itself include two dozen caves, two of which (Millrace and Crockett's) require advance registration through the BLM. Aboveground, the flow is actually home to more species than the surrounding Chihuahuan Desert. Life making a go on inky rock is wonderfully photogenic, as is the south end of the flow, where the lava yields to snowy gypsum sand.

Wear old but sturdy footwear: The lava eats boots, and nearly everything on it can bite, sting, or prick. No permits or fees are required for backpacking, but those who park at Valley of Fires pay a onetime $5 fee; campsites cost $5-$11 per night. Valley of Fires is about four miles west of the town of Carrizozo on U.S. 380. Seven USGS 7.5-minute maps cover the area: Little Black Peak, Carrizozo West, Bull Gap Southwest, Bull Gap, Wagon Canyon, Three Rivers, and Mound Springs. For more information and caving permits, call the BLM at 505-624-1790.

Pinto Basin, Joshua Tree National Monument, California
Joshua Tree's fabled climbing rock tends to overshadow its immensities of unvisited desert. The wildest of these is the trailless, 150,000-acre Pinto Basin, at the eastern end of the national monument in the Colorado Desert, a particularly dry and hot patch of the Sonoran. Higher parts of the monument are in the Mojave, which is where you'll find the monument's namesake tree. Those who roam Pinto Basin, however, keep company mostly with creosote, ocotillo, and cholla cactus. Overnighters in Pinto Basin must sign in (for free) at a board at Turkey Flats, Porcupine Wash, or Cottonwood Visitor Center. All three are on the main road, which runs along the western edge of the basin.

For a tough but rewarding hike, 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. The round trip takes about two long days. Check in at Cottonwood.

Joshua Tree is 150 miles east of Los Angeles on I-10. The entrance fee is $5 per car, $3 for walk-ins. USGS 15-minute maps (Pinto Basin, Hexie Mountains, and Coxcomb) are available at the visitor center for $2.50 each. For more information, call the national monument at 619-367-7511.

Black Gap Wildlife Management Area, Texas
Texas doesn't get enough credit for its respectable slice of the Chihuahuan Desert, the centerpiece of which is Big Bend National Park, the equal (and then some) of any of the desert megaparks. Black Gap, a 102,000-acre state-run swath a little east of the national park, is just like Big Bend, only less visited. If it's not hunting season, which is over by the end of this month, and you're not on the Rio Grande, where anglers pursue catfish and rafters whoop past now and again, you're utterly alone in the canyon-riven Sierra del Carmen or the Chihuahuan Desert, which is inhabited mostly by a punk flora of spiky shrubs and desiccated grasses.

Black Gap has more than 220 miles of unpaved roads, many accessible only by four-wheel-drive, and 52 far-flung primitive campsites. Regulations allow camping only at those sites, so day hiking is the way to do Black Gap, which is (surprise) trailless. Headquarters is about 58 miles south of Marathon, via U.S. 385 and Farm-to-Market Road 2627. Nonhunters need to buy a "limited nonconsumptive public use permit," which costs $10 for a year, and can then sign in at campsites at no extra fee.

The USGS 7.5-minute topos that cover Black Gap are Black Gap, Bourland Canyon, Sue Peaks, Stillwell Crossing, and Dagger Flat. For permit applications, call the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department at 800-792-1112. Call Black Gap Wildlife Management Area at 915-376-2216 for more information.

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