Outside magazine, February 1994
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
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
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
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
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.