Weird Music and Wild Ways

Winter adventures on California's Other Side of the Hill
By Peter Jensen

Awakened by the faintest purple blush as the Milky Way dissolved in dawn's spreading lake of light, I stirred in my sleeping bag, flipping from one side to the other so that my sleep-swollen eyes could watch the eastern horizon. High on this ridge above the Colorado River at a place called Picacho, the desert was as silent and still as an ancient bank vault with a forgotten combination. Suddenly the hopping flutter of some unseen waterfowl broke the silence. On cue, the marsh came alive. A blue heron gronked. Bass gulped any insect unfortunate enough to think the silver mirror river was worth a closer look.

Winter in California's deserts (the Mojave and the Colorado) has a special appeal that no amount of snow or curling surf can upstage. Nothing else makes me want to bail out of town on a Friday night more than a chance at two days and nights in a place so empty and so full at the same time.

Naturalist Edmund Jaeger spent most of his winters in the deserts in the early 1930s, compiling his masterful collection of essays"The California Deserts". To Jaeger, winter was the time when "the...nights may be nippy with cold, but the balmy, sunny days make one wish he might live perpetually in this out-of-door land of paradise."

Here are a few of my favorite retreats. Some are suited to a weekend. Others are better if you can take at least a Friday off to pad the time, especially if you're bound for more distant points along the Colorado River or into Eastern Mojave. Cars (4WD is handy but usually not necessary) are grand devices for getting there, but hiking is the best way to discover the desert. On foot, observed Jaegar,"you will move in a leisurely manner, confine your wanderings to a small area, and enter into profitable intimacy with nature."

Jaegar also loved the desert's "weird music and wild ways," referring to those times when the wind kicks up and there seems to be nothing between you and New Mexico. Maybe there isn't. If you want empty, you'll get empty just "over the hill"-especially if you visit before the wildflower groupies arrive in March.

Picacho State Recreation Area

Picacho is the hardest state park to get to, bar none. After 18 miles of dirt road north from Winterhaven near Yuma, you're thinking, "What the *#@!" Weathered volcanic peaks guard this wide eastward bend of the Colorado River where paddlewheelers once chugged northward to bring supplies to gold mines. Today canoeists and fishermen are frequent visitors, because the park is a good halfway point on a river trip between Walter's Camp and Martinez Lake. Arriving by car, check in with the ranger and set up a base camp at Picacho. Then enjoy several long days of hiking old mine-train rail lines, exploring the river bank, and doing a little peak bagging of some desert outcrops (Picacho Peak, 1947', is a standout). Mountain biking is excellent here because the track beds that snake back into the mountains (rails were stripped out long ago) are quite level. The campground doesn't have much of a vista, so each evening after dinner I prefer to hike into the hills to find myself a sleeping spot with a good sunrise view.

If you go: Call Salton Sea SRA at (760)767-5311 for information (the Salton Sea ranger administers Picacho). Take all desert travel precautions. Use AAA map "Guide to Colorado River" and topo maps.

From Joshua Tree's Covington Flats to Keys View Road

Few visitors to Joshua Tree know about this trail and its vista of a distant Salton Sea. Backpackers find its 10-mile route past the world's largest known Joshua Tree just right for an overnight hike. I don't suggest making it more than a one-nighter. The last five miles are a level, straight walk across open desert. You'll need a second car parked at the end on Key View Road, or a shuttle driver who can spend the night elsewhere and pick you up.

If you go: Take La Contenta Road south from Paradise Valley and State Highway 62 on the north edge of Joshua Tree National Park. Trailhead is at Covington Flats Backcountry Board. Finish is at Juniper Flats Backcountry Board on Keys View Road. Take AAA map "Riverside County," topo maps, and a J. Tree guidebook.

Hole in the Wall

Everyone who goes into the Eastern Mojave sector of our new desert National Park finds their way to Hole in the Wall on the east side of the Providence Mountains. Hikers descend a narrow rift in an immense lava flow riddled with air pockets: Swiss cheese on a geological scale. But few venture beyond the narrow canyon trail and its iron rings. If you do, you'll enter a backcountry area ideal for a one- or two-day backpacking trip. I like going cross-country northward to the vicinity of Gold Valley Spring. Don't miss Mitchell Caverns on your way out. The odd"igloo" house made of many different rock samples is almost as interesting as the cave itself.

If you go: From Interstate 40, 116 miles east of Barstow, drive north on Essex Road to the campground. Use AAA map "San Bernardino County" (D-10) and topos.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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