Expansive beauty, where pioneers feared to tread

By Jan Rodricks


The first band of Gold Rush hopefuls to face off with the desert arrived on Christmas Day, 1849. Eager to avoid the fate of the Donner Party—a luckless band of settlers who’d gotten marooned in the Sierra Nevada snows, and were forced into cannibalism—these 49ers had traveled southwest, along the Old Spanish Trail. Having inched across Nevada’s Great Basin, they abruptly encountered a wasteland that practically named itself: Death Valley.

The cherished myth about these pioneers portrays them crawling along the desert sands, dying of thirst. In fact, Death Valley had the best weather the “Death Valley 49ers” encountered on their journey; it was the Panamint mountains that gave them grief. Though forced to eat their oxen, drink melted snow and burn their wagons for fuel, the intrepid teams ultimately made it through. Only one person, an elderly man, actually died.

An impressive blend of strength and pragmatism still defines the denizens of the California desert, human and otherwise. But while it’s an area of extreme hardship, it’s also a place of great rewards. From the crystal clarity of the night sky to the miracle of the spring bloom, the desert offers sights of grandeur that linger in the mind for a lifetime, like unforgettable dreams.

Not every corner of the region is dry or inhospitable. More than 400 species of birds wet their wings in the waters of the Salton Sea, some coming from as far away as the Arctic Circle. The oasis city of Palm Springs has long been a haunt for Hollywood stars, and architectural tours offer a look at some of their amazing homes (and pools). Palm Desert, also in the Coachella Valley, is another popular resort for snowbirds and golfers.

Motorists in search of an epic road trip can explore vast tracts of the desert along Historic Route 66—the legendary “Main Street of America”— which once connected Chicago with Los Angeles. There are also spectacular drives through Death Valley, Joshua Tree and Anza-Borrego, although the best way to experience those gems of the desert is on foot, during a well-provisioned day hike.

Despite its perilous reputation, the California desert is one of the Golden State’s most welcoming and surprising destinations. It took the Death Valley 49ers two full months to navigate this once forbidding wilderness. You might decide to cross it in two days—but even that’s long enough to separate myth from reality.

Heritage & Culture

At least a dozen Native American tribes, from the Cahuilla to the Yokuts, called the North American desert their home before white adventurers moved west from the plains. They found ingenious means of survival, trapping the small desert animals and making the most of water run-off when the scant rains fell.

The first pioneer wagons entered Death Valley in late December of 1849, looking for a new route to California gold. When the Gold Rush died out, silver beckoned new fortune seekers; many of the desert’s best-preserved ghost towns, like Calico, were thriving mines with hundreds of hopeful prospectors. Toward the turn of the century, though, the price of silver dropped, and borax became the mineral of choice. But even borax mining ended about ten years later, and the boom towns dried up in the desert wind.

Despite its ghosts, the desert is still very much alive. For more than 160 years, this rough but complex California landscape has incubated uniquely hardscrabble earthlings—from Death Valley Scotty (the namesake of Scotty’s Castle) to the eccentric residents who still live along the shrinking Salton Sea. Most tenacious of all are the venerable bristlecone pines: the oldest living creatures on the planet.

A World of Its Own

California is vast—with a greater area than Germany or Italy—and its southern desert is larger than 10 of the other U.S. states. In many ways that desert is a land unto itself, a place almost unimaginably remote from the cafés of Melrose Avenue, the Big Sur cliffs or the redwood groves of Muir Woods.

For the visitor, California’s deserts offer the opportunity to experience the kind of travel one might seek in Morocco, Namibia or western China, but with a far more developed infrastructure (and much better amenities!).

Though one might choose a base in Palm Springs, San Diego or even Las Vegas, the eternal spirit of the California Desert is found in its conservation areas. Death Valley and Joshua Tree are the premier national parks, and many visitors plan their entire visit around one of these magical, even spiritual, destinations. Death Valley alone offers enough spectacular hiking, 4WD routes, ghost towns and natural attractions to merit a 4-5 day visit. America’s biggest state park, Anza-Borrego, is a major pilgrimage site during the wildflower season. The region’s signature towns—Indian Wells, Needles, Salton Sea and Mojave—provide a taste of local character. For more cosmopolitan diversions, Palm Springs, Palm Desert and La Quinta offer golf, visual art and even fashion shows and film festivals.

Desert Wildflowers

Winters in the desert can be numbingly cold, while summers are blazing hot. But between late February and mid May—if the rains have been good—the desert becomes a mecca for people who love color, fragrance and landscapes of almost surreal beauty. Few wildflower displays on earth compare with the California desert bloom, which transforms the dry, unwelcoming scrubland into a kaleidoscopic paradise that seems lifted right out of The Wizard of Oz. Death Valley, Anza-Borrego and Joshua Tree are three of the most popular destinations for flower and cactus lovers, with dozens of rare and fantastic plant species—from hearty wolf cholla to delicate ghost flowers—in bloom. Meanwhile, on the Mojave’s edge north of Los Angeles, the Antelope Valley Poppy State Reserve provides miles of trails (some wheelchair-accessible) through rolling fields of lush and unbroken gold.

Family Fun

There’s no limit to the adventure and exploration possible in California’s desert regions. Just stay well-stocked with water (one gallon per person per day) and vigilant of the dangers presented by any desert environment—hazards that can include flash floods!

For families, exploring ghost towns is always a thrill. When the warm wind blows and those ancient doors and shutters creak, it’s easy to imagine the spirits of long-departed gold miners haunting the landscape.

Rock hounding delights kids of all ages, with excellent volcanic specimens to be found around Amboy Crater Natural Landmark and red quartz in the Turtle Mountain Wilderness.

Horseback riding, camping and hiking are also popular desert activities, and some federally-managed desert areas allow ATV expeditions as well.

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