Consider last week’s thumbnail sketch of Death Valley a preview of California’s deserts. As it happens, fall, winter, and spring are ideal times to explore them.
Which is the first point: California has multiple deserts. The 25 million acres typically considered desert extend east from Los Angeles and its edge cities into Nevada and Arizona, south into Mexico, and north to the eastern Sierra Nevada.
The low elevation Colorado Desert is an extension of Mexico’s Sonoran Desert. The Colorado transitions into the Mojave or high desert, home of the weird and wonderful Joshua tree, a giant yucca named by Mormon settlers after the biblical Joshua, since its “arms” turned up in supplication to heaven.
Heading north from the Mojave along the eastern Sierra Nevada leads into the far western fringe of a third desert—the Great Basin, the endless “sagebrush desert” of the West, which spreads into surrounding states from Nevada and extends also into Washington, Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico.
The Colorado Desert is desert as most people imagine it: a low-lying landscape of sand, sand dunes, and stark mountains—very dry, hot in summer, mild and frost free in winter. Moving north into the Mojave (mo-HAW-vay), with elevations ranging from 2,000 to 4,000 feet, it’s hot in summer but very cold—sometimes snowy—in winter.
All three deserts share one key trait: ecological fragility, despite the rugged landscape and the striking survival skills of both animals and plants. In such a dry climate with sparse, slow-growing plants, even minor disruptions leave lasting scars—be they mining pits, off-road vehicle tracks, or old wagon roads. And desert plants and animals, with very particular needs, face extinction with the loss of what would be a minimal amount of habitat elsewhere.
So, why come to the desert in winter? What’s to see and do?
Given the balmy, almost rain-free winters—perfect for golf, tennis, hiking, cycling, and sunning by the pool—one big draw in the low desert is Palm Springs and the rest of the Coachella Valley. Playground of the Hollywood set since the 1920s, lately Palm Springs has managed to make room for most of the rest of us. You can go cheap, too, and camp nearby. Or skip the city lights and head instead to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, the largest state park in the contiguous U.S., perfect for hiking, birdwatching, camping, and stargazing.
In addition to Death Valley, high desert highlights include surreal and spacious Joshua Tree National Park, as beloved for its fat, khaki-colored granite—like so many well-rounded Henry Moore sculptures—as its Joshua trees and other desert beauty. The rocks attract climbers from around the world—“free climbing” is the point here—but there is much to do, from family camping, hiking, and mountain biking (established roads) to birdwatching and history and natural history walks.
Not to mention 1.4-million-acre Mojave National Preserve, with its volcanism and singing sand dunes.
And have you ever explored the remnants of Zzyzx Mineral Springs?
Up the Road Encourages Responsible, Safe Travel
Here are previous Up the Road episodes that explore why we should travel, how to do it responsibly, and how to travel responsibly now, in the shadow of COVID-19. Not everyone should be traveling now, of course, depending on your potential vulnerability to the deadliest effects of this new virus. But everyone who does travel needs to do so responsibly, to prevent viral spread. Take a listen:
- Up the Road: Why Travel?
- Up the Road: Why Travel in Northern California
- Up the Road: How to Travel
- Up the Road: Why Local Travel Matters
- Up the Road: Travel That’s Not About You
- Up the Road: Heading Up the Road Again—Responsibly
- Up the Road: 2020 Travel Strategy
- Up the Road: More on Responsible Travel 2020