When nights get nippy, some of us dream of the desert. Writer Mary Austin explained it best, more than a century ago:
“For all the toll the desert takes of a man,” she wrote, “it gives compensations—deep breaths, deep sleep, and the communion of the stars … They look large and near and palpitant . . . Wheeling to their stations in the sky, they make the poor world-fret of no account. Of no account you who lie out there watching, nor the lean coyote that stands off in the scrub from you and howls and howls.”
In the winter, you yourself can stand out in the desert and howl and howl, celebrating those clear night skies. If you howl in the day time, no worries about heat stroke.
From Northern California—head south from the Tahoe-Reno area via U.S. 395—just getting there is part of the pleasure. The steep eastern face of the Sierra Nevada keeps you company all the way, constant, and dramatic, only slightly less imposing now than during the days of the dinosaurs. But never more dramatic than in winter and early spring, when the High Sierra is buried in snow.
There’s much to appreciate on the way to the desert—places we’ve visited before. Bodie, a way-out-there mining ghost town preserved for posterity in a state of “arrested decay.” Nearby Mono Lake, a very complex ecosystem disguised as a desolate salt-lake. More than 300 movies and TV shows have been shot near Lone Pine, in the shadow of Mt. Whitney, throughout the surrounding Alabama Hills. Get details at the Museum of Western Film History on Main Street, or come back in October for the annual Lone Pine Film Festival.
Then there’s Red Rock Canyon State Park, at the edge of the Great Basin, east of the southern Sierra Nevada, and just north of the Mojave Desert. At Red Rock, it’s all about the rock—ancient layers of red sandstones, clays, gravels, white volcanic ash, and lava flows, carved over eons into this otherworldly landscape.
Red Rock Canyon looks quite familiar. The opening archaeology-dig scenes of Jurassic Park were shot here, and countless western and sci-fi films, among them Stagecoach with John Wayne (1939), The Mummy with Boris Karloff (1933), and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954).
Hiking these colorful “badlands,” a geologic transition zone between the Sierra Nevada and the Mojave Desert, is the main attraction. But Red Rock’s also a world-class dark sky. Stargazing, anyone? Set out from the campground at night to see what you can see.
Most people take in the sights from the freeway, which runs right through, but do stop at the visitor center to learn more about the real-life archaeological treasure unearthed here—more than 100 different types of plants and animals, trapped in lake sediments between 7.5 and 12.5 million years ago. Three-toed horses, saber-toothed cats, giraffe-like camels, elephants, and rhinos. Primitive rodents, skunks, and dogs. These are now being compared with fossils from elsewhere in the world to understand how life evolved and migrated.
Speaking of ancient animals: In spring, visit the nearby Desert Tortoise Preserve, where you just might see one. More on that next time.