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Up The Road: Desert Tortoise Natural Area

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California Department of Fish & Wildlife
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Flickr Creative Commons

At Red Rock Canyon, we’ve arrived at the edge of the Mojave Desert. Before we push on, let’s take a side trip. Let’s go romp with the reptiles at the Desert Tortoise Research Natural Area—some 40 square miles that protect these venerable but threatened ancients.

The Desert Tortoise Natural Area is not a place to free your backyard tortoise, now that you’ve gotten an apartment and can’t keep her. Do the right thing and call the local animal shelter instead. Your beloved pet will not survive here, a very harsh environment. And pet tortoises often bring dire diseases that threaten the already threatened wild animals who live here.

The whole point of the Desert Tortoise Natural Area is to protect the beleaguered desert tortoise, a wild animal, and the official state reptile of both California and Nevada. These slow-moving reptiles—descendants of the dinosaurs—are poorly adapted to present-day human society. Subdivisions and garbage dumps attract predators—including ravens, which eat juvenile tortoises. 

Major desert disturbances, including solar and wind farms, destroy their fragile habitats. People also shoot tortoises, for fun. Truly stupid, and hardly sporting.

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Credit JVove / Flickr Creative Commons
Desert Tortoise Natural Area

On the way to and from the preserve, watch for what appear to be rocks. And always check under your car before driving off, because even in spring desert tortoises seek shade, to regulate their body heat.

Get more information at the preserve’s Interpretive Center, with parking lot, information kiosk, restroom, and access to the preserve’s self-guided trails. And do bring water—always more than you think you’ll need, the constant rule of thumb out in the desert—because none is available here. Also bring binoculars and camera, sunscreen, and a hat with a brim.

Morning from March through May is the ideal time to come. In spring there’s usually a naturalist on hand, to explain what you’re seeing and what to look for.

Spring is the season for mating, laying eggs, and grazing on the tender shoots of ephemeral wildflowers and grasses—the only time of year desert tortoises leave their underground burrows, rock shelters, and pallets, where they spend 95 percent of their lives. Subterranean shelters and other habitats protect them from summer heat and winter cold, and also help them regulate their water use. Burrows are often shared, with other tortoises but also other wildlife. Desert tortoises create safe habitat for many other species.

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Credit California Department of Fish & Wildlife / Flickr Creative Commons
Desert tortoise seeking shade.

There’s no guarantee that you’ll see a desert tortoise here, even when spring grazing is good. But the odds are good here, where populations have rebounded and are healthy.

To commune with the desert tortoise, slow down. Slow to a tortoise’s pace. Remember that old Aesop’s fable about the tortoise and the hare? Slow and steady wins this race too. Watch in likely areas, then walk and watch some more—keeping an eye out for rattlesnakes, too, also sun-seekers.

The preserve’s Interpretive Center is located about four miles northeast of California City, just off unpaved Randsburg-Mojave Road. Heading south from Redrock Canyon on Highway 14, exit onto California City Boulevard and head east 10 miles. Turn left (northeast) onto Randsburg-Mojave Road, and then left again after a mile and a half, at the fork with 20 Mule Team Parkway, Continue another 4 miles or so on Randsburg-Mojave Road ,to the parking lot.

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Kim Weir is the founder of Up the Road, a nonprofit public-interest journalism project. She researches, writes, and hosts Up the Road, a radio show and mini-podcast about California co-produced by North State Public Radio. Kim got her start as a travel journalist in 1990 with the publication of the first and original Moon Handbooks Northern California, a surprise best-seller. Six other Moon books on California soon followed. She is a member, by invitation, of the venerable Society of American Travel Writers (SATW). Kim earned a BA in environmental studies and analysis, with an emphasis on botany and ecology, and also holds an MFA in creative writing. She lives in Paradise.
Matt Fidler is a producer and sound designer with over 15 years’ experience producing nationally distributed public radio programs. He has worked for shows such as Freakonomics Radio, Selected Shorts, Studio 360, The New Yorker Radio Hour and The Takeaway. In 2017, Matt launched the language podcast Very Bad Words, hitting the #28 spot in the iTunes podcast charts.