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California desert 1988.

California Desert 1988 From ancient twisted forms of bristlecone pines on snowy slopes, down through a jumble of crimson red rock canyons, past miles of sculpted sand, to the misty, crusted flats of a salty sink--this is California's desert.

Fragile, brittle, harshly beautiful, this 25-million-acre desert covers a full quarter of thes state, nearly half of it public land. It remains among the least peopled and least tamed sections of the country.

But now, human impact threatens it. Because of its aridity and extremes of heat and cold, ths land heals very slowly. What may have taken thousands of years to develop--delicate dune ecosystems, rare palm oases, scarce watering holes--can be wiped out in a day.

Two major efforts--a pending Senate bill and a Bureau of Land Management plan--offer differing approaches to measured use and protection. To read about them, see pages 110 and 111.

On the following pages, we take a look at this vast area, actually the meeting of three desert regions--Great Basin, Mojave, and Colorado. We suggest 25 walks, hikes, and drives; about half visit existing state parks and federal monuments, while the others go to sites within the California Desert Conservation Area--federal lands administered by the BLM.

On these trips, you'll see the oldest living trees, dunes 600 feet tall, dry lake bed remnants of the ice age, and examples of ancient Indian art. Follow our suggested routes or strike off on your own, taking precautions suggested on page 108.

Go slwly to inhale the pungent fragrance of sage after rain, to feel the caress of the dry desert wind, to hear a silence so loud that you can't ignore it. And go in the spirit of a guest on the land. We know that you will never again think of the California desert as simply wasteland.

California's share of the Great Basin Desert is a triangular area covering all of Inyo and most of southern Mono counties. It's typical basin and range country--deep valleys with mountains rising steeply in sharp relief. And it's rich with geological immensities.

Northernmost and highest in elevation of the North American deserts, the Great Basin lies mostly above 4,000 feet. In much of it, winters are extremely cold, so the growing season is limited to summer. Winter brings precipitation--snow in the north, rain in the south.

Low shrubs dominate, and one species, Great Basin or big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata), outnumbers all others combined. There are fewer annuals, trees, and cactus than in other deserts.

1. Bristlecone pine forest . . .

highest of our desert adventures

Scoured by wind, water, and sand, the twisted trees of the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest are remarkable examples of hardiness and fertility. This area is the world's largest known enclave of the world's oldest living thing (some of the trees are more than 4,000 years old). It's easy to visit prime groves; the road is usually open late June through October.

Stop at 10,000-foot-high Schulman Grove station for maps and information; several short programs are normally offered daily from July through Labor Day. Two self-guiding trails and a picnic area complete the facilities.

Discovery Trail--just a mile long--takes you by Pine Alpha (unmarked to protect against vandalism), a 4,300-year-old that still bears cones. Along 4-1/2-mile Methuselah Trail, look for Methuselah Tree, also unmarked; at almost 4,700 years old, it's the oldest living plant anywhere.

Bristlecones (Pinus longaeva) survive in the harshest sites, and those in the worst places survive best. The trunk continues to grow through the tree's life--at less than an inch per century--so you may see massive trunks that lift only a few contorted limbs to the sky.

Patriarch Grove (named for the largest tree in the preserve--36-1/2 feet in circumference) is up the road at the 11,000-foot elevation. A short self-guiding trail passes near the tree.

Getting there. At big Pine, be sure to fill your gas tank and water bottles; the last services are here. From U.S. 395, turn east onto State 168 (Westgard Pass Road). Within 1/2 mile, you'll pass a sign telling you whether the road is open up to the forest. In about 2 miles, you'll reach the junction with Eureka Valley Road; stay left. In 11 miles, turn left onto the paved, signed road to the bristlecones.

In another 5 miles or so, you'll pass Grandview Campground, a good base for day-hikes in the bristlecones ahead. After another 3 miles, you enter the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, a protection zone where camping is not permitted. In 2 more miles, you'll reach Schulman Grove, where pavement ends.

The road to patriarch Grove, 14 miles from the State 168 turnoff and 27 miles from Big Pine, is suitable for passenger cars but not recommended for cars with trailers.

2. Eureka Valley's hidden

treasure

Sandwiched between Owens Valley on the west and Death Valley on the east, remote Eureka Valley hides the Eureka Dunes National Natural Landmark, designated in 1983. these lonely white dunes--1/2 mile wide, 3-1/2 miles long, up to 700 feet high--occupy the site of an ancient lake.

The drive is unpaved and complicated, and there are no trails, but the solitude is magnificent. You can picnit, walk the dunes, or camp (tables, pit toilets). In early morning, look for perfect tracks of the night's activity etched on the sand.

Abutting the scarp of the Last Chance Range, the sand mountain at the north end of the dunes catches more moisture than is common for dune systems. During the dry season, this moisture sustains plants that help hold the sand and maintain the mountain's height.

Of more than 50 species that occur here, three are found nowhere else: Eureka dunegrass, Eureka Dunes evening primrose, and Eureka Dunes milkvetch.

The dunes, currently within the Saline Valley Wilderness Study Area (WSA), are considered suitable for inclusion in the national wilderness system. Until Congress can review the area, it continues under BLM management.

Getting there. Don't even attempt this trip without a good map--too many roads and junctions are unsigned. Most useful: AAA's Death Valley and Eastern Sierra (free, to members only), and the USGS topographic maps Last Chance Range (which shows the Eureka dunes), Soldier Pass, Waucoba Spring, Waucoba Mountain, and Big Pine.

Follow Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest directions to Eureka Valley Road, but take the right fork, signed "Death Valley" but shown on the topo map as Waucoba Road. Wind 16 miles up the valley, passing the unsigned Waucoba/Saline Road turnoff. Continue straight ahead.

About 39 miles from Big Pine, N. Eureka Road branches left. In just under a mile, turn right onto S. Eureka Road. Drive about 10 miles more and park opposite the dunes. Best camping is at the north side of the dunes; follow an ungraded road leading east, and look for interpretive signs. But stay on the road: it's easy to get stuck.

3. Ghost town at "Fat Hill"

Los Angeles owes much of its early growth to a flood of silver from the Cerro Gordo mines. Cerro Gordo, or "Fat Hill," was fat indeed--with silver, zinc, and lead. At one time, there were nearly a thousand claims on the books and the town boasted some 4,700 inhabitants.

Although the 7-1/2-mile dirt road to this privately owned ghost town is rough and steep in places (four-wheel drive recommended), mining buffs won't want to miss it. The town stands at 8,500 feet, below 9,184-foot Cerro Gordo Peak. Most buildings date from around 1871 (look for corrugated-iron exteriors) or 1916. Underneath the townsite, some 37 miles of tunnels wind through the hillside.

With the help of local groups, Jody Stewart and Mike Patterson have set up a small museum and are restoring 25 buildings. Park below the townsite and walk up to the museum to sign a liability waiver and guest book. For a guided tour, write or call ahead: Box 221, Keeler 93530; (619) 876-4154.

Getting there. Just south of Lone Pine on U.S. 395, turn southeast on State 136. Drive about 12-1/2 miles to Keeler; turn northeast on Cerro Gordo Road at the junction. Or, turn northeast off U.S. 395 onto State 190 in Olancha and drive about 18 miles to State 136, then 5 miles northwest to Keeler and the junction.

4. Half-mile scramble

to a cascading waterfall

The last sight you'd expect between dusty Owens Lake and Death Valley National Monument is a cascading waterfall. But a short detour off State Highway 190 and an easy 1/2-7ile scramble up Darwin Wash reveals just that.

The spring-fed stream flows only a mile or so through narrow, rocky Darwin Canyon before disappearing into the sand. Lined with willows and tamarisks, the stream is the only natural water source for miles and a gathering place for wildlife. Water runs fullest from mid-March through May. Pending legislation would add this area and Eureka Dunes to Death Valley.

Because Darwin is one of the few perennial waterfalls in the desert, the BLM manages 1,163 acres surrounding the falls as an area of critical environmental concern (ACEC).

Getting there. From U.S. 395 in Olancha, drive northeast on State 190. Look for Darwin Canyon Road (dirt) on the right about 44 miles from Olancha. Drive 2-1/2 miles to a fork; stay right (this road is a little rougher than Darwin Canyon). It's another 1/2 mile to the trailhead. Park at the barricade and enter the canyon on foot.

5. Death Valley . . . from

below sea level to 11,049 feet

The forbidding name doesn't ring true after you've spent a spring day here. Actually, it's a valley of light, color, and life. You can drive, hike, and camp for weeks among the 14 square miles of dunes, 200 square miles of salt flats, and 11,000-foot mountains.

Death Valley National Monument is currently managed by the Park Service. Proposed legislation would reclassify it as a national park and add 1.4 million acres of adjacent federal lands in the Eureka, Saline, and Panamint Valleys.

Almost a thousand species of plants grow here, including 10 ferns, 6 lilies, and 2 orchids. Among 21 flowering plants that grow nowhere else in the world, you'll find the yellow Panamint daisy (Enceliopsis covillei), the small-blossomed goldcarpet (Gilmania), and the blue-flowered Death Valley sage (Salvia funerea).

The best-known spots--Zabriskie Point, Badwater, Telescope Peak, Scotty's Castle--are so well covered that we recommend you start with the book rack at the visitor center in Furnace Creek. Plan to stay at nearby Furnace Creek Inn (619/786-2345; $180 and up, double) or Furnace Creek Ranch (same number; $81 double, $57 in summer), or to camp--since Furnace Creek is at least a full day's drive from major population centers.

Getting there. The major route from the Eastern Sierra into Death Valley is over State 190 from U.S. 395 in Olancha. There are at least three other routes; check your map. For details, write to Death Valley National Monument, Death Valley 92328.

6. A hunt for windlowers

in Short Canyon

Just a few miles off U.S. 395, this east-facing canyon of the southern Sierra Nevada offers a year-round stream and, in good years, abundant wildflowers. But even in bad years you should see enough blooms to make the excursion worthwhile.

Sierra snows and natural springs feed the stream that flows down the rocky canyon, over a falls, and sinks into the sand. In this mix of moist and dry environments, look for desert staples such as creosote bush, burro brush, and shadscale close to pines, junipers, and canyon oak.

Charlotte's phacelia (P. nashiana), a candidate for endangered status, grown abundantly in Short Canyon.

From the trailhead, it's an easy climb over a hill to the strea. In spring, clamber less than 1/2 mile upstream to a 20-foot waterfall.

Getting there. About 1/2 mile south of the junction of U.S. 395 and State 14, on State 14, look for Brady's Cafe; just south of the cafe, take the canyon road westward. In 1.3 miles, take the left fork to the trailhead.

7. Drive a highway

through Red Rock Canyon

State Highway 14 slices right through this 6,000-acre state park--pull over almost anywhere to stretch your legs or inspect the brightly hued rock. Or plan a longer visit and camp.

Red Rock's soft, deeply rutted and crenellated formations are what remain of sediment laid down during Pliocene times, perhaps 10 million years ago. Remains of mining operations from a brief 1890s gold rush still riddle the area.

Pick up a map at the ranger station near Ricardo Campground. Most park roads are dirt; access to cliffs and two natural preserves is by foot.

Getting there. From Mojave, drive north on State 14 about 25 miles. To reach the ranger station, turn northwest (left) onto Abbott Drive in the heart of the canyon. Follow signs. For more details, call district headquarters at (805) 942-0662.

8. Petroglyph Canyon tour . . .

by arrangement only

Scattered throughout the California desert are 100,000 to 200,000 petroglyphs--some more than 10,000 years old. The greatest concentration lies within the U.S. Naval Weapons Center at China Lake. Visits to Big and Little Petroglyph canyons to see the designs--scratched or pecked into the shiny desert varnish (oxidized minerals) that coats the region's basaltic rocks--are possible only on week-ends or holidays by arrangement.

Best way to go is on a guided spring or fall tour, beginning at the center's main gate off State 178 or at the nearby Maturango Museum in Ridgecrest. Call the museum at (619) 375-6900 or the weapons center at 939-3387.

Getting there. The main gate is about 8 miles east of U.S. 395. Ask for directions when you call.

Lying to the south of the Great Basin Desert, the Mojave is warmer and receives less snow. Its plan life is more varied than in the Great Basin, and denser than in the Colorado Desert to the south--partly because of its intemediate elevations and temperatures.

Here the indicator plant is the slow-growing Joshua tree, usually surrounded by low shrubs.

This is a great look-see place for plant enthusiasts: around 80 percent of the Mojave's 250 species of annuals flourish only here--many more than in the Great Basin. In spring, following winters of gentle rainfall, annual flowers paint an impressionistic canvas of color.

It also has tortoises, raptors, ghost towns, intaglios on the ground, and clone rings of creosote bush.

Trips 13 through 16 are within the boundaries of the BLM's East Mojave National Scenic Area, which encompasses 16 mountain ranges, 4 dry lakes, a perennial strea, and countless washes, mesas, buttes, and badlands. Proposed legislation (see pages 110 and 111) would preserve these 1.5 million acres as Mojave National Park and trasfer responsibility from the BLM to the Park Service.

9. Seven miles of gentle trails

through acres of poppies

Easy to reach by paved road, Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve usually offers unparalleled displays of the state flower, at its most vivid bloom from March into May. Weekend days during April and May, you can join a guided tour at 1 P.M.

Start at the interpretive center, built into the side of a hill. Pick up a map there, then wander on the 7 miles of easy trails that crisscross the 1,752 acres. The poppy's supporting actors include purple lupine, yellow goldfields, and fiddleneck. End at the new picnic area.

Getting there. From State 14 in Lancaster, exit west on Avenue I and drive about 15 miles (after Avenue I becomes Lancaster Road, it's about 3 miles to the reserve). There's a state park day-use fee of $3 per car. Interpretive center hours are 9 to 4 daily, April through May. Call (805) 724-1180 or 942-0662.

10. Watch for tortoises

emerging for a spring fling

Slow and steady isn't winning the race for threatened Gopherus agassizii, dspite efforts of concerned citizens to preserve its habitat. One remaining stronghold, the 38-square-mile Desert Tortoise Natural Area, offers the best viewing.

Four self-guided trails--from 500 yards to 1-3/4 miles--meander through the creosote bush habitat favored by the reptiles; it's now fenced and closed to vehicles and grazing. Look for tortoises emerging from their winter burrows to munch spring wildflowers, grasses, and cactus.

Getting there. From Mojave, drive northeast 4 miles on State 14 to California City Boulevard. Turn east and go about 9 miles (through California City). Follow signs to Randsburg-Mojave Road; bear left. Follow signs 5 miles to the preserve.

Best time to visit is mid-March through May. Groups can arrange a free guided tour; write or call ahead: Box 307, Boron 93516; (619) 764-6422.

11. Walk or drive between

Rainbow Basin's folded walls

A national natural landmark since 1972, the 3,000-foot basin offers camping, hiking, and photography, all easy to reach by paved and gravel roads.

As in most areas of the East Mojave, there are no signed trails. Landmarks are distinctive, however--you should have no trouble following the USGS's Opal Mountain topographic map.

One popular route is up Owl Canyon Wash near Owl Canyon Campgound (north of Fossil Bed Road). As you meander past the canyon's colorful folded-and-faulted walls, look for the fossil remains of rodents, ducks and other birds, camels, even mastodons. Most findings here are what paleontologists call "disassociated animal remains"--meaning the bones are pretty well mixed up. Leave all fossils in place: it's a federal law.

The 6-mile scenic drive through the basin's badlands is another option--follow signs on Fossil Bed Road.

Getting there. From State Highway 58 just north of Barstow, drive north about 5-1/2 miles on Fort Irwin Road. Turn left on Fossil Bed Road and drive almost 3 miles to Rainbow Basin.

12. Afton Canyon . . . where the

Mojave River appears briefly

This colorful, steep-walled canyon has been called the "Grand Canyon of the Mojave." The mostly underground Mojave River makes a surface appearance here. Because of its year-round water (a rarity in these parts), you'll find grass, trees, and wildlife--also campers, hikers, and off-road vehicles.

Settlers and Indians traveling the Mojave Trail from the Colorado River to the Pacific coast stopped here for water. Look for old campsites among the twisty side canyons where the fluted pink cliffs come down to the nearly level sand.

The developed campground has shaded tables, fireplaces (bring your own wood), and water. Access is by good dirt road.

Getting there. From Barstow, drive east on I-15 about 38 miles to the Afton turnoff. Follow a dirt road southwest about 3 miles to the BLM's Afton Campground and the Mojave River.

13. Explore lava beds and

upthrust cinder cones

Thirty-two black cinder cones thrust up several hundred feet from the blistered desert floor near Baker in the East Mojave. You can explore the 25,600-acre national natural landmark by foot or auto on old mining roads. Cones erode easily, so stick to the roads. On this blackened landscape, Apollo astronauts trained for the 1969 moon landing.

A guide to desert plants will prove useful here as you duck in and out of broad washes sprinkled with yuccas and lined with cat's claw acacia and desert willow.

Getting there. In Baker (60 miles northeast of Barstow), turn east off I-15 onto Kelbaker Road. In about 10 miles, look left for lava beds and cinder cones. Park on the shoulder, or follow one of the dirt roads leading toward the cones.

14. Kelso detour to dunes

and a historic depot

Kelso's mission revival depot and its elegant brick platform were built in 1925; it's one of only two to survive from that era. Kelso Depot Fund members are pushing to preserve it as a community center.

The 70-square-mile Kelso dunes are the West's most extensive sand dunes. You can reach tehm in an easy 1/2-mile walk from your car.

Sunrise and sunset are magic times, when the slanted light picks out every sandy hump and ridge. And these dunes can speak: the sand you dislodge from the ridgetops makes humming or moaning sounds as it slides down.

Getting there. Follow directions to cinder cones, then continue about 15 miles on Kelbaker Road to Kelso. You'll see the white walls and tile roof of the depot from several miles away. For more on the depot, write to the Kelso Depot Fund, Inc., Box 35, Kelso 92351.

To reach the dunes, continue through Kelso on Kelbaker another 7 miles to a signed dirt road leading west to the main dunes. Follow this road about 3 miles to parking.

15. Mitchell Caverns

Mitchell Caverns Natural Preserve lies within the Providence Mountains State Recreation Area; its name refers to Jack Mitchell, a prospector who began welcoming people here in 1932.

The 16-mile approach is paved; several short trails, six primitive campsites, and limited water complete the facilities.

Views are stunning from the visitor center, at 4,300 feet. Below, the Colton Hills poke up from the desert floor like bubbles in a simmering soup pot.

From here, it's a 1/2-mile walk to the main caves, El Pakiva and Tecopa. Caverns such as these, with good examples of all three types of cave formations--dripstone (stalagmites, stalactites), flowstone (ribbons, draperies), and erratics (helictites, shields)--occur only once in 40,000 caves. Year-round temperature inside the caverns is 65 deg.--better bring a sweater.

Join a daily ranger-led tour lasting about 1-1/2 hours. Tours meet in front of the visitor center at 1:30 P.M. weekdays and 10, 1:30, and 3 weekends and holidays September 16 through June 15. Cost: $3, $1 ages 6 through 17.

Getting there. From Barstow, drive east on I-40 about 100 miles to Essex Road. Drive northwest for 16 miles to the state recreation area, following the signs.

In a four-wheel drive, you can continue south from Kelso on Kelbaker Road about 3 miles to the poleline road (dirt); bear left and drive about 12 miles over Foshay Pass to Essex Road. Turn left again to the recreation area.

16. Hole-in-the-Wall and

Mid-Hills campgrounds

Within 6 miles you can explore volcanic canyons and camp beneath pinons and junipers at two BLM campgrounds between 4,000 and 5,600 feet. Access is by good dirt road. An 8-mile trail connects the two campgrounds.

Getting there. Follow Mitchell Caverns directions to Essex Road. Take Essex northwest, and in about 10 miles look for Black Canyon Road (good dirt) on the right. Drive north about 8 miles to Hole-in-the-Wall, following signs. Mid-Hills is another 6-1/2 miles north; look for a sign on your left.

17. Joshua Tree . . . where the

Mojave drops into the Colorado

Two deserts come together in this national monument. The eastern half is dominated by creosote bush, spidery ocotillo, and cholla cactus. In the higher western half, weathered granite jumbles and forests of Joshua trees dominate.

Traverse the road in leisure to experience the full range of the Colorado and Mojave deserts. Near the south end, tiny delicate wildflowers carpet the sandy soil right up to the road in spring. Pull over anywhere for a nose-to-nose experience.

Proposed legislation would reclassify the monument a national park and add some 245,000 pristine acres, some remaining from lands removed for commercial mining in 1950. Additions to Death Valley and Joshua Tree national monuments would complete ecological units now only partially within monument boundaries. The Park Service would continue to manage the parklands.

Getting there. There are four entrances; see Riverside and San Bernardino county maps for the most convenient route. First-time visitors should stop at the visitor center in Twentynine Palms, 1/2 mile south of State Highway 62 on Utah Trail.

Where Mexico's vast Sonoran Desert extends into California, it is known as the Colorado Desert. Of the state's three desert types, the Colorado is the southernmost and lowest in elevation--mostly below 3,000 feet--and has the warmest year-round temperatures.

Little rain falls here--4 to 6 inches a year--but it comes year-round in short, intensive bursts, eroding the hills into dramatic canyons, cliffs, and mesas.

Plant cover is diverse, with creosote bush prominent. Marker trees for this desert include California fan palm (Washingtonia filifera), smoke tree, desert willow, and palo verde.

The Colorado Desert is the best place to find expanses of desert pavement--formed when wind and water carry away small particles between layers of rocks, leaving a smooth surface of fitted stones.

18. Palm Springs Aerial

Tramway . . . and a picnic on

Mount San Jacinto

Bird's-eye views, access to camping, and 54 miles of trails in Mount San Jacinto Wilderness State Park are the appeals.

Try to choose a clear day for the mile-plus tram ride up from Valley Station--summer haze can obscure the view almost completely. Rising quickly out of creosote bush and burro brush, desert willow, and ironwood to chamise and manzanita, you skim past rugged granite dotted with juniper, ponderosa pines, and vanilla-scented Jeffrey pines. Journey's end is 20 minutes later, at 8,516-foot Mountain Station.

A 1/4-mile walkway behind Mountain Station leads to the Long Valley picnic area and a ranger station, open 10:30 to 5 daily. If you plan to hike or camp (the 10,804-foot summit of Mount San Jacinto is a 6-mile hike), stop here for a trail map and a free wilderness permit.

Getting there. From I-10 east of Banning, exit southeast on State 111. In about 8 miles, turn right on Tramway Road; follow signs to Valley Station.

Trams depart every half-hour starting at 10 weekdays, 8 weekends, with the last car down at 9:45 P.M. Round-trip fare is $12.95, $7.95 for ages 3 through 12. There's a cafeteria-restaurant at the top.

19. A desert musuem...for a

quick intro to desert love

Here you can explore three sculpture gardens, peruse some 1,300 Indian artifacts (including choice examples of basketry), and brush up on native plants and animals in displays showing the desert by day and by night.

Getting there. The museum is at 101 Museum Drive. From Palm Canyon Drive in Palm Springs, take Tahquitz-McCallum Way west one block to Museum Drive.

Hours are 10 to 4 Tuesdays through Fridays, 10 to 5 weekends. Cost is $4 for adults, $2 for ages 6 through 17. Call (619) 325-7186.

20. Three Indian-owned

palm canyons

Well known for their palms oases and archeological riches, the canyons are open daily September through May. Year-round water and the towering trees make picnicking pleasant. Hiking trails range from 2 to 15 miles.

Plentiful water renders the oases rare among desert plant communities. Because the massive California fan palms that dominate require permanently wet soil and mild winters, they are restricted to springs and seeps in the warm Colorado Desert (mostly along the San Andreas Fault), northeastern Baja California, and two very remote sites in western Arizona.

Trails thread among palm-shadowed streams and secluded pools that feed some 7,000 majestic palms; many are more than a century old. In Murray Canyon, granitic upthrusts will tempt rock scramblers. In other spots, you'll see Indian mortar holes used to grind mesquite beans, wild palm seeds, and acorns.

Getting there. The gate is about 3 miles south of Palm Springs on Palm Canyon Drive; follow signs to Andreas and Murray canyons. Hours are 8:30 to 5. Admission is $3 adults, 75 cents ages 12 and under; ask about a trail map at the gate. For details, call the Tribal Council: (619) 325-5673.

21. Coachella Valley's

last undisturbed watershed

The 13,000-acre Coachella Valley Preserve, established in 1986 by the Nature Conservancy with the BLM, the California State Fish and Game Department, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, protects the endangered Coachella Valley fringe-toed lizard (Uma inornata); it encompasses. Thousand Palms Oasis and the McCallum Grove. Home to a multitude of rare birds and wildlife, it's the valley's last undisturbed wateshed.

The 8- to 10-inch lizard dwells exclusively on deposits of blow-sand (fine sand flushed out of the mountains). An estimated 95 percent of all remaining viable habitat--a very small percentage of the valley's original blow-sand ecosystem--falls within the preserve.

On a self-guided 1-mile trail, examine Colorado Desert flora while seeking a glimpse of the sand-swimming lizard.

Getting there. From Palm Springs, drive east on Ramon Road for 11 miles. Turn north on Thousand Palms Canyon Road; the preserve entrance is on the left. Hours are dawn to dusk. Call (619) 343-1234.

22. Living Desert Reserve...start

off with a short hike

Follow self-guided trails through six major habitats--from creosote flats to sand dunes--and check out nocturnal desert dwellers in the "after sundown" room. The 1,200-acre park also includes an enthnobotanical garden with plants the Indians used for food, fiber, and soap, as well as an animal hospital, aviary, and bighorn sheep exhibit.

Getting there. From I-10, exit south on Monterey Avenue and go about 7 miles, crossing State 111 (Palm Canyon Drive), to Haystack; turn east to Portola Avenue. Follow signs to the reserve, at 47900.

Hours are 9 to 5 daily September through June 15. Adults pay $3.50; ages 3 through 15 pay $1.

23. Mecca Hills...badlands

uplifted by fault action

A fairly easy 6-mile out-and-back hike to Sheep Hole and Hidden Springs oases takes you on trails and cross-country through badlands of mud hills--with good views of the Salton Sea and close-ups of the rare Mecca aster.

About a million years ago, the Mecca Hills were squeezed up between the San Andreas and Painted Canyon faults. But the region contains rock more than six times that old. In spring, smoke trees (Psorothamnus spinosa) and desert ironwoods (Olneya tesota) growing in the washes are clothed in purple blossoms.

From the mouth of the tributary canyon near the road, the unsigned trail climbs the ravine's right slope. slowly walk up the ravine (no more than 50 yards) until you spot the trail. In less than a mile, this Indian path leads to Sheep Hole oases.

To continue to Hidden Springs, go just over 1/4 mile beyond the first oasis. Take the trail left up out of the wash. Follow it over a low ridge into Hidden Spring Canyon, then walk up the wash. After 3/4 mile, the canyon narrows and turns right.

Just beyond this point, a small arroyo, only about 7 feet wide and bordered by gray and red rocks, comes in from the left. Hidden Spring Oasis lies just a few hundred feet up this tributary, beyond a pile of boulders. Return the way you came.

Getting there. From I-10, exit south on Dillon Road to State 111 in Indio; turn southeast. Drive 10 miles to State 195; go east through Mecca (State 195 becomes Box Canyon Road in about 5 miles).

At about 10 miles, look right for a road leading north across a wash to two large desert ironwood trees at the confluence of three small canyons. Go slowly; this unsigned trailhead is hard to spot.

24. Anza-Borrego desert park

This huge park covers a fifth of San Diego County and portions of Imperial and Riverside counties. Developed campgrounds, signed trails, helpful rangers, and nearby hotels and dining make exploring easy for first-timers.

Anza-Borrego is one of the few state parks where you may camp anywhere you want to--as long as you hike in, ride a horse, or drive on existing roads; do not light fires on the ground, and leave things just as you found them. Camping areas vary from highly developed (Borrego Springs) to less than basic (a remote spot of your choice).

For a short visit, choose a relatively small area to explore. Very thorough and helpful guides are The Anza-Borrego Desert Region: A Guide to the State Park and the Adjacent Areas, by Lowell and Diana Lindsay (Wilderness Press, 1985; $9.95), and The Weekender's Guide, by Paul R. Johnson (Anza-Borrego Desert natural History Association, 1987; $4.95).

Getting there. The park has numerous entrances. We suggest beginning at the visitor center just west of Borrego Springs on Country Road S22.

25. Spotting snowy egrets

on the Salton Sea

Look for snowy egrets, great blue herons, and Snow and Ross' geese on short nature trails near this briny, below-sea-level lake.

The setting is serene, but hardly quiet. In winter, when geese are there in force, their bickering makes an impressive din. The refuge once extended well out into the sea, but rising water has reduced 32,000 above-water acres to about 2,000.

Getting there. From I-8 in El Centro, exit north on County Road S30 and drive about 18 miles to Westmoreland. Turn west on State 56 and drive about 5 miles to Vendel Road; turn north on the graded dirt road and go just over 1-1/4 miles.

To reach the headquarters and observation point from I-8, drive north on State 111 about 27 miles to Calipatria. Continue through town on State 111 about 3 miles to Sinclair Road; turn west and go 4-1/2 miles to refuge headquarters.

Nearly everyone agrees to that the great natural beauty and diversity of the California desert should be safeguarded. But when it comes to deciding how much of it should be protected, how best to do it, and which government agencies should do the job--it's easy to find opposing views.

If you're concerned about the fate of the California desert, you may want to familiarize yourself with the legislative and political implications of both the current area mangement plan and the pending legislation.

At present, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is responsible for much of the region, following guidelines set down by Congress in 1976. Those guidelines directed the agency to create an overall management scheme. In 1980, the BLM released the California Desert Plan.

Now, new legislation proposed by California Senator Alan Cranston--the California Desert Protection Act (S. 7)--would dramatically alter the BLM plan, primarily by increasing the amount of desert to be preserved as wilderness and, in some cases, changing who manages that land.

Why the desert needs protection

About 25 million acres of desert--a region the size of Ohio--are practically back yard for more than half the population of California; some 12 million acres of that are public lands managed by the BLM. (The rest is either privately held or managed by other federal agencies; see current desert map at right.) In fact, this was the country's first BLM tract to be patrolled by rangers.

The public enjoys and uses this "back yard." The BLM conservatively estimates there were at least 16 million recreational visits to the desert last year. Visitation to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park alone has jumped 40 percent since 1978.

Unfortunately, man has left his mark on much of this land. Ongoing mining, overgrazing by cattle, energy development--even utility corridors--have an impact on the desert.

Some recreational activities also mar the area. more than half the people who come to the desert visit the back country. While many travel on designated routes, others take off on their own, scarring the delicate lands with four-wheel-drive vehicles and motorcycles.

"The desert is taking a beating, and the biggest offender is travel off designated roads," comments Jeff Widen of the Sierra Club. In fact, a 1979 U.S. Geological Survey draft study suggested that more than a million acres of California desert have been damaged, especially by severe erosion--mostly caused by this kind of travel--over the previous 20 years.

Vandalism looting of archeological sites, and theft of rare desert plants, such as barrel and saguaro cactus, are also increasing.

BLM as "steward"

It was concern over this destruction of the desert's historic, cultural, and natural values that led Congress to establish the 25-million-acre California Desert Conservation Area (CDCA) in 1976. At the time, Congress also directed the BLM, as long-time "steward," to develop a management plan for the 12 million acres of public land within the CDCA.

The BLM's multiple-use plan designates 500,000 acres as "intensive use" areas (open to off-road vehicles, strip mining), 3.3 million acres for "moderate use" (grazing, utility lines), 5.9 million acres for "limited use" (camping, bird-watching), and 1.9 million acres as "controlled use" (proposed wilderness). Another 80 areas of "critical environmental concern" (670,000 acres total) will receive special protection. As studies continue and the plan is amended yearly, some areas may change designation.

One innovative element of the plan was the creation of the 1.4-million-acre East Mojave national Scenic Area, which combines recreation, mining, and grazing.

However, none of the wilderness designations will become official until 1991, when Congress (which reserves final judgment on actual designations) will consider the BLM's final recommendations for wilderness.

Why another proposal?

Most environmental groups gave conditional support to the California Desert Plan, but they contend it was always with the understanding that subsequent wilderness legislation would be required to provide permanent protection for critical public lands.

From the beginning, the BLM has lacked the funding and manpower necessary to adequately manage so large an area with such diverse uses. Indeed, only 22 rangers patrol the entire 12 million acres. (This year, Congress will finally provide funds to increase the staff to 42 rangers.)

Enforcement isn't the only concern of BLM plan critics. According to Patty Schifferle, the California and Nevada regional director of the Wilderness Society, "Special interests have taken advantage of the amendment process to open up valuable lands to destructive uses. Between 1980 and 1985, at least 250 private permits for activities including bulldozing, road building, water impoundmnet, cyanide storage, off-road-vehicle travel, and exploratory drilling were approved in BLM wilderness study areas."

These wilderness study areas are subject to other federal laws, such as the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 and the General Mining Law of 1872, which require the BLM to allow some of these activities. The BLM says that permits for these activities are issued only if proper precautions are taken.

What would the new legislation do?

Growing concern over the California desert's future led Senator Cranston to introduce new legislation to Congress two years ago.

His proposed legislation would designate 8.8 million acres of new wilderness, about half of which would fall under BLM management; the rest would come under the jurisdiction of the national Park Service. some of the new wilderness would be added to Death Valley and Joshua Tree national monuments.

The bill would also redesignate these national monuments as national parks, giving them permanent status as parkland, and create a new Mojave National Park out of the East Mojave national Scenic Area. Finally, it would set aside special areas to protect the endangered desert lily (to be administered by the BLM) and the historic Indian canyons (to be under joint management by the Park Service and Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians).

Is the new plan necessary? According to BLM state director, Ed Hastey, S. 7 "is legislative overkill. If we are really doing such a bad job out there, how is it that after all these years of BLM management, environmental groups can still find 8.8 million acres good enough for parks and wilderness? I think we have proved that you don't have to have wilderness designation for protection."

Protecting fragile desert for the future

Major bills rarely pass a full Senate vote without support from both senators from the affected region--in this case, alan Cranston and Pete Wilson. As we went to press, Senator Wilson had not taken a position on S. 7.

Meanwhile, Senator Cranston plans to begin pushing his bill through the Senate Subcommittee for Public Lands, National Parks and Forests this spring; a companion bill in the House of Representatives, H.R. 371, will probably stay in subcommittee until the Senate acts.

Is this the year for new decisions on the California desert? Perhaps. the Reagan administration opposes the bill, as do some members of both houses. Still, both the BLM's current management plan and Cranston's proposed legislation leave ample room for compromise.

Whether or not action is taken, there should be lively discussion--and opportunity for the public to express opinions. Write to BLM, 2800 Cottage Way, Sacramento 95825; or Alan Cranston or Pete Wilson, U.S. Senate, Washington, D.C. 20510.

Concerned citizens can also write to the BLM for a copy of its California Desert Plan and to Senator Cranston's office for a copy of S. 7.

Regardless of which federal agency (BLM or Park Service) has the larger role in managing public lands in the California desert, Congress must give that agency the tooles--manpower and money--to do the job.

The stakes are high: the preservation of one of the last relatively undisturbed corners of what early Western settlers called the "Great American Desert."
COPYRIGHT 1988 Sunset Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1988 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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