Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Desert trip—day 3: Salton Sea

Day 3 was spent on and around the Salton Sea. The issues involving the Salton Sea are complex to say the least, so instead of trying to summarize them here, I’ll simply refer you to this site. From there you can click through to a number of other sites if you’re interested.

This is the desert distilled to its essential elements: earth, sky, and water. However, unlike elsewhere in the desert, there is plenty of water, except that it’s saltier than the Pacific Ocean and hence of no use to humans. This bizarre and hostile environment offers little for tourists looking for National Park-type beauty—in fact, its fetid odor drives them away in a hurry. It’s not until you spend a little time here and try to understand the land and the people living here that you start to appreciate this unique place.

North Shore, mid-afternoon
A dream that never materialized—failed subdivision
Motel in Niland

Salvation Mountain has been called a masterpiece of folk art by some, a toxic dump by others. It is a monument to the universal love of God created by Leonard Knight, now 79, who arrived here 25 years ago and began to carve his message into the side of a hill 3 miles east of Niland on the eastern shore of the Salton Sea. Wikipedia has a good article about Salvation Mountain; the official website of Salvation Mountain, maintained by a friend of Leonard Knight’s, has a detailed biography.

While the message of Salvation Mountain is religious in nature and I’m not, I was completely overwhelmed by what Leonard Knight has created in 25 years of back-breaking labor. Salvation Mountain is a testament to what one person can achieve with dedication and perseverance, constantly defying the odds and the obstacles life places in their way. I can’t think of a better teaching moment for our daughters, and I’m so happy they were here to experience this with us.

Leonard Knight still lives at the base of his mountain in the back of a 1939 fire truck—with no electricity, running water, heating, air conditioning, or any of the other modern convenience we take for granted. We had the honor of getting a personal tour from him this morning (we initially were the only visitors) and ended up talking to him for a good hour. He told us that although his body is getting weaker and he cannot do the heavy work anymore, he’s still as committed to his mountain as ever.

In fact, what’s foremost on his mind these days is to preserve what he’s built. In 2002, California senator Barbara Boxer read an entry into the Congressional Record proclaiming Salvation Mountain as a national treasure. Word about Salvation Mountain has spread and he often has more than 100 visitors a day from all over the world. Yet in spite of the growing recognition for what Knight has built, there’s great uncertainty as to what will happen after he passes away. Salvation Mountain is built on public land, and without some sort of official protection, bureaucrats could just as easily have it destroyed.

Welcome to the capital of Joy and Love
Salvation Mountain
One of several intricately painted cars
Salvation Mountain—close-up
Yellow Brick Road
View of the “Museum” from on top Salvation Mountain. The Museum is a complex of domed grottoes supported by “trees” built from truck tires, tree branches, and other materials scavenged from the surrounding desert—as well as adobe (straw and clay) and lots of donated paint.
The Museum—detail
The Museum—exterior
Inside the Museum
Inside the Museum
Inside the Museum
According to Leonard, this photo was sent to him by National Geographic. He was very proud of it and said that it was being turned into a jigsaw puzzle that he would give to visiting kids.
Only some of the many cans and buckets of paint donated to Leonard Knight. This morning, a couple arriving in an RV dropped off at least a dozen cans of paint. I have a feeling he gets more paint these days than he can use.
Leonard Knight talking about the need to preserve Salvation Mountain
Leonard was very happy to have his photo taken

Just beyond Salvation Mountain lies Slab City. It takes its name from the concrete slabs that remain from a World War II-era military base called Camp Dunlap. Slab City could best be described as a haphazard yet intentional community of desert dwellers living outside the mainstream of society, many of them subsisting on small government checks or even less. There is no water, no electricity, and no public services of any kind. In fact, officially, Slab City doesn’t even exist. Yet in spite of that, there are hundreds of permanent residents who have put down roots here in spite of the adverse conditions, especially in the summer. In the winter, their numbers swell to several thousand as snowbirds arrive in their RVs from northern latitudes.

Slab City played a role in the non-fiction book (and Sean Penn-directed movie) Into The Wild; protagonist Chris McCandless spent time here before setting out for Alaska.

This used to be the guardhouse for WWII-era
Camp Dunlap Marine base
Slab City Community Bulletin Board—with cacti and aloe plantings
Slab City Christian Center

Bombay Beach is located about 15 miles north of Niland on the eastern shore of the Salton Sea. This tiny town of a few hundred was founded in 1929 as a private development and quickly became a popular destination for retirees and weekenders wanting to enjoy the desert climate. In 1976 and 1977 tropical storms caused catastrophic flooding that inundated over 500 lots and destroyed a mobile home park. Bombay Beach never recovered. Over the last 30 years, the damaged structures in the flooded areas have been slowly decaying. What is left today looks like the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust. I’m only posting a few photos because this is not everybody’s cup of tea, but as is so often the case, even this apocalyptic nightmare has its own unique, terrible beauty.


Our last stop of the day was the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge located on the southeastern tip of the Salton Sea halfway between Niland and Calipatria. Founded in 1930 and renamed in 1998 in honor of then congressman Sonny Bono (of Sonny & Cher fame), it is situated along the Pacific Flyway and provides a sanctuary for migratory birds. We took a leisurely walk to Rock Hill, a volcanic promontory providing panoramic views of the Salton Sea, looking at the many birds along the shoreline and collecting pieces of obsidian that is abundant here.

Nesting birds

The Rock Hill area is a hotbed of geothermal activity and several power plants harness the power of the earth to produce electricity. It was a strange sight seeing these steam plumes rise out of nowhere and hearing noise that sounded very much like traffic from a busy freeway.

One of several geothermal plants

That concluded our third day in the desert. One more day left—tomorrow we’re heading to Palm Desert to visit The Living Desert, a botanical garden/zoo dedicated to preserving desert flora and fauna, not only from the Colorado Desert but also from other desert ecosystems.

Road to Nowhere and Everywhere

All posts about our trip:

Day 1  •   Day 2  •   Day 3  •   Day 4  •   Day 5

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Desert trip—day 2: Joshua Tree National Park

Day 2 of our trip was spent exploring Joshua Tree National Park. Like all desert parks in the West, it is enormous—more than 1200 square miles, an area about the size of Rhode Island—although only a small part is accessible by vehicle.

While the northern section of the park, with elevations up to 5000 feet, is located in the Mojave Desert, the southern section, below 3000 feet, is located in the Colorado Desert. The vegetation changes dramatically as you drive south. While the northern part is dominated by Joshua trees (Yucca brevifolia) and Mojave yuccas (Yucca schidigera), the vegetation in the southern part is characterized by jumping cholla (Cylindropuntia bigelovii) and ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens).

Our day began with a stop at the Oasis Visitor Center a couple of miles southeast of the town of Twentynine Palms. This visitor center has a beautiful cactus garden as well a well-stocked bookstore. Behind the visitor center is the Oasis of Mara, easily spotted by the stands of California fan palms (Washingtonia filifera). An interpretive trail runs through the heart of this historic place.


Cactus garden outside the Oasis Visitor Center
Compass barrel cactus (Ferocactus cylindraceus) at
Oasis Visitor Center
110221_joshua_tree_np_opuntia_erincea yucca_schidigera
Old man prickly pear (Opuntia erinacea) and Mojave yucca
(Yucca schidigera), both native to Joshua Tree NP and found in many places in the northwestern part of the park
California fan palms (Washingtonia filifera) at the Oasis of Mara right outside the Oasis Visitor Center

After spending a good hour at the Visitor Center (and refilling our water bottles—always a good idea in the desert), we headed to Keys View, at 5185 feet the highest car-accessible point in the park. This overlook offers stunning views of the Salton Sea and the Coachella Valley, with the snow-covered peak of 11,500 foot San Gorgonio providing a stunning backdrop.

To get to Keys Valley, you first drive through the Queen Valley with its expansive Joshua tree forests and turn left onto Keys Valley Road which has even denser stands. Even if you’ve never been here before, the area may seem familiar—many car commercials have been filmed here.

Joshua trees (Yucca brevifolia) in the Queen Valley

The Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia) is the largest of the yuccas, with a height of up to 40 feet. It only grows in the Mojave Desert of southwest California, Nevada, Utah and Arizona, at elevations from 2,000 to 6,000 feet where the annual precipitation is 6 to 8 inches. The name is said to come from Mormon pioneers who, crossing the Mojave Desert on the Old Spanish Trail, named it after prophet Joshua because they felt the plants were waving them on toward the promised land.

Young Joshua tree on the left and older (branched) on the right

Joshua trees grow about 3 inches a year in the first 10 years, after that about 1.5 inches a year. While that may seem glacially slow, it is faster than other desert dwellers, like the saguaro cactus of the Sonoran Desert.

Keys View road

Joshua trees are single-trunked until they begin to flower. Experts now think that flowering occurs when the growing points are damaged by freezing. The plant’s survival response is to produce flowers (and hopefully seeds if pollination is successful). After the flowers and seeds have fallen off, branches start to develop from the same points where the flowers had been.

Keys View road from Keys View

After enjoying the view from Keys View (where we saw patches of snow on the ground) and stopping a few times to take photos, we headed to Hidden Valley, in the old days a popular hideout for cattle rustlers. This easy trail is my favorite walk in the park. It loops through a valley enclosed by stunning rock formations, very popular with mountain climbers. The vegetation is quite varied here, ranging from scrub oaks (Quercus berberidifolia) and pinyon pines (Pinus monophylla), Mojave yucca (Yucca schidigera) and Parry’s beargrass (Nolina parryii), beaver tail (Opuntia basilaris) and old man prickly pear (Opuntia erinacea), to—of course—Joshua tree.

Beaver tail prickly pear (Opuntia basilaris) at Hidden Valley
Rock formations in Hidden Valley
and mare’s tail clouds
Rock climbers
Rock formations and dead tree in Hidden Valley
Grass growing in a crack

After our walk, we had a late lunch at the Hidden Valley picnic area. It has got to be one of the most beautiful places in all of California for al fresco eating!

Hidden Valley picnic area—this could be from a car commercial!

After lunch we began to head south, leaving the Mojave Desert behind and entering the Colorado Desert. The biggest attraction in this part of the park is the Cholla Garden. The number of jumping chollas (Cylindropuntia bigelovii) here is breathtaking. Many of them already have flower buds and, according to a ranger we spoke to, will be in full bloom in three weeks (the flowers are greenish yellow). That should be a spectacular sight to see!

The stems of jumping chollas (sometimes also called “teddy-bear chollas” because they look so soft and cuddly but, of course, are anything but) detach very easily. The base of an adult plant is littered with dozens of detached segments which root very easily—in fact, this is the plant’s major form of propagation.

A word of warning: Cholla contact is painful. Since the tips are barbed, spines are very difficult to extract. Pliers are recommended, and loss of blood and flesh is virtually guaranteed. I had to stop myself more than once from getting too close to a cholla as I was photographing in the Cholla Garden!

Cholla Garden—this has got to be densest colony of jumping chollas (Cylindropuntia bigelovii) in the world
New flower buds on jumping cholla
Close-up of dramatic spination

Our stop for the night is the town of Calipatria just south of the Salton Sea. Tomorrow we’ll explore around here before heading north to Palm Desert.

All posts about our trip:

Day 1  •   Day 2  •   Day 3  •   Day 4  •   Day 5


Monday, February 21, 2011

Desert trip—day 1: Davis to 29 Palms

We left home this morning to head to Southern California for a week in the desert. When we headed out at 7 a.m., it was 32°F in Davis, and the roofs of the houses in our neighborhood were white with frost. We had planned to stop only a few times but as we got close to the Consumnes River south of Sacramento, the sun shining through the fog-shrouded oak trees was too stunning to pass up so I stopped for a few photos. Truly iconic views of the Central Valley.

Valley oaks in the morning mist south of Sacramento

In fact, at this time of year, the Central Valley is at its most beautiful. The grass is almost neon green, and on a day like today, with blue sky and puffy white clouds, everything seems larger than life. This is a long and wide valley, sparsely populated, especially on the western side, and you sometimes drive for 30 miles before you get to another town.

The Central Valley ends at Bakersfield, and we headed east through the Tehachapi Mountains where we were greeted by snow-covered hillsides. In fact, it must have snowed earlier in the morning because we saw traces of snow very close to the road. No surprise, considering the road goes up to 4000 ft.

Snow-covered hills in the Tehachapi Mountains

On the other side of the Tehachapis, the road drops pretty quickly and before you know it, you are in the Mojave Desert where Joshua Trees (Yucca brevifolia) dot the landscape. This is the western- and northernmost edge of their growing range, and they are noticeably smaller here.

23 miles to Barstow

Our destination for today was the town of Twentynine Palms just outside Joshua Tree National Park. We decided to approach it from the north through Barstow—a town many consider ugly but I have a soft spot in my heart for it—, heading south through Lucerne Valley. This part of our drive was particularly beautiful because for many miles we were the only car on this two-lane highway that wends its way through unpopulated desert.

South to Lucerne Valley
What happens when you don’t water your palm trees—or, Boulevard of Broken Dreams 2011
Joshua Trees in Yucca Valley

We arrived in Twentynine Palms at a little after 4 p.m. and checked into the Harmony Motel, a very small but cozy place that is a throwback to the classic era of the American motel. U2 stayed here while working on their album The Joshua Tree back in the 1980s. The rooms here aren’t fancy and the place isn’t the cheapest, but they have a beautiful xeric garden full of cacti, agave and desert shrubs.

Octotillo and palm tree at Harmony Motel
Part of the desert garden at Harmony Motel
Century plant (Agave americana) and jumping cholla (Cylindropuntia bigelovii)
Downtown Twentynine Palms on Sunday evening

Tomorrow we’ll spend the day in Joshua Tree National Park before heading on to the Salton Sea, a truly unique place that few people visit.

All posts about our trip:

Day 1  •   Day 2  •   Day 3  •   Day 4  •   Day 5