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Sunday, 24 November 2013

A Week in California's Mojave Desert

“I think you are another of these desert-loving English: Doughty, Stanhope, Gordon of Khartoum. No Arab loves the desert. We love water and green trees; there is nothing in the desert. No man needs nothing.”

King Feisal to T.E. Lawrence from “Lawrence of Arabia”                                                                                               

Joshua trees and vintage neon signs at Bungalow in the Boulders
I’m not sure where my fascination with “the desert” came from. Perhaps it was from my favorite film of all time; David Lean’s classic “Lawrence of Arabia” or from my readings (as a boy) of Roy Chapman Andrew’s fossil hunting adventures in the Gobi. Whatever it was that sparked my imagination, that’s all it has remained (imaginings) until quite recently. In the last five years however, I have taken three trips to the deserts of the Southwest United States.
I just returned from a November trip to California’s Mojave and Sonoran Deserts. It isn’t my first trip to the American Southwest – I have taken two previous drives down to the Four Corners area; where the borders of Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado draw an imaginary cross in the desert of the Colorado Plateau. This time I flew to Palm Springs and drove to the home we rented in the town of Joshua Tree, CA. on the northwest edge of Joshua Tree National Park.

One thing I noticed immediately is that though (superficially) the landscape is similar to that of the Four Corners area, it has a very different look to it. To me, the overall vistas weren’t as “pretty” as that of Utah or Arizona. It seemed that there were less intact cliffs, pinnacles and arches and more broken, square shaped boulders everywhere and crumbling mountains. I’m sure some of you are thinking that this isn’t a very scientific analysis, but I am a layman and have often found that beauty lies in science. I discovered that the reason for such a difference in appearance can be found in the Geology of the landscape.
Monzogranite cliff
The area around the Colorado Plateau is made up of sedimentary rock, such as the red Jurassic sandstones of Arches National Park and Monument Valley. Our Navajo guide, David at Monument Valley told us that it was impossible to take a “bad” picture there and he was right! The rock of Joshua Tree is igneous monzogranite which was horizontally layered with gneiss. Most of the softer gneiss has eroded away and along with vertical joints in the monzogranite it has left multitude square blocks everywhere. They are scattered on the ground, in piles or as part of weathered cliffs.

So perhaps I didn’t find the overall scenery from the top of a mountain as pleasing as Utah, but it was when I explored at a smaller scale that I came to appreciate amazing diversity of life and countless microenvironments of Southeast California.
Joshua tree "forest"

Silver cholla, California juniper and pinion.

I guess the first thing that drew my attention to the region was the Joshua trees themselves (which are actually a species of yucca). They say if you see a Joshua tree, you are in the Mojave desert (above 3000 feet). Below 3000 feet is the Sonoran desert. I have to admit, that when I arrived it felt like I was in a completely alien environment. None of the surrounding plants and landscape appeared familiar to me at all. Far from being disconcerting, I found this to be exhilarating. We got a guide and set about attempting to identify the various species of cactus, yucca and cholla. There was cotton top/barrel, Englemann’s hedgehog, Mojave prickly pear and beavertail varieties of cactus, Nolina and Mojave yucca, pencil, silver and perhaps cane cholla (pronounced choy-ya). On the last day we found a “garden” of teddy-bear cholla in the sonaran region of the National Park. There were some pinion and California juniper that looked suspiciously akin to the Utah juniper we saw when we were in Utah…

Teddy bear cholla

We hadn’t been at our rustic Route 66-themed “Bungalow in the Boulders” for two minutes when I had my initial first sighting of a new species of bird – the black-throated sparrow. I am not much of an “official” bird watcher. I don’t usually write things down or make life lists, but I am pleased when I see a new species and I usually remember where I was when I saw it. I do almost always carry the old binoculars that my parents presented to me on my tenth birthday.
Here are some of the “new” bird species I saw; Phainopepla, a greater roadrunner, Scott’s oriole, cactus wren, rock wren, Anna’s hummingbird, turtle doves, northern mocking bird, verdin and fan-tailed grackle. We were excited when Gambel’s Quail appeared at the feeders along with what we decided (after much debate) were California thrashers. I had been hoping for some desert woodpeckers and on my last day, a ladder backed woodpecker appeared at the bungalow pecking on the sides of Joshua Trees. I noticed that the map in the Peterson’s Guide showed the (familiar to me) downy woodpecker habitat interlocks almost perfectly with the ladder backed, with no overlap. One leaves off where the other begins…

There were familiar birds as well; red tailed hawks, coopers and/or sharp shinned hawks, house wrens(at an oasis), mourning doves, Oregon juncos (near a dam in the park) and an apparently slate colored one(at the feeders), spotted towhee, scrub jays, house finches and the inevitable house sparrows (maybe 6). The most plentiful song bird was one of my favorites – the white-crowned sparrow. There were thousands in the region – flocks in the park and many at the feeders.
Most of the trip was spent in the Joshua Tree region, where nature walks and hikes were the main activity. We took two interesting hikes up the wash behind the house and into a canyon which took us higher into the mountains of the park. We stopped once to investigate the “J T and S” railway museum and took a ride on one of the scale model steam trains. The second trip into the canyon took us up the right-hand fork to a nice picnic spot beneath a large pinion pine. On our way back we ran into a tarantula right next to where we had lunch that afternoon.

My first oasis - 49 Palms
One of the highlights of our trip was a 3 mile hike to my first oasis – 49 palms canyon. It was how I had imagined it and I found myself surrounded by lush fan leafed palm trees in an almost totally arid region of Sonoran desert south of 29 Palms, CA.
A day-long road trip took us north to Mojave National Preserve, where the Mojave and Sonoran deserts meet the desert of the Great Basin (which continues into Nevada). We visited the historic Union Pacific train station in Kelso, CA and the nearby Kelso sand dunes. Along part of our journey that day we were driving America’s historic Route 66.

Ten days isn’t very long, but I feel that I got a taste of California’s Mojave region. There certainly was plenty more to see and do in this large area, but on November 17 we drove to Palm Springs International Airport, tearfully bade farewell to the palm trees and hopped onto a plane back to snowy Calgary. One thing I have learned is that there is much more than nothing in the desert.
Me, in happier times!


  1. It sounds like you had a super trip. I also like desert. I like the spring blooms. it's funny to see you wearing shorts in the picture.

  2. If you ever came on holidays with me, that's all you would ever see me wearing. Especially in the desert!