Monday, May 18, 2009

The High Desert

I decided, out of the blue on Thursday, that we needed to go camping Saturday night. I knew we were really close to the true desert, but we've never had a reason to venture out there. It was the perfect opportunity to check out the Mohave, which starts just over the mountains from us and runs all the way through Las Vegas and into a bit of Utah and Arizona:

Kimberly had a big important test Saturday morning, which is why our trip was one night only. She got back mid-afternoon and we headed out.

It's about an hour and a half from our door to Saddleback Butte State Park. The drive was absolutely stunning. From the valley, we climbed about 2,400 ft. through a pass between the Sierra Pelona and San Gabriel mountains. We saw all manner of hills, mountains, impressive mansions precariously perched, canyons, desert, and the crazy and unique rock formations that define the southwestern US. On the other side of the pass we emerged to find a vast expanse of flat arid land: the frontier of the Mohave.

After a nice trip through the desert, we arrived at the park. The primitive campground had 50 first come, first served sites. We didn't know what to expect so there was a bit of risk in driving all the way out there. To our surprise, when we showed up there was the camp manager and two other groups. No crowds to be found. We set up our site and headed for town to find dinner.

Kimberly and her tumbleweed. Our site, under a lean-to, is in the background.

The nearby town was an odd place called Lake Los Angeles (we were still in L.A. county, though this was about as remote in spirit as one could get from a bustling metropolis). Apparently, the town was once known as Los Angeles Buttes, but was rebranded in the housing speculation explosion of the 1960s. The natural lake, almost dried up and forgotten, was artificially filled, and brochures were printed with happy people playing water sports. After the initial sale, the artifical lake was left to evaporate.

Lake Los Angeles, from the top of Saddleback Butte, with the San Gabriel Mountains to the rear.

The town itself was small, quiet, and showed signs of economic depression. The dry lake, it seems, is a fitting metaphor for the state of things in general for Lake Los Angeles. We found a pizza place and ordered one to go.

It was a great evening, with a nice little campfire, surprisingly great pizza, games, and warm, fresh desert air. After the sun set we actually watched as the stars appeared in the sky, one by one, until they were too many to count.

I'm pretty good at building a fire in the damp woods of New Hampshire, but ANYONE could start a fire here. I probably could have just taken a match to our biggest log.

A bit of the dazzling desert sunset, captured by Kimberly.

The next morning we had a rude awakening as the sun came up, shining directly into our tent window, heating it to an uncomfortable degree by 7:30AM. Our only other goal for the trip was to summit Saddleback Butte, the park's namesake.

Saddleback Butte trailhead

The butte stands out from its surroundings, a hard rock holdout from the erosion and flooding that long ago formed the flat desert floor. The trail headed straight from the campground, across an open mile of desert, slowly climbing to the base of the hill, and then abruptly up the side.

By the time we reached the saddle between the two peaks, Kimberly was spent from a combination of heat and not having breakfast. I scrambled the last half mile or so to one of the summit to snap some pictures. It was amazing how fast things heated up as the sun climbed ever higher.

From one peak of Saddleback Butte, looking at the other

One more interesting feature of our trip: Joshua Trees. Relatives of agave plants (the plants whose nectar is the main ingredient of tequila), Joshua trees are found only in the Mohave, and actually help to define the limits of the desert. They are a very whimsical spectacle. I concluded that unlike most plants, for instance stately and uniform trees, these guys just grow and grow without a plan.

One of the largest of the countless Joshua trees we saw in the Mohave.

It was so great to get back out camping again. Now that we have a taste I'm sure we'll get around to it more often from now on. California offers a year-round climate for sleeping outdoors, and limitless locales to find adventures as unique as this one.

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