Warm vibes; Southern California desert is calling!

Death Valley, Joshua Tree and Anza Borrego offer pandemic options

With the current explosion of nationwide COVID-19 cases, many California counties pushed back into the “purple, widespread outbreak” category, the holidays and flu season upon us Dash we have even more reason to be thoughtful and stay at home. But, with vaccines in the offing, and recognizing that nearby auto travel is one of the safer “outing activities” consider a trip to the nearby southern California desert.

Take advantage of the winter and early spring to visit several of California’s more scenic and les- frequently visited destinations, the desert oases of Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Parks and Anza Borrego State Park.

Death Valley wildflower bloom, February, a few years ago.

All three are within about a 250 mile loop and are perfect for winter journeys to explore spectacular scenery, exotic wildlife and most intriguing winter and spring flora, topped by gorgeous wild flower blooms.

Just getting there is a scenic smorgasbord. Take California Highway 88 east, then follow Highway 395 south to reach Death Valley, a seven hour drive from San Joaquin county. Your tour will take you past intriguing towns like Bridgeport, Lee Vining, Mammoth Lakes, Bishop and Lone Pine, offering a number of inexpensive motels and bed-and-breakfasts. A 13 mile detour off the highway will take you to Bodie, perhaps California’s most well-preserved gold rush town, past Mono Lake with it strange and otherworldly Tufa towers, the June Lake Loop and Mammoth Lakes area and the World War II internment camp of Manzanar, where thousands of Japanese citizens were sadly detained.

The eerie tufa columns rise out of Mono Lake at sunrise; one of the many amazing attractions heading down the Eastern Sierra on Hwy. 395.

If you are a camper, just west of Lone Pine is the Alabama Hills area, scene of numerous Hollywood western movies. It’s Bureau of Land Management land with plenty of primitive camping sites, offering a nights free lodging. Located in the eastern foothills of the Sierra with Mount Whitney looming in the background, you’re bound for some cold nights.

At Lone Pine, take Highway 136, then Highway 190 to Death Valley, passing through the northwest portion of the park and into Panamint Springs, at sea level elevation. From there, it’s a steady descent into the valley, where you’ll ultimately reach 282 feet below sea level at Bad Water Basin.

Author and spouse Susan at Badwater Basin, 282 feet below sea level.

The valley got its name during the 1849 California gold rush, what an immigrant wagon train cut across the arid valley, suffering a fatality, as miners looked back one noted “goodbye, Death Valley“ – the name stuck.

As you tour the park watch for desert tortoise, road runners, hummingbirds and, high on the rocky craigs, big horn sheep. The valley was home to native peoples thousands of years ago, then by immigrants brought in by the gold rush. A second influx came in 1873 when silver was discovered near the town of Panamint Springs, which swelled to 5000 residents. Silver was soon tapped out, though “white gold” was soon discovered, borax. Stop at the Harmony Borax Works, to see the remains of the refinery and a huge 20 mule-team wagon which operated in the 1880s.

Harmony Borax Works tanker, wagons, for transporting borax to the railhead over 100 miles away from Death Valley (water to sate the thirst of 20 mules).

At the Keane Wonder Mine you’ll find the remains of a gold mine that boomed from 1907 to 1912, producing well over $1 million. In 1904, gold was discovered just east of the park leading to the final true American gold rush. Rhyolite, on the park’s eastern edge, is one of the more interesting ghost towns in the west and worth the side-trip. 

Near the park’s top point of interest, Bad Water Basin, is nearby Golden Canyon, just a short hike off Highway 190. Trek the canyon in late afternoon when setting sun makes for spectacular colors; just south is Natural Bridge, again just off the main road and another wonder worth exploring. The Mesquite Flat Sand-dunes offer wonderful photo-taking in the early morning or late afternoon.

If you’re looking for wildflower blooms, keep your eye on the Park’s website. Dramatic blooms happen, generally a few weeks after winter rains, which can come anywhere between December through late March. Factors include rainfall, temperature, topography and elevation: see desertusa.com for best timing and locations to find often stunning blooms of poppies, verbena, evening primrose, phacelia, mimulus, encelia, desert star, blazing star, desert gold and species of cacti (found well above the valley floor).

More Death Valley wildflowers.

Death Valley offers a number of campgrounds, many of them first come first serve and in-park lodging at several locations.

Joshua Tree National Park lies about 200 miles south of Death Valley. Enter the park from the north side, adjacent to Twentynine Palms (offering motels, retail). The park’s nearly 800,000 acres are at the confluence of three of California’s ecosystems, and provide a number of camping options. More rain falls on the higher, northern part of the park, where the Mojave Desert prevails – the habitat of the park’s namesake Joshua Trees.

Huge Joshua Tree, near Hidden Valley in Joshua Tree National Park.

As one moves south, steadily dropping in elevation, the Colorado desert prevails, with 18’ tall, spindly Ocotillo plants, Brittlebush, Smoketree, Mojave yucca and the strange Cholla cactus – some of the strangest of creations.

Anza Borrego State Park, southeast of Palm Springs, is larger than the other 259 California State Parks combined. The huge park is namesake of Spanish explorer Juan Bautista De Anza and the Spanish word borrego, for bighorn sheep. Ringed by mountains and sand dunes, and, depending upon sparse rainfall, diverse wildflowers, exotic palm groves and a cacti prosper. Sharp eyes can spot the elusive bighorn sheep, Roadrunners, kit foxes, mule deer, chuckwallas, iguanas and rattlesnakes that make their home in the park.

Palm Canyon Oasis, with native California Fan Palms, Anza Borrego State Park.

For more information: Anza Borrego State Park, parks.ca.gov/; Death Valley National Park , nps.gov/deva; Joshua Tree National Park, www.nps.gov/jotr.

Contact Tim at tviall@msn.com, follow at recordnet.com/travelblog. Happy travels in your world!

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