Monday, August 17, 2009

The Road Less Traveled: Day 3 Salton Sea +

Since we had such fun exploring Joshua Tree by back road, we decided to finish up our short vacation with another road trip, this time visiting the Salton Sea and the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

On our way out of town, we stopped at the Oasis Date Garden for a date shake and souvenirs -- two date palm embroidered place mats.

State highway 111 runs through downtown Palm Springs and continues nearly to the Mexican border. On our first day trip to Joshua Tree, we had followed 111 to Mecca, just far enough to catch a small two lane road that cut through an area known as Box Canyon. This is the only road from Salton Sea to Interstate 10. Highway 111 cuts a north/south path from Interstate 10 to Interstate 8. (Odd numbered highways run north and south, the evens run east and west.)

Several years back my wife and I had visited the state park on the north shore of the Salton Sea. We were not overly impressed, but we were back for more. They have a small museum and displays. The rangers were nice. However, the Salton Sea stinks. In that regard it shares many of the same characteristics of the Great Salt Lake in Utah. That lake stinks too, and the resorts are nearly empty.

The heavy salt content contributes to this smell, I'm sure. Despite the smell and the heat, I had seen on the map that 111 hugs the shoreline, and I hoped for some pretty views. I was not disappointed. It was deceptively pretty. It was also nearly abandoned. The lake was empty: no ski boats, no fishing boats, no people -- just a salty haze and some sea birds.

Actually there were a lot of sea birds, pelicans mostly. They were huge. We stopped at one camping facility that was empty. We ventured to the lake's shore. I knew that the lake has occasional algae blooms that suffocate the fish. Although the shore line was ringed with dead tiny mollusks (by the truck load) there were no fresh dead fish. All the dead fish on the shore were dried up and picked clean. Lovely little arches of dried skin and bone. (I did not take a picture.)

This Monday day trip was somewhat warm, low 100s, so I left a car door open while we explored the shore. I could see the car, and no one was around. After snapping a few pictures of the birds, we moved back to the car, where I discovered my mistake: the car was full of flies.

In addition to the birds, there are flocks of flies at the Salton Sea. I now had a dozen or so who had taken up residence in my shade-providing car. Darn. We shooed several out, but they took turns hiding, and like warriors in a kung foo movie, they attacked us one at a time over the course of the next two hours. Eventually, we dispatched them out of open windows. Note to self: keep the car doors closed while exploring. (Joshua Tree had a bee problem. The Salton Sea had a fly problem. Both were easy enough to avoid.)

We followed 111 until I found country road that crossed the farm land of that area which eventually hooked up to the two lane road that leads to the Anza-Borrego State Park from the south. (The town of Westmorland was a pleasant looking town, just north of Interstate 8. Plaster City seemed to consist of a dry-wall plant in the middle of nowhere.) Somewhere in the area there was a fire, which was providing a bit of shade as we pulled into a Border Patrol check station just before the park entrance.

We were expecting park rangers, but instead we were by three young men in uniforms who rushed out of their trailer as our car approached. We asked them about the fire and they looked dumbfoundedly up at the sky. Fire?

My mistake was thinking they were aware of anything but their duty. I think I startled them with my question, because the young soldier abruptly returned to his duty... "What is your country of origin?"

I suspected that this was a Border Patrol type check point, though there were no signs, just some cones, a trailer, three soldiers, my speed-way blue Toyota Corrola sport, my wife and I, a blazing sun, and an awkward question.

"Ahhh, United States of America."

Evidently that was the right answer, and soldier Ortiz waved us through. My guess is that they only see a dozen cars a day. I understand that soldiering can be dangerous, but I'm hoping that these young men could see quite easily that I was not smuggling any illegal aliens. (I knew just enough to shut up and keep moving. The soldiers had rushed out of their trailer like they were ready for battle. The only thing missing was drawn guns.)

We drove slowly north through the park. We were surprised that it looked a lot like Joshua Tree, minus the Joshua trees. We saw similar plants, though the Ocotillos had tiny green leaves which indicated that they had gotten some rain recently.

The road climbed to about 4,000 feet through nearly uninhabited, barren terrain. Amazingly, there were some settlements scattered along the two lane blacktop road. Who would live here and why? It baffled me. (And why would anyone come out here to camp? Quality alone time?)

Eventually, we drove east out of the mountains on Highway 78 and caught Highway 86 which runs along the opposite side of the Salton Sea from our morning drive. We rejoined the road-more-travelled back (Interstate 10)into Indio where we unloaded ourselves back at our base "camp."

All-in-all it was a fun day. I drove on roads I'd never traveled, saw sights I'd never seen, and smelled smells I hope to avoid in the future. (I have mental pictures to go with places on a map, and I have a new hankering to visit more of the California state parks.)

Just a note: A prettier drive in this area, is the Pines to Palms loop from Palm Springs to Idylwild (Highway 74 to 243 to 10 to 111.) I've done that scenic drive before, and I'll do it again, another time.

The road less traveled also gave me an appreciation for my own back yard.

Enjoy the pictures!

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Road Less Traveled... Joshua Tree - Day 2

Day Two: On the second day of our vacation, we visited the western end of Joshua Tree National Park. The western end of Joshua Tree is more widely visited. It has more campsites, more varied terrain, and it is cooler due to its altitude.

Although we visited in the middle of summer, the temperature was still relatively mild: low 90's. Compared to the 110 plus of last summer, this was mild.

The previous night I had studied the park maps, hard-copy and online. As we entered the park, I asked the ranger about the dirt roads in the park. (We had driven a bit on one the previous day, and found it suitable for a regular passenger car.) The ranger informed me that the "gray" roads on the map were maintained. The "dotted" roads on the map indicated four-wheel vehicles were suggested.

I've learned to listen to informed suggestions, so we stuck to the regular roads, plus the maintained dirt roads. Traveling to Joshua Tree in the summer put us in a minority. Visiting the dirt roads put us on the road less traveled. It was a mini-adventure.

The west end of the park is peppered with the Joshua trees which give the park its name. It also is home to many rock formations which provide opportunities for exploring, climbing, and jaw dropping views.

We stopped mid-day for a picnic lunch, we took two short hikes, and we avoided the bees that were enjoying their peak summer activities. In addition to the geography and plant life, we saw lizards and mini-chipmunks.

One little fellow was wrestling a banana peel to his hole. I think he had nabbed the peel out of the trash can. (He was faster than my camera.)

At the end of one dead-end dirt road, I strolled off to take a picture of some small cactus that had caught my wife's eye. Near a bush, I saw what appeared to be a large egg. As I moved closer, I discovered... a golf ball! (Removing objects from the park is illegal, but I confiscated the ball as a memento. How it got there, I have no idea, but I did know that it was non-native.)

I hope you enjoy the pictures, and I hope your are inspired to explore some of the back roads in your own backyard. Adventure on!