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Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Sand In My Shoes: The Other Mojave

An adventurous trek to the desert leaves crowded cities behind and gives you a chance to capture unique photographs of an arid landscape

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Cleanser Mine, El Paso Mountains, Calif.

Encompassing some 25,000 square miles of real estate in southeastern California and southern Nevada is the great Mojave Desert. It generally gets an average of less than 10 inches of rainfall a year and lies from 282 feet below sea level to nearly 12,000 feet in elevation. Temperatures can range from below 0º F to over 130º F. It's a land of extremes. While there are modern cities within the Mojave Desert, like Las Vegas, it's the wild countryside, ghost towns, abandoned mines and the unique flora and fauna that draw many people to explore the wide-open spaces. For me, it's a place where I can get away from the 20,000,000 other people who live in Southern California—where there's enough peace and quiet to actually hear your ears ringing from the absence of sound.

Besides famous places like Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Park, there are also hundreds of thousands of acres of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land within the Mojave. BLM land is subject to rules of behavior within its boundaries, but they're less restrictive than national parks (see the "BLM Land" sidebar). It's possible to set up camp in just about any place you like. Old mining trails and microwave-tower maintenance roads can be used to access beautiful and remote areas. One such place is near the quaint old railroad station town of Amboy, Calif.

Amboy is one of the oldest recorded townships in California, founded in 1858. It was a heavily utilized stopover and rest site for old Route 66 in the early 20th century and still has a chloride mining industry just outside of town. As with many of these old desert communities, there's a long and colorful history associated with the unusual folks who settled here. At one point, the population numbered over 700.

Flowering dune primrose, Mojave Road, Mojave Desert, Calif.; Greasewoods and sand, Mojave Road, Cady Mountains, Calif.; Desert tarantula scampering across rocks, Panamint Mountains, Calif.

Today, there are only several people living here, and the only travelers who come are either lost or those who purposely made the trek to see it or the moderately famous Amboy Crater. The 1,500-foot-diameter black volcanic cinder cone juts out from the surrounding desert. It was active a mere 10,000 years ago, only an eye blink in Earth time. Hiking here gives one the feeling of walking on another planet.

Just a few miles to the east is an access road that serves a microwave communications antenna complex in the Bristol Mountains. We got lucky when we arrived in our Jeeps® as the entrance gate was unlocked, so up the winding trail we went. At the top, near 4,000 feet, sat the actual microwave antennas with a handful of workmen performing maintenance. They said it was fine to visit as long as we left before they were done. The views were spectacular, with a cool breeze blowing across the crest. You could see for over 100 miles in any direction with little evidence of man-made structures. It had been awhile since I had breathed such clean air.


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