One of the fascinating things I have learned living out west is that no two deserts are truly the same. Case in point, Mojave National Preserve! Located throughout southern California and Nevada, the Mojave Desert is considered “high desert”, or desert between 2,000 and 4,000 ft. Endemic to the area, Joshua Trees are one of many different types of flora and fauna that are native to the area. Distinct from the Sonoran Desert, the Mojave Desert is warmer in temperature – and knowing it contains Death Valley, it seems no surprise to read temps that go well and above 115 F each year! Mojave is named after the indigenous Mojave tribe, which is federally recognized as part of the Colorado River Indian Tribes. Included with Chemehuevi, Hope, and some Navajo, these tribes maintain their individual traditions, religions, and identities without outside involvement. Mojave’s host the Native American Days Fair & Expo annually in Parker, Arizona the first week of October.
I’ve lived part-time for work the past nine or so months in Mesquite, Nevada and the difference between Page, Arizona is evident during summer and winter. It gets COLD in Mesquite – not snowy, just very cold at night; and during the summer, it can get ridiculously hot for a very long period of time. Did I mention the insects? HUGE. But all of them have two things in common: picture-perfect sunsets and amazing starry nights. Do yourself a favor when visiting the Mojave Preserve take in a gorgeous sunset before finding the darkest place you can safely visit in the park after 10 p.m. and be prepared to forget how to breathe.
One of the most interesting places in Mojave National Preserve was Zzyzzx. When I asked the California State University students who work/study there at the Desert Oasis Center, they told me about Curtis Springer, a man who opened up a mining claim in the area turned millionaire. In addition to the spa (plus other luxurious amenities), he hosted a radio show. During his time owning the resort, he mailed out over four million packages for items such as “Antediluvian Herb Tea, Nerve Cell Food, and Hollywood Pep Cocktail”. Eventually, his scheme caught up to him. After serving a few months in jail, he retired to Las Vegas.
The Desert Oasis Center has year-round studies by students from Cal State. Meeting and talking with them was a treat, as was the gorgeous viewshed. Strangely, since part of the area is still within the Preserve, visitors can still drive down the road and park just outside the center to view gorgeous landscapes such as the picture shown here…but it still is a living, and working, educational program. Be aware that visitors should not be walking around the buildings in this location as students are living, working, and studying year-round.
The history of Mojave Preserve and how it came into existence goes back to the passage of the Homesteading Act in 1862. Any American (any! including women!) could earn 160 acres of land out west. To earn rights to the land, homesteaders had to complete a number of tasks: pay a small filing fee; build a house 10 ft by 10 ft or larger; clear and have under cultivation ten acres the first year, twenty the second, and forty the third; and live on the place seven months each year, for three years. Farming was hard, especially since the Mojave Desert rarely gets more than 10 inches of precipitation a year.
By the late 1800s, miner and ranchers had joined the homesteaders – and with impressive stats! By 1894, over 10,000 cattle roamed the vast, harsh Mojave Desert. From just a couple natural springs, ranchers were able to design sophisticated water distribution methods to support the cattle and life in the desert. There is still active ranching today!
Another great place to visit during your time at Mojave is the Kelso Depot. When the Union Pacific was created in 1862, it strived to reach into rich California markets in Los Angeles. The path for construction lie within the Mojave Desert – hence Kelso Depot! The first depot opened in 1905 and was soon followed by a post office. The Depot ended existence in 1962, but when plans were made to demolish the building locals organized the Kelso Depot Fund to save the building. They stopped the demolition of the building but were unable to raise the money for restoration. By 1992, the Bureau of Land Management (which already owned most of the land around the area) were able to secure the building. With the passage of the California Desert Protection Act of 1994, the Depot was transferred to the National Park Service with renovations beginning in 2002.
If you have some time, go down to the Lava tube and play around! Be careful, the tube itself is not monitored and rangers are not present, but it is an interesting part of the park you would never think to see in a desert! The road getting to the lava tube is unpaved and we definitely recommend using a high clearance vehicle for the drive. There is a short hike after the road ends to the tubes and the view along the way is amazing!
Hopefully you take some time if you are in the area and stop through Mojave National Preserve. It is an amazing part of the park service with so many different ways to experience the desert.
Welcome back! Hopefully you enjoyed reading about my trip from the north rim to the south rim – I had a great time writing about it. Especially after Clinton and I went back last weekend to visit the south rim. Looking down into the canyon and pointing out Indian Garden brought back a lot of memories. I am very happy that this hike was so successful! Here are some pictures highlighting our experience, starting from the north rim.
I know I ended a bit abruptly last post – it is a lot to re-evaluate after walking out of the canyon the next day. As a reminder, here is where we left off…
Heidie and I had spent a substantial amount of time researching and readying ourselves for this hike. Heidie already had a long history of hiking up and down the Bright Angel and South Kaibab Trails during the summer months to meet the river runners on the Colorado (specifically her husband!) I haven’t been on the Grand Canyon trails but I’ve hiked Angel’s Landing at Zion and a few 10+ miles hikes inside Glen Canyon. We already had most of our gear and spent an entire afternoon making sure it all still worked/fit/etc. We looked up the weather before we left and spent time talking with the rangers at the backcountry office to ask questions about weather, packing, food…we felt like we were really prepared!
As we huddled under a rock outcropping, stuck in “the box” and unable to backtrack to Cottonwood (it was at least three miles away at that point), we discussed quickly our emergency plan. From our research, we knew to keep our backpacks away from us, sit as low as possible, and try to keep a good distance apart. As the lightning around us increased, we felt very fortunate that we had listened and made the right decisions up to this point. We knew there was a storm, but later even the seasoned veterans we met at Phantom Ranch said that the storm we got caught in was more powerful (and later in the season) than they had seen in years previous. We were on the other side of the waterfall (in the picture above, that waterfall is blocking the trail we had just ran through when we first saw lightning only minutes before), and we were protected. We were far enough back that I was able to sit down and stretch out my legs and we still had a few feet between us and the trail.
After about 10 minutes, we saw a couple approach from the other side of the waterfall. They tested to see if they could cross and then walked down the side to cross the fast moving stream that the waterfall produced. We tried in vain to yell “stop”, and we HIGHLY recommend that you never 1. walk in a lightning storm and 2. try to cross a fast moving body of water. Regardless of your excuse, this is how people get hurt or die. In any case, the couple didn’t die…and almost walked right past us. We are not ones to preach, but we did stop them to remind them that it was lightning and to be careful. Lucky we did this, because as we talked we all heard a sound like lightning striking right next to us. It made my heart stop. The guy and I watched as a huge piece of rock dislocated from the side of the canyon wall only 50 feet away from us and fall to the ground, shattering and blocking the trail ahead. Who knows – if we hadn’t stopped them, how close would that couple have been to that rock?
The couple continued on, but Heidie and I stayed another 15 minutes and waited for the lightning to pass and the pounding rain to lessen to a constant drizzle. If I didn’t mention this already, I was SOAKED. My rain jacket only went down to my hips, and I had quick dry pants that definitely worked…if I had time for them to dry. They had dried before the storm came, but with it’s quickness and ferocity I didn’t make it far without the rain completely going through my pants. I also realized that the rain jacket I had, while reliable for many years, had finally succumbed to it’s many years of hiking, camping, and backpacking. Along the shoulder seams, it slightly leaked over time. At this point in the trip, between sweating from hiking and the slight leak in the shoulders, I was pretty wet. I had wrapped most of my camping gear and clothes in waterproof bags and/or trash bags before packing them in my backpack, so I wasn’t too worried about those items. Heidie and I started walking when we heard another sharp crack like lightning. We watched, across the now roaring stream, rocks fall from near the top of the canyon walls to our right. That hurried us up!
It was two hours later when we arrived at Phantom Ranch. We were behind by a few hours and were very tired. Because the storm did not let up as we walked, and hearing crashes of rocks in the distance, we didn’t stop. When we arrived at Phantom Ranch we stopped at the nearest table and had a wonderful talk with a hiker. Doug has been hiking north-south rim for the past five years! He walked us through the campground (we were nervous about rock fall or the water swelling around the river and wanted his recommendation) and it was really cool hearing his stories of past years. We found a nice site near the bathrooms and were able to get out of our wet clothes and set up camp. We had also already pre-ordered our dinner at the Ranch, so we headed to the tables and waited for the dinner call.
As we waited, Heidie and I assessed our situation. Frankly, we were exhausted. Because of the storm, I had stopped my regiment of eating each hour. While I had drank plenty of water, each time I tried to each a cashew or a granola bar it felt like chalk in my mouth. My anxiety was up and I tried to calm myself, but while that helped me keep going (we did try to stop, but everything was wet and there was really no areas to duck out of the rain) it didn’t help enough. I tried to eat dinner but could barely finish the stew broth and a few bites before pushing it aside. Knowing that you need lots of calories, water, and SALT, when hiking I made sure that I at least kept drinking water. We had been mixing our water bottles with a packet of electrolyte (Gatorade mostly) solution as well. Our backpacks were soaked, and while we had packed our stuff in dry bags or trash bags to keep them dry if it rained, the relentless rain for two hours had still soaked through one of my older bags. My sleeping pad was a little damp when I went to bed that night! Because we had arrived later, and the sun was already going down, we knew that we wouldn’t have the opportunity for our back packs and items to dry out. Overnight, it ended up raining…knowing this, we covered our backpacks with the poncho Heidie brought, but nothing dried overnight. Later we would be very thankful for the decision we made that night – we decided to have the mules bring up our backpacks the next day.
Having the mules bring up our backpacks did relieve our bodies of the extra weight, but it also changed our plans. We had one night at Bright Angel, and one at Indian Garden. The mules don’t ‘deliver’ your bags for you – we weighed them, put a ticket on them, and picked them up later on the top of the south rim – so that meant we wouldn’t have our sleeping bags/tent/sleeping pad to camp. We would have to wake up the next morning and get out of the canyon that day, instead of knowing we had two days to split up the hike. While it did dramatically change our plans, I think it was the best decision. We had a great night listening to the stream next to the camp ground, and the stars were absolutely gorgeous. We had amazing talks with a father and his 12 year old son from Iowa and other hikers who had either started at the north rim like us, or had started at the south rim. Most south rim starters were walking back up the south rim and we not necessarily doing the “rim-to-rim”. It was pretty cool being a part of a small back packing/hiking community at Phantom Ranch and I definitely recommend trying to stay a night there!
We woke up early for breakfast, and grabbed our to-go lunch before starting up the south rim. We had tagged our backpacks early (by 6:30!). Heidie’s backpack included a fold-out day pack, which we had removed from her larger pack to take with us out of the canyon. We had water, rain jackets, and food. We started on a pretty good pace through the canyon until we got to the first set of switch backs. One of the best reasons that Heidie was such a good hiking partner was her ability to motivate me when I felt like I had hit a low point – halfway up the switch backs I started to feel the strain from not eating as much as I had wanted the day before. I’d like to say I motivated her as well during our trip at certain points, but I specifically remember this point of the trip as needing some assistance!
Indian Garden had a helicopter pad, a park ranger, and the first stop for the mules that carry humans. It was very strange being in “civilization”, but we found a picnic table and spread out our to-go lunch. I was able to eat a lot more than I thought I originally would, and drank a good amount of electrolytes. After living and working in the desert for the past three years I’ve learned that my intake of salt vs. water is sometimes very low. Recognizing that, I made sure to try to overcome that during the hike. It was a good thing that I did! As we continued our hike to our next destination – Three Mile House – I had a new hiking plan. At each switch back, I would wait for Heidie to catch up. By this time, Heidie had the back pack and the hiking poles, and her steady walk allowed me to catch my breath and continue up ahead to the next switch back. It was a good method as I tried to also catch glimpses of the gorgeous area. I have to be honest – after Indian Garden I didn’t take as many pictures as I could have, mostly because of a snafu from earlier before our hike. In a bit of confusion in the morning, I had packed my battery pack…but not the actual charger cord. I had taken lots of pictures on the north rim, but since my battery was dying I didn’t want to continue to drain it – especially because our plans had changed and I needed to call Clinton.
When we finally made it to Three Mile House, we talked with a nice couple that had started from the south rim and were turning around towards the top. We ended up walking past each other a few times on our way up – it was very interesting seeing the same people as we got closer and closer to the top. At Three Mile House, I was able to call Clinton and tell him that he needed to pick us up that day instead of the next day. We had already discussed a few scenarios and since this was one that we knew could possibly happen, it was no problem for him to leave and meet up with us.
Heidie and I made it to 1.5 Mile House and rested before heading up, and I will admit at this time I had again stopped eating. I know my body pretty well, and could feel that I had been drinking water to the point where it wasn’t beneficial, so I decided to switch to gatorade packets. While I think I made good decisions regarding stopping, drinking, and trying to eat…it was a struggle. I had to stop frequently. Everything everyone writes about those last miles is so true! We had a few hikers who were “local” who encouraged us when the realized we were near completing a rim-to-rim, and I when we called Clinton about .5 miles from the top and he said he was heading down to meet us…that was all the motivation I needed! I was going to walk out of the canyon myself – DAMMIT! And I sure did. When I got to the top, I looked to my right and then to my left and there was Clinton. I gave him a big hug and was so happy that we had made it out of the canyon successfully. What a day! We made it out later than we thought because of the pace we ended up going, but all in all it was such a great feeling getting out of the canyon and checking off such a high bucket list item.
We changed and got our backpacks from the mules, and Clinton drove us home. While we didn’t get the exact trip that we had originally planned for, it was still such an amazing experience. I could not have imagined that heading into the canyon would be so breathtaking and yet so demanding. Heidie and I were forced to make a few fateful decisions along the way, but looking back I think we made the best decision we could have made for the time, location, and knowledge. I was able to use all my experience and ‘training’ to make the best of each bad moment. Overall, I love that we had such a great and original experience in the canyon. Between camping for two nights on the freezing north rim, to experiencing a lightening storm before camping at Bright Angel campground…I sometimes can’t believe I actually accomplished the hike. I hope you all enjoyed reading about my crazy experience!