Searching for sunshine in the desert

A desert raven

Not everyone has the freedom to take off when they want and we were both feeling lucky as we drove south in early February to escape the predicted Oregon rains. We were heading to two of our favorite spots: Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Parks. We also discovered the Mojave Preserve, a place we've driven past many times but never ventured into. This time we did.

When we arrived at Mesquite Springs campground in Death Valley it was about 65 degrees and breezy, but the sun was shining and for the first few days we had the campground almost to ourselves. We revisited the Ubehebe crater and Scotty's castle and met our fellow campers. Ray got in a couple of rides, one with a group of scouts determined to bicycle the 50 miles to Furnace Creek.

(Click on the photos for a larger view.)

Mesquite Spring campground, Death Valley

Ubehebe crater, Death Valley

Ray joins scout troop on ride.

Furnace Creek eventually drew us too, and we camped at Texas Spring, just above the valley. This turned out to be a fortunate choice. Not because the campground was anything special—it wasn't. But we were fairly well protected from the dust that filled the valley when, twice, high winds with 60 mph gusts blew through. We watched as people left their tents in the morning only to return to a pile of torn nylon, snapped poles, and scattered belongings. We and others struggled to help, trying to tie things down or chase down ice chests, shoes, pans, and bags, but it was hopeless against those winds. The Casita stayed put, but I confess there were times when we thought we might go over.

Moonrise over Texas Spring CG.

The weather remained cooler and windier than normal during our stay in the park, which made it easier to hike but harder to ride. Despite that, Ray managed a total of seven good rides (I got one), and we hiked almost every day.

Death Valley is stark and forbidding and beautiful, and very difficult to photograph. The expanses are so great, the colors and shadows so constantly shifting, that a camera can never do it justice. Nevertheless we tried. Here are a few of my favorite places (but there are so many more!).

Utility poles march into emptiness.

Death Valley

Titus Canyon

Near Furnace Creek

Old borax works

Mosaic canyon
Artist Drive

Salt Creek walk

After three weeks in DV we needed groceries and a laundry, so we headed for Pahrump, Nevada and found an RV park filled with snowbirds. It wasn't great but it gave us a base to run errands from and in 24 hours we were ready to leave. Nevada is an endless vista of poverty juxtaposed against the cheap glitz of casinos. We were happy to leave it behind.

Nevada view.

We got to Joshua Tree on a Tuesday and had Belle campground almost to ourselves for several days. Then spring break descended and it began to fill up. That was okay, though, because our fellow campers were quiet as well as interesting—as they were throughout the journey. A surprising number of retirees (for lack of a better word) live and travel in campers and motor homes of all kinds, and they all have stories to tell—some of them quite remarkable. We had neighbors from France, Czech Republic, and Canada, and we heard lots of Japanese, German, and even Russian on the trails and in the park offices. It was fun to make that connection with the outside world, though it was frail connection at best.

Joshua Tree is lovely but, again, the wind blew almost every day, sometimes fiercely. Relaxing outside in the sun wasn't on the books, but the hiking was great and there was plenty to do. We made it to the top of Ryan's Peak (1,100-foot climb), we took the Keys ranch tour and drove the Geology Tour 4-wheel road.

Starting up Ryan Mountain.

Half way up?

View from the top.

Another hike, another photo opportunity.

Joshua Tree continues to be one of our favorite places, but after seven days we were ready for a more wilderness. We found it in Mojave Preserve, where boondocking ("dispersed camping" in park-speak) is welcomed and where the signage and organization seen in the more formal parks is less visible and intense. Mojave is incredibly diverse and we were continually surprised by the changing landscape. Here's a sample of what we saw there:

Boondocking site in north Mojave. Yes, that's snow.

Hole-in-the-wall campground

12,000 year-old petroglyphs. What do they mean?

Boondocking at Kelso dunes.

Pausing for a food bar on the dunes climb

Our heroes at the top.
"That's my point." Petanque in the desert.

We came home with over a thousand photos so narrowing it down was an imperfect exercise.  And as I said, photographs don't do justice to the desert. As for the trip, my criteria for judging has only one point. Am I ready to go home? No way.