Ten Days in the Desert

Desert Road Trip Map

We arrived home last night from what I can only describe as an epic desert road trip. I had planned to start doing posts on specific places and plants today, but decided that one more overall post is in order. I saw, learned, and experienced so much in those ten days… my head is absolutely reeling. While I may have tweeted and posted a lot of cellphone pics over the course of the trip, what I have shared so far is only a speck of sand within a vast desert of STUFF. Wow, wow, WOW. What a place!

saguaro and turkey vulture desert

This trip was really great, but also, in hindsight, a little bit crazy. Not including local trips within specific areas, we drove approximately 1000+ miles in a heatwave. Everyone we met responded to our route and agenda in exactly the same way. “You’re doing all of that now? In the summertime?” The bad part about going in the summer is that it was unbelievably hot. Temperatures rarely dipped below 100°F and maxed out at around 116°F. There were moments when I could not believe the heat I was experiencing. One woman told me she had experienced 125°F and I am gonna go out on a limb and say that that must feel like your organs are being cooked. At the same time it meant that we were sometimes nearly alone inside the National Parks and on the backroads we travelled. And our hotel rates were the cheapest I have seen since the early 90s! Unfortunately, it also meant that many roadside rest stops were closed so we had to make sure that we always had an abundance of water, food, and a full tank of gas just in case.

saguaro cactus

As a survival and sanity preserving measure we did end up having to make a few adjustments to scale the trip back slightly from our original agenda as we went. For example, we knew within hours of the first day that we would not be making it to New Mexico and that we would not even consider the possibility further. By the afternoon of the second day I had already suggested that we stay in Joshua Tree a third night and that was before we even got there. That turned out to be a very good decision. I loved it there! While in Joshua Tree, we elected not to drive north to the Mojave National Preserve as we had originally intended, but instead spent the day driving the loop inside Joshua Tree National Park. We stopped to take photos so often that it took us hours longer than we anticipated and would have slowed us down considerably the next day when we drove out through the park and down to the Salton Sea. We eventually arrived in Tucson, Arizona exhausted and feeling out of sorts so we decided to skip Saguaro National Park entirely, a choice that is somewhat ironic given that learning about the park years back was the sole reason we opted to go into Arizona at all! That said, I don’t regret the decision. We drove backroads and smaller country highways the entire trip save for one stretch where the I-8 was literally the only way forward, so we saw a heck of a lot of saguaros (Carnegiea gigantea). Not going was worth the small amount of downtime.

Joshua Tree National Park
One of the last photos I took in Joshua Tree National Park. Even with the wide lens this picture does not capture the vast expansiveness of this particular scene. The hills in the background were very far away. It makes you feel very small, which is not a bad thing.

The Salton Sea
Once through Joshua Tree we drove through a box canyon and came upon The Salton Sea, a saline lake that was accidentally created in 1905 when irrigation canals flooded and carried the Colorado River into a dry lake bed in the middle of the desert. Algae caused by fertilizer runoff as well as increasing salinity is killing off the fish. The whole area was steeped in a pervasive sadness, reeking of dead fish and factory farming. While it was amazing to see so many interesting birds, the area is destitute, with many abandoned parks and communities. Some people have expressed feeling unsafe or even attacked by locals while exploring the area (can you blame them when so many are going there to gawk at their misfortune?) and while we did not experience anything like that, we did feel uncomfortable as “tourists” in a place that is on many levels dying.

algodones dunes
After a stop-over in Brawley, California, we headed through the Algodones Dunes. Talk about feeling small. This place was humbling. I walked only a few feet from the road without a bottle of water in tow and immediately felt panicky. That tiny speck in the scene is Davin. I had a bottle of water waiting for him when he got back.

Cholla Fruit
Cholla cactus fruit.

A jackrabbit. We saw a lot of these on the trip. This one was photographed in Tucson. I can only imagine how much work goes into keeping these critters off of backyard food crops.

And in case you’re curious, the song we played most often on the trip: “Child in Time” by Deep Purple. That song perfectly captured the mood in an array of desert environments. Driving alone through the desert is definitely where you want to break out your vintage heavy metal.

Gayla Trail
Gayla is a writer, photographer, and former graphic designer with a background in the Fine Arts, cultural criticism, and ecology. She is the author, photographer, and designer of best-selling books on gardening, cooking, and preserving.

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12 thoughts on “Ten Days in the Desert

  1. An epic journey, indeed, especially in the summer! Come again sometime during the winter–you will love it! Next time, visit Apache Junction at the foot of the Superstition Mountain Wilderness Area (where I live). The traffic will be worse, but the weather glorious. Good pics, by the way.

  2. I recommend the Apache Trail only up to the first lake. On the way, stop in at Tortilla Flat. That is an easy drive. Take the Dolly Steamboat tour on Canyon Lake. The rest of the trail is very rough, expert 4-wheel drive territory. I wouldn’t be brave enough to do it.

    By the way, by coming in the summer, you missed our growing season! April is a good time for wildflowers and cactus blooms.

  3. Now that you’ve experienced the desert heat, go to https://myspace.com/ragpickers and listen to “Ladder Straight to Hell” about illegal immigrants crossing the desert during the summer monsoon season (starting soon). The dark-haired guy is my husband, Bob Gontarz.

  4. Wow, what an experience! I can only imagine the heat. Algodones Dunes looks awesome, we are already planning another future trip down there. Love that last photo. We have snowshoe hares up here, look similar but different species. They don’t eat my garden crops. In early spring they eat the crocus flowers, since nothing else is growing, later they eat the clover I planted in leui of a lawn.

  5. I loved following you guys’ adventures via Instagram–we’re planning a similar trip for next spring or fall (with a stopover in Zion as the focus). I’m super jazzed after seeing all your photos!

  6. I enjoyed watching your journey via instagram. Exploring the desert is really like being in another world, I can’t wait to get back to it. Did you capture shots of many charming, old, vintage-filled hotels/motels along the way? Gotta check those out!

  7. To see the world in a grain of sand, and to see heaven in a wild flower, hold infinity in the palm of your hands, and eternity in an hour. – William Blake


  8. Gorgeous photos! Thanks for taking us along with you. I agree with Van, would be great to see old hotels and stores.

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