6 Surprising Things Found In The California Desert

California is known for sun and sand — and not just along its coastline. There are three major deserts here: the Mojave, the Colorado and the Great Basin, with a number of protected parks and preserves that offer everything from hiking, climbing and camping (or driving around in an air-conditioned vehicle).

The GuideAdvisor crew have spent a lot of time in California and explored the deserts in Death Valley, Joshua Tree, Anza Borrego and, most recently, the Coachella Valley near Palm Springs with hiking guides. It was a fascinating tour and we learned about the various flora and fauna which left us with an appreciation of just how amazing and dynamic desert environments are.

Aside from hiring a Californian guide to show you around, here are six other unique things you might not have thought of doing when visiting California’s deserts:

1. Climbing, scrambling … and highlining?

For years, climbers and scramblers have flocked to Joshua Tree National Park to tackle the numerous boulder formations dotted across its desert landscape. But the latest craze is highlining, an extreme sport born — where else? — in California. A more advanced version of slacklining, it involves walking across an inch-wide nylon line suspended high in the air, with only your arms for balance. (Tightrope walking, on the other hand, involves walking on a tight steel cable with a pole for balance; with highlining, the nylon line is hollow, stretchy and bouncy, making it much more challenging.) Head to Joshua Tree’s Hall of Horrors — named for the boulder formations that cast giant shadows resembling eerie faces — where a typical highline is about 200 feet above the ground.

2. Some deserts have water — even in Death Valley

shutterstock_death valley-sm

While one doesn’t expect to find a lot of water in the desert, Darwin Falls in Death Valley National Park (actually, a chain of waterfalls totaling 80 feet) flows year-round. And you can swim in it. Hike a mile or so up Darwin Canyon to access the lower falls and cool off in a swimming hole surrounded by ferns. You can continue on to a series of upper falls and grottos, but you’ll have to hike along several miles of old mining roads to get there — or, if you’re an experienced climber, save some time by climbing the canyon (to the left of the falls). The view is worth it.

3. Trees do grow in the desert


The Mojave Desert is synonymous with the Joshua tree. Though not technically a tree, it’s a member of the yucca family that can withstand the harsh desert climate, living up to 500 years. And it’s strangely beautiful. Some environmentalists say the Joshua tree will be wiped out over the next century, thanks to climate change — so see them now, while you can. You’ll find them, of course, in Joshua Tree National Park. Drive the back roads or explore the area on foot or by bike (such as the loop from Hidden Valley Campground). Or head to Arthur Ripley Desert Woodland State Park where you can walk among Joshua trees along a half-mile trail in Antelope Valley.

4. And flowers grow too

desert flowers

Nowhere is a flower more beautiful than in a desert landscape – it’s a burst of vibrant colour in an otherwise monotone environment. Bloom periods vary from region to region and depend on various factors such as rainfall, temperature, and wind but they can start as early as January. As you head further north or higher into the alpine, blooms will occur later. The GuideAdvisor crew got lucky and saw a very rare bloom in the Coachella Valley – and we totally would have missed it had it not been for our hiking guide who pointed it out and then explained the intricacies of how it not only survives but flourishes in the desert environment.

5. Go winter camping … without the snow


When other parts of North America are covered in snow, you can still go camping in the California desert — without your winterized sleeping bag (though the nights can still get a bit chilly in higher-altitude areas). One of the more popular sites is Borrego Palm Canyon in Anza Borrego Desert State Park; its southern latitude makes it ideal for “winter” camping. While you won’t find solitude here (there are more than 100 camping sites), you can hike into the Borrego Palm Canyon for miles. Or, head to Hole In The Wall at Mojave National Park, where you’ll camp among towering volcanic rock walls (hence, the name). There are also several sites in Joshua Tree National Park, such as the Corn Springs Campground, located in a canyon in the Chuckwalla Mountains — or, head into the Chuckwalla Valley for open-desert camping.

6. The sand dunes sing

If you’re looking for dunes, you’ll find plenty of them in the California desert. But if you want to hear them sing, head to the Kelso and Eureka Dunes in the Mojave National Preserve. This isn’t the typical squeaking sound you hear when walking on sand; the “song of the dunes” is produced by certain conditions (the grains have to contain silica, and be of a certain size and humidity) triggered by wind or walking. The result is a whistling or booming sound up to 105 decibels. But not all dunes sing — you’ll only find them in about 35 deserts around the world, such as the Booming Dunes in Africa’s Namib Desert and Mingsha Shan in Dunhuang, China.

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