I've been out of commission and mostly couch-bound with a leg injury since November, but by February it was finally healed enough to hike again, so Claudia and I hit the road to spend some time in the Mojave and Sonoran deserts! Although the weather was still a bit on the chilly side in February, it was still super refreshing to get back out into the great wide open for two weeks of camping, backpacking, and exploring craggy desert mountain ranges. Our road trip took us through the deserts along the lower Colorado River, first through the Mojave Desert in California, then down into the western Sonoran Desert in far southeast California and west Arizona.
Remote Wanderings in the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts
After a whirlwind of packing the truck and speeding west out of Colorado, we were excited to step out into the desert for our first night of camping in the Virgin River Gorge, right on the threshold of the Mojave Desert. It always takes me a few days to decompress from daily work habits and stresses, and this is as good a place as any to start doing that!
Our first destination was a small but jagged mountain range south of Las Vegas called Castle Peaks, right next to (but not within) the Castle Mountains National Monument. This area is surprisingly high at around 5,000 foot elevation, which partly explained the frigid breeze. Also quite surprisingly given its beauty and proximity to Vegas, it seems like nobody visits this area except miners commuting to the Hart Mine, and it was difficult to find even a single place to pull off the road for a decent campsite.
The Castle Mountains area is remarkable for its vast forests of Joshua trees; I've read that the forests here are denser than even in Joshua Tree National Park! These spiky, gangly trees look like something from a Dr. Seuss book, which of course makes them pretty fun to photograph.
The jagged profile of Castle Peaks is quite striking from the road, but I was curious how they'd look up close, so on our second day here we packed our backpacks and hiked towards the peaks.
By the time we reached a "cirque" valley ringed by volcanic spires and full of Joshua trees, we were pretty much in awe of this place! We found a pleasant spot to pitch our tent between a few Joshua trees, then spent the rest of the afternoon and evening relaxing, soaking in the scenery, and wandering around admiring the Joshuas.
Our next stop further south was an obscure and remote little mountain range called the Stepladder Mountains. I had seen and photographed these mountains (along with the Castle Peaks far in the distance) with a telephoto lens from a high perch in the Turtle Mountains on our previous Mojave trip, and since then I've studied this photo above and triangulated on a map to determine what and where these mountains are. This is often how it goes... one trip leads to ideas for a next trip, and then the next...
A tediously long, bumpy, and slow access road led us to the boundary of the Stepladder Mountains Wilderness, where we camped in the truck for a night and prepared for our next backpack trek - a two-day circumnavigation of the rugged core of these peaks.
As with most Mojave backpack trips, we had to haul all our water. Though nobody enjoys carrying the extra weight, one advantage is being able to camp wherever we want!
After hiking down along the east side of the range, crossing over a pass, then working our way back up along western side, we decided to camp on this high ridge with a nice overlook of the Stepladders and the remote Ward Valley to the west. It seemed like a fun idea until we were eating dinner after sunset and saw flashes of lightning in a large cloud bank across the valley! Having been well traumatized already by lightning in Colorado, we knew that if we stayed on this high ridge we'd be paranoid all night and would surely wake up at any passing airplane noise, fearful of thunder and lightning. So despite our already-long day of hiking, after dinner we repacked the tent, donned our headlamps, and moved our camp down to the lowest part of the valley. The lightning never did come our way, but at least we slept soundly!
In February the days are only 11 hours long around here, and with the chilly temps once the sun goes down there isn't much else to do but crawl into the sleeping bag and go to bed. We became well accustomed to sleeping for 10 hours every night! One bonus is that it made it super easy to wake up for sunrise every morning.
Back to the truck after our Stepladder explorations, we camped another night closer towards the Chemehuevi Mountains. With a forecast of cold temps, high winds, and blowing dust, we then decided to drive south to Yuma, Arizona for a couple down days in town.
Indian Pass Wilderness & Picacho Peak
After waiting out the worst of the winds in Yuma, we headed back out to the nearby Indian Pass Wilderness on the California side of the Colorado River, where we backpacked into an inspiring little valley ringed by sharp rock spires. As far as I know this region is technically the western Sonoran Desert, though in this area it's hard for me to tell any difference between the Mojave and Sonoran ecosystems as there aren't many plants or cacti at all around here to help identify where the one desert transitions to the next.
Late that night while sleeping in our tent down by this wash, we were woken suddenly by the hideous braying of a wild burro, who was extremely upset by the presence of our tent. For about 15 minutes it ran back and forth making a furious racket and bluff-charging our tent. Fortunately it eventually gave up and wandered off, so we didn't get trampled to death after all. Tent: 1, Burro: 0.
Next up, we drove through Picacho State Recreation Area along the Colorado River, then camped near the base of Picacho Peak, a prominent vertical tower visible from Yuma.
For the "grand finale" of our desert tour, we returned to the Kofa Mountains in western Arizona, which we first visited five years ago. There's something magical about this place; whether it's the sweeping vistas to the west, the vertical rock towers, the dense fields of cholla, the variety of plants and cacti, or some special combination of all of that and more.
We camped one night in the truck at the base of the mountains, then the next day we shouldered our backpacks again for the fourth and final overnight backpack hike of our trip - to a high camp in the middle of the range with impressive views of the surrounding landscape.
Thick clouds to the west had me thinking I'd be skunked on the sunset photos, but the sun popped out after all, which had me running around frantically trying to photograph three different views at once. This was one of those moments when I wish I had a couple clones of myself to shoot everything at once!
On our way back down the next morning, we hiked over a pass and scared the crap out of a bighorn sheep, which bolted downhill at top speed. Strangely, though, there was another bighorn just laying there on the hillside. It wasn't moving at all, we couldn't see it breathing, and it wasn't responding to our voices. We both actually thought maybe it was dead! For a while we didn't know what to do... we thought we'd just try to just hike by and avoid it as best we could - when all of the sudden it jumped up, obviously super startled at our presence. Poor guy was just deep in a morning nap! It huffed at us, annoyed but also seemingly unsure of what to do, and possibly still a bit dazed from just waking up from its deep slumber. We slowly backed up away the way we came to try to assure it that we weren't threatening, then eventually it scampered uphill to a vantage point where it could keep a wary eye on us. Very peculiar encounter... luckily for us it didn't try to charge us, and luckily for it we weren't mountain lions sneaking up!
At this point the weather forecasts were saying that a powerful winter storm with Arctic cold air, high winds, and snow was going to slam the entire southwest US for the next five days or so. We checked all possibilities for any place we might be able go with decent weather, but to no avail. So even though we had appetites for more desert time, we high tailed it back to Colorado ahead of the storm. On the way through Phoenix they even had winter storm warnings on the highway signs there, reassuring our decision to retreat!