Right about the time Punxsutawney Phil’s handlers make their annual announcement about the fate of winter, this hiker gets itchy for some warm-weather trekking somewhere south and west. Not New Hampshire or Massachusetts, mind you, but rather sunny Southern California with its wealth of national parks and lands. In late winter and early spring there you’re sure to find blue skies, mild temperatures, endless views, colorful wildflowers and blooming cactus. Here are a few of my favorite hiking getaways in that region.
Death Valley is the largest national park in the continental United States, encompassing 3.4 million acres of desert and mountain terrain. Death Valley itself is a 156-mile trough of Mojave and Great Basin desert terrain sandwiched between two fault block mountain ranges, the Amargosa and the Panamints. Ranging in elevation from 282 feet below sea level at Badwater to 11,049 feet on Telescope Peak, the park is one of great contrasts, from badlands and canyons to sand dunes and high peaks.
Maintained trails may be few, but hiking and backpacking opportunities are practically endless in this wide open country. Hike the loop around the volcanic Ubehebe and Little Hebe craters or march over the sand dunes at Mesquite Flat. Stroll across the salt flats at Badwater or tackle the narrow slots and visit an old mine in Gower Gulch. Climb into the high country on 9,064-foot Wildrose Peak, or if the trail is clear of snow, to a grand view atop Telescope Peak.
This 794,000-acre park includes three great valleys and portions of six distinct mountain ranges. The park’s southern and western regions are part of the Colorado Desert, an extension of the vast Sonoran Desert. The southern boundary of the Mojave Desert stretches across the northern reaches of the park and is home to the namesake Joshua Tree, the strangely twisted and spiky member of the Agave family. The wild landscape includes fantastic rock piles, spires and pinnacles produced by eons of erosion and weathering of the volcanic monzogranite.
Hikers will enjoy rambling on the Boy Scout Trail, an 8-miler through the Wonderland of Rocks, as well as the 1.5-mile nature loop to Barker Dam, an old water tank built by early ranchers. Climb 1.5 miles to the top of 5,461-foot Ryan Mountain for expansive views of the Queen, Lost Horse and Pleasant valleys or amble over to the watered grove of fan palms at 49 Palms Oasis.
Three of the four major American deserts – the Mojave, Great Basin and Sonoran – are represented amid the 1.6 million acres of the Mojave Preserve. Elevations range from 800 feet near Baker to nearly 8,000 feet on the summit of Clark Mountain. In between is an incredibly diverse land of canyons, mountains, mesas, sand dunes, cinder cones and lava flows, as well as the world’s largest and densest Joshua Tree forest and an amazing variety of desert plants and wildlife.
Typical for such open country, established trails are few, but that hardly limits walking possibilities. The 3-mile Teutonia Peak Trail leads though the Joshua trees to panoramic views of Cima Dome and Clark Mountain. An 8-mile trail connects the Mid Hills with Hole-in-the-Wall through a maze of cactus-filled washes. Barber Peak Trail circumnavigates the mountain past Opalite Cliffs and through Banshee Canyon. A stop at the Kelso Depot Visitor Center, a historic railroad station on the Union Pacific line, is a must.
Las Vegas is a great jumping-off point to these parks. Reasonable flights and inexpensive first and last night’s lodging are usually possible if you travel to and from the city midweek. Also within striking distance of Vegas are Grand Canyon, Bryce and Zion national parks, never mind several national forests and Bureau of Land Management lands.
All of the aforementioned parks offer drive-in campgrounds, designated backcountry campsites and dispersed camping. See www.nps.gov.
Carey Kish of Bowdoin is an avid hiker and skier. Find him on Facebook and Twitter @CareyKish