Road report: California desert to slickrock country

I left off our travelogue in the Mojave Desert of southeastern California, specifically, Ridgecrest, which is neither on a ridge or a crest–but I digress. We reached home yesterday evening (Saturday), so I’m overdue for highlights from the 1,200 miles we covered in four days…


Wednesday we headed north on US 395, climbing out of the Mojave Desert with its Joshua trees and creosote bush into the Owens Valley, the fault valley that lies east of the Sierra Nevada. It’s a spectacular place, with the highest part of the Sierras, including 14,505-foot-high Mt. Whitney, the tallest peak in the lower 48 states, rising out of the stark valley floor.

In our younger and crazier days, Richard and I climbed Mt. Whitney at just this time of year, leaving the trailhead on a balmy September day and returning in a snowstorm that closed the route for the season. This time, we just drove by the wall of white granite Sierra peaks, stopping to honor two of the darker stories in the valley’s history: Manzanar and the Owens River water grab.

The photo above is a guard tower from Manzanar, one of ten “relocation camps” established for Japanese-Americans during World War II, home to some 10,000 forcibly uprooted US citizens and their families. It’s now a National Historic Site, a poignant and beautiful place complete with reconstructed barracks and guard buildings rising from the sagebrush, and an interpretive center in the former community gym.


The camp was named Manzanar–“Apple Orchards” in Spanish for ghost town it displaced, an oasis of orchards until one of the West’s most infamous water deals: a century ago, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power diverted the entire flow of the Owens River into an aqueduct more than 400 miles long to supply the city. (The orchards themselves displaced a community of Owens Valley Paiute Indians.) After decades of lawsuits, some water has been returned to the river and the valley, sprouting the miraculous green fringe of willow and tule rushes in the photo above.


From Bishop, we turned north and east on US 6 to cross the empty-of-people expanses of the basin and range country of Nevada. Traveling east-west across Nevada is like slow surfing: climb up and over the narrow spine of one wave-like mountain range, drop down and cross the adjacent basin, then climb up and over the next wave of mountains… Each range is different in shape, form, and color. (The range in the photo below, striped in chocolate brown, strawberry pink, and vanilla, looked like an enormous pile of melting spumoni ice cream!) In nearly 300 road-miles, we passed less than two dozen vehicles.


We stayed that night in Ely, and then the next morning, aimed east on US 50, headed for Great Basin National Park, an island-in-the-sky mountain range with snow-dusted peaks and subalpine forests rising out of the desert. On the way we drove through a valley studded with small lakes ringed by tule rushes and full of migrating ducks, set in a plain of naturally bonsai sagebrush whose twisting branches were dotted with the most gorgeous orange lichen aptly named firedot lichen, according to botanist John Pearson.

We turned off US 50 at Great Basin, and traded high-speed two-lane for high-elevation scenery, winding our way up and up and up and up the scenic drive to Wheeler Peak.


The twisting road took us up through pinon-juniper woodlands, into a dwarf forest of twisting old mountain mahogany as tall as small trees with waist-thick trunks, and into ancient bristlecone forests at treeline. (That’s Richard in the mountain mahogany forest below, posing next to trees whose wood is colored like tropical mahogany and is so dense it doesn’t float.) Another place more than worth the visit; we were interested to learn Great Basin National Park has an artist-in-residence program…


We wound our way back down from the heights, and then zipped east on US 50 across the desert in western Utah, before climbing up and over the southern Wasatch Front Range, where canyon maples blazed in brilliant scarlet patches on the mountainsides.

Those splotches of color reminded us that it was the season beginning what I regard as the contemplative half of the year, when life slows down for winter. So in that spirit, we slowed our pell-mell homeward rush and decided to head for Moab, Utah, for the night, instead of pushing on into Colorado.

We stopped to admire the stark and colorful rise of the San Rafael Swell, a fold in the level layers of sedimentary rocks that make up the Colorado Plateau. Then we aimed south to Moab, as the last light tinted the sky over the desert… (Tomorrow: Moab to home, taking a days drive in two days to think about what we’ve learned from nearly 4,000 miles on the road–and to admire miles of golden aspens.)