Southern Desert

WHUFU Trip: So Cal Spring 2013 | 0

Monday (Feb 25) 

primo spot at the Lakeside Walmart

Ahhh. back to my routine!  This was a perfect night for staying at Walmart.  I had stuff to do until well after sunset, so really all I needed out of my overnight spot was a place to park and go to sleep.  AllStays (my camping app) said that all Walmarts in SD discourage camping except this one at the far eastern edge of the city, off I-8 in Lakeside. By happy coincidence this is the direction I want to go, so I drove 40 miles worth of freeways, and by the time I found it I was pretty much ready to crash. All good, because getting to Walmart early means you just get to spend more time sitting in your van in the parking lot.

This really was a very pleasant Walmart.  Yelp turned up two likely breakfast places, but in the comments, one was run by a racist, so I backtracked about 6 miles to option two, Janet’s Cafe. It was entirely adequate, nice even, so I was ready to head for the desert!

Laguna Mountains

I-8 to Sunrise Highway and Mount Laguna.  To my surprise, there was a fair amount of snow up here.  The storm we experienced Tuesday night, that roiled the surf and stirred up the kelp at Dana Point seems to have dumped six or eight inches of new snow up here at 4500′.  It was in the 50’s today but it still gets down to freezing at night, here in late February about 60 miles from the Mexican border.

Banner Grade from Julian overlook, Salton Sea in thedistance

Towards the north end of the mountains are the spectacular views to the east that one would expect from a road called Sunrise Highway.  It was cool to stand at the overlook in the snow, looking over 60 or so miles of the Anzo Borrego Desert, at the very road I’ll be driving in an hour or so.

My road runs into the eastern end of Julian, where it turns east, thus missing the town.  I’ve always liked Julian, heck everybody likes Julian.  It has apple orchards!  It’s one of the few places to get fall colors in all of San Diego County. It’s a very nice little town.  But I’ve already eaten and I don’t wish to browse antique stores today (or any day! :), so I will just take the right, down the Banner Grade, from the Laguna Mountains to the low desert.

After the grade and 30 miles of the desert State Park, Route 79 takes me through the middle of Ocotillo Wells OHV Area. This is miles of churned-up, abused desert on the left and normal looking desert behind a fence on the right.  Eventually 79 is forced to take a turn south because the Salton Sea is dead ahead.  I wished to check out the Sonny Bono Wildlife Refuge as long as I am circling the bottom of the Sea, but saw no sign for it. I followed 79 a little longer than I had to, because GasBuddy showed less expensive diesel in Brawley.  I got my diesel an had a little restorative stop at the McD’s across the street – fish sando and hot fudge sundae (my default McD’s order) – and a little air conditioning and wifi and not staring at the road for a few minutes – ahhh.

Salton Sea State Recreation Area:  

On the east side of the lake, making for spectacular sunsets over the water every night.

Very quiet and beautiful and delightful.

The big north-south highway and train tracks are pretty close and carry big noisy trucks and trains respectively.

pretty clear light

Then it was a straight shot up Route 111 to the Salton Sea SRA, which turned out to be spectacular this particular day.  I spent the last hour or so of my daylight looking at the birds and the water and the reflection of the sun on the water, and exploring the old marina. I am not a big fan of the glare from direct sunlight, so I particularly enjoyed that 40 minutes of excellent daylight you get when the sun disappears behind the mountains to the west but is still above the horizon line.  In the desert this is my absolute favorite time.  Ya don’t get that at the ocean :)


Slept well-ish.  Something about the place and the time got me into that b-man party mode, so I partied a little too hard at the ole van.  Not waaay too hard I am happy to say, but a little.  So I fell asleep (passed out) at ten pm and woke up at two am.  So I trundled over to the bathroom – there is running water at the Sonny Bono SRA! – under the awesome 2 am waning gibbous moon, brushed my teeth, trundled back, went back to sleep and slept very well till 8:30-ish.  … upon reflection, my new theory of poor sleeping is the tilt of the van. We were quite level at Campland and San Elijo, not so much at the Walmart and Salton.  I will monitor this in the future.

end of train

I’m sure the perfect weather had a lot to do with it, but gosh, what a great place!  It seemed to be populated with like-minded people, everybody quiet and minding their own business … oh!  I get it.  There were no kids!  And nobody under 45 come to think of it :)  Anyway, you could appreciate the desolate quiet beauty … when there wasn’t an 80 car freight train rumbling 1/4 mile away or a clot of semis on Route 111, which is even closer than the railway.  Also, for some reason (the railroad?  the highway?) I got really good phone reception there – which with my Personal Hotspot meant good wifi at camp!

Salton Sea is smelly

Visit at the ranger station, learn some Salton Sea lore from the movie. I finally tear myself away from that perfect setting about 12:30.  Head over the romantic sounding Box Canyon Road through the mildly dramatic Chocolate Mountains. I should add for your orientation, that last night and right now I am about 30 or so miles south and east of the Coachella music festival site.  The Salton Sea is in the same giant valley as Coachella, and Palm Springs and Palm Desert and Desert Hot Springs,.  It is a really big valley.

Breakfast at Chiciara Summit.  It turns out that the entire panoply of services at that lonely freeway interchange was founded by a single family and owned by them for 100 years! It’s a little enclave onto itself.  The story and the place probably have a seamy underside of exploitation, but I really enjoyed my brief visit.  Probably because it was the only breakfast place in 80 miles!

So I am well-fed and caffienated when I get to Joshua Tree,  Because I spent so much of this excellent day at Salton Sea there is not a lot of daylight left.  So I powered past the popular Joshua Tree stops.  No Cholla Gardens, no Ocotillo Grove, been there, done that.  I always really, really enjoy this drive from I-10 to the heart of Joshua Tree, stops or no stops.

Jumbo Rocks Campground:  

Sites sprinkled around giant rocks. Nice little 1.7 mile loop trail. Beautiful, restful place, even when crowded.


This time I am pre-bloom, so the park and the campground are pretty deserted and quiet and winter rates are still in effect.

Camp at Jumbo Rocks again!  I tricked myself, I mis-remembered the name of my last campground here, so I went to Jumbo thinking it was new.  No problem though, it was very uncrowded this time so I had my pick of spots, and generally made it work even better this time.  Great spot, #17.  I did the sunset, pre-moonrise hike around the Skull Rock circuit.  We are past full moon, so the is the first night with that awkward ever-lengthening gap between the sun setting and the moon rising.  I took my flashlight and even had to use it twice!


my campsite at Jumbo Rocks

It’s such a different scene here a month before flower season!  Quiet and deserted, just the way I like it!  Again today, I don’t stop for many of the sites. I need my coffee and I’ve seen the sites, so I just head on to the town of Joshua Tree.

I am really attracted to the town of Joshua Tree.  I think because it’s so darned cute coming in from the backside, from the park.  I think that just blasting down Twentynine Palms Highway it probably doesn’t look like much. Also, there’s the Visitors Center/wifi cafe combo in town.  I like the cafe, I like the wifi, and I like the info center being right there – a win win win!

I got diesel at a nasty little gas station right outside the big Marine installation right north of Twentynine Palms.  In the middle of the frigging Mojave desert and no windshield squeegees??!!!  Really?  You suck.

Then it’s me and my bug-encrusted windshield doing the the quite long and very desolate run up to Tecopa.  This is the third time I’ve done it, and each time it kinda wears me out, but the stuff at both ends is cool, and there’s never any traffic (except crossing I-15 at Baker) and the vastness is pretty damn vast.  This is a coolish and extremely clear day, so it’s pretty sweet except for the glare of the sun.  One of those “makes you realize how small you are in the scheme of things” kind of experiences.

front arcade at Kelso Station
worker's dorm room at Kelso Station

Twentynine Palms, due east, then due north on Amboy Road, over the pass and through the huge playa with the giant chlorine mine, over the next pass to crossing under I-40 into the Mojave National Preserve, which is really desolate.  I stop again at the train station at Kelso because it’s so cool and I love it.  This used to be a big deal train station in World War 2.  The building is preserved beautifully, and I find it very restful and pleasant to hang here for a while.  Then onward through the north half of the preserve to cross I-15 at Baker.   I get a gyro and greek salad from that divey Greek place in Baker.  I kind of don’t like the place, but it’s such a novelty to have a big, booming Greek place in the middle of the Mojave desert that I always fall for it, and hate myself later.  Well … it wasn’t so bad this time, I ordered to go, and ordered relatively healthy for a change.  The salad and gyro were pretty good, but $12.75.

Tecopa Hot Springs:  

Odd place. Separate bathhouses for men and women, nudity required. Camping is available in glorified parking lot across the road overlooking the settlement pond.

No potable water, must drive a couple of miles for that. Really interesting salt flats area at the edge of town. In the last couple of years a pair of restaurants have opened. And breweries!


visited on the long way back from San Diego on the way to Arizona. Very hot, very windy tonight. Day was awful, night is wonderful. Almost nobody here.

It’s another hour of really interesting desert terrain to Tecopa.  Tecopa is at the edge of a kind of natural sump area, alkaline flats and contrary to the usual flat playa look, alkaline hills. The check-in person at the hot springs is a little off from normal, as they usually are here.  It’s always a different person, but they’re always …. odd.  The people out here are true desert rats.  Not quite creepy, but strange.

I’m here early in the day.  The odd fellow did set me up with the best site in the big blank parking lot that passes for an RV park here.  I demolished the Greek salad and took a little nap.  Then I assembled my bike (for the one and only time on this trip) and had a delightful little cruise down the road to soak up the sunset in the alkaline flats.

Then a long soak with the guys and I’m ready for bed.