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Black Hills a Blank Spot on Map of Imperial County

The Black Hills of Imperial County | Chris Clarke photo

It's not easy to find information on the Black Hills online. At least not for the Black Hills in the remote desert of Imperial County. Wikipedia lists four distinct mountain ranges named "Black Hills" in California alone -- one of them with two separate entries for its Kern and San Bernardino County portions. The first one that shows up in a Google search on "Black Hills California" is a small range outside Temecula in Riverside County.

Narrow your search only to cover any "Black Hills" that may be in Imperial County and you'll find a lot of information about geodes. Most of what's been written about the area online has been written by rockhounds, who've been visiting the area for about eighty years digging for geodes, agates and thunder eggs. Geodes and their kin are formed when crystals grow slowly in cavities in igneous or sedimentary rock. At the Hauser Geode Beds and other outcrops near the Black Hills, the sought-after crystalline lumps formed in volcanic bedrock laid down during the Tertiary.

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As far as other scientific disciplines are concerned, Imperial County's Black Hills might as well be on the moon. The native plant database Calflora shows no reports from the Black Hills of common desert plants like desert ironwood or Eriogonum inflatum. In fact, you can search the map database at Calflora for any observations of any plants made in the Black Hills without finding anything at all.

Likewise, a Google Scholar search on "Black Hills" "Imperial County" turns up a few references to South Dakota that also happen to mention Southern California, but no apparent references to studies of birds, reptiles, or mammals in this little outpost of Imperial County, nor of any anthropological studies despite the area's having been at the boundaries of half a dozen different tribes, and a strategic flint reserve besides.

The Black HIlls are outlined in red. Click image for full-sized version.

It's odd. A major historical corridor goes right past the little range. The Bradshaw Trail, 180 miles of dust that conveyed miners from San Bernardino to the La Paz, Arizona gold fields from 1862-1877, runs over the pass between the Hills and the Little Chuckwalla Mountains to the north. It's the oldest road in Riverside County, though it does dip into Imperial County for about ten miles just west of the Black Hills. Riverside County maintains the road for much of its remaining 65-mile length, and it's not particularly challenging driving from the Interstate to the Black Hills. Most years you could get there in a sedan, as long as you didn't care about the sedan all that much.

So why the lack of study? I don't know. It's a nice place. I spent some time there in early March in the company of a pair of the aforementioned rockhounders, and got to know it a little. I'll be going back. There are gorgeous ironwood and palo verde bosques in the arroyos leading down toward Milpitas Wash. There are tiny cacti, like these Mammillaria:

Fishhook cacti | Chris Clarke photo

and larger ones too, including some of the largest clumps of cottontop cactus (Echinocactus polycephalus) I have ever seen:

Echinocactus polycephalus with size XL hat | Chris Clarke photo

There are deer, rabbits, ground squirrels and coyotes, and an oddly sociable packrat that seemed content to settle in with us around our fire of wash driftwood. There may well be larger fauna afoot as well. A decade-old report had a puma living within earshot of the North Black Hills Geode Beds, certainly plausible given the abundance of deer.

What was not there, at least while we were, was other people. Oh, this isn't wilderness: two-ruts crisscross the millennia-old desert pavement seemingly in all directions, the land is everywhere scarred with small excavations where people have sought geodes buried in volcanic ash over the last 80 years, and mining of a more earnest type has made its mark on the land as well. There's also the Chocolate Mountains Gunnery Range to the southwest, with its occasional associated explosions and ominous warning signs. Sitting around our campfire my friends and I and the packrat watched a skein of heavy helicopters circle our valley several times, performing opaque maneuvers again and again. There is even the occasional piece of industrial society's found art:

Van with Palo Verde Mountains in background | Chris Clarke photo

But there's also silence, and solitude, and ocotillos in leaf, and phainopeplas gorging on red mistletoe berries. There are far more Costa's hummingbirds than helicopters. There is desert pavement that one of my companions -- a geologist whose thesis concerned determining the age of desert pavements -- thought might be as old as 150,000 years. Old and delicate: I slept on one of those pavements, just a tarp and pad between me and the desert, and I left scars on that ancient pavement by the mere act of sleeping.

There is evidence of human use far older than the overbearing machinery with which our age has saddled itself:

Potsherds and knapped flint | Chris Clarke photo

The gray green pieces in that image are potsherds of significant age, possibly from an old jar shaped like an olla. The reddish pieces are worked flint. Perhaps someone sat here a long time ago, knapping flakes to turn into new tools, and dropped a water jug. I imagined them cursing.

And there's wind there. The Black Hills are at the leeward end of a long valley, which channels prevailing winds between the Orocopia and Chocolate Mountains to the south and the Chuckwallas and Little Chuckwallas to the north. And since the majority of that valley is run by the Bureau of Land Management, there are wind proposals in that valley. A confusing trail of shifting projects proposed by corporations that change their names, buy each other and go under dot the valley from the Black Hills to Chuckwalla Bench, 30 miles west. Meteorological towers have appeared just west of the Black Hills. Their anemometers spin in the wind.

We know so little about the Black Hills in Imperial County. You've just read what may well be the only published description of the range's flora and fauna, sketchy as it is. California's botanists and geologists, herpetologists and archeologists don't have much time to fill in that blank. Before long the area may be full of 300-foot-tall wind turbines, destroying the Hills' natural wealth before we even find out what it is.

Chris Clarke is an environmental writer of two decades standing. Author of Walking With Zeke, he writes from Palm Springs regularly at his acclaimed blog Coyote Crossing and comments on desert issues on KCET weekly. Read his recent posts here.


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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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