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With the unique challenges we’ve been facing over the course of the last year, our focus has turned to the outdoors more than ever. Our desert regions have provided not only plenty of fresh air and sunshine — but also a respite from the crowds.
However, despite being located within just a couple hours’ drive for most residents of SoCal, the desert may not seem that accessible. It can be downright intimidating.
Even if you consider yourself wild-wise, the desert presents a particular set of challenges — from temperature extremes and unpredictable weather events to deadly dryness.
So, whether you’re hiking, biking, camping or even just taking a scenic drive, here’s a guide to enjoying the Mojave, Colorado and Sonoran deserts without getting lost, sick or otherwise stuck.
1. Do a Health Check
First of all, make sure you and everyone in your party is well enough to travel — and I don’t just mean testing negative for COVID-19. In the desert, you can encounter long stretches without any services at all, which could mean no doctors, pharmacies, hospitals or any healthcare of any sort for hours. If you feel sick at all — no matter what kind of sick it is — stay home, and don’t go to the desert.
Once you’re in the desert, be aware of the warning signs and symptoms of heat-related illness, like heat exhaustion or heat stroke. In triple-digit temperatures, with little shade to be found, your health can go south quickly — but if you catch it early enough and seek cooler temperatures and hydration, getting overheated doesn’t have to turn into an emergency. If possible, schedule your activity before 10 a.m. or after 4 p.m. to avoid the worst heat of the day.
You are also at risk of altitude sickness, a potentially life-threatening condition, anywhere at or above 8,000 feet elevation. While most of our desert lands are at a relatively low elevation (or even below sea level, hence the heat), the highest point in Death Valley National Park's Telescope Peak tops out at more than 11,000 feet above sea level. Avoid dramatic changes in elevation, stay hydrated and seek lower ground if you start to get a headache, feel dizzy or become confused or nauseous.
2. Keep Your Eyes on the Skies (And the Temps)
Now, you probably expect the desert to be hot — or, in the case of Death Valley, record-breakingly hot. But that’s not just in the summer. Even in the winter, temperatures in desert areas like Anza-Borrego Desert State Park can peak in the mid-80s to even the upper 90s. Just to keep you guessing, some desert area temperatures can also dip below freezing at night — and yes, some desert areas like Joshua Tree National Park and the Eastern Sierra-facing entrances to Death Valley National Park can even get snowed in. So, it’s important to check both the high and low temperature forecasts for whichever desert you plan to visit (and plan accordingly, including bringing plenty of layers). You can also find historical temperature trends for most desert areas online.
Other natural elements of concern include high winds (which can blow sand in low desert areas like Palm Springs), wildfire (and its impact on air quality) and even fog. Perhaps the biggest weather danger that can occur in the desert is rainfall. BLM California advises that “rain upstream can cause flooding even though it is not raining in the immediate area.” According to the Anza-Borrego Natural History Association, rainfall “can turn a dry area into a violent river of water” — and as a result, you could literally drown in the desert. Or at the very least, your car could become submerged or get swept away. The torrent from flash flooding can be that strong.
If it starts to rain (likely during the late summer monsoon season of July through September), the water will seek the lowest point available and will travel along washes and dry rivers (like in Afton Canyon, a.k.a. "The Grand Canyon of the Mojave" near Barstow) and across dips in the road. If you encounter any of these land features — especially in slot canyons (like Titus Canyon in Death Valley National Park, Rainbow Basin Natural Area near Barstow, and those of Mecca Hills Wilderness between Palm Springs and the Salton Sea) — be prepared to move to higher ground at the slightest suggestion of precipitation. If you reach a flooded area, follow the official advice from the National Weather Service and “Turn Around, Don’t Drown.”
3. Don’t Let the Water Run Dry
While the wet stuff falling from the sky can be your enemy in the desert, drinking water can be your best friend — and a lifesaver. Staying hydrated can help stave off or even reverse heat-related illnesses and altitude sickness (as in #1 above). But the problem is, too many desert visitors underestimate the amount of water they actually need to drink.
Death Valley National Park recommends you drink at least one gallon of water per day — or, according to California State Parks Safety Tips, four quarts every two hours, especially while hiking. That’s just to replace the loss of water from sweating in the heat, so you’ll need even more if you’re particularly active and breaking even more of a sweat. To be safe, try bringing twice as much water as you think you’ll need. If you have extra, you can always use it to help cool you off (by wetting a towel or just dumping it over your head).
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You should also plan ahead in case you don’t bring enough filtered or bottled water and you need more. Plan to filter and disinfect water from natural sources to make it portable, keeping in mind any water quality alerts published by the governing public lands agency. One of the dangers of desert travel is that natural water sources are hard — if not impossible — to come by.
It’s important to balance your fluid levels with your electrolyte levels. When you sweat, you don’t just lose water — you can also become depleted of salt and other essential minerals. The Mayo Clinic and Johns Hopkins both recommend drinking only as much water as you need and incorporating some electrolyte-containing sports drinks into your beverage routine. The Joshua Tree National Park Association also recommends replenishing your sodium by munching on some salty snacks.
4. Choose a Desert-Tough Vehicle (With the Right Equipment)
While you may plan to explore the desert on foot (by hiking, rockclimbing, etc.), at some point you’re probably going to be in a vehicle — to get to the desert itself, or to a trailhead or some other point of interest. And driving the desert landscape can be a little rough on city cars, especially those with low clearance. Those unfamiliar with the ins and outs of desert driving might choose to take a guided tour in a concessionaire’s vehicle — like Red Jeep Tours in Palm Springs and Joshua Tree, or California Overland in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park — or rent a desert-friendly one onsite, like at Farabee’s Jeep Rentals, which operates out of The Inn at Death Valley (formerly known as Furnace Creek Inn).
Whether you drive your own car or get a rental (make sure you don’t waive the insurance coverage), you’ve got to make sure you’re able to get yourself out if you get stuck — say, in deep sand, a pile of rocks or some combination thereof. Your car’s own floor mats will provide some desperately needed traction in a pinch, but it’s a good idea to come prepared with something a little more substantial — like wood planks or emergency car treads/traction mats. Remember that you’ll probably be very far from the nearest tow service; and you may not have the cell signal to even call for help. Carry a fully inflated spare tire and tire changing tools — because even if you don’t know how to use them, a ranger or passerby might.
No matter what kind of car you’re driving, if it breaks down, STAY WITH IT, advises the Anza-Borrego Foundation. From the air, a plane can spot a vehicle much more easily than it can spot a person — especially if you put the hood up for extra visibility (and extra shade).
5. Fill ’Er Up
The desert is probably the last place you want to run out of gas. Many of the gas stations you’ll find out there are derelict and dried up, the relics of bygone towns that have long ceased providing any “service.” A good practice is to get gas pretty much whenever you have the opportunity, at least to just top off your tank.
Fortunately, a few gas stations are also California desert destinations — and worth a detour. For instance, make a pit stop at Roy’s in Amboy on your way to Joshua Tree, the Mojave National Preserve or anywhere along Route 66. If you’re in the Mojave Preserve, stop by the Cima Mining Company, a Shell station on Cima Road in Nipton for animatronic miner statues and a fountain urinal in the men’s room. And if you’re on the 15 Freeway between Barstow and Vegas, you must swing by Eddie World in Yermo for pizza, ice cream, sushi, gifts, gas and Tesla charging stations.
It’s also a good opportunity to empty your body’s tank (with access to proper plumbing) and stock up on bottled water, snacks and any other last-minute supplies.
6. Find Your Way (And Help Yourself Be Found)
Here’s where the desert gets really tricky — because any navigation you’ll get from your car’s built-in system, a freestanding device (like a Garmin) or even Google Maps is likely not reliable. They’ll send you down impassible unpaved roads, ATV trails, irrigation canals and private driveways — and they’ll be so insistent, you’ll think you’ve got no choice but to follow their directions! And since cell phone signals often don’t work in these remote areas (not even in national parks), you can’t call anyone for directions if you get lost. A handheld hiker’s GPS might be a better option to help keep you from getting irretrievably lost — especially since it relies on satellites instead of cell towers to get its signals — but don’t count on it being 100% accurate either.
It may sound crazy, but in the 21st century, a paper map (including USGS topographic maps) and/or a physical travel guide is king when it comes to navigating your way through the desert. If there is one, talk to a ranger from the local park authority to get a park brochure — and sometimes they’ll even draw you a map, since they know the terrain better than anybody. And it can’t hurt to carry a compass (a real one, and not the one on your phone).
And even if you know where you’re going, sometimes you need to call for help — in which case a satellite phone and/or personal locator beacon can sure come in handy. Make sure everything is fully charged and that you’re carrying backup batteries (also fully charged) and extra chargers. For extra safety, everyone in your group should ideally carry a safety whistle. More suggestions can be found on the Ten Essentials list, courtesy of the National Park Service.
7. Anticipate the Path Ahead (And Don’t Blaze Your Own Trail)
Desert roads may have more hazards than you’re used to — and their conditions can turn on a dime. You can check current highway conditions via the Caltrans website, or you can monitor local traffic and closures on the Death Valley NP site, the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park site, the Joshua Tree NP site, the Mojave National Preserve site and through other local authorities. You can also ask a ranger upon arrival, but there’s not always a ranger on hand — or an open ranger station to visit.
These alerts are crucial to stay updated on roads that are four-wheel drive recommended or required, seasonal closures, construction, and/or rock falls, landslides, and washed-out roads and trails. But what they might not warn you about can be just as treacherous — including ungraded dirt roads, crumbling asphalt, sand drifts and mud (like at Harper Dry Lake near Barstow in the Mojave Desert). Where you’re driving in the desert might also be missing common design features you’ve come to expect, like hard road shoulders, guardrails and so on.
More people die from single-car accidents in Death Valley (and perhaps other deserts, too) than by heat or dehydration — and that comes from driving too fast and not shifting to a lower gear on steep downhill grades. Not to mention those who drive off designated roads — which doesn’t just create long-lasting scars in the fragile terrain. It can get you stuck! (That goes for hiking, too, which is why it’s important not to trespass in areas like mine tunnels or shafts.)
8. Dodge Death-By-Wildlife
Observing wildlife is one of the ways to fully immerse yourself in SoCal’s desert regions — but for your own safety (and theirs), it’s important to peacefully coexist without getting too close. For instance, it’s recommended that you keep a minimum 75 feet from bighorn sheep (a.k.a. borrego), which can be commonly seen in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, Joshua Tree and the Mojave Preserve. Where there are bighorn sheep (and deer), there are also mountain lions — which you should definitely keep a good distance from (no matter how excited you may be to see one in the flesh). And don’t feed the coyotes, as they can carry rabies.
Watch out for scorpions, black widow spiders, rattlesnakes (like the Mojave Desert sidewinders in Death Valley and the Mojave green in Joshua Tree) and other venomous snakes. Both snakes and humans are most active outdoors between April and October — a.k.a. “rattlesnake season.” But all year long, you can avoid snakebites (and nibbles from other critters) by wearing long pants and sturdy boots, not sitting on a rock before checking it first, and watching where you put your hands, especially in and around crevices. Most snakes will avoid peak afternoon heat and overnight lows, instead coming out at dawn and again at twilight.
There’s one wildlife hazard in the desert that’s potentially deadly, if you don’t know the types of areas to avoid — and that’s the respiratory illness known as Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome. Rodents carry it — but even with no rats or mice in sight, you can still catch the virus. Their nests, traces of their urine, and their piles of poop can transmit it to humans — but you can steer clear of it by staying out of abandoned or unused cabins and staying away from campsites where you’ve found rodent droppings. If you don’t have an alternate place to stay, you can disinfect any potential sites of contamination — as long as you don’t kick up any dry dust (like by sweeping) that you might inhale.