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Where to Explore the Legacy of Camels in California

You might associate the image of camels trudging through the desert more with the Sahara than the Mojave, but these long-legged, cloven-hoofed mammals actually occupy a unique chapter in California history.

And while they once roamed wild, domestication put camels into service -- not only for our amusement, but also for our protection. They haven’t quite reached the agricultural level of other livestock, like cows or goats, but these former workers from the Middle East are more than just a carnival attraction or zoological oddity.

Here are the five best places to track down the rich history of camels in southern California – from the Ice Age to the Civil War – and get a glimpse into their future as a new and exotic source of nutrition.

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1. Prehistoric Camels, Death Valley National Park

Camels actually existed in what is now known as North America millions of years ago, starting in the late Pliocene period until the end of the Pleistocene. In fact, the camel family (Camelidae, which also includes llamas) actually originated here! But those animals in the genus Camelops went extinct around 11,000 years ago -- which is also when our native horses and mastodons disappeared. Fossils of them have even been found throughout southern California, such as in the area of the former Rancho La Brea (where the Tar Pits are now, and along the path of Metro’s Purple Line Extension), Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, and Death Valley. In fact, there's an area of Death Valley National Park that's so fragile, so archeologically significant, that the National Park Service has removed it from the maps and omitted it from the guides. They've filled in the roads leading to and dismantled the signs pointing to it. As it is, the aridity of the desert, the heat of the sun, and the erosion of time have rendered the rock paper-thin, peeling away in layers of time. This is where you can see fossils of actual indigenous camel footprints, giving just a small indication of how life was once more robust in Death Valley, around its many lakes, than you might ever imagine. Unfortunately, access to this sensitive area of Death Valley has become even more restricted since the most recent breach by vandals who stole fossils from the canyon earlier this year. Follow the Death Valley Natural History Association to find out about any future opportunities to accompany a park ranger or paleontologist through the area. Otherwise, you might step on – and forever destroy – one of the area’s last traces of when California camels walked the earth.

death valley
Photo: Sandi Hemmerlein 
death valley
Photo: Sandi Hemmerlein 

 

2. U.S. Camel Corps Military Base, Fort Tejon State Historic Park

The distant descendants of those original camels (who theoretically migrated to Asia across the ice bridge of the Bering Strait), one-humped Arabian camels (Camelus dromedarius, a.k.a. the dromedary), made their way back to North America by way of the U.S. Camel Corps. A now-infamously failed experiment of the Army in the mid-1800s, the idea was that the animals would already be acclimated to dry, hot conditions and could be useful as military beasts of burden in situations that would be too trying for other saddle animals, like horses or mules. Although they could maintain a decent speed while carrying a lot of weight, and they were good at finding watering holes, Congress refused to further fund the project in the advent of the Civil War. And though the camels actually made the 1200-mile trek from Texas to California on foot in the now notorious "Camel Brigade," their military service ended in 1864, shortly after arriving to Fort Tejon, its western terminus. Today, the Civil War-era fort is a state park that features a looped trail through the 400-year-old valley oak trees and around the old parade grounds, past the former headquarters of the 1st Dragoons and regimental band, barracks, kitchens, mess halls, outhouses, and the Quartermaster's Office.

fort tejon
Photo: Sandi Hemmerlein 

3. The Camel Wrangler, Fort Irwin National Training Center Museum

The country's first and most famous handler of camels was a Greek by way of Syria named Hadji Ali, eventually Americanized to “Hi Jolly.” You can find this colorful desert character at the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment Museum at Fort Irwin, north of Barstow – at least, in mannequin form, accompanied by a real taxidermied camel (though not one of his) inside a glass case. Hi Jolly shepherded his camels through this area of the Mojave Desert, though the beasts were far more used to sandy terrain and had some difficulty navigating the dry, rocky desert underfoot. (Reportedly, they also scared the horses, and the human soldiers didn’t like their temperaments much.) After the first herd of camels reached Fort Irwin, and the Camel Corps was subsequently shut down, Hi Jolly retired to Arizona, where he continued his forays into animal husbandry until he died in a town called Tyson’s Well. You can also visit the Hi Jolly Cemetery in what’s now known as Quartzsite, Arizona to see where Hi Jolly is laid to rest, a monument placed to commemorate his work for the failed endeavor of the Camel Corps.

hi jolly
Photo: Sandi Hemmerlein 

4. Camel Races, Riverside County Fair & National Date Festival

With no work to be done after their war service was so unceremoniously ended before it really even began, many of the displaced camel soldiers that weren’t transported to the town of Benicia (the “camel capital” of Northern California) were hunted and killed, stolen, or mistreated. Some were turned loose and roamed wild. Others were sold off to circuses and carnivals. The ones who survived found themselves being paraded around as a curiosity – not just outfitted with saddle stools to show off their skills as pack animals by giving rides to humans, but also forced to race against each other. Camel racing is an ancient sport with its roots in the Middle East, but you can still experience it today without hopping on a plane to the United Arab Emirates. All you’ve got to do is head over to Indio for the annual Riverside County Fair & National Date Festival, whose grandstand arena has hosted daily camel (and ostrich) races for decades. The fair takes place every February around Presidents’ Day, and the races are free with fair admission.

riverside fair
Photo: Sandi Hemmerlein 
riverside fair
Photo: Sandi Hemmerlein 

5. Oasis Camel Dairy, Ramona

Ever wonder where the camels who are dressed up like Scheherazade – including those in Indio during its annual pageants and parades – come from? Believe it or not, it’s probably one of the boys from the only camel farm in southern California, Oasis Camel Dairy in East San Diego County. When they're back at the farm, stripped of their fancy costumes and rid of all the pageantry, they're well-behaved, charming, gentle, and handsome studs. They breed with the females who, as long as they’re having babies, produce milk. And the new calves sure are cute. Fortunately, you can visit them during one of Oasis Camel Dairy’s monthly “Open Farm Days,” which feature camel rides for kids ($5) and adults ($10) as well as an animal show and a meet-and-greet with the ladies and their babies so you can gawk at (and even pet) the newest-born members of the herd. The farm is also open for its annual “Watermelon Days” in August and “Pomegranate Days” in November. Of course, the first thing anybody will ask after you've gone to a camel dairy is: "What does it taste like?" But you won’t find out, even after visiting Oasis Camel Dairy in East San Diego County – at least, not just yet. Because although the females do get milked there, the farm isn't permitted to serve or sell its own camel milk in any drinkable or edible form -- only formulated into soaps, lotions, and other skincare products. If you’re really desperate to add camel to your arsenal of alternative animal milks, the dairy’s gift shop sells gourmet camel milk chocolates imported from Camelicious Dairy in Dubai.

camel dairy
Photo: Sandi Hemmerlein 

 

camel dairy
Photo: Sandi Hemmerlein

 

camel dairy
Photo: Sandi Hemmerlein 

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