Though I'm a mule deer by birth, at heart I'm a desert rat. That is to say that, while I would never trade the life-sustaining bounty that the oak woodlands and chaparral-covered mountains of my home provide, if given the chance to saunter off to an unknown place for a few days, I will gladly choose a desert landscape. What is it about these arid lands that draws me in? In part, it's the elegant simplicity of the landscape -- no towering trees, no verdant, superfluous overgrowth under every fallen log, no view obscured by heavy fog. In the desert, an invisible hand seems responsible for placing each rock and plant just exactly where it belongs, like a sparsely choreographed dance forever fixed in place. But what calls me to the desert even more is the simple fact that every living thing there has an innate will to live that's stronger than anywhere else.
Lucky for me, E+J share a similar curiosity for the desert. And so we found ourselves exploring a few less-traveled corners of the Colorado Desert of Southern California over Memorial Day weekend.
Mecca Hills Wilderness
Located south of Joshua Tree National Park, the Mecca Hills Wilderness is a badlands labyrinth of eroding rocks, serpentine slot canyons and sandy washes. It was designated in 1994 and is managed by the Bureau of Land Management (though "managed" may be a bit of an overstatement, as BLM lands are often stewarded with a rather laissez faire approach).
Box Canyon Road traverses the main section of Mecca Hills from the southwest, near the agricultural towns of Mecca and Thermal, to the northeast near the National Park. The road is paved and can be driven in about 20 minutes, but exploration by foot reveals this area's interesting geology, flora and recent human history (two old TV tubes and a glistening porcelain toilet were among the items we found discarded along the washes).
From Box Canyon, we followed the 5-mile, unpaved Painted Canyon Road to its end, where we picked up the trail to Ladder Canyon -- so called because of the ladders that allow hikers to go up or down steep, dry waterfalls that would otherwise be impassible. The hike begins in a wash and leads hikers past a large rockfall into a narrow slot canyon and up a ridge that offers views of the canyons and Salton Sea.
Dispersed camping is allowed in Mecca Hills Wilderness. There is no fee.