I went to the desert in Southern California for the first time last week and I was totally blown away – I mean that quite literally. There was a high winds advisory the entire time we were there – and high winds take on an entirely new meaning when you are clinging to the top of a mountain or standing in one of the windiest places on the planet. The winds at Van Ness and Hayes streets are mild compared to the winds that whip through the San Gregorio Pass in Coachella Valley – which wikipedia says is one of the windiest places on the planet, although I couldn’t find any proof of that. But I really can’t imagine any place windier – it almost ripped off the car door when I stopped to take a photo. Its a good place for a wind farm and we passed many as we drove through the valley. Check out a map here.
z & I took our annual spring getaway and did a little Southern California tour ending in Palm Springs and Joshua Tree National Park. But we started on the 101 with a stop in Santa Barbara where we searched for fragrant roses at the Mission Santa Barbara rose garden and wandered through the neighborhoods nearby with friends. All the sweet little houses and gardens totally appealed to my inner landscape architecture geek. And of course, I love to wander a sidewalk, where ever I am. And Santa Barbara is a lovely place to take an evening walk. We headed up Laguna Street to the Mission, along a urban creek and found a Australia Tea Tree on Olive Street that had completely grown over the sidewalk.
We didn’t get to stay long in Santa Barbara but went on to Los Angelos. I’ve lived in California for over 16 years, but I’ve only spent probably no more than 10 hours in LA. So I thought it was high time to hang out in LA a bit. We stayed with one of my oldest friends who lives in West Hollywood – which i erroneously always imagined was quiet and tree lined. I’m not sure how I came up with that image, but I was completely mistaken. He lives two blocks from tourist ground central – where I got to see a very different kind of sidewalk.
We didn’t have nearly enough time to wander and explore LA before we were back on the road – although we didn’t go far. Thanks to a free hotel stay, we stopped in Orange County for a few days . Just about everyone else there was headed to Disney World across the street, but z and I headed to Huntington Beach (and the pool).
According to the Moon travel guide that I got at the library, surfers began populating the beaches around Huntington Beach in the 1920’s. But it all exploded in the 1960’s with the classic surfing film, Endless Summer, Dick Dale and The Del-Tones and the Beach Boys and of course the song Surf City USA by Jan and Dean – which was inspired by Huntington Beach. In 2006 the town was awarded the trademark of “Surf City USA,” so I guess now its official.
Maybe if the weather was better, I would have been more interested in the beach, but I had spotted tidal marshes along Pacific Coast Highway – and people working in them – so I had to investigate. At one time 3,000 acres of wetlands protected the California coast, 90% are now gone. Recently the Huntington Beach Wetlands Conservancy bought up 140 acres to begin reconnected the marshes, separated by the Pacific Coast Highway, to the ocean tides. Checkout some awesome construction photos at this blog. The Magnolia Marsh opened just a few weeks ago and the Brookhurst Marsh opened last year connecting the marshes to the tide for the first time in 100 years and increasing the animal and plant life. But the importance of tidal marshes go beyond the plants and animals – they buffer stormy seas, slow shoreline erosion, and a absorb excess nutrients before they reach the oceans and estuaries. All of this is really important when you live on the coast – just ask the residents of the Gulf Coast.
From the ocean, we drove east through the Inland Empire, for a brief family visit in one of the sprawling communities that were once covered with orange groves before we went on to Palm Springs – an oasis in the middle of the Coachella Valley and the edge of the Colorado desert. Everything about Palm Springs is spectacular, from the wind the greets you as you drive in on hwy 10 to the intense power of the sun and the views of snow covered mountains.
Some of the things I loved about Palm Springs area:
the cool retro “desert modern’ architecture
the beautiful alpine wonderland above the desert
the interesting desert landscaping aesthetic
And then of course there is the issue of water – being, as we were, in the desert, which by definition lacks water. But oddly enough, you don’t have to venture far into Palm Springs before you are hit by a soft cool mist – a wonderful little gift when you feel like the desert is quickly sucking every bit of moisture out of your body. And then you wonder, a cool mist on the sidewalk in the middle of the desert? And you realize that this is a gift is actually a gift from the devil and it comes at a high price – parts of Coachella Valley have sunk 12″ in the last decade because of the depleted aquifer and then there is the Salton Sea. Agriculture in the area has increased significantly since the All American Canal was built to bring water from the Colorado River to Coachella Valley, also increasing the irrigation runoff that pours into the Salton Sea – the depth of which is 226 feet below sea level and is now 25% saltier than the ocean and increasing by 1% every year because of the agriculture fertilizer.
You don’t have to be in the desert very long before you realize the importance of saving water. The inanity of sidewalk water misters is possibly only superseded by irrigating a lawn on a windy afternoon in the middle of the desert (the wind blows the water into the street and what is left on the plants is quickly evaporated by the afternoon sun – leaving the plants thirsty and the irrigation water wasted).
But once we entered Joshua Tree National Park, I forgot all about the tragedy of the Salton Sea and Palm Springs sinking. No matter how old you are, you have to put Joshua Tree on your bucket list. It is truly an incredibly amazing place – I’ve never seen a natural landscape like it. The park is located on the transition zone where the Mojave desert meets the Colorado desert with all kinds of crazy rock formations and the elusive Joshua Tree, which doesn’t grow anyplace else on the planet. We entered the park from the southern entrance in the lower elevation Colorado desert and drove all the way through the park to the northern entrance in the higher elevation Mojave desert.
Stopping along the way we hiked to a palm oasis
climbed up to view the entire Coachella Valley from Palm Springs to the Salton Sea
We drove through enormous washes surrounded by mountains and dotted with bushes.
and wandered through groves of cholla, ocotillo and Joshua trees
Joshua Tree National Park was full of surprises. When you look out into the distance, the desert looks like a boring mottled green – its not till you look up close that you see the incredible color and texture diversity of everything – the rocks, the mountains, the cactus, the shrubs and the trees. And of course I was there for the flowers – I had been dreaming of the spring cactus flowers for years. But I wasn’t prepared for all the flowering shrubs and wild flowers. And sometimes it almost caused a car accident – like when I yelled at z to stop the car when I spotted the beautiful tropical-looking Sacred Datura.
Mountains of rock are everywhere, sometimes looking like a giant pile of marbles or gravel.
I was amazed at the pockets of plants – it was so bizarre, occasionally you’d see an ocotillo or cholla or red barrel cactus, but there was only one place where you’d see a big grove of them in one place.
And by far the most amazing part of the desert was the beautiful flowers of the funky looking Joshua Tree.
I’m already planning my trip to the desert next spring, making a list of all the places I didn’t have time for on this trip: hiking the Tahquitz Canyon, visiting the Salton Sea, view wild flowers at the Anza-Borrego national park and check out a Palm Tree orchard for a date milkshake.