Sunday, January 6, 2013

Back in the Desert: Barstow, California

After Christmas, we head northeast from L.A. to Barstow, California (on Boxing Day, which is not celebrated in the U.S.).  Traffic is horrific on Interstate 15, apparently caused by all the crazy people travelling from southern California's big coastal cities to Sin City.  We stay in a BLM campground, Owl Canyon where there are only 2 or 3 others camped each night.  The week between Christmas and New Years is a very popular time for Californians to get out with their families and their ATVs (called OHVs here - Off-Highway Vehicles), so we camp here because ATVs are prohibited and therefore quiet.  This is the "high desert" and it's cold at night, around freezing.  But we're used to it now, and at least there's no snow like at home.

Near the campground is the Rainbow Basin Natural Area (link to great photos, which we didn't get), a one-way loop drive through grey, brown, black, gold and green clay/sand hills.  The dirt road has a few sharp, tight turns and is suitable for a single vehicle only, no trailers or motorhomes.  The views are pretty; the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas in the distance, the golden valley below and a sprinkling of Joshua trees.  Typical of the young, western mountains, even these small hills show signs of geological forces, having been thrust up at severe angles, sometimes in opposite directions on either side of a canyon forming the shape of the letter U.  The area is also home to many fossils of animals no longer found in California such as camels.  The low, winter sun provides interesting lighting on the multi-coloured folds, accentuating peaks and angles.

Marilyn in Owl Canyon, a joshua tree standing guard
From the campground is the Owl Canyon hiking trail which takes us through these sandy hills.  I have to admit, however, after hiking in Utah's red, orange and yellow canyons we are spoiled.  These canyon walls are, well, boring in comparison.  It's like the difference between a diamond necklace and plastic beads.  I'm sorry California.  A BLM sign from the dirt access road points to two other hiking trails - Coon Canyon and Fossil Canyon.  We drive down the rough road hoping for subsequent signage, but find only numbered BLM dirt roads with no indication of where they go.  We stop another vehicle that happens to come by, hoping they have information on where to go, and they direct us to Fossil Canyon, which is a "road" through a wide, sandy wash.  The road narrows significantly as the canyon walls rise on either side of us.  The sky is blackening, promising possible rain, and believe me, the last place you want to be in the desert during a rain storm is in a wash.  Many have lost their vehicles or lives being swept away by flood waters; so we retrace our steps and return to camp without attempting to visit Coon Canyon.

Schoolhouse overlooking Calico Ghost Town
We spend a day as typical tourists at the Calico Ghost Town, which is quite commercialized.  Calico, the centre of silver mining operations in the late 1880s, produced over $20 million in 12 years from 500 mines.  When the price of silver dropped, everyone packed up and left.  The owner of Knott's Berry Farms purchased the town in the 1950s and restored most of the buildings.  He later donated the town to the County of San Bernardino, which runs it as a park today.  Visitors can take a mine tour, eat at one of the restaurants and explore the town site.

Marilyn in the wash in Afton Canyon
Forty miles northeast of Barstow on Interstate 15 is Afton Canyon.  This is a very different place.  It's an off-roader's paradise as is most of this California desert interior with hundreds of ATV (OHV) trails.  The BLM road follows the train tracks and crosses the Mojave (Mo-ha'-vee) River.  We drive a couple of miles into a wide, sandy wash, finding numerous side canyons heading into the colourful hills.  We have a tailgate lunch with "mountain" views surrounding us, and then select a side canyon to hike up.  The hills here are a mix of hardened clay and sand with rocks and boulders cemented into it.  These rocks erode out with rains and fill the wash down into the canyon.  There are rocks of every colour - green, red, orange, white, gold, purple.  Brad loves rocks.  The canyon becomes a narrow slot and we are finally, after about one mile, unable to continue as it climbs up a narrow crack to the top.  We look forward to coming back to this area in future years to explore the other side canyons, although we suspect we found the most colourful.

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