Thursday, February 28, 2019

Winter 2019 Desert Tour #2: Anza Borrego, Yuma, Mojave

The BDR (backcountry discovery routes) folks created a Southern California desert route for 2019 and I got their map as soon as it became available in January (CA - BDR). The BDR routes are  the motorcycle equivalent to bikepacking routes, similar to the original Great Divide Mountain Bike Route/Tour Divide, which was scouted with a jeep. Like Tour Divide, a bit too tedious on a bicycle (lots of wide dirt roads, washboard, cars), but with an engine stronger than 2 legs can be fun.

Flowers are coming up near Borrego Springs
The most southern parts of the CA-BDR, the Yuma desert, are only tolerable in the winter, even March can be too warm to be fun. Not this year. We had a surprisingly cold and wet winter so far, so cold and wet that it wasn't until the last week in February that I took off on my XT225. Last month, I was cold and wet in the Mojave and Death Valley: mojave desert winter trip 1  

Mal Pais Overlook, camped here in night 1. 

The hardest part is always to get going and there is an extra hurdle living in a metropolitan area. The least pleasant two stretches are the two hours getting out of and back into the LA area. The 225 is about the slowest vehicle on the freeway. 

I left around noon to avoid the worst traffic. By the afternoon  things became enjoyable and at 3 pm, I was in the Anza Borrego desert. Borrego Springs is getting busy, wildflower season is starting. I camped at the Malpais Overlook.  

Camp first night, in this direction the badlands don't look as hostile. 

There wasn't any need for a tent, it wasn't cold, no bugs, no dew. Maybe the only reason was that the tent hasn't been used for long time and needed airing out. Or maybe that by now I have forgotten how to do backcountry trips. The desert was very still, no sounds of any life, very different from the next night. 

I putter through Anza-Borrego and Ocotillo Wells sand during the morning. A very dry area and sometimes without any vegetation. Most of the year will be awfully hot, but today is just perfect. Two park rangers on foot are doing a survey of flowers in Ocotillo Wells, but I don't see anybody else. There were some RVs parked once I got close to highway 78. 

As little vegetation as on Mars - near Shell Reef in Ocotillo Wells

Despite the dry climate, there is a substantial agricultural industry north and south of the border, irrigated by canals that are the last straws for the Colorado River, which no longer reaches the ocean. Water canals are even along the Algodones dunes. It doesn't get more desert-like than this.
Algodones/Glamis dunes off highway 78
What surprised me on this stretch were big yellow splatters on my helmet/mirrors/jacket. Very juicy bugs and quite a few of them. I didn't realize it at that time, only after they were coming through Los Angeles 10 days later, but these were Painted Lady butterflies. The wet weather not only creates a superbloom, but also a burst of butterflies because there is more food for the caterpillars. They originate in the Colorado and Mojave deserts in the winter, migrate north to Oregon and Washington and another generation returns in the fall. They start very well supplied and the yellow splatter is the fat reserve for the next 1000 miles. 

I resupply in Yuma, Arizona, where the CA backcountry discovery route starts. The first 30 km are a wide dirt road, somewhat washboarded, and would be very tedious on a bicycle. Usually also too hot, but the temperatures were pleasant when moving on a motorcycle, although already too hot when stopping. And there is no shade. 

20km north of Yuma, now on the CA-BDR

A brave little tree survived on a rock. And that is the the first step towards turning this rock into sand. 

After I left the pavement, I only saw two cars in the afternoon coming the opposite direction. It was a Wednesday, midweek, and that may account for low use, but I was certainly happy not having more traffic. The CA-BDR goes through the Picacho State Park along the Colorado River. The main road went to the central part with boat launch, showers, camp ground, but I took an immediate left that immediately led to a much rougher road and therefore less used. 
Colorado River
There are some primitive campsites, largely for boaters, at the north end of the state park. I initially didn't plan to stay here, but camp away from people and that probably meant outside the park, but the river was very pretty. And there wasn't anybody around, so I decided to stay in the northernmost camp spot in the park. It doesn't have anything other than a fire pit and a picnic table and a registration box. But a spectacular location and I gladly paid the $25 (yes, it is quite expensive for a primitive camp with no facilities). 
No mistake here with the tent this time and I only used the inner net: River front also means bugs. 

I was too hot, about 4 pm, despite being a mellow day for this place, and cooled down in the Colorado. I started to swim to the Arizona side, but the current was a bit fast and I didn't want to get carried too far downstream. About 1/3 of the way across, I found a submerged sand bank, very soft comfortable sand. When sitting on that sand bank, just my head was above the water. I did that until I got too cold.

The nightlife here in a different league than last night, which was still. Birds shuffling in the weeds, bats zooming around, lots of insects (including mosquitoes, but not too bad), wild donkeys/burros honking, coyotos howlings. The burros were really noisy and make really ugly sounds. A cross between ducks and foghorn, but sometimes they choke up and it sounds like a hand saw. Different from domestic donkeys in Europe, not that they make pretty sounds either. The coyotes were almost musical in comparison, there was one pack howling on the Arizona side and two packs on the CA side. 

Yes, we've all seen moon pictures, but I thought is was cute to have it indirect in the mirror

Day 3 started with a fairly squirrely stretch up Indian Pass. On the map, it is marked as "deep sand", although I think it is closer to gravel. I passed another motorcyclist who was not happy about the conditions. He had an Africa Twin, more a standard "adventure" motorcycle than mine. Apparently the soft conditions caused him difficulties. Deep sand requires some speed in order to have control and at slow speed one slides around randomly. Those big motorcycles are nice on the highway, but they are really heavy and I'd be hesitant to take one into remote terrain by myself. It is very hard to pick them and also easy to get stuck underneath. I wonder how far he got on the route, but didn't see him again. 

The next resupply was in Blythe, and slowly the elevation increases. In the afternoon, it is out of the Sonoran desert and into the Mojave. Section 2 ends at the Sahara Oasis gas station along I-40. There is a cute historic place, Goffs with a museum, and a climb into the Mojave National Preserve. I camped maybe 30 minutes past Goff, at about 1200m. At this altitude, it was noticeably colder than the previous two nights and I actually wanted the tent. 

New York Mountains
Day 4 was largely at higher altitude and much cooler. Climbing up the road towards the New York Mountains got up to 1500m or so and I put on warmer clothes. The mountains themselves peak at over 2000m.

Joshua Trees seem to like the cooler weather up there as well and seem grow much more densily than anywhere else, including Joshua Tree National Park. I very much enjoyed riding there, almost in a Joshua Tree forest.

Bert Smith’s Rock House was built by a WWI veteran who came back wrecked from poison gas and didn't expect to live long. The deserts of California seemed to do him good and he lived until 1954. There is a spring, an essential (and rare) feature for surviving in the desert. 

Section 4 of the CA-BDR starts on the north side of I-15 (the Barstow to Las Vegas freeway). There is a first climb past a huge solar plant up to Coloseum mine. That was about the roughest section I encountered and more easily tackled on a small motorcyle than an intimidating 500+ pound bike.  

Colosseum mine

Large solar plant near Primm, NV

I didn't go much further north and eventually turned around before Tecopa Hot Springs. The following week, I would be around here again on a ride from LA to Vegas, but that is for another blog. 
Tecopa Hot Springs
By late afternoon, I was back in the Mojave National Preserve. I had tried to find a trail that eventually lead into a canyon, somehow instead I found myself on top of a mountain at a dead end. But a great view.

I was too cold at this altitude, so I was going back down as low as possible and then camped in a wash. It was a nice temperature and I just slept outside. Had a very good night until at 3 am it started raining. So I had to get into the tent after all, but slept in. Around 8 am, the rain had stopped. 

I had planned to ride out the wash, get on Mojave road across a dry lake bad, but pretty soon noticed that this was not possible. Places that yesterday were hard packed were soft and slippery and had puddles on them. The lake bed is the terminus of the Mojave River (which evaporates in the desert, it does not go to the ocean) and this year has been unusually wet. One of the oddities of deserts that has taken me a while to understand is that many rivers/creeks start bigger and then get smaller until they disappear, the opposite of typical rivers that eventually go to an ocean. A bit further north, the Amargosa River does the same thing, finally giving out around Badwater in Death Valley.

Mojave road was known already in the 1700s and became part of the Old Spanish Trail (the southern option) in the 1800s. The Death Valley 49ers, who thought they take a fast shortcut, suffered terribly in the Mojave desert (that includes Manly, Rogers, the Jayhawkers, and the Bennett/Arcane families), whereas the group that stayed with Hunt and took the "long" Old Spanish Trail made it without drama and much quicker.  The first US explorer may have been Jedediah Smith in 1926 and he probably crossed on the Mojave trail. This is probably the salt plain he talks about.

"I travelled a west course fifteen days over a country of complete barrens, generally travelling from morning until night without water. I crossed a Salt plain about 20 miles long and 8 wide; on the surface was a crust of beautiful white salt, quite thin. Under this surface there is a layer of salt from a half to one and a half inches in depth; between this and the upper layer there is about four inches of yellowish sand." 
Jedediah Smith, 1826, p. 190 in: The Ashley-Smith Explorations and the Discovery of a Central Route to the Pacific 1822-1829, with the Original Journals edited by Harrison Clifford Dale, 1913

I thought maybe I can go around the southern end (and that point I didn't realize that the Mojave River comes from the south), but quickly realized that this was not promising and tried to find my way to higher ground. The mud packed so hard in the rear tire that it stopped the engine and I had to scrape off the mud repeatedly. 

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An hour of mud wrestling before I backtracked to Baker and from there took I-15 home. Those freeway miles were the hardest part of the ride, though. There was a fierce headwind much of the way, sometimes pushing me below 50mph, and then a storm at Cajon Pass. 
Out of the mud, more solid this direction

Even with the freeway miles at the beginning and end, a great roundtrip of about 1000 miles/1600km. Total moving time was 30 hours. Two slideouts in deep sand, stalling twice on climbs and tipping over, plus additional drops during the one hour mud bath.