The cruise was set, and I was settled in for a scenic drive into the high desert of the Western Mojave. I needed a weekend away from all of the hustle. It was an easy two-hour drive from L.A. to California City. The hotel was in a quiet location across the street from the city’s large Central Park. That evening I checked CaliforniaCityChamber.com to plan my visit. The next morning I watched the sun rise over Castle Butte from my room. I was ready to explore.
I had missed most of the wildflowers. How colorful the displays are depends on how much rain, warmth, and wind the winter and spring storms deliver and when. I chatted with a local over breakfast and was told to check the blog at WestMojaveBlooms.blogspot.com for wildflower and nature updates.
I wanted to learn about life in this desert, flowers or not, and drove to the Desert Tortoise Research Natural Area. I chose the plant trail and learned what variety there is in just shrubs in this desert. Fascinating. I didn’t see a tortoise, but I did see one of their burrows, a multitude of zippy lizards, and a glimpse of a beautiful Rosy Boa that decided I was very scary.
The city (203 square miles!) has what must be hundreds of miles of dirt roads, most of which can easily be driven in any car. In the early ‘60s it was laid out as a master planned community to compete with Los Angeles. This makes California City very popular with offroad enthusiasts. OHV activity is centered around Borax Bill Park in the northeast part of the city. I turned off the historic Twenty Mule Team Road to head north to the city’s neighboring state park.
A quick drive north on Neuralia Road, and a couple of miles on Highway 14, and I was in Red Rock Canyon State Park. This place rivaled what I’d seen in parks in Southern Utah! As I explored the Hagen Trail and Red Cliffs I read my tour guide. I was looking at layer upon layer of years of natural history in the cream, pink, red, and brown stripes of the cliffs. I also came across a chuckwalla sunbathing on a rock and watched ravens bully a red-tailed hawk in a heart-stopping display.
The next morning I “bagged” the southern peak of Twin Buttes to meet the sun. What a view! I was looking at the flight line and dry lake bed of Edwards Air Force Base. This is where the sound barrier was broken by Chuck Yeager and the newest in flight testing continues. The morning was clear. As I took in the 360-degree view of vast desert I saw the southernmost Sierra Nevada to the west, Telescope Peak to the northeast, Olancha Peak in the High Sierra to the north, and Mt. Baldy and even San Gorgornio to the south. I heard myself whisper, “Wow!”
California City is one of the hottest birding spots in Southern California. The habitats created by the parks and golf courses attract birds migrating on the Pacific Flyway. I started in Central Park where yellow-headed blackbirds were courting and building nests. Thirty-three species — not bad considering I missed half the park. I saw two handsome loggerhead shrikes as I drove to the resort at the base of Galileo Hill. A quick check-in at the front desk and I was off. Lawrence’s goldfinches, Bell’s sparrows, warblers, phoebes, kingbirds … I was alerted to a verdin by some friendly super birders. My list grew to 47 species!
My zoom lens had gotten a workout and my spare battery was about to run out. The sun was setting; I was going to be back. There were more buttes to hike, flowers and birds to find, and sights to see in and around California City. The cruise was on as the desert presented one last gift, a spectacular sunset.