American deserts

California, for most of us, is primarily about summer associations, long sandy beaches, and surfing. But throughout our trip, we found that California had much more to offer. What is certainly worth pointing out are the numerous national parks which, in terms of the grandeur and diversity of natural habitats at relatively short distances, are incomparable with those we can see in Europe. Our journey begins in southern California, moving from San Diego along the Mexican border toward a desert area called the Imperial Sand Dunas. Traveling along the Mexican border, we encountered many border police, which, due to constant attempts of Mexican nationals to illegally cross in the territory of the United States, has its hands full. After about three hours’ drive, we arrive at Imperial Sand Dunes. Big sandy “hills” are noticeable from the highway. The area, as its name implies, is known for its sandy dunes. It is interesting that just an hour’s drive from San Diego, in a short time, you cross a hilly area full of vegetation to an area of desert scenes covered only by typical desert plants and low-growing plants. Almost everywhere, you can see the buggies and quads in the conquest of sand dunes because this is one of the most famous locations in California for this kind of sport.

Roads leading through the desert are long and straight, even at 50 km without a single bend. Most people would think that on such a route could run smoothly, but they would be wrong because there are a lot of police officers.

After a short break and enjoying the sand scenes, we head to Joshua Tree National Park. Roads leading through the desert are long and straight, even at 50 km without a single bend. Most people would think that on such a route could run smoothly, but they would be wrong because there are a lot of police officers. We saw that they are doing their job well. Impressed by the landscape, we stop on the road to perpetuate the moment, but shortly after, a police officer passing by stops to ask if we need help. After a few words exchanged wished us a safe journey and continue with his work. We continued our trip, and around 11 pm, after a distance of 250 km, we came to a larger town with motels, where we decide to sleep since it is impossible to find any motel outside the populated areas. The next morning, we continue our trip to Joshua Tree National Park, named after the specific Joshua trees that are abundant in this part of California. This tree originates from the Mojave Desert, and most do not exceed a height of 3 to 4 meters due to the slow growth of an average of 4-5 centimeters per year. The tree’s name is associated with the Bible because its shape reminds Joshua of extending his arms toward heaven in prayer. Admission to the park is fifteen dollars and is valid for seven days. There is also the possibility of camping inside the park. It is one of the smaller parks in California. You can visit it in about four hours with a few breaks.

What will surprise you as you travel through this part of California are the endless vastness. You are not able to see the end of the highway with four to six lanes, and again, it is perfectly straight without a bend.

After visiting the national park, we head towards Las Vegas, the largest city in the Mojave Desert. It is the largest desert of California, which in part includes the states of Utah, Arizona, and Nevada. The center of the desert is the area between Joshua Tree Park and Las Vegas, where the Mojave National Reserve is located. The desert is at an altitude of 1000 to 2000 meters and contains about 1900 different species of plants, of which the most important is the Joshua tree. What will surprise you as you travel through this part of California are the endless vastness. You are not able to see the end of the highway with four to six lanes, and again, it is perfectly straight without a bend. For the sake of adventure, we decide to drive on a slightly older and not very fast road. At about 150 km to Las Vegas, we turn onto Route 66, which is better known as “Main Street of America” or “Mother Road,” because in 1926, it was the only highway in the United States connecting the north and south of the country. It began in Chicago and ended in Los Angeles, totaling 3940 km. Although you don’t have much to see on this road, just a few abandoned houses or a hotel, it is still a special feeling to drive on the roadway of great historical significance. After many kilometers spent in the desert plain, entering Las Vegas looks so spectacular. Mountains suddenly appear before the eyes, and the road slowly climbs up the hill to the very top, at 600-700 meters in height, overlooking Las Vegas.

By entering Las Vegas, you leave the state of California and move to the state of Nevada. Las Vegas is stunning in every way, especially for the luxury of illuminated advertising. You get the impression that even the smallest corner of the city light up at night. The main street in the city center has a roof completely covered with LEDs that make it the biggest MegaScreen. Above the city, and even over the city center, passes a highway with ten lanes, something that in our country you really can not experience. Las Vegas is already known to everyone around the world as a gambling mecca. Poker, blackjack, roulette, slot machines, there is something for everyone’s taste. Each hotel has a casino that earns its main profit, and everything else is just ancillary content. We were most surprised by the price of accommodation because for only 40 dollars you can get a double room in a 4-star hotel. Las Vegas is also known for the possibility of a super-fast wedding at the trendy Elvis Chapel. If you decide on such a venture you will not need anything to organize, you need only enough money. The amount of the same will depend on the luxury of your wedding, as each item has its price. Even the godparents if you forget to bring them in a hurry. But in the morning, when leaving Las Vegas, it gets an entirely different look, and without the luxury of the lights, it loses almost all its charm.

Route 66, which is better known as “Main Street of America” or “Mother Road,” because in 1926, it was the only highway in the United States connecting the north and south of the country.

The state of Nevada is full of parks, and it’s hard to decide which one to visit. The Zion Canyon caught our attention. It is a national park in the Utah state that covers about 600 km² and is not too big for US terms, but we did not regret our decision. As in all protected natural areas, here are fifteen dollars entry fee for seven days. Inside the park, you can camp or sleep in a hotel. The specificity of this park is that a 24-kilometer long furrow passes through its area and reaches a maximum height of 800 meters. Unfortunately, we only spent half a day there, and it would take at least 5 to 7 days for sightseeing.
From Zion Park, we head to North Rome, the highest northern point of the Grand Canyon in Arizona. As we approached the destination, the air temperature dropped sharply. A few kilometers before entering the park we were surprised by lots of snow and a temperature of only 4° C. Just only half an hour earlier, we were at 25° C. At the entrance to North Rim, we got the information that the park is closed due to large amounts of snow that make the roads impassable, and this part of the Grand Canyon opens in May. (Our visit was in April.) North Rim is situated at 2500 meters above sea level, from where you get a much better impression of the size of the Grand Canyon than from the South Rim, which we visited later. A bit disappointed that we will not experience the view this time, the only thing we could do is to take a photo of ourselves in shorts and flip flops immersed in half a meter of snow and continue to our next destination.

One of the reasons for our visit to Arizona is Page, known as the Navajo Native Reserve, as well as Antelope Canyon (located in Glen Canyon National Reserve). It is a canyon in the middle of the desert created by the natural erosion of the “sandstone” inherent in Arizona. Antelope is the largest and most beautiful canyon of its kind in America. To visit it, you need to book a place a day or two before in the tours run by the original Navajo guides. A two-hour trip called a “photo tour” costs 50 dollars, and the price includes one hour available to photograph the canyon. However, the conditions for professional photography are very demanding and almost impossible, because often people who come to visit the canyon pop up in front of the frame. What is beneficial is that the guides, while recounting the various stories related to the place, also provide you with useful tips from which position to photograph to get the best scenes. There is also a cheaper ticket for 35 dollars, but then you are not able to take photos, just to go sightseeing. Depending on what time of the day you visit the canyon, due to the angle at which light penetrates the rocks, you can see changes in the color intensity of the stone. The locals, or Indians you meet here, are not exactly like the ones we are used to watching in western movies. They are mostly large physique. In addition to the Antelope Canyon already mentioned, it is interesting to see the Horse Shoe, the horseshoe-shaped canyon where the Colorado River flows into the Powell Lake. Here, the rocks are nothing but sand in the shape of stone, which is continuously consumed by the weather, thus continually changing its forms. For this reason, as you walk on the rocks of strange structures resembling thin stone sheets, you may hear crackling under the pressure of your feet.

In July 1913, the temperature of 57° C was measured in Furnace Creek, which was by then the highest temperature ever recorded

On the same day, after about four hours’ drive, we reach South Rim. As we descended the Grand Canyon towards it, we enjoyed the beautiful sunset. The Grand Canyon is one of the first national parks in the United States, with a total length of 446 km. It is, in fact, a vast mountain with more than 2000 m altitudes, partly carved in the flow area of the Colorado River, with a maximum canyon depth of 1860 m. The size of the canyon leaves you breathless, and you inevitably ask yourself the question, “How did all this come about?” We do not know how much it takes to see this park, but to be able to say that you have been to the Grand Canyon, you need to take a boat ride down the Colorado River. Leaving the Grand Canyon and returning to California, we decided to pass another section of Route 66, hoping to find something more interesting this time. But we were a bit disappointed because all we came across was a city full of souvenirs and cute scenes in an American style, followed by 100 km of the desert alone. The final stage of our desert journey was Death Valley, the hottest and driest place in the northern part of America. It is a depression at -86 m above sea level with a giant dried-up salt lake.

In July 1913, the temperature of 57° C was measured in Furnace Creek, which was by then the highest temperature ever recorded. Since then, a higher temperature has only been recorded in the Libyan part of the Sahara in 1936, of 57.7° C. The annual average rainfall is not even five centimeters. There is a small oasis in the desert that houses a tourist resort. By the way, the mere “evil” name of the desert reminds us of a warm and dry area where there is no life, but this is not the case.
There are dozens of species of plants that you won’t find anywhere in the world, and in the springtime, they bloom, offering a variety of colors. In addition to colorful plants, there are rocks of various colors – blue, yellow, and red. A large number of minerals that are an integral part of the soil makes them like this. In the past, there were rich borax (white gold) mines, which gradually closed when the mineral was no longer as abundant as it used to be. Before the valley was declared a national park in 1933, large quantities of gold and silver were extracted there. We recommend you visit this park from October to May when the temperatures do not exceed 38° C. It is advisable to travel in a car that has good air conditioning. Preferably a newer production date to avoid possible breakdowns and overheating due to high heat.
Our journey through the American desert ends in the Death Valley. Although we did not see everything we wanted to, we hope that we were able to show you the natural beauty that lies there. Even if you would just driving a car through this part of America, you would see enough attractions that would surely impress you.

TEXT & PHOTO – Lovro Barbalić