In the Heart of the 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 that, in terms of the grandness 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 towards the Imperial Sand Dunes, a desert area close to the Mexican border. During our travel along the border, we came across many border police. The reason for the presence of these police is due to the continuous attempts by Mexican nationals to cross the territory of the United States. As a result, the border police have their hands full, trying to maintain law and order in the region.

After about a 3-hour drive, we arrive at Imperial Sand Dunes. Big sandy “hills” are noticeable from the highway. This area is known for its sandy dunes, as its name implies. It is fascinating to think that just an hour’s drive from San Diego, you can go from a hilly, vegetation-rich area to a desert landscape covered only by typical desert plants and low-growing plants. Around, you can see the buggies and quads as they conquer the dunes. This location is one of the most popular spots in California for this type of sport.

Roads through the desert are long and straight, even at 50 km, without a single bend. Most people would think that 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 through the desert are long and straight, even at 50 km, without a single bend. Most people would think that such a route would be smooth, but they would be wrong because there were many police officers on patrol. We saw that they were doing their job well.

We were impressed by the beautiful landscape, so we decided to stop on the road to capture the moment. Shortly after, a passing police officer pulled over to ask if we needed any assistance. We exchanged a few words, and after making sure we were okay, he wished us a safe journey and continued with his work.

We resumed our trip and eventually arrived at a larger town with motels around 11 pm after covering a distance of 250 km. We decided to spend the night here since it was impossible to find any motel outside the populated areas.

The following day, we continued our trip to Joshua Tree National Park, named after the specific Joshua trees abundant in this part of California. This tree originates from the Mojave Desert, and due to its slow growth rate of around 4-5 centimeters per year, it usually does not exceed a height of 3 to 4 meters. The tree’s name is associated with the Bible because its shape is reminiscent of Joshua extending his arms toward heaven in prayer.

Admission to the park is fifteen dollars and is valid for seven days. Additionally, visitors have the option to camp inside the park. Joshua Tree National Park is one of the smaller parks in California. Visitors can explore it in about four hours with a few breaks.

As you travel through this part of California, what will surprise you is the endless vastness. The highway, with four to six lanes, is perfectly straight without a bend, and you cannot see its end.

After we visited the national park, we traveled towards Las Vegas, the largest city in the Mojave Desert. This desert spans across parts of California, Utah, Arizona, and Nevada. The Mojave National Reserve is situated in the central part of the desert, between Joshua Tree Park and Las Vegas. The desert’s altitude ranges from 1000 to 2000 meters, and it is home to approximately 1900 different plant species, with the Joshua tree being the most notable among them.

As you travel through this part of California, what will surprise you is the endless vastness. The highway, with four to six lanes, is perfectly straight without a bend, and you cannot see its end. We decided to take a slightly older and slower road for the adventure

At about 150 km to Las Vegas, we turn onto Route 66. This route is known as “Main Street of America” or “Mother Road”. In 1926, it was the only highway in the United States connecting the north and south of the country. Route 66 stretched from Chicago to Los Angeles, making a total of 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 remotest corner of the city lights 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 is a highway with ten lanes, an experience that cannot be found in other numerous places. Las Vegas is globally renowned as a gambling mecca.

Las Vegas is a city that has something for everyone’s taste, including poker, blackjack, roulette, and slot machines. Every hotel in Las Vegas has a casino that generates its primary revenue, and everything else is just ancillary content. During our visit in Las Vegas, we were most surprised by the accommodation price. We found that for only $40, you can get a double room in a 4-star hotel.

Las Vegas is also famous for its quick and easy weddings, which you can have at the trendy Elvis Chapel. If you want to embark on such a venture, you won’t need to organize anything, just enough money. The wedding cost depends on its luxury, and each item has its price, even the godparents, in case you forget to bring them.

But in the morning, when you leave Las Vegas, the city looks entirely different without its glittering lights. It loses almost all of 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.

Nevada is home to several scenic parks. Which one to visit is a difficult choice. However, the Zion Canyon caught our attention. It’s a national park located in Utah, covering an area of approximately 600 square kilometers. Although not particularly large by US standards, we did not regret our decision to visit.

As with all protected natural areas, there is a fifteen-dollar entry fee for a seven-day pass. Inside the park, you can camp or sleep in a hotel. One of the unique features of this park is a 24-kilometer-long canyon that runs through its area and reaches a maximum height of 800 meters. Unfortunately, we only had half a day to spend there, while it would take at least 5 to 7 days to fully explore the park.

After visiting Zion Park, we headed towards North Rim. It is the highest northern point of the Grand Canyon in Arizona. As we approached our destination, the air temperature abruptly dropped. A few kilometers before entering the park, we were surprised by lots of snow and a temperature of only 4°C. Only just half an hour earlier, it was 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. Unfortunately, we visited in April, and this part of the Grand Canyon only opens in May.

North Rim is 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. We were a bit disappointed that we couldn’t experience the view this time, and the only thing we could do was to take a photo of ourselves in shorts and flip-flops immersed in half a meter of snow before moving on 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). The canyon was created by the natural erosion of sandstone common in Arizona’s desert.

Antelope Canyon is the biggest and most beautiful canyon of its kind in America. To visit the canyon, you need to book a day or two in advance a place for one of the tours run by the original Navajo guides. The two-hour photo trip costs $50 and includes one hour of photographing the canyon.

However, professional photography in the canyon is challenging because many people inadvertently pop up in front of the frame. Nonetheless, the guides are helpful and, while recounting the various stories related to the place, also provide tips on which position to photograph to get the best scenes.

There is a cheaper ticket available for $35, which only allows for sightseeing and does not include photography. The color intensity of the stone in the canyon varies depending on the time of day you visit due to the angle at which light penetrates the rocks. The local Indians you may encounter here are not like those typically depicted in Western movies. They are mainly big in physique.

In addition to Antelope Canyon, it’s worth visiting Horse Shoe – a horseshoe-shaped canyon where the Colorado River flows into Powell Lake. The rocks in Horse Shoe consist of sand in the shape of stone, constantly changing due to weather erosion. As you walk on the cliff, you may hear crackling sounds under the pressure of your feet due to the thin, sheet-like structure of the rocks.

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 a 4-hour 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 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 canyon size leaves you breathless, and you inevitably ask yourself, “How did all this come?” We do not know how much it takes to see this park, but to say that you have been to the Grand Canyon, you should take a boat ride down the Colorado River.

Leaving the Grand Canyon and returning to California, we decided to explore another section of Route 66, hoping to discover something more interesting. 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.

Our final destination in the desert was Death Valley, the hottest and driest place in the northern part of America. It is a depression at 86 meters below sea level and features a giant dried-up salt lake.

In July of 1913, the highest temperature ever recorded at that time, 57° C, was measured in Furnace Creek. Since then, a higher temperature has only been recorded in the Libyan part of the Sahara in 1936, which was 57.7° C.

The annual average rainfall in the area is less than five centimeters. Despite its “evil” name, the desert is not totally barren. There is a small oasis in the region that houses a tourist resort.

There are numerous species of plants you won’t find anywhere in the world, and in the springtime, when they bloom, they offer an immense color variety. The valley is also home to rocks of various colors, such as blue, yellow, and red, due to the numerous minerals in the soil.

In the past, the valley was home to rich borax mines that gradually closed down as the mineral became less abundant. Before the valley became a national park in 1933, extensive quantities of gold and silver were extracted.

We recommend visiting the park from October to May when temperatures don’t exceed 38°C. We advise you to travel in a car with good air conditioning, preferably a newer model, to avoid breakdowns and overheating due to high temperatures.

Our journey through the American desert ends in the Death Valley. Although we did not see everything we wanted, hopefully, we were able to show you and describe all the natural beauty that lies there. Even if you were only driving a car through this part of America, you would see enough attractions that would impress you

TEXT & PHOTO – Lovro Barbalich