Viewpoint: A day in the desert well worth it

On a whim my friend Ruth and I visited the Imperial Sand Dunes over Presidents’ weekend. We had tentatively planned to join a group hiking in the west end of Imperial County but didn’t want to get up that early.

The five big weekends in the desert are Halloween, Thanksgiving, New Year’s Eve, Presidents’ Day and Easter. Up to 200,000 visitors have been known to show up for Thanksgiving when the economy was in better shape. We were floored when we drove up Gecko Road off Highway 78, and saw the mass of humanity and the spectacular display of RVs and sand toys. The scene went on for miles and miles.

The first camper we met was from Corona. He and his family visit the desert at least once a month. He had a very well-equipped sand rail, and said he had about $60,000 invested in it.

Some other campers were from Anaheim Hills and Chino. The foursome we met has been visiting the dunes for 35 years. Dave, a retired dentist, invited us to check out his 40-foot coach. The beautiful RV had a washer/dryer, central vacuum, HD television, beautiful leather couches and many other amenities. Dave pulls a 25-foot trailer carrying his toys. Some campers manage with less. There were a number of modest trucks and tent campers, too.

While at the Gecko site we saw two ice cream trucks, an ice truck, a water truck, plus a truck for pumping out sewage tanks. There were 16 commercial-size Dumpsters just on the Gecko Road site. The area was spotless.

The Cahuilla Ranger Station is located on Gecko Road. BLM rangers were expecting 90,000 visitors over the weekend. The helpful rangers gave out maps and all kinds of educational information. The site is open from October to late spring, depending on staffing and weather conditions. Upon arriving at the dunes, visitors can purchase their permit for $40 per week or $120 for a season. Campers can stay up to 14 days at a time.

Many of the rules cities use apply to visitors in the desert: quiet time is from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., and no fireworks or firearms may be discharged within the area.

Dogs are allowed but they are to be kept on a leash not longer than 6 feet and “secured to a fixed object, or under the control of a person, or otherwise restricted at all times.” Some campers have not gotten the message yet. There were several dogs running loose.

We hoped to see some desert critters. The only thing we saw was a tiny lizard, or maybe it was a gecko. We didn’t see a single bird.

As we left Gecko Road, headed for Glamis, Ruth spotted our first verbena, and a good number of the beautiful yellow brittlebush. On the way we saw a vintage Caterpillar. I assume it is used as a sand plow.

We had hoped to hike into the Mesquite Gold Mine but were turned away by a friendly guard. He told us tours can be arranged in advance by calling the office.  A plaque stated a fellow named Felizario discovered gold there in 1876. During the years Gold Fields ran the mine they took out 100,000 ounces of gold annually. 

We enjoyed some snacks and hiked near the railroad tracks. We were surprised to see concrete railroad ties.

The Mesquite Mine is next to the site where Los Angeles County will send its waste-by-rail in the near future. I think Los Angeles should take care of its own trash. I am sure they would not welcome ours.

Spending several hours in the desert is a wonderful sleeping potion. The air is so refreshing. I was out like a light before 9 p.m. I highly recommend it.

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Look for this special section in your
Baltimore Sun newspaper on Dec. 29, 2013.
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