Winter adventures in the desert

It usually hits me every year around late February: the winter blues. Don’t get me wrong, I love PNW winters and all the powdery white adventure it brings, but after five months of gray skies I’m running low on vitamin D and feeling the urge to find sun.

Luckily, late winter/early spring is the best time of the year to visit the sunny deserts of Southern California. Summer down south can be prohibitively hot, but springtime is the right time! The temperatures are manageable, there’s an abundance of sunshine, and wildflowers are popping everywhere.

So with the promise of poppies in my heart, I loaded my dual-sport on the van and headed south.

Winter adventures in the desert

What’s the van you ask? Why it’s a 1997 AWD Chevy Astro. Remember Astros? Remember your friend’s mom had one? Remember when you were riding in the back to soccer practice and you heard a joke that made you spray CapriSun out of your nose? Yeah, that’s the one.

Winter adventures in the desert
Astro Van: AWD mini-Sprinter

Two days and 989 miles later I was in the desert. I asked Siri to route me to Trona Pinnacles. Big mistake. I realized too late that Apple Maps had routed me to an unmarked dirt road in the middle of nowhere.

It would have been 20 miles to backtrack and the sun was fading. I looked at the dirt road ahead and thought, “ah screw it. I came here for an adventure. Let’s go.” The going was slow but I made it through.

Taking the kids to soccer practice, on Mars.

I rolled up to Trona Pinnacles as the light was fading. Found a quiet spot to park and sank into a wonderfully deep sleep.

Winter adventures in the desert
A pinnacle parking spot

The next morning I explored the giant dirt towers on two wheels. The warm, glowing sun reminded me I was a long way from the murky Portland winter.

Making Star Wars sound effects in my helmet.

I could have hung out here all day but had more middle-of-nowheres I wanted to explore.

A few more highway miles to get to Mojave National Preserve. As I drove into the preserve I watched the signal bars fade on my phone. Perfect. I set up camp on the east side of the preserve and prepped for the next day’s ride.

Winter adventures in the desert
What do you call a short Joshua Tree? Josh.

The Mojave Road (aka Old Government Road) is 150 miles of unmaintained dirt two-track that cuts across the Mojave Preserve. The route is steeped in history - starting as a Native American thoroughfare, then a trail for Spanish explorers, finally turned into a wagon road for US military in the 1860s.

Today it’s a fantastic adventure route. I set out at first light and rode West.

Winter adventures in the desert
2011 Husaberg FE570 loaded and ready to rip

If you want to see thick forests of Joshua Trees skip Joshua Tree National Park and come to the Mojave Preserve instead. It has the densest Joshua Tree forest in the world.

Winter adventures in the desert

I found some abandoned homesteads, explored an old mine, and even bagged a few cinder cones along the way.

A sketchy cliff-side road to the top of this cinder cone

I came all this way to get out of the PNW rain and what did I find in the desert? Rain! Ah, no worries. At least it’s warm and it smells amazing.

Winter adventures in the desert
Soda Lake bed can get impassibly muddy in the rain

One of the weirdest parts of the day was when I ducked into the town of Baker on the northwestern side of the preserve. It was right around lunch time and I found plenty of food options. Since I was on an unsupported solo trip across the desert it felt surreal to find myself eating a Subway sandwich in an air-conditioned truck stop.

Winter adventures in the desert
Only 5 miles from the nearest Subway

This was a good day. I left camp at sunrise and returned after sunset. I didn’t want to stop.

With Mojave in my rearview mirror, I set my sights on Anza Borrego area.

It may not be the smartest idea to be riding out here alone but the solitude is both exhilarating and refreshing. I carry emergency supplies and a rescue beacon should things go south. That being said, I have my limits and know when the risk outweighs the rewards. So I was delighted to meet up with some buddies outside of Ocotillo for an afternoon of riding the sketchy ridgelines of the mud hills.

Garrett and Jeff tackle some steep terrain

Don’t look down

My next big ride day was down Pinyon Mountain Road through Anza Borrego State park. The wildflowers were popping and there were giant aggressive caterpillars everywhere. I’ve never seen such a diversity of cactus before. My lips got sore from smiling this day. Or maybe they were just chapped from the sun and wind.

A particular highlight was carving up this slot canyon.

Winter adventures in the desert
Prickly plants everywhere. Amazed I never got a flat.

Winter adventures in the desert
Please don’t eat me.

Winter adventures in the desert
Selfie time

The trip wouldn’t be complete without a stop at the #vanlife capital of the world: Alabama Hills. The wilds of Southern California are so magical. I’m really hoping I can make this an annual trip. It’s the perfect way to beat the winter blues.

Winter adventures in the desert

Winter adventures in the desert

Until next time, desert. The mountains are calling me back.