Big Cats and Bigger Planes in the Mojave Desert

The Grimms are Laguna Beach free-lance writers/photographers and authors of the updated "Away for a Weekend."

Strange as it may seem, on an outing to the Mojave Desert you can come across one of the largest Siberian tigers in captivity as well as the X-1, the first manned aircraft to break the speed of sound.

Edwards Air Force Base east of Rosamond is best known as the landing site for NASA space shuttles. The base's major role, however, is as the Air Force Flight Test Center.

Some of the most exotic aircraft in the world have been developed and flown at the base, and visitors are invited to view them on a tour of the NASA Ames-Dryden Flight Research Facility.

West of Rosamond you can view other kinds of rare species--wildcats from around the globe that are being saved from extinction at the Exotic Feline Breeding Compound. Among them are the endangered Temminick's Golden Cats from Asia.

To start your excursion from Los Angeles, drive north on Interstate 5 and then take California 14, the Antelope Valley Freeway, into the desert. Midway between Lancaster and Mojave, take the Rosamond/Edwards AFB exit and head east on Rosamond Boulevard.

The highway passes through the small town of Rosamond, which was established more than a century ago by the Southern Pacific Railroad and named for the daughter of a company official.

After entering Edwards AFB, continue about 10 miles to the guard station, tell the airman you want to take the NASA tour and ask for directions. You willl follow Rosamond Boulevard about eight more miles before turning right on Lilley Avenue to the NASA Ames-Dryden Visitors Center that's marked by a wingless aircraft.

Plan to arrive before 10:15 a.m. or 1:15 p.m., the departure times for the twice-daily tours that are offered every weekday without charge. No tours are scheduled on weekends, holidays or during a space shuttle landing.

After signing in at the tour desk in the lobby you'll be directed to an auditorium to watch "Reaching for Tomorrow," a 25-minute film that shows the history and wide range of flight-testing activities at the base.

Visitors then are guided to an enormous hangar for an hourlong look at some of the aircraft. Cameras are permitted on the tour and electronic flash is allowed (but no flashbulbs).

On the way to the hangar you'll see an X-1 experimental rocket plane like the one Chuck Yeager flew over the Mojave in 1947 to become the first man to break the sound barrier. The first jet flight and the first space shuttle tests are among other aeronautical achievements at Edwards AFB.

The aircraft on display varies according to test schedules, but often up to a dozen planes are in the hangar. They range from a motorized glider to a High-Alpha F-18. Also look for the X-29 with its distinct forward-swept wings, and the one-of-a-kind F-111 featuring special wings whose curvature can be adjusted by the pilot.

Outside the hangar you may get to see the huge B-52 that's been adapted for midair launching of the Pegasus, a space rocket that will soon put small payloads into orbit.

Off-limits are the space shuttle and 747 carrier plane that returns it to the Florida launch pad after a flight, but a museum in the NASA visitors center displays objects from space missions. Among them is a space suit used for a walk on the moon.

An adjoining gift shop has a variety of souvenirs, including freeze-dried ice cream and french fries used by the astronauts. Adjacent is a cafeteria that's open to visitors from 6:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays.

Other options for food and drink are en route to the wildlife museum west of Rosamond. In town is the Skillet, a country cafe serving breakfast and lunch daily; go south from Rosamond Boulevard on Sierra Trails Highway. Villa Basque is west of the freeway on Rosamond Boulevard and offers lunch and dinner daily except Mondays (dinner only on Sundays).

Three miles west of the Antelope Valley Freeway, turn right on Mojave-Tropico Road and follow signs to the Exotic Feline Breeding Compound (EFBC). Visitors are welcome to view the wildcats on an escorted tour any day except Wednesdays, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is free but donations are welcome.

Now a recognized zoo, the nonprofit organization was established in 1977 to promote captive breeding of endangered wild felines. Its founders, Joe and Jeanne Maynard, and their volunteer staff continue to expand that program, as well as provide public education about the exotic cats.

Sixteen species from six continents live at EFBC. It is home to 46 cats, ranging from north Chinese leopards to California cougars and Siberian tigers. A huge Siberian named Sing Sing is father to three other tigers in adjoining cages.

Artificial insemination and other techniques to improve bloodlines and increase the number of exotic wildcats are being researched at the high-desert compound. This spring some of the cats will be involved in pioneer research in in-vitro fertilization, with the hope of continuing survival of their species.

The EFBC's quiet location is one reason a pair of snow leopards from the San Diego Zoo were taken there to mate. Native to the Himalayan mountains, these beautiful cats are living in one of the new natural habitat cages being built at the compound. Their den box is specially designed to stay cool.

Other cages hold a tufted-ear caracal, a bobcat, a black leopard, clouded leopards and an ocelot named Peaches.

The wild animals are kept safely in cages, but a small amphitheater has been built where some of the cats soon will be put on better display for visitors.

Return to the California 14 freeway for the trip back to Los Angeles. To spend the night, try the Devonshire Inn motel in Rosamond, (805) 256-3454, or the Lakeshore Inn north of Edwards AFB in California City, (619) 373-4861.

Round trip from Los Angeles to Rosamond is 180 miles.

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