Natural Perspectives: Adventures, photo ops are close to home

Vic and I had an out-of-town guest last week, Harold Drabkin from Bangor, Maine. We were friends with Harold back in our graduate school days at Wesleyan University, nearly 40 years ago. We've seen Harold only a couple of times since then. It's amazing to me how we were able to pick up right where we left off like no time had passed at all.

Naturally, Vic took Harold to see the Bolsa Chica. But Harold and I used to belong to the same camera club back in Connecticut. Photography was our common bond, so that's what I did with Harold. I took him to see the desert, which is loaded with great photo ops.

We started with Pioneertown just north of Yucca Valley. Although the buildings look like an Old West town of the 1880s, they're more modern than that. The town was built in the 1940s as a movie set for Westerns. Roy Rogers and the Cisco Kid were among the TV Western stars who filmed there. The town today is a living ghost town, with residents keeping that Old West look by putting out historic artifacts and banning cars on unpaved Mane Street. Yep, that's how they spell Main Street.

Then we headed to Joshua Tree National Park. The park is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. Founded in 1936 under President Franklin Roosevelt as a national monument, it became a national park in 1994. Additional lands were added to the park between 1999 and 2004 to bring it to its present size.

Joshua Tree National Park is known for its fantastic, buff-colored rock formations. Bizarre boulders sit atop the ground. The smooth, rounded shapes of the rocks are marked by multiple vertical and horizontal cracks. Everyone asks how on earth they were formed. They look eroded, but they don't look like other rocks.

Without getting into the geological world of plutonic intrusions, I can tell you that the rocks formed from molten magma more than 100 million years ago. The magma cooled while still underground and over time developed a system of vertical and horizontal cracks. As ground water percolated down through the cracks, the corners were very slowly eroded to more rounded shapes.

Imagine holding an ice cube under running water. The corners erode away, leaving a round shape behind. The same thing happened to the rocks at Joshua Tree while they were still underground.

Over time, the surrounding soil washed away during millions of years of flash floods, leaving behind the incredible devil's playground of boulders that we see today. Wind erosion has played only a small role.

Most visitors to Joshua Tree go to see the spring wildflowers. Harold and I were a bit late for peak bloom, but found many shrubs haloed in color. Yellow predominated with creosote, Encelia and other shrubs in full bloom. Indigo bush added a deep blue to the palette.

From the Keys View overlook, we had a long-range view of the low desert stretching off to the south. Palm Springs was hidden in haze, but the snow on Mt. San Jacinto stood out. Smog from the Los Angeles basin is an environmental problem for Joshua Tree National Park and compromises the beautiful view on many days.

We stopped at the Cholla Cactus Garden to photograph cholla cactus that were backlit by the sun. The species called teddy bear cholla looks so cute and cuddly, but it's not fuzzy at all. Its spines are needle-sharp. It's also called jumping cholla. Small balls of cactus drop off the main cholla stems and seem to jump right onto your shoes. They're amazingly sticky. That's how the cholla plant spreads from one place to another. The round cactus pads hitchhike on the fur of animals, rooting into the ground wherever they fall.

Our last stop in the park was Cottonwood Spring. A gold mine claim filed in 1875 mentions Cottonwood Spring, suggesting that cottonwoods have grown there for a long time. The spring was originally formed when an earthquake brought ground water to the surface. Today, the spring is surrounded by cottonwoods and palms. Historical documents suggest that the palms are of more recent origin, perhaps the 1920s.

One of the historic artifacts that remains at Cottonwood Spring is an arrastra, or arrastre. This crude device was used to crush ore. A horse, mule or ox was hitched to a pole that turned on a turnstile. Several boulders were attached to the pole. The boulders crushed the ore against the hard rock surface below, and then the gold was separated from the crushed quartz dust using mercury. I couldn't help but think of how toxic that mercury was to miners of the old days.

We finished our day with a Mexican dinner at Blue Coyote Grill in Palm Springs, one of my favorite watering holes.

The next day, we went to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, which is the new name for the San Diego Wild Animal Park. We signed up for a caravan adventure safari, which used to be called a photo safari. This tour took us right into the African and Asian animal enclosures, where we hand-fed giraffes and rhinos. What an adventure that was.

I love visiting there not only because I can get terrific bird and animal photos, but because of the zoo's conservation activities. While I'm watching baby antelope gambol across the grass, I know I'm helping to support conservation of condors, wild cattle, rhinos and other endangered birds and animals.

We love showing our out-of-town guests many of the wonderful wild opportunities for fun that exist within a day's drive of our home. Harold and I will be exchanging photos by e-mail for weeks to come.

VIC LEIPZIG and LOU MURRAY are Huntington Beach residents and environmentalists. They can be reached at

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